Other cities have skyscrapers forming their skylines but Bilbao has the twisted titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum which looms over the city like a school of mammoth-sized fish snaking through the estuary. An important industrial seaport of Basque Country since the 19th century, Bilbao experienced a sudden economic downturn in the 1970s when outdated factories and dockyards shuttered. In 1997, the museum opened, revitalizing the city and turning it into an arts hub. Today, people come for the galleries and also for Bilbao’s gastronomical offerings, namely, its delightful pintxos.
Northern Spain isn’t known for its sunshine and Bilbao is drizzly year-round. Visitors are better off avoiding the summer crowds and come during late winter for a city break. Winters are mild enough, and even on colder days, there are many art galleries to spend the day in and bar hop at night.
What to do
The waterfront Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, has become synonymous with Bilbao that to come to the city and not visit it is almost sacrilegious. Here, it’s mostly contemporary art on display with works that range from paintings to sculptures and videos. Then check out the Museum of Fine Arts Bilbao which has a wonderful collection of Spanish and European art. Also worth a visit is Azkuna Zentroa, a giant warehouse hoisted by more than 40 pillars that’s been converted into a multi-purpose art centre designed by Philippe Starck.
Casco Viejo, or the Old Town, is quite a contrast to the hyper-modernity of Bilbao’s art museums. Crammed multi-coloured buildings with plants bursting from wrought-iron balconies frame narrow cobbled streets. There’s a mix of lively bars and shops here as well as historical landmarks such as the Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao. The 15th-century Gothic church is a stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
Bilbao does not disappoint when it comes to food, either. Head to La Ribera market, Europe’s largest indoor-covered market. There’s been a market on-site since the 14thcentury but the current one is housed in a building dating back to 1929 and inside are stalls, bars and even live music venues. For a more sophisticated dining experience, Azurmendi in the nearby mountains is a sustainable restaurant serving Basque cuisine in a glass building powered by geothermal energy. Finally, weather permitting, take a day trip to La Rioja, Basque County’s wine region where vineyards such as Bodegas Lecea and Bodegas Luis Cañas make fantastic Spanish wine.
Pintxos, or small bites of pastrami, prawns, anchovies, cheese, eggs and anything imaginable piled up high on slices of bread and pierced with a toothpick, is a must. Try the octopus and asparagus tempura pintxos at La Viña del Ensanche, one of Bilbao’s most popular restaurants for pintxos that’s been operating since 1927. Another favourite amongst locals is Gure Toki, which makes a delightful beef ribs and seaweed pintxos. And for meat eaters, Bar Bacaicoa serves wonderful chorizo pintxos. Wash that down with a pint of beer.
Where to stay
Built in the 1920s, Hotel Carlton was Bilbao’s first luxury hotel and a favourite of Ernest Hemingway and Ava Gardner. A hundred years on, it still exudes old world glam. The doors of the elegant cream-coloured Beaux Arts building by Moyou Plaza in downtown open to a world of red carpets, gold-rimmed mirrors, crystal chandeliers, white marble pillars framing grand staircases and a stained glass roof dome that emits all colours of the rainbow when the sun beams through it. The more than 140 guestrooms are just as regal but a touch more modern in design, some with snazzy pink carpets and floral arrangements and others with beds adorned with silver linens or white linens with pretty floral-patterned pillowcases.
How to get there
From London: British Airways flies nonstop from London Gatwick to Bilbao in 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Bilbao might be known for its fine arts scene, but it’s also quite the literary city with bookstores specialising in antique and rare books. Hunker down with a good book on a rainy day at one of these bookstores. Librería Astarloa has a collection about 50,000 books including second-hand books, graphic works and rare finds stacked in shelves with designs that resemble Moorish arches. Overshadowed by its two neighbours, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts, Librería Boulandier feels like a wonderful treasure. Old, leather-bound books are stacked in floor-to-ceiling shelves and there’s also a marvellous selection of books on Basque Country, travel and art.