Bilbao encompasses the old and the new with stunning modern architecture such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and the Zubizuri Bridge, alongside the beautiful medieval buildings in the Casco Viejo in the center of the city. With endless sites of aesthetic and historic interest to visit and a thriving art and music scene, Bilbao is a feast for the mind. In 2010 Bilbao was recognized with the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for urbanism because of its spectacular transformation. As the largest city in the Basque Region and as one of the most important port cities of Europe, it is bustling with activity, history, art and industry.
Bilbao is situated on the Nervión River, which winds out to the Bay of Biscay 16 km away, in the north-central part of Spain. Just an hour and a half west along the coast from San Sebastian and the French border, it lies in its river valley surrounded by green mountains from two separate ranges. Pamplona is inland from Bilbao, also about an hour and a half away and the Rioja Wine region is not much farther, to the south and east. Vitoria is the closest city, just an hour’s drive. Bilbao is an excellent city to fly into, in fact, because of its international airport and proximity to everything else. Within throwing distance of amazing coastline and beaches, and not far from the splendorous Pyrenees, its location is ideal.
A most urbanized city, Bilbao is nonetheless attractive and pleasant with a seaside feel to it. As a thriving river port, the river dominates the city and gives it life. Its climate is shaped by the nearby Bay of Biscay, with low pressure systems and mild air, which is a relief in the summertime when many of Spain’s cities are absolutely baking. The population of the municipality is a modest 350,000 or so but with over a million in the metro area. Bilbao lies at basically sea level, but the mountains on either side rise to 400 meters or 1,300 feet.
Bilbao is the de-facto capital of the Basque. Its modern history is one of transformation and redemption. For about 150 years, the left bank of the River Nervión was covered in iron mines, furnaces, shipyards and miserable slums. Iron-mining existed here since pre- Roman times, and by the 19th century Bilbao provided Great Britain with two thirds of its iron-ore supply. The mines were eventually closed in the 1990s leaving a landscape of abandoned industrial ruins. Across the river from this scene were a series of palaces owned by the industrial oligarchy, their lavishness contrasting with the panorama of rusting mines. The city lived off industry and commerce beginning in the 1300s, and continued unabashedly to be a mercantile center whose only purpose was wealth and profit.
The transformation of Bilbao began in the 1980s and its symbol is the Guggenheim museum, which was the first purely artistic and cultural endeavor undertaken in the city in centuries. Since this time there has been a frenzy of sorts to build, with some of the most famous architects in the world working here over the past thirty years. The industrial fog that used to sit heavy over the city, nestled as it is between hills that suck humidity downwards into the river valley, is now gone and is replaced by bright green hills and fresh, misty air. The contrasts of Basque history are well symbolized by Bilbao’s skyline, encompassing a desire to move forward while remaining true to their past.
It is essential to visit the Guggenheim Museum, designed by the famous contemporary architect, Frank Gehry, and opened to the public in 1997. Originally commissioned to spruce up the declining industrial port area, it sits on an old shipyard, and it is now one of the most admired and visited architectural wonders in the world. Many say that viewing the building is worth more than what’s inside. And, it has been criticized for its lack of Basque representation, but nonetheless has an art collection very much worth visiting. Made of reflective titanium and glass, it can be many things to each subjective imagination. But as it reflects the forever changing seaside skies, it gives back light and beauty to the surrounding area, adding magic and majesty to the Bilbao skyline.
There are many more museums to visit, such as the Archeology Museum, the Bellas Artes Museum, and the unmissable Euskal Museum devoted to Basque Culture. Considered one of Spain’s best museums, it gives an overview of Basque life from the Palaeolithic era to the 21st century. It depicts life among shepherds, mariners, boat builders and artists by displaying clothing, fishing nets, model boats, navigational instruments, tools, looms and sheep bells. It also displays round funerary stones and touches on topics of ritual and folklore.
There are of course the religious buildings: the Cathedral de Santiago, and the Gothic Basilica de Begoña. The Zubizuri Bridge (Basque for white bridge), is a pedestrian bridge spanning the River Nervión, designed by Santiago Calatrava, a much sought after architect. But it created some controversy as did many of Calatrava’s creations in other locations. Originally it had a glass deck with views of the river below the pedestrian, but proved to be very slippery in the often wet climate. Causing a load of falls and potential lawsuits, it was finally covered in a non-slip carpet. Still, it is a wonder of a design and connects the Ensanche district with an area full of fantastic architecture, parks and paths along the river.
On the other side of time, the Casco Viejo, or Old Town, in the center of Bilbao is a gorgeous series of tiny streets filled to the brim with lively cafés, bars and restaurants. The Siete Calles (Seven Streets) area is comprised of seven streets that used to be the commercial center and a river port but are now a place to spend hours grazing on pintxos, shopping in boutiques and admiring the beauty of the old buildings.
Just outside Bilbao, the stunning coastline has plenty more to offer, with nearby surfing beaches, plunging cliffs and the now famous Game of Thrones site, the hermitage San Juan de Gaztelugate. There are also numerous villages just outside with their beautiful baserri, the red- rooved and white stone farm houses surrounded by meadow-grazing sheep and woods of chestnuts and oak. Bilbao is the perfect jumping off point to explore the enigmatic Basque Country and get a real taste of its heart and soul.
If possible, it’s a treat to go see a football (soccer) game played by the club Athletic de Bilbao, the city’s highly-successful pride and joy. The team is of special significance to the Basque people because of the promotion of all Basque players.
A super fun way to see Bilbao is by boat. Sail down the river to see many of the main attractions in Bilbao which are situation along its banks. The Guggenheim is particularly charming from that vantage point.
Another enjoyable activity with a view is to ride the old funicular cable railway, first run in 1915, to the top of Mount Artxanda. At such heights, there are not only sweeping vistas of the city below, but also a series of walkways and fantastic restaurants.
The absolute thing to do in Bilbao is to wander the streets from pintxo bar to pintxo bar. The Casco Viejo, or Old Town, in the center of Bilbao is a gorgeous series of tiny streets filled to the brim with lively cafés, bars and restaurants. The Siete Calles (Seven Streets) area is comprised of, well, seven streets that used to be the commercial center and a river port but are now a place to spend hours grazing on the region’s spectacular gastronomic treats.
For a Michelin starred experience, head to Restaurant Etxanobe. It is on the top floor of the Palacio Euskalduna a contemporary tower that provides amazing views over the city lights. The chefs here fuse classic Basque flavors with avant-guard presentation and the kind of creative forward thinking gastronomy the Basque are famed for.
Of the many ways to enjoy this region, the most complete is with your walking shoes. The fabulous part of Northern Spain is the speed in which you can get around on foot. Northern Spain Travel offers exciting walking journeys for al walking styles to fit and designed to maximum pleasure.