Bilbao was founded on the shipping of iron, somewhere in prehistory. Today, it’s the capital of Biscay provincia, and the largest city in Basque Country. In many ways, it’s an unattractive city; it’s heavily industrialized and rather gray. But it is also the home of the Guggenheim Museum, a bizarrely shaped building resembling nothing so much as a fallen stack of boxes. The heart of the city is heavy with skyscrapers, and nearly a half-million people live here.
It’s a very modern, active place, and if you like city life, Bilbao has much to offer. An excellent Metro system connects Bilbao with many other Basque towns and villages, and the city’s undergoing a major renovation as local owners remove the gray and sooty grime from their buildings to reveal gleaming white and glass structures beneath.
In Bilbao’s suburbs, especially Neguri, you’ll find many beautiful mansions and villas built for industrialists.
Old Bilbao, on the western or right bank of the Nervion River, is bounded by the Seven Streets, a group of parallel avenues that flow toward the river. Here, in the more quaint part of town, you’ll find landmarks like the Cathedral of Santiago (dating to the 14th century), the Plaza Nueva, and several Renaissance churches: San Antonio, San Nicholas, and Santos Juan. Six bridges cross the Nervion to link both halves of the city together.
What to Do
The primary attraction in Bilbao is the collossal Guggenheim museum, covering an unimaginably-large 104,700 square meters of titanium-clad modern architecture; it’s the size of a large convention center. The museum incorporates the Puente de la Salve bridge into its unique architecture, and looking at the outside of it can be as rewarding as going inside. The works featured here are mostly from modern artists like Picasso, Andy Warhol, Ives Klein, and Robert Rauschenberg. You can also find works by unknown young Basque and Spanish artists here. If you go, try not to drive your car here; parking lot robberies are common, often in broad daylight, and even if you lock all your valuables in the trunk.
The Museo a Euska, a Basque archaeology/ethnology/history museum, is located in the old quarter in an ancient Jesuit cloister. This is a great place to learn more about Basque culture and history.
The Museo de Bellas Artes is where you’ll find older artwork by Goya, El Greco, and Velazquez alongside non-Spanish artists like van Dyck. There’s also a modern wing here with artists like Gauguin, Picasso, and Cassatt. But primarily you’ll find excellent Basque artwork here. Outside, the English-style gardens are charming.
Where to Stay
Bilbao has several excellent hotels, but the nicest is the Gran Hotel Domine, which faces the Guggenheim Museum. Its unique exterior is polished stone and black glass windows, and echoes the architecture of the Museum nicely. If you book a room on the sixth floor, you should get an excellent view of the museum. The Gran Hotel Domine has many really nice amenities.
For a less-expensive stay in the center of the old town, consider taking a room at the Roquefer. It’s extremely inexpensive, with simple functional rooms, and it’s located right in the center of the restaurant district. If you just want somewhere to sleep, this is where to go.
Where to Eat
Near the Guggenheim and the Gran Hotel Domine, you’ll find Zortziko, an excellent Basque restaurant with multiple rooms decorated in late Victorian style. If you reserve well in advance, you can take the single table in the wine cellar and have your meal while surrounded by excellent vintages. Restaurants in Bilbao tend to be excellent and very competitive, but it’s hard to beat Zortziko. Ask for the tasting menu if you don’t know what to get.
You can also eat on the other end, at the Casco Viejo. With exposed wood and stone decor, it feels ancient. The food here is excellent and inexpensive. Consider the chuletas as an appetizer, and don’t pass up the famous Basque green sauce, served on many fish dishes.