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Bilbao: from industrial ugly duckling to designer swan

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Bilbao’s transformation from industrial ugly duckling into a designer swan is astounding: where steel shipyards once rusted on the bank of the Nervión river now rise the complex titanium steel curves of the Guggenheim Museum. But the city has plenty more fodder for the eye.

My top-10 Bilbao travel tips

  1. Guggenheim-Museum by Frank Gehry
  2. Zubizuri bridge by Santiago Calatrava
  3. Casco Viejo – the Old Town with Bilbao cathedral
  4. Gourmet restaurants
  5. Pintxos: Mercado de la Ribera meat and vegetable market hall
  6. The shopping mile
  7. Estadio de San Mamés
  8. The Bilbao tourist office 
  9. Vizcaya bridge
  10. Gaztelugatxe peninsula and chapel

And here you can navigate directly to the 3 hotel tips or to the Hop On – Hop Off Bus.

For all who may want to know what all there is to discover in Basque Country besides Bilbao will find a couple of tips and highlights for a Basque Country circle trip in this article.

1. Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry

It was not until the mid-1990s that the Basque metropolis started turning into a tourist destination.

This industrial city of 350,000 struggled with infrastructure problems and was the hotbed of the ETA, the Basque terrorist group.

And then lo and behold, in 1997, where the derelict shipyards stood, celebrity architect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum opened its doors.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Bilbao’s eye-catching Guggenheim Museum

Big Tree sculpture Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Anish Kapoor’s ‘Big Tree’ sculpture made up of 80 hollow stainless steel balls

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The “Maman” spider by sculptor Louise Bourgeois

When it was dedicated in October 1997, the spectacular art museum changed Bilbao forever.

With his deconstructivist architectural esthetic, the legendary Canadian-born architect created an attraction without parallel in the world.

Ever since, the Basque metropolis has attained culture city status. And the tourists come in droves, helping the city get back on its feet economically.

Today, there is a specialist term for this type of urban development: the ‘Bilbao effect’. It signifies the revival an entire region can experience from an upgrade with spectacular structures like this.

The Museum of Modern Art has almost 120,000 square feet of exhibition space. It has both a permanent collection on display as well as temporary traveling exhibitions.

Our visit gave us the chance of admiring artworks by Richard Serra.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

8 steel sculptures ‘The Matter of Time’ by Richard Serra

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Richard Serra’s spiral steel sculptures let you lose the sense of space

Address:
Abandoibarra Etorb., 2
48009 Bilbao

Price of admission: 17 Euro (adults)

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2. ‘Zubizuri’ pedestrian bridge by Santiago Calatrava

In line with the Guggenheim prestige project, the city renewed the promenade along the Nervión river, so that now it is possible to walk from the historic city center to a distant shopping complex.

Several pedestrian bridges were thrown over the river to ease crossing from one bank to the other.

From the pencil of Spanish star architect Santiago Calatrava sprang the curved Zubizuri bridge.

‘Zubizuri’ in the Basque language means “white bridge’.

Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri bridge

Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri bridge

Zubizuri bridge Santiago Calatrava

Arched pedestrian bridge over the Nervión river

The elegantly arched, curving bridge connects the city’s Campo Volantin and Uribitarte districts.

Since 2005, visitors flying into Bilbao already come across Calatrava architecture at the airport where they are greeted by an arrival building shaped like a dove, from which it gets the nickname ‘La Paloma‘.

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3. Casco Viejo – the heart of Old Town with the Bilbao cathedral

The Catedral de Santiago Apóstol with its Gothic heritage dates back to a pilgrim’s church on the coastal route Camino de Santiago (or ‘The Way of St. James’).

It took over a century to build the church in its present form before it could be consecrated during the early 16th century.

However, only parts of the famous late-Gothic Mannerist features survive.

Casco Viejo Old Town Bilbao

Casco Viejo – Bilbao’s Old Town

Address:
Plaza de Santiago, 1
48005 Bilbao

Price of admission: 5 Euro (adults)

Nearby, in a Berlitz café we treat ourselves to a cortado (i.e., an espresso macchiato) and watch the pilgrims get lost on the Way of St. James (also known in Latin as Peregrinatio Compostellana, or Pilgrimage of Compostela) as its winds through Bilbao.

Yes, really, they ask for directions in the café!

This, despite the fact that the ‘Siete Calles’, as the locals call the seven narrow streets of the Old Town, are actually fairly easy to figure out. It makes you wonder how these pilgrims will find their way to Santiago de Compostela?

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4. Gastronomy and gourmet restaurants

Food seems to be at the center of life in Basque Country: Bilbao trails only San Sebastián as a gourmet mecca. 

In the gastronomy street Calle Juan Ajuriaguerra, we give Atelier Etxanobe of Michelin-starred chef Fernando Canales a try.

Gourmet restaurant by Fernando Canales

Nice atmosphere: Michelin-starred restaurant by Fernando Canales

The short tasting menu comprises 14 courses, two of which Canales prepares personally at table side.

Fairly over the top, I tell you…

Chef Fernando Canales in front of stained glass

Chef Fernando Canales in front of the stained glass of Madrid-baseds National Bank of Spain

Address:
Atelier Etxanobe
Address: Calle Juan Ajuriaguerra, 8
48009 Bilbao (Bizkaia)
Phone: 944421071
Website: atelieretxanobe.com
Cuisine: Basque, market to table
Gourmet menu price range: 110€ – 190€

Next, we test the ‘Patri’ Gastrobar of Michelin-starred chef Martín Berasategui in the Tayko Hotel.

Also worth stopping in is the Gourmet Restaurant Nerua inside the Guggenheim-Museum. It is rated among the 50 best restaurants in the world! Pity, it was closed during our stay or else completely booked.

To compensate, we visited other gourmet restaurants in Basque Country. Here you will find our gourmet restaurant guide.

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5. Pintