48 Hours: Bilbao

The Basque country's largest city has been transformed from industrial eyesore into a culture vulture's delight, says <b>Chris Leadbeater</b>

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Northern Spain's most exciting city, Bilbao is an urban phoenix that as late as the mid-Nineties was mired in industrial decay. But less than 20 years on, chic restaurants and dramatic architectural statements dot its centre. The opening of its artistic totem – the Museo Guggenheim (1) – in 1997 was the catalyst for this regeneration. This week saw the launch of its new exhibition, Laboratories, which looks at local photographer Aitor Ortiz (until 13 November). To see the city at its most flamboyant, visit between 28 and 30 October, for the Bilbao Tango Festival (festivaltangobilbao.com).

Touch down

Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittanyferries. com) sails twice a week from Portsmouth, taking 24 hours to reach the ferry port at Santurtzi, north of the city (connected to the centre by frequent commuter trains).

By air, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies daily from Stansted and three times a week from Manchester. Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com) flies daily from Heathrow.

Bilbao Airport (00 34 91 321 1000; aena-aeropuertos.es) sits five miles north of the city. Bizkaibus A3247 runs every 20 minutes from Arrivals, taking 20 minutes to reach the bus station (2) on the west flank of the centre at Gurtubay 1 (00 34 94 439 5077; termibus. es). The one-way fare is €1.30. A taxi takes 15 minutes, costing €20-€30.

Get your bearings

Pitched 10 miles inland from Spain's north coast, Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country. Still a busy port, its kernel lies in a valley on the estuary of the Nervió* river. The city spreads out on both sides of the water: the Old Town (Casco Viejo) is on the right bank; "newer" districts such as Abando and Indautxu are on the other shore.

Though the centre is small enough to see on foot, transport is superb. The metro (00 34 94 4254025; metrobilbao. com) is a recent arrival, opened in stages since 1995. Single fares in Zona A (which contains most key sites) are €1.40. Two other networks – the Euskotren tram (00 34 902 543 210; euskotren.es; Zona A fares €1.30) and Bilbobus (00 34 94 4453 471; veoliabilbao.com; fares €1.20) – mop up the non-metro-linked areas.

Two travelcards make life simpler. The Creditrans pass, which can be purchased from metro stations in pre-paid sums of €5, €10 and €15, lowers Zona A fares on the metro, tram and bus. And the Bilbao Card covers all public transport and gives 50 per cent discounts on 10 museums (though not the Guggenheim). This costs €6 for 24 hours (€10 for 48; €12 for 72) via the tourist office on Plaza Arriaga (3) (00 34 94 471 0301; bilbao. net/bilbaoturismo; daily 9.30am-2pm, 4-7.30pm) – or from its counterpart, which lurks next to the Guggenheim (1) at Avenida Abandoibarra 2 (daily 10am-7pm, except Sunday, 10am-6pm).

Check in

Tryp Arenal (4) is a cosy three-star option in the Casco Viejo at Calle Los Fueros 2; doubles from €77, room only (00 34 94 415 3100; solmelia.com). Hesperia Bilbao (5) does boutique cool on the riverside at Campo Volantin 28, with doubles from €83, room only (00 34 94 405 1100; hesperia.com). And the Hotel Carlton (6), at Plaza Federico Moyua 2, is a stately ghost of the Twenties; a fine choice if you want to stay on the more modern side of the river. Doubles from €77, room only (00 34 94 416 2200; hotelcarlton.es).

Day one

Window shopping

A shopping jaunt is an ideal way to familiarise yourself with Bilbao's historic core. The most intriguing stores are clustered in the Casco Viejo, on the likes of Calle Artekale, Calle de la Tenderia and Calle Bidebarrieta – with the latter, at number 9, hosting Alma (7), a decadent chocolatier (00 34 94 679 0303; almadecacao.com).

Also peruse the fresh meats, fruits and merry local hubbub at the Mercado de La Ribera (8), at Calle de la Ribera 20 (00 34 94 415 7086; Tuesday to Friday 8.30am-2.30pm and 5-8pm, Saturday 8.30am-2.30pm, Monday 8.30am-2pm, Sunday closed). A market has occupied this hallowed site since the 14th century, although the current neo-classical pile dates to 1929.

For those who prefer 21st-century sheen, Zubiarte (9) is a vast mall overlooking the river at Calle Lehendakari Leizaola 2 (00 34 94 427 7380; zubiarte.com; daily 10am-10pm).

Lunch on the run

Flee the Casco Viejo for an hour, crossing the Nervió* via the Puente del Arenal (10), and pulling up a stool in Café Iruna (11) at Calle Berastegui 4 (00 34 94 423 7021; cafesdebilbao.net). Not only does this 1903 eatery look out over the leafy square of the Jardines de Albia, but its pinchos morunos (lamb skewers) are a bargain at €2.20.

Take a hike

Return to the Casco Viejo and the grand expanse of the Plaza Arriaga (3) – a traditional gathering point for the city, home to the elegant 1890 Baroque bulk of the Teatro Arriaga. Forge up the right bank of the Nervió* on Paseo del Arenal, where ships docked as late as the 1960s. Half a century on, it enjoys retirement as a promenade, yet the Iglesia de San Nicolás (12), an 18th-century church dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, still keeps watch (00 34 94 416 3424; Monday to Saturday, 10.30am-1pm and 5.30-7.30pm).

