Winner of the 2018 European City of the Year, Bilbao rose from its post-industrial economic malaise of the 1990s by investing heavily in culture and in the image of the city. Among the many wonders that you can enjoy when visiting it, here are our top choices.
1. Bilbao is one of the most eclectic cities of Spain.
You’ve got everything: historical heritage, the very well preserved old centre, the 19th century elegant expansion, and the contemporary landmarks, designed by Sir Norman Foster, Philippe Starck, Santiago Calatrava or Frank Gehry, that made the city so famous. Many of these marvels are along the River Nervion, including the Isozaki Gate (the twin towers of Arata Isozaki) and the 165 metre high Iberdrola Tower (César Pelli), as well as the city icon, the Guggenheim. Since the Frank Gehry-designed museum opened in 1997, it has held over 160 exhibitions and almost 100 temporary exhibitions. With an average of 1.14 million visitors per year, the museum generated the phenomenon internationally known as “the Bilbao or Guggenheim effect” where cultural investment focused on a museum leads to an economic uplift is being copied worldwide.
Nervion also has a fantastic array of bridges. The Zubizuri (Basque for white bridge) footbridge is also known as the Calatrava Bridge after Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect who designed its striking arched structure that resembles a sailboat. La Salve, the red bridge near the Guggenheim, is the first bridge in Spain to be built with the cable-stayed system, back in the 70’s. L’arc rouge, the great red gate by the French artist Daniel Buren, was added in 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the Guggenheim.
Azkuna Zentroa, another cultural and leisure centre of Bilbao, was redesigned by French star Phillipe Starck. The main floor has 43 individually designed pillars in marble, stone, terracotta, bronze, aluminum and wood, each representing different historical periods, and is marked by the frosted glass bottom of the swimming pool above.
Also the metro of Bilbao is an architectural gem, designed by Sir Norman Foster. Even if you won’t take the metro on your vacation, you can notice the elegant ‘fosteritos’ or curved glass and steel underground exits that fill the city centre.
2. Bilbao is a gastronomic delight, from the most affordable options and up to Michelin-starred experiences.
The Basque region of Spain is home to over 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, and in Bilbao you can come across about the half of them. Just outside the city, off the airport road, Azurmendi by Chef Eneko Atxa was the first restaurant in the province to achieve three Michelin stars (held since 2013). There are three others in the Basque country, all in San Sebastian. In the city centre, one Michelin starred Mina Restaurante is a must. They serve only 38 guests at six tables and at the bar each evening.
Besides having some of the best restaurants in the world, there’s a multitude of cafes and bars serving Basque tapas or pintxos, small and tasty bites from €2 to €6. Most streets in the centre are filled with pintxo bars, so there’s plenty to choose from, but a few venues really stand out, like the historic Cafe Iruna, with their many barbecue delights, or Bar Bacaicoa on Plaza Miguel de Unamuno with their 50 years’ unique recipes. Zurekin, near Plaza Moyua, and Sorginzulo, in the old centre, also offer remarkable experiences.
3. The greater area of metropolitan Bilbao offers unique sites to see.
And here are just two of them.
The town of Getxo has tourist appeal with easy access to 4 beaches. It has a yacht harbour, a golf course, and several sports complexes (both public and private). A dynamic, semi-autonomous Department of Culture organises many events on a regular basis, including several international music festivals of jazz, blues and folk.
The Vizcaya Bridge is a World Heritage site. Built in 1893 and the first of its kind, this remarkable ‘hanging bridge’ links the towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas crossing the mouth of the Nervion River. The bridge is more commonly known as Puente Colgante (the hanging bridge) because it features a gondola suspended by steel cables that can transport 6 cars and about 30 foot passengers across the river in a minute and a half.
Cover image: By Xabier, from Wikimedia Commons, photos via Ioana Paunescu and by Xauxa (Håkan Svensson), own work, from Wikimedia Commons