For a long time off the tourist routes, in little more than 20 years Bilbao has found a new identity and a new determination.
Immerse yourselves in the very special atmosphere of the Basque Country to discover the beauty of Bilbao. For a long time off the tourist routes, in little more than 20 years Bilbao has found a new identity and a new determination thanks to the Guggenheim Museum which, after its inauguration in 1997, mitigated the industrial pall that covered the city and gave it new luster.
Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and, situated on the River Nervion, is surrounded by green mountains. Its territory is very extensive, so much so that the urban area - including suburbs - reaches the coast located on the Gulf of Biscay. The urban fabric of the city is now very bold and every year attracts many tourists: the city's architecture and the fact that it is one of the stopping places on the road to Santiago make it a particularly attractive destination. There are many places of interest in the city: you just have to go and find out what to see in Bilbao, a city in constant movement.
What to see in Bilbao: the Guggenheim MuseumLet's face it: you would not normally start to discover a city from a museum. But in this case, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has marked the watershed between a grey past and a rosy future. Until the end of the 1990s, Bilbao was known only for its steel processing and as a city entirely devoted to industry. The so-called Guggenheim effect has given the city back to its inhabitants, redesigning its spaces and opening its doors to modernity: Bilbao has taken back its roots and its medieval origin to project itself into the future. Today, those who choose to travel to Bilbao discover a beautiful city.
But let's go back to the Guggenheim Museum, because even the building that houses it is a striking sight: designed by Canadian Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. Clad entirely with titanium plates and over 50 meters high, the museum stands majestically on one of the banks of the River Nervion and reflects its beauty on the waters of the river: it "changes shape" and appearance depending on the light that strikes it leaving those who see it for the first time open-mouthed. Outside, visitors are greeted by two huge sculptures, now true icons of the city: the bronze spider by Louise Bourgeois and the Puppy, a giant dog made by Jeff Koons with over 70,000 flowers, which stands symbolically guarding the museum.
And the wonder continues inside the Guggenheim where, to make it easier to enjoy the works of art, the building completely strips itself of its bold architectural features to let the treasures it contains speak for themselves: from Basquiat to Andy Warhol, from Keith Haring to Picasso, get ready for a long and exciting journey into the world of modern and contemporary art.
Trip to Bilbao: a tour of the historical centerAnd from the futuristic panache of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, let's go back in time to discover the medieval roots of the city. Because it is by renewing its urban fabric that Bilbao has managed to regain possession of its past. Known as Casco Viejo, the old town center of Bilbao is the real heart of the city and the first urban settlement built in 1300 on the right bank of the River Nervion.
We recommend that you let yourself be carried away by the magical atmosphere of the place and wander freely through the narrow network of streets and alleys that open onto the Siete Calles, or the seven main streets of the Casco Viejo. The architecture of this part of the city is dominated by the distinctive buildings, by the cafés that find space along with the network of streets and alleys, by the bars in which the locals (and not) drink wine and eat pintxos (Basque tapas). And after having something to eat and drink, take a look at the Plaza Nueva and its beautiful portico and then head for the Cathedral of Santiago, the oldest building in the city.
In particular, this building, as well as being the main place of worship in the city, is also one of the stops along the famous Way of St James. Built between the 14th and 16th centuries, Santiago Cathedral is today a splendid mixture between the predominant Gothic style and later Baroque elements. Although it is extremely important, it is a cozy building of limited size: enter through the Puerta del Angel to admire the splendid stained glass windows, the choir, and the beautiful cloister.
From the cathedral, head for Plaza Unamuno, a truly picturesque square full of life. But it is not the liveliness that has made this square so famous: from here, in fact, the Calzadas de Mallona starts, a staircase consisting of 213 steps that will take you to the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Begoña, dedicated to the patron saint of the city and located right at the top of the hill. Visit the interior and then enjoy the view.
Another attraction in Bilbao's Casco Viejo is undoubtedly the Arriaga Theatre, located just a 5-minute walk from the cathedral: inspired by the Paris Opera and characterized by a beautiful neo-baroque style, it is the oldest theatre in Bilbao.
