May and June are the best months for a trip to the Basque city of Bilbao: although the weather is sunny, the sweltering temperatures of the Spanish summer have not yet taken hold, and the quality of light can be mesmeric. On most weekends you'll find a local festival, be it a celebration of cheese, music or handicrafts. Apart from its large and intriguing pockets of old-world charm, Bilbao is characterised by some of Europe's most challenging and inspiring contemporary architecture - from Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum to Sir Norman Foster's metro stations.
I flew with easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com), which offers return fares from Stansted, Gatwick and Bristol from around £50. British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) and Iberia (0845 6012854, www.iberia.com) operate codeshare flights from Heathrow from around £100 return. Bilbao's Sondica International Airport - known locally as La Paloma or "the dove", owing to its elegant structure by Santiago Calatrava - is about 13km north-east of the city. From here a taxi to the centre of town costs around €15 (£10.70). The airport bus costs €1.05/75p per adult, one-way, departing every 30 minutes daily between 6.30am and 10.30pm. Arrival by sea is also possible: P&O Ferries (0870 242 4999, www.poportsmouth.com) leaves for two-night trips on Saturday and Tuesday with overnight returns on Monday and Thursday. A mini cruise for two sharing a cabin costs from £68 return.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Bilbao is about 13km from the coast and is sliced in two by the River Nervion. It is further divided into a series of districts or "barrios", the most atmospheric of which is the old town or "Casco Viejo", with its honey-coloured, tightly packed streets. In striking contrast, across the river lies El Ensanche, the 19th-century part of the city. Here, the airport bus drops off passengers, at the central Plaza Moyua, a grand fountain-strewn square, where eight streets converge.
Most of Bilbao is easily navigated on foot, although, the new metro system is a pleasure to ride. The city has a well-integrated public transport network, the focal point of which is Abando station, close to the river Those planning to use the trams, metros, buses and funicular could invest in a €5 (£3.60), €10 (£7.15) or €15 (£10.70) "Creditrans" ticket, allowing unlimited travel for one or more people until the credit expires.
Bilbao's main tourist office is at Calle Rodriguez Arias 3 (00 34 94 479 5760, www.bilbao.net), open Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm and 4pm-7.30pm. Several more tourist offices are dotted around the city including one conveniently near the Guggenheim Museum at Avenida Abandoibarra 2. This office opens Tuesday-Friday from 11am-2.30pm and 4pm-7pm. Saturdays from 11am to 3pm and Sundays from 11am-2pm.
TAKE A VIEW
Head for Plaza de Funicular in the Uribarri barrio, north-east of the river, and take the scarlet Artxanda Funicular to the summit of Monte Artxanda for a bird's-eye view of the city backed by a crescent of velvety green hills. The funicular departs every 15 minutes, costs 76 cents (50p) one-way and opens Monday-Friday 7.15am-10pm and 8.15am-10pm at weekends (11pm in June, July and August).
TAKE A HIKE
Start outside the Guggenheim Museum and stroll along Bilbao's rejuvenated riverside. Walk down the promenade Paseo Uribitare, passing Santiago Calatrava's spectacular twisting footbridge, the Zubizuri, on your left. Continue up to Puente Arenal, pausing to look at the 19th-century Teatro Arriaga on your right. Cross the bridge and you are in Casco Viejo. Cross the arcaded Plaza Nueva, with its buzzing cafés and bars, and continue down Calle La Cruz until you arrive at the Calle Somera - the first of the seven original streets or "Siete Calles" of the old town. Walk towards the river as far as the Church of Saint Anthony, where Diego Lopez de Haro read out the founding charter of Bilbao on 15 June, 1300. Turn down the Calle Ribera, past the Mercado de la Ribera and cross the Puente Arenal. Continue down the gracious shop-lined Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro until you reach Plaza Moyua.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
The pintxo is the Basque version of tapas, but considered by many to be far superior. Either stand at the bar of Victor Montes in the Plaza Nueva (00 34 94 415 5603, www.victormontes.com) and graze the large array of pintxos laid out before you or nip next door to the Café Bar Bilbao (00 34 94 415 1671) and order a plate of calamari hot from the deep fat fryer and costing €5.90 (£4.20).
The Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (00 34 94 439 6060, www.museobilbao.com) is well worth a visit for its collection spanning the 13th century to the present day, including paintings by Van Dyck and modern works from the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 8pm; Sundays from 10am to 2pm. Admission: €4.50/£3.20). For a greater understanding of the region's heritage, take a stroll around the Basque Museum, Plaza Unamuno 4 (00 34 94 415 5423, www.euskal-museoa.org), open Tuesday to Saturday (11am to 5pm), and Sunday (11am to 2pm), €3 (£2.10).
Join the throng of well-heeled locals at the brass-and-wood bar of La Viña del Ensanche, at Diputacion 10 (00 34 94 415 5670) and order a glass of the local white wine "txakoli", and a pintxo or two of tomato, olive oil and "jamon", the house speciality.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
El Perro Chico at Aretaxaga 2 (00 34 94 415 05 19) overlooking the river and decorated with pretty blue, white and terracotta tiles, is the place for traditional Basque dishes and seafood, including steamed anchovies in olive oil and the freshest of hake. Expect to pay around €40(£28) per person for two courses.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
In the heart of the Casco Viejo you'll find the city's oldest church, the Gothic Cathedral de Santiago (00 34 94 432 0125). Mass is at 10.30am and 12pm.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Generally, the Spanish have not yet embraced the concept of brunch but the Miro Hotel Alameda Mazarredo 77 (00 34 94 66 11 880, www.mirohotelbilbao.com) offers a Sunday buffet from 12.30pm to 3.30pm - €21 (£15) per person - of salads, breads, charcuterie, cheeses and dishes cooked to order.
