The Basque city of Bilbao in northwest Spain was a busy, industrial city until fairly recently. The amazing renaissance of this city and the major clean-up has been coined “The Bilbao Effect” because this city is a model for how a dirty, industrial city can be reclaimed. Here are ten reasons to visit this under-rated city.
One—Bilbao is great city for Strolling
Located along the Nervión River, Bilbao is easy to navigate and it’s a very pleasant city for walking. Along the riverfront, the abandoned steel mills have been replaced by wide sidewalks and parks. One can walk along the river or even rent a bike and use the bike trails. At any point, it’s easy to jump on the modern city tram that runs throughout the city. In the old town, there are several city elevators that take you into the hills above the city for great city views and old neighborhoods to explore. Even in the main, modern downtown area there are several parks worth visiting such as Plaza Arriquibar or Doña Casilda Park.
Two—Bilbao has a Vibrant Downtown
The modern downtown area is also very walkable with it’s wide sidewalks and pleasant plazas and parks. The city tourism department has a helpful map with suggestions for a city walk that explores the city’s architecture. It points out the important city buildings, provides a little history and lists the opening and closing hours. Besides the interesting architecture, there are plenty of choices for great shopping or sampling the excellent Basque cuisine. The Tourism Office is located at Navarra 5, near the Metro stop Abando. http://www.bilbao.net/BilbaoTurismo/en/tourists
Three—It also has a Colorful Old Town
Across the Puente del Arenal bridge is the “Casca Viejo”, Bilbao’s old town. One could spend an entire day exploring the narrow streets and beautiful plazas of this area. There is a large, covered market—Ribera Market with two floors of vendors selling mostly fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses and fish. In the old town, one can wander the narrow streets for hours to find fun boutique shops, restaurants, food shops, gelato and more. The Plaza Nuevo is a great spot for trying Bilbao’s pintxos, the Basque name for tapas, which are appetizer plates.
Four—The Alhóndiga Building
Bilbao’s new cultural center is downtown on 4, Arriquibar Square. Be sure to go inside to explore this amazing renovation, designed by Philippe Starck, the French architect. There are 43 unique pillars holding up three buildings. After you admire the amazing works of the Italian set designer, Lorenzo Beraldi, visit the gallery downstairs or have a drink on the outdoor terrace that overlooks the city. There’s even a nice restaurant if you’re hungry. One building houses a modern library and in another, there’s a beautiful swimming pool—all open to the public. Be sure to check the website for special events and exhibits. http://www.alhondigabilbao.com/en
Five—The Fine Arts Museum
Not far from the Guggenheim Museum is Bilbao’s Fine Arts Museum with an impressive permanent collection. Besides the popular Spanish artists (Goya, Murillo, El Greco), there are a few surprises such as a Mary Cassatt and Paul Guaguin. The museum’s website has a recommended itinerary that makes it easy to visit. http://www.museobilbao.com
The Basque word for tapas is Pintxos and the Basque have certainly mastered the art of making an appetizer into a gastronomic delight. We never managed to wait until 10 p.m. for the traditional Spanish dinner. Instead, we sampled the pintxos bars on Plaza Nueva and also downtown. Diputación Street was a fun pedestrian street with excellent pinxtos. The Office of Tourism has a guide for all of the pintxos bars in Bilbao. http://www.bilbao.net/BilbaoTurismo/en/tourists
Seven—It’s not a Tourist Trap
Unlike popular Barcelona and the lovely city of Madrid, Bilbao hasn’t quite been discovered. Most tourists make a quick stop at the Guggenheim Museum and move on. They miss out on experiencing a more typical Spanish city. The locals are friendly and helpful and seem to appreciate the low key tourism they have. This is a city where you don’t have to fight the crowds of tour groups or worry about pick pockets.
Eight—the Rioja Alavesa Wine Country
& Fishing Villages nearby
It’s quite easy to rent a car at the downtown train station or the airport for short excursions outside ot the city. One can drive south to explore the beautiful Rioja wine country or head north towards the Bay of Biscay to find picuresque fishing villages of the coastal Gipuzkoa. The historic town of Gernika, the subject of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica is also nearby. If you visit on a Monday, the town’s popular street market is fun to visit. You can also visit the Guernica Peace Museum that covers the history of Guernica and the famous bombing in 1937.
Nine—It’s a great base for other cities in Northern Spain
If you don’t want to rent a car, Bilbao is a good base for visiting many nearby cities by bus or train. The popular and expensive town of San Sebastián can be easily reached by bus in 90 minutes. The busy bus terminal is easy to reach by Metro Marmés. Pamplona, Santander and Burgos are also good day trips from Bilbao. Compare the bus and train timetables to see which one is preferable. Bus Terminal: http://www.termibus.es Train: http://www.renfe.com
Yes, The Guggenheim Museum is here, but I’m listing this last because almost everyone visits Bilbao just to see the Guggenheim Museum. Even if you don’t appreciate modern art, it’s worth the price of admission to go inside and use the free audio to learn about this amazing building. The audio includes commentary by the building’s architect Frank Ghery. It’s quite interesting to hear him describe his thought process in designing this extraordinary buidling. The exhibits are constantly changing, so check the website for traveling shows and special events. We enjoyed the Richard Serra sculptures on the main floor. The museum also has a world class restaurant that’s worth the splurge. http://www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/en/