Bilbao, the gem of the Bay of Biscay

The port city on the north coast of Spain is once again flourishing, offering bold architecture, distinctive culture and tasty food. Join Mondo on a tour of Bilbao!

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
The building of the Guggenheim art museum, built in an old shipyard in 1997, was inspired by ships.

EVERYONE HAS HEARD of Guggenheim, the art museum that made Bilbao famous. That, however, is only one of the reasons to travel to the largest city in the Basque Country.

Mining, steel industry and shipyards once fueled Bilbao’s growth. By the 1990s, the industry had withered, but Bilbao survived the change with bold reforms. The polluted river was purified, public transport was reformed, and culture was brought to the empty shipyards. Now Bilbao is a welcoming city with character.

A city of contrasts

A good place to start the tour is the Casco Viejo neighborhood, hosting Siete Calles, the oldest streets in the city. The narrow alleys are dark, and it’s easy to get lost while admiring the cast-iron balconies and decorative bay windows. Luckily, the Gothic Cathedral of Santiago serves as a landmark.

It is also located close to the Bilbao Basque Museum, a museum offering a broad overview of the history of the Basque culture. The street signs also give you a glimpse of the Basque language, teeming with the letters x and z and considered the oldest in Europe.

Casco Viejo, Bilbao
Some of the streets in Bilbao’s old town, Casco Viejo, date back to the Middle Ages.

River Nervíon runs through the city. The promenades along the river provide a good view of the 19th-century facades, concrete high-rises as well as the new, distinctive and awe-inspiring buildings. There are nine bridges crossing the river, all from different eras, as well. The white, modern arch footbridge Zubizuri generated controversy when people kept falling on its slippery glass bricks. As a result, the walkway was covered with black plastic.

Frank Gehry’s creation, the undulating Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, looks impressive with its metallic sheen and offers high-quality art exhibitions. The city also hosts another art museum with a very interesting collection; the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.

Modern architecture at River Nervíon, Bilbao
The banks of River Nervíon were previously in industrial use. Nowadays, the promenades are lined with modern buildings.

Culture and sports

In the wake of the Guggenheim museum, numerous architecturally interesting buildings have been built in Bilbao. One of the most impressive ones is Azkuna Zentroa, a cultural center created in an old wine warehouse. The space is adorned with wide, imaginative columns and the glistening pool above, featuring underwater windows.

In the wake of the Guggenheim museum, numerous architecturally interesting buildings have been built in Bilbao, such as Azkuna Zentroa.

The building created by designer Philippe Starck contains an art gallery, cinema, library, fitness center and workspaces. The building is like a second home to the locals, and even in the evenings, every design rocking chair in the library is taken.

Football is an integral part of the Basque culture, and the most important football venue in Bilbao is the gigantic San Mamés Stadium. It is the home stadium of Athletic Bilbao, made up of Basque players.

Espacio Open, Bilbao
Cultural center Espacio Open was built in an old cookie factory. On weekends, the workspaces are used for holding a flea market.

The Zorrotzaurre island hosts an old industrial area, for which eco-friendly buildings, offices and cultural facilities are being planned. The run-down industrial buildings are already being used for a variety of activities, and on a sunny weekend, it’s worth taking a city-bike ride to the design market and open-air bars in the Espacio Open space.

The neighborhood of San Francisco attracts visitors especially in the evenings. The hilly alleys house, for example, vintage shops, restaurants and Bilborock, a 17th-century church that has been converted into a concert venue. The small bar called Marzana 16 is very popular.

Café Bar Bilbao
When enjoying pintxos, we recommend only having one or two small dishes per bar! The cozy Café Bar Bilbao is one of the classic places in the old town.

Various delicacies

For foodies, Bilbao offers both Michelin-starred restaurants and pubs serving traditional food. For fish lovers, we recommend the cod dish Bacalao a la Vizcaína, and for more adventurous diners, the kokotxas fish-head stew.

Bilbao’s culinary destinations include the Ribera Market, competing for the title of Europe’s largest indoor market. The stunning space decorated with stained glass gets already busy early in the morning.

Blanco y Negro, Bilbao
The relaxed restaurant Blanco y Negro, located in the neighborhood of San Francisco, offers tasty home-style food.
Ribera Market, Bilbao
In the Ribera Market, fresh ingredients are sold on two floors.

Basque delicacies also include pintxos, small dishes that can be enjoyed in one or two bites. The Plaza Nueva square in Bilbao’s old town is a real pintxo bar hub. There, pintxos are enjoyed with txakoli, local slightly sparkling white wine.

Many restaurants offer an inexpensive menu of the day at lunchtime. For example, on normal Monday, the small neighborhood restaurant Ágape offers excellent octopus risotto, mouth-watering tuna, a selection of desserts and heavenly verdejo white wine at a great price.

The compact center of Bilbao, suitable for a weekend trip, can be explored on foot, although there is also one tram line that can be used.

Mountains and sea air

In Bilbao, the locals call their city, located deep in a valley, with the nickname El Botxo, the hole. You can ascend the short, steep journey from the east side of the city center to Mount Artxanda on a funicular. Mount Artxanda offers a great view of Bilbao and the mountains surrounding the city.

You can get to the seafront by subway. Half an hour away from Bilbao, there is Getxo, offering fishing-village atmosphere, beaches and hiking routes. Getxo also hosts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Vizcaya Bridge transporter bridge built in the late 1800s.

When visiting Bilbao, you should be prepared for varying weather conditions. In the city, even the clothes racks hanging outside the windows of apartment buildings are equipped with rain covers.

See also:

Mondo’s picks: 6 gems of modern architecture >

Text and photos: Laura Vuoma

This story was published originally in Mondo's issue 9/20.

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