Continue upstream, past the Ayuntamiento (13), Bilbao's 1892 peacock of a town hall, at Plaza Ernesto Erkoreka 1. Ignore its companion, the Puente del Ayuntamiento (14), and instead leap the river at the next crossing point, the Zubizuri bridge (15), which, with its arcing white fin, shares its genetics with the airport as a flash of Calatrava magic. This brings you to Paseo Uribitarte, from where it is a short hop west to the Guggenheim (1).

Cultural afternoon

Bilbao's most celebrated landmark is not just "unmissable" in a visiting sense. The eye is drawn to the Guggenheim (1) (Avenida Abandoibarra 2; 00 34 94 435 9000; guggenheim-bilbao.es; daily 10am-8pm, except Monday – closed; €8) – as, it seems, is sunlight, which bounces off Frank Gehry's outlandish concoction of limestone, glass and titanium. Depending on viewing angle, the building resembles a boat, a chimney or a fish, and outshines the contemporary art held within. That said, Puppy, which waits by the front door – a 43ft hound crafted from flowers pinned to a steel frame (by US artist Jeff Koons) – has charm galore.

A quick stroll away at Plaza del Museo 2, the Museo de Bellas Artes (16) does a more classical take on art, with paintings by Van Dyck, El Greco, Goya, Gauguin and Cézanne, as well as pieces by 20th-century Basque luminaries Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza (00 34 94 439 6060; museobilbao.com; daily 10am-8pm, except Monday – closed; €6).

Meanwhile, in Indautxu, the Alhondiga (17), at Plaza Arriquibar 4, is another of Bilbao's daring projects: a 1909 wine warehouse reshaped by French designer Philippe Starck. Its brick shell shelters exhibition rooms, a cinema, a glass-bottomed swimming pool and 43 supporting columns in varied colourful styles (00 34 94 401 4014; alhondigabilbao.com; Monday to Friday 7am-11pm, Saturday to Sunday 8.30am-11pm; free; pool entry €5.80).

An aperitif

Dash deeper into Indautxu, where the increasingly thriving blocks around the western end of Calle Licenciado Poza are blessed with lively bars. Ziripot (18), at number 46, has splendid mosaic décor, and beer for €2 (00 34 94 427 0530).

Dining with the locals

Amble back to the Alhondiga (17) and its swish in-house eatery Yandiola (00 34 94 413 3636; yandiola.com), which does a fine cochinillo (crispy pork) for €27. Or revel in Michelin-starred finesse at Zortziko (19), above the river at Alameda de Mazarredo 17 (00 34 94 423 9743; zortziko.es), where an extravagant nine-course tasting menu is €85.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The very heart of the Casco Viejo at Plazuela de Santiago 1, the Catedral de Santiago (20) (00 34 94 415 3627; daily services at 10.30am) is evidence that good things come to those who wait. It was completed in 1379, but crowned as the city's cathedral only in 1950. It exudes a soft piety, all incense aroma and gloomy interior, while casting a jealous eye at its 17th-century Gothic rival the Basilica de Begoña (21), which does for Bilbao what the Sacré Coeur does for Paris: majestic on its hilltop at Calle Virgen de Begona 38 (00 34 94 412 7091; basilicadebegona.com; services every day at 9am, except Sundays – 10am).

A walk in the park

Near the Basilica, the Parque Etxebarria (22) is further proof of Bilbao's revival. Until the mid-Eighties it was the site of a belching steel plant. But now it does fresh air and simple beauty, a lone smokestack kept as a reminder of harder days. It differs hugely from the westerly Parque de Doña Casilda (23), where tinkling fountains recall a more gilded Bilbao.

Out to brunch

At the top of the Casco Viejo, the Plaza Nueva (24) also echoes the past, the colonnades and tall buildings that enclose it making it a sibling (though a younger, 19th-century one) of Madrid's Plaza Mayor. Several cafés here are stalwarts of the Basque pintxos (tapas) scene. Café Bar Bilbao, at number six (00 34 94 415 1671; bilbao-cafebar.com), serves these morsels at €1.65 each – including bacalao marinado (salted, marinated cod).

Take a ride

A quaint relic in this city of aesthetic revolution, the Funicular de Artxanda (25) (00 34 94 445 4966; bilbao.net) clanks slowly up the Artxanda hill, one of the crags that help to give Bilbao its valley setting. This elderly gent first saw service in 1915, and still runs every 15 minutes from its base station on Plaza del Funicular (Monday to Friday 7.15am-10pm, Saturday 7.15am-11pm, Sunday 8.15am-10pm). The €1.80 return fare buys you a four-minute ride to the summit and back, and remarkable views out to the hazy Atlantic.

The icing on the cake

Drop into Abando and board the metro at Moyua station, adjacent to the Hotel Carlton (6), taking Line 1 (the red line) 11 stops north to Areeta station (€3.20 return, or €1.72 with the Creditrans pass). Then aim your camera at the Puente Vizcaya (26), the planet's first transporter bridge, and a Unesco World Heritage site (00 34 94 480 1012; puente-colgante.com). Constructed in 1893, its hanging shuttle still ferries vehicles across the Nervión. Foot passengers can ride along for €0.30 or, for €5, clamber up to the 50m-high walkway and stride over the river at a (perhaps) vertigo-inducing elevation.