Why go now?
Two decades ago, Bilbao was off the travel radar. The Basque port city – known as the “Liverpool of Spain” – was in post-industrial decline, grubby and flagging. But then arrived salvation in the form of ravishing, rippling steel: Frank Gehry’s groundbreaking Guggenheim Museum opened here in October 1997 and the city was back on the map. Over the past 20 years, the halo effect of this architectural masterstroke has seen Bilbao bloom. There’s now a Norman Foster-designed Metro, a Santiago Calatrava bridge and a cultural centre by Philippe Starck. The Old Town and riverside have been cleaned up; the food scene is thriving. Twenty years on, there’s never been a better time to see the Bilbao effect for yourself.
Get your bearings
Bilbao sits just inland from the Bay of Biscay at the base of the Bilbao Estuary, its sprawl hemmed in by lush mountains. The Nervión River curves through the city, with the compact old town (1) sitting at the eastern edge of the centre on the river’s right bank. El Ensanche (2), the 19th-century business district, is further west on the left bank. The main tourist office (3) sits between the two, near Abando Train Station (4); open daily, 9am-9pm. Most visitor attractions are easily walkable, with a Metro line linking the centre to the beach suburbs on the coast in around 25 minutes.
Take a view
Ride the three-minute Artxanda Funicular (5) (95¢ one-way). This cable railway, opened in 1915, zips you up the Artxanda mountain; at the top are cafes, a leisure centre and far-reaching views over the city to the surrounding hills and sea.
Take a hike
Start by sniffing Puppy, Jeff Koons’ giant topiary dog, which sits outside the gleaming Guggenheim (6). Rather than enter the museum – save that for tomorrow – walk down the steps and around to the right, past Louise Bourgeois’ spidery bronze Maman, to join the riverbank.
Head eastwards along the water’s edge, promenading the Paseo Uribitarte (7), admiring the fine city buildings on either side. At the Zubizuri Bridge (8), a pedestrian sailboat-like sweep designed by Santiago Calatrava, cross over to the Nervión’s right bank. Stroll along to reach the Town Hall (9), then continue on to the Arenal (10), a former marshland reclaimed in the 18th century and now a popular promenade and park, with trees, fountains, a bandstand and a Sunday flower market. The baroque San Nicolás Church (11) and impressive Arriaga Theatre (12) stand either side.
From the Arenal, cut down C/ Correo (13) to enter the muddle of the Casco Viejo, the oldest part of Bilbao, first built in the 14th century. Left off Correo is the bar-packed Plaza Nueva (14) but, for now, carry on to the end to reach the Gothic Santiago Cathedral (15). From here the Siete Calles, Bilbao’s original Seven Streets, spread out, packed with little bars and browsing potential.
Lunch on the run
In the Casco Viejo you’re spoiled for choice. Try Baster (16) (basterbilbao.com), which cooks up Basque-Catalan fusion raciones, using produce sourced from small local suppliers in the Old Town. The fresh-cooked tortillas and spicy patatas bravas are specialities.
The alleys of the Casco Viejo are designed for idle browsing. Ah! (17) (ahmoda.com) is full of fun fashions, prints and trinkets while Sinpatron (18) (sinpatron.com), open Wednesday to Sunday, is a bespoke atelier making one-off pieces – you can see the designers at work inside. Further along, Labeko Okindegia (19) (labekookindegia.wordpress.com) bakes some of the city’s best artisan bread.
Opened in spring 2017, just across the Nervión from the Casco Viejo, Happy River (20) (0034 682 11 37 13) has quickly become a popular aperitif spot thanks to its long airy terrace, squishy chairs, slightly tropical-feel hanging baskets and swinging hammocks. There’s Spanish wine from €1.50 a glass, local Bilbao beer and a decent cocktail list including a refreshing Spritz, with Aperol, soda and cava.
Dine with the locals
Head back into the Casco Viejo to making a pintxos-grazing circuit of Plaza Neuva. This Neoclassical square is lined with bars serving the Basque version of tapas – usually slices of bread topped with anything from tortilla to salt cod, jamon to foie gras. Gure Toki (21) (guretoki.com) has gained a reputation for more innovative pintxos, with both cold and freshly cooked hot bites such as crab tempura and beef ribs with seaweed.
Out to brunch
Amble into El Ensanche to find Brass (22) (0034 944 27 54 55). Every Saturday and Sunday from 10am-2pm, this modern cafe-bar lays on a Super Brunch (€15), a help-yourself spread of fruits, pastries, pies, salads, meats and cheeses to linger over. Alternatively, order a short cortado and a flaky fresh-baked croissant and get going.
A walk in the park
If you want a pretty spot to enjoy your takeaway croissant, walk a few blocks north and find a bench in the Doña Casilda de Iturrizar Park (23), Bilbao’s most central green space. Especially welcoming on a warm day, this shady garden has a circular pergola walk, plenty of big trees, a duck pond and tinkling fountains that dance to sound-and-light shows on some summer evenings.
Since the 1940s one corner of the park is has been occupied by the Mueso de Bellas Artes (24) (museobilbao.com). Bilbao’s Fine Arts Museum may not be as outwardly arresting as the nearby Guggenheim but its collection is far more varied. There are more than 7,000 works here, ranging from 12th-century iconography to modern-day masters, with a particular emphasis on Basque artists and paintings from the Spanish and Flemish schools. Entry costs €9 or it’s free from 6-8pm; closed Tuesdays.
If you plan to take in the Guggenheim too, buy the Artean Pass (€16) at the Bellas Artes, which includes entry to both. Works on view at the Guggenheim (guggenheim-bilbao.eus) change frequently, but expect the likes of Rothko, Warhol and Basquiat to adorn the walls. This winter sees the David Hockney Portraits exhibition take up residence from 10 November 2017 to 25 February 2018. Entry costs €16; closed most Mondays.
Take a ride
For some fresh coastal air, ride Metro Line 1 from Moyúa station (25) to Algorta in the seaside suburb of Getxo (€1.80 single; metrobilbao.eus). Here you’ll find a tiny but oh-so-cute fishing village, a lively beach, grand fin de siècle mansions and, of course, bars serving fine fishy pintxos.
Airlines including easyJet (easyjet.com), Vueling (vueling.com) and Iberia (iberia.com) fly to Bilbao from various UK airports. EasyJet flies from Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Stansted from £48 return. Bilbao Airport (26) is 10km northeast. A bus to the centre costs €1.45 (£1.30) and takes around 20 minutes. A taxi costs around €20-25.
In the heart of the Old Town, Caravan Cinema (27) is a quirky pensión where each of the six rooms has a movie theme – choose between the Almodovar Superior or the Hitchcock Apartment. Doubles from €75 (£67), room only.
The riverside Barceló Bilbao Nervión (28) sits between the Old Town and the Guggenheim, a short walk from both. Rooms are smart and comfortable. Doubles from €90, room only.
For a Guggenheim view, try the Miró Hotel (29). Rooms are sleek, white, light and minimalist, with big TVs, DVD players and punchy showers. Doubles on an “Art in Bilbao” rate from €105, B&B, plus free Guggenheim tickets.
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