Chances are that when you think of Bilbao, invariably the mighty Guggenheim Museum, its eponymous landmark, will be the first image to spring to mind. And yet there is so much more to this striking city than Frank Gehry’s architectural wonder and the artistic treasures contained therein. Here’s a look at some of Bilbao’s other extensive charms…
Hugging the curves of the River Nervión and surrounded in almost every direction (bar the Bay of Biscay) by the expansive green hills of the Basque region, Bilbao reigns supreme as Spain’s largest port city (it’s the sixth largest city overall) and the main industrial hub in the north of the country. Industrial heritage and prowess aside, Bilbao has also made a name for itself not only as a leading centre for artistic, architectural and cultural excellence, but also as a star attraction in the gastronomic leagues, for it boasts some of the region’s best restaurants.
Beyond the Guggenheim, your first port of call on any Bilbao city break must surely be the Old Town, the Casco Viejo, a labyrinthine maze of narrow, winding, pedestrianized streets leading off the Plaza Nueva. At the heart of the Casco Viejo are the city’s original seven streets – Las Siete Calles – dating back to the 1400s and you’ll find atmosphere in abundance with plenty of quirky galleries and shops, not to mention bars and cafés where a pit-stop for pintxo (Spanish tapas) is an absolute essential. Another must-see is the Mercado de la Ribera, in fact a triple-decker ocean liner now one of Europe’s largest markets with over 400 retail stalls. Take time, too, to visit the 14th-century Gothic Catedral de Santiago (St James’ Cathedral), a pilgrimage stop on the coastal journey to Santiago de Compostela.
Another important ecclesiastical monument has to be the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Begoña, Bilbao’s most beloved religious sanctuary accessed via the 313 steps leading up from the Plaza de Unamuno (or lift if you’re not feeling up to the challenge!). Taking over a century to construct – work began in 1519 and was finally completed in 1620 – the church is a regular pilgrimage point for the players of the Athletico Bilbao football team, who reputedly give thanks here for their important wins. If fixtures permit, try taking in one of the team’s home matches; the season runs mid-July to mid-May with a number of big names still to play this season.
Guggenheim aside, Bilbao is awash with other artistic and architectural treasures, most notably the Euskalduna Palace, considered to be amongst the most significant contemporary Spanish architectural works. Representing the last ship built in the old Euskalduna shipyard, this striking building pays homage to the city’s industrial heritage and today houses a conference centre and auditorium. There’s also the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), reputedly one of the top-five museums in the country and described as a mini-Prado, with some 6,000 works on display from every Spanish school of art from the 12th to the 20th centuries, in addition to French, Italian and Flemish masterpieces.
A nod to the city’s waterfront position, Bilbao’s Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao, situated also at the old Euskalduna shipyard offers a fascinating and almost futuristic insight into Bilbao’s extensive shipbuilding and maritime history. The Museo Vasco is also worth highlighting for its detailed exhibits on Bilbao’s history and the Basque Country’s ethnography, not to mention its setting in an elegant 16th-century former convent.
A fabulous melting pot of art and architecture, history and heritage, gastronomy and culture, Bilbao provides more than worthy competition to the city break powerhouses of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville. We invite you to discover its delights for yourself.