A WALK IN THE PARK
One of the most popular of Bilbao's few green spaces is the small Arenal complete with bandstand, dog walkers and outdoor cafés. Alternatively cross the road and take a stroll around the larger Parque Etxebarria, beside the foothills of Monte Arxanda.
TAKE A RIDE
Bilbao's trams made a welcome return to the city centre in 2002. The initial route was extended in July 2003 and now links Atxuri station in the east with San Mames in the west. It's an effortless way to take in many of the principal sights. Single fares cost €1 (70p). Those wanting to venture further afield could catch the metro Line 1 as far as Neguri station and take a short walk to the pretty seaside town of Gexto.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Buy a postcard of the Guggenheim with Jeff Koons' colourful giant "Puppy" standing guard outside and sit with a cafe con leche €1.25 (85p) at Cafe Iruna (00 34 94 423 7021), at Jardines de Albia.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
This has to be Frank Gehry's masterful titanium, glass and stone Guggenheim Museum, at Abandoibarra Et. 2 (00 34 944 35 90 80, www.guggenheim-bilbao.es; open daily from 10am-8pm; closed on Monday except in July and August; €10/£7.10). The star of the show is the building itself.
By and large, it's best to book accommodation in advance, but the tourist office can help if you arrive without any reservations. One of Bilbao's most conveniently located and newest hotels is the small Miró Hotel, at Alameda Mazarredo 77 (00 34 94 66 11 880, www.mirohotelbilbao.com). Just steps from the Guggenheim, it boasts a sleek interior by local fashion designer Antonio Miró. Doubles start from €155 (£110), room only.
For more traditional surroundings, head for the Hotel Carlton (00 34 94 416 2200, www.aranzazu-hoteles.com) at Plaza Moyua. Dating from 1919, and famously a favourite of Ernest Hemingway, the Carlton was recently declared a National Monument. Doubles start at €100 (£70), room only.
In the heart of the old town the Petit Palace Hotel Arana (00 34 94 415 6411, www.hthotels.com), at Calle Bidebarrieta 2, offers double bedrooms from around €90 (£65). If you want breakfast, you'll pay an extra €12 (£8.60).
At the budget end of the market, The Hotel Ripa (00 34 94423 9677, www.hotel-ripa.com), at Ripa 3, is conveniently located close to the river, the old town and Abando station. It offers doubles from €60 (£42) room only.
Shops in Bilbao are generally open from 10.30am to 1.30pm and reopen at around 4.30pm until 8pm. Most are closed on Sundays.
Casco Viejo is the place to go for small, interesting outlets selling everything from lingerie and shoes to hats and umbrellas. Bilbao, like most other Spanish cities, has several branches of the phenomenally successful Zara chain (with the main outlet at Gran Via 15-16), although you will probably find that prices are similar to those in the UK.
The ubiquitous Spanish department store El Corte Ingles (00 34 94 425 3500, www.elcorteingles.es) occupies a large site on the Gran Via Don Lopez de Haro. For upmarket boutiques and Spanish leather goods from companies such as Loewe and Gucci, stroll down the pedestrianised Avenida Elcano and its surrounding streets, just off the Plaza Moyua.
For local colour, don't miss the food market in the Mercado de Ribera on the river bank. With two floors of fish, vegetables and meat, it opens 8am to 2pm from Monday to Saturday.
The best time to go shopping is between 6pm and 8pm when locals take an evening stroll, chatting, looking in the windows and eventually retiring to a local pintxos bar for a quick aperitif.
TASTE OF THE CITY
Bilbao is something of a foodie heaven, so whether you're in one of the city's growing number of new-wave restaurants, in a cider house or in a simple pintxos bar you will almost inevitably eat extremely well here. Perhaps most prominent among the city's chefs is Martin Berasategui, who oversees the restaurant in the Guggenheim (00 34 944 239 333; www.martinberasategui.com). Here a set lunch menu of three courses (€15/£10.70 weekdays, €20/£14.25 weekends) might typically include such dishes as pumpkin with cod confit; lacquered leg of lamb with a port sauce; and honey and lemon verbena ice cream.
At the other end of the scale, the best pintxos bars are located in the Casco Viejo - try Xukela (00 34 94 415 97 72) on El Perro 2 and the Plaza Nueva. In Calle Diputation in the newer part of the city, make for Bar Los Candiles (00 34 94 424 1479). You can't come to Bilbao without trying traditional Basque dishes such as "pil-pil" containing salt cod, and "kokotxas", or hakes' cheeks. Goizeko Kabi (00 34 94 442 1129, www.goizekogaztelupe.com), at Particular de Extraunza, serves superior versions of both these classic dishes. If you see "txangurro al horno" on the menu, be sure to try this local favourite, a dish of spider crab with tomatoes, baked in its own shell.Reuse content