This time last year, Tom and I traveled in Spain’s Basque Country. We especially enjoyed our week in Bilbao, and an opportunity to soak up its celebrated art and architecture. The city has been an international destination for art lovers since the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened in 1997. The museum and the Michelin-starred Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao, located on site, appeal to the discerning traveler with a taste for contemporary art and fine dining.

The complex occupies land that was once a shipyard beside the Nervión River. Designed by renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the museum is now the city’s top attraction. A vibrant city with much to offer a visitor, Bilbao deserves a leisurely stay.

So what happens when a visitor travels to Bilbao with a keen interest in art and fine dining but is short on time? Our recommendation: combine a Guggenheim museum visit with lunch or dinner at Nerua Guggenheim, and enjoy a dose of cutting-edge style.

The Guggenheim art walk begins outside

Architect Gehry chose titanium to cover the Guggenheim’s irregular facades, as the metal responds to the Basque Country’s light and clouds to great effect. Some people have likened the shape of the museum to that of a ship, while an aerial view of the structure shows its curves as a floral form.

Either way, its facades change color with changes in the intensity and reflection of the light. Eye-popping art surrounds, complements and challenges Gehry’s magnificent building. From any perspective, the approach to the Guggenheim is a stroll through compelling art. Situated at a curve in the river, the museum offers a full-on viewing experience from across the Nervión, and most photographs of the Guggenheim present this view.

The main entrance is actually at the foot of a residential street on the opposite side of the building. There, Jeff Koon’s Puppy stands guard, inviting visitors to take selfies until it’s time to go inside. Riverside, along the quay, Tall Tree & The Eye by Anish Kapoor and Maman by Lousie Bourgeois hold court.

The Guggenheim’s permanent collection

The airy spaces inside the museum feature natural light and soft curves and a central atrium that for visitor orientation. The atrium also provides access to about 20 galleries on three levels.

The Guggenheim holds singular works by various artists, and the collection highlights several historical artistic movements. The gallery rooms present the works of a single artist or a group of artists exploring shared themes from their individual perspectives. Some
spaces mimic the lines of the building itself. These are especially well suited for displaying bold works of art, such as the massive sculptures of Richard Serra.

Temporary exhibitions

Thought-provoking special exhibitions draw on Guggenheim’s international network of contemporary art museums. When Tom and I visited the museum, Motion. Autos, Art, and Architecture showcased the parallel worlds of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and film.

The earliest Mercedes autos were there, as well as the futuristic designs of Buckminster Fuller and a video demonstration of the clay modeling process used for 50 years to produce Cadillacs and other fine cars. A Bugatti from the 1930s sat beside a Calder mobile. Elsewhere, James Bond’s Aston Martin was on show beneath a running video excerpt from Dr. No. An entire room paid homage to America’s car culture in the 20th century.

The temporary exhibition also presented concepts for design, performance, opulence, and concepts that feature in some of the world’s premier automobile and transportation exhibitions. Tom and I have visited several impressive car collections and shows on our travels and have written about two of them:  the Museo Enzo Ferrari in Modena, Italy, and the annual Old-Time Car Show in Baden-Baden, Germany.

Nerua Guggenheim merits its Michelin star

The design principles of the museum carry over into Nerua Guggenheim, creating a spare and sophisticated dining atmosphere. White walls, natural materials, and open space set the stage for a dining experience that perfectly complements the museum’s contemporary art.

Minimalism characterizes the cuisine of Nerua head chef Josean Alija, as well. From starters to desserts, his meals are local and innovative, focusing on the vegetable gardens, the sea, and the farms around it. Dishes here pull inspiration from Basque terroir to dazzling effect.

Chef Alija cooks with “muina,” Basque for heart or essence. His carefully crafted dishes and tasting menus deliver seasonal experiences. They feature traditional, locally sourced ingredients and contemporary preparations. The preparation and presentation of every dish emphasizes its essential product, with minimal ingredients added.

A well-choreographed gastronomic performance

We chose an eight-course tasting menu with wine pairing and enjoyed an Impressionist rendering of summertime Basque country. The servers were knowledgeable, friendly, and unobtrusively efficient. The experience was a marvelous way to celebrate a special event and a highlight of our bucket-list trip to Bilbao.

The setting at Nerua is intimate. Diner have a choice between a handful of tables in the main dining room or the Chef’s Table in the Nerua kitchen. We found the tasting menu in the Nerua dining room to be good value, as well as delicious: reasonably priced and with each dish reasonably portioned.

For our summertime tasting menu, carefully curated wine pairings enhanced the concise floavors of each dish. As just one example, a dish of sliced veal loin with spinach puree and beetroot, and a dollop of Ossetra caviar, paired beautifully with an artisanal 2019 Cuvee Las Santas. The wine came from the micro-vineyards of Aseginolaza & Leunda in Navarro. These Basque Country winemakers are environmental biologists who make wines, such as the sublime 100% old-vine Grenache we tasted, with minimal intervention.

Other Guggenheim Bilbao dining options

Museum visitors who prefer a casual meal, or just pintxos as a time-out to a museum visit, have alternatives. The museum also offers casual dining options: Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao, open for both lunch and dinner and offering online reservations; and Bar Guggenheim Bilbao, with a selection of pintxos.

If you go

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