The famous museum may have put Bilbao firmly on the tourist map, but if you venture further afield, you can discover some earthier – and sandier – delights in the city
I knew it might cause the odd arched eyebrow, but I didn’t think my statement would have quite so profound an effect. From the gasps and dropped jaws my comment provoked, you would have thought I was proposing a visit to a crack den. But all I said was, “I’m going to Bilbao but I don’t think I’ll bother with the Guggenheim.”
Risking the wrath of friends, I explained my reasoning: I’d been to the Basque city’s modern art museum before and it seemed to me there was more to Bilbao than one tourist attraction – however ground-breaking/significant/astonishing it may be.
Even so, the first thing I did on arrival was to go and stand in front of Frank Gehry’s masterful creation. There’s no arguing that the Guggenheim Museum is responsible for Bilbao’s regeneration. The declining industrial city of the late 20th century has become a massive tourist destination and a symbol of urban renewal on the back of one artistic masterpiece and the many others it holds within. But, I reasoned, the locals don’t spend all their free time at the museum. So what do they do – and what about all those repeat visitors? Surely they can’t go to the Guggenheim every time?
The thing to do is to stand for a while marvelling at the form and shape and texture of the titanium structure, then turn away and head downriver. Lots more regeneration here: a riverside park dotted with modern sculpture and a pleasant path leading to the city’s new concert hall. Bilbao clearly has the taste for shiny metal monoliths, and the Euskalduna Jauregia fits the bill very nicely. In the five years since it opened, it has been named world’s best conference centre and attracted a world-beating list of musical and theatrical acts. Then there are the classy restaurants (see Recommendations).
Just across the road is a building closer to most Bilbainos’ hearts than the Guggenheim could ever be. The San Mames stadium is home to Athletic Bilbao, the city’s football team and a rallying cause for local pride and Basque nationalism. They may not be setting the world on fire in Spain’s top division nowadays but that won’t lessen the passion at any game inside ‘the Cathedral’ and football fan or not, there’s no quicker or more stirring way to get a taste of what it means to be a local.
Back towards the Ría de Bilbao, the river that snakes through the city, it’s not easy to miss the Parque Doña Casilda de Iturrizar. This is familiar ground to the strolling Bilbainos, from the very young to the very old, and is as lovely a city park as you’ll find. At its eastern end lies the fine arts museum – a couple of gallery-lengths from the Guggenheim but often overlooked by art-loving visitors. More’s the pity because the museum has been extensively renovated and has a reputation for excellent temporary exhibitions. On top of that, it has an extensive and affecting collection of Spanish art and a good spread of international masters.
If the locals like to wander through their parks, they love even more the idea of a paseo along the Gran Via de Don Diego: the heart of Bilbao’s shopping district, which runs through Calle López de Haro as far as the river.
And across the river, well, this is the Casco Viejo – the old town – and that’s what Bilbao is all about. If, up to this point, rumours of a local reputation for late nights and living it up seem a little wide of the mark, it all changes as you cross the river. The cobbled streets of the old town, and especially those of the Sietes Calles, or seven streets, unfold in a reveller’s delight of tascas and restaurants and cafes – all serving pintxos, the local and far superior version of tapas.
You can’t move more than a few feet without finding another bar, though nowhere is the concentration greater than in the lovely, porticoed Plaza Nueva. Locals indulge in a game that involves having a drink at every bar around the square. Few make it back to the starting point, and a lot of beer and wine – especially the local white, txacoli – goes down the hatch along the way.
At this point, walking might prove a bit of a problem, so it’s just as well there’s a modern, efficient and clean metro system to fall back on – topped off by the fighter cockpit-style entrances, or fosteritos, named after Sir Norman Foster, who designed them.
The metro’s two lines run all the way north of the city to the coast and the Bilbainos’ summer playground. Taking the metro to the beach is not something you can do in London but, novelty value aside, there are some fine stretches of sand waiting to be sprawled on. Sopelana, Ereaga, Gorliz, Plentzia – you can take your pick and spend a day with sand between your toes before feasting on seafood at a local restaurant.
Heading back to the city centre, the Puente Colgante is worth a look. This is the world’s oldest transporter bridge and for a few centimos, it’s possible to climb to the suspended walkway and take in breathtaking views of the city and the Bay of Biscay coastline.
That’s not the only elevated view of Bilbao. There’s also the funicular railway, which runs from the Zubiziri footbridge up Monte Arxanda. The view from the top is stunning, as the city’s winding progress through the river gorge reveals itself. From here, you can make out the coal mines that surround Bilbao, the elegant stone houses of the old town, the magnificent riverside produce market and, almost at your feet, the sweeping road bridge and alongside it the shining, swirling, part-fish, part-boat that is the Guggenheim Museum.
Well, maybe it’s worth just another peek inside…
Since its opening in 1997, Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad masterwork has become one of the most recognisable museums in the world, and if that exterior catches the eye as it glints and flickers in the reflections of the Nervión river, wait for the interior. The 20 limestone and titanium galleries are as stunning as the catalogue of 20th-century art and sculpture that adorns them. Book tickets online and avoid the peak visiting hours – late morning and early evening.