Discovering the Bilbao of the future: from Zubizuri to the Iberdrola TowerAs we said previously, Bilbao is a city looking towards the future. The Guggenheim Museum was the bridge that made it possible for the past to embrace modernity and give way to a work of renewal and redevelopment that is evident in many areas of the city. For this reason, your visit to the most modern Bilbao can only start from Zubizuri, or the white bridge (also known as the Calatrava Bridge in honor of the architect who designed it). This is a splendid pedestrian bridge, suspended over the Nervion River, and connecting the right bank of Bilbao with the left bank, in particular, with the Uribitarte district. This very original structure blends perfectly with the landscape: it is characterized by an arch 14 meters high the cables of which are hooked onto a glass deck, now covered with a non-slip mat.
Cross the bridge on foot, leaving the past behind and heading towards the future: because you will be welcomed by one of the symbols of modern Bilbao, the Isozaki Towers. Designed by the famous Japanese architect Isozaki, these are two twin glass towers that welcome you to the most modern part of the city.
Continue your visit towards the Abando district, a symbol of the rebirth of Bilbao. This is where the Guggenheim is located. To visit the Abando district, we recommend that you leave from Plaza Moyùa and then take the Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro, the main street of the city, and arrive in a place very dear to the inhabitants: the Doña Casilda Park, the main park of the city and the place where there is the wonderful Museum of Fine Arts, where you can admire the works of Goya and Gauguin.
Of the other architectural works worth seeing in the area, it is worth mentioning the Iberdrola Tower, designed by César Pelli, and the tallest building to date in the Basque Country.
What to do in Bilbao: a trip to Mount ArtxandaAs we said previously, Bilbao is located in a large valley surrounded by mountains. It is therefore not surprising that the city has a funicular railway. Take it from Plaza Funicular and, spending less than two Euro, you can reach Mount Artxanda up to a beautiful mirador that will give you the opportunity to gain a sweeping view over the whole city and the unusual city skyline: the perfect mixture of the oldest and most modern parts will be an amazing view. In short, it is undoubtedly a place not to be missed.
What to eat in Bilbao: a gourmet trip to the Basque CountryEating in Bilbao means being completely immersed in the gastronomic culture of the Basque Country. Start licking your lips, because you won't be disappointed: just think that, throughout Spain, the Basque Country is the region that has won the most Michelin stars. Here, traditional dishes, in which the excellent products of the land are perfectly combined with fish, seafood, and meat, are dominant.
To discover the city's cuisine, we recommend that first of all, you visit the Mercado de la Ribera, a large indoor market located in the old town center of Bilbao, not far from the Cathedral of Santiago. Here you can taste pinxtos, which it is reductive to call tapas: they are, in fact, an explosion of flavors in miniature, as well as a real gourmet creation. The basis of a Pinxtos is a slice of bread, covered and enriched with delicious delicacies: from cod to octopus, from jamon serrano to salmon, once you have tasted one, you will not be able to stop. But we recommend that you restrain yourselves to leave room for the other typical dishes of the city, which will not disappoint you.
Try, for example, Vizcaina, a delicious dish of cod seasoned with garlic, peppers, and onions. If you like cod but want a less elaborate version than Vizcaina, we recommend Bacalao Pil Pil, preparation of which requires that the cod be fried in olive oil flavored with garlic.
Gulas, on the other hand, are eels sautéed in olive oil and then accompanied by diced red peppers.
One of the simpler but very tasty dishes, on the contrary, is alubias de Tolosa: in this stew, beans are cooked with cabbage and thin slices of bacon fat to create an authentic explosion of flavors from the past.
Conclude your feast with Pastel Vasco, the showpiece of local confectionary tradition. It is a cake in which a sort of shortcrust pastry is combined with soft vanilla cream. Really tasty.
Citizens of the EU, the European Economic Area (Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein) and Switzerland do not need to apply for a visa in order to visit Bilbao. All that’s required is an ID card valid for cross-border travel or a passport.
The best time to visit Bilbao is undoubtedly in summer and, precisely, from June to September, in fact, rainfall decreases (although it remains quite frequent) and temperatures rise without ever becoming unbearable. Nevertheless, we recommend that you dress in layers: if temperatures drop considerably in the evening, it may also be that the city suffers from the warm southern winds of the south, raising the temperature by several degrees.
However, if you want to fully experience the atmosphere of the city and Basque traditions, we recommend you book your flight to Bilbao between the 15th and 24th of August, or the days when the Semana Grande takes place: it is one of the most popular festivals in the city which, for 9 days, comes alive with concerts, shows, and parades. Truly not to be missed!