Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country in northern Spain, is a destination that is invariably linked to the Guggenheim Museum.
Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, it is mostly the museum’s funky, futuristic titanium-clad structure that makes it the city’s main tourist attraction. Certainly, the 19 different galleries of modern and contemporary art inside also play a role.
Outside the Guggenheim, several quirky art installations created as well by famous designers and architects have become famous in their own right. They include Maman, a huge bronze spider created by Louise Bourgeois and a bunch of colourful tulips by Jeff Koons.
Originally planned only for the opening of the museum, cute Puppy, the watchdog at the entrance made of thousands of flowers also created by Jeff Koons, has become a permanent too. Although, ever so often when the flower coat is re-planted, you might only see it through a scaffold.
No doubt you should take your time to explore the Guggenheim. However, there is much more to do and see in Bilbao.
What else do see and do in Bilbao
Head to Las Siete Calles (the seven streets) which form the main part of the historic town centre, the Casco Viejo, dating back to the 1400s. The pedestrian small winding streets are line with colourful historic buildings, plus you will find plenty of little shops, cafés, bars and restaurants.
Impressive Plaza Nueva is the biggest square in the city. There is a bustling flee market on Sundays. It is also the location if you want to go on a Pintxos crawl.
In and at the edge of the Casco Viejo, you will find several historic buildings, dating back several centuries.
One is Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao (also known as the Cathedral of St. James), which was built during the 14th and 15th centuries, not only is Bilbao’s oldest and most prominent monument. It is also the most important gothic building in the Basque Country.
The Azkuna Zentroa (also referred to as Alhondiga), a converted former wine warehouse built over hundred years ago today hosts shops, cafés, restaurants, a library, cinema and a gym. The building was re-designed by famous French designer Philippe Starck and with its artfully designed 43 columns now has become an attraction in his own right.
The Mercado de la Ribera is the must go destination for food lovers. The art-deco market, dating back to 1929, is located on three floors and offers everything from fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, charcuterie and cheeses. The market sits directly at the edge of the Casco Viejo, overlooking the Nervion river. It is the biggest covered indoor market in Europe and apart from food stalls is also hosts several bars, and there is live music in the evening.
The large promenades along the Nervion river which runs directly through the city centre are ideal for a leisurely stroll. Crossing the river, there are several bridges, including the Santiago Calatrava designed Zubiuri Bridge that resembles a big sail.
Off course, your visit to Bilbao needs to include the famous local Pintxos crawl. Pintxos are the local equivalents of Spanish tapas although there is a distinctive difference: Tapas means any form of food served in small sizes. Pintxos on the other hand are prepared usually on top of a slice of bread; and usually hold together with a toothpick (i.e. pinched together which is where the name comes from). There are lots of Pintxos bars in Bilbao and the best time to go is either for lunch or pre-dinner.
For pre-dinner drinks with a view, go to the rooftop bar of 5-star Gran Hotel Domine, overlooking the Guggenheim and Nervion river.
And finally, for dinner head to one of the city’s several Michelin-starred restaurants to savour the highly praised Basque cuisine.
Directly located in the Guggenheim museum, albeit with a separate entrance, Michelin-starred Nerua serves innovative Basque cuisine in a sleek contemporary setting. There are three different tasting menus based on five (for lunch only), nine or fourteen products. If you like, wine pairings are also offered.
Have you been to Bilbao yet? What did you like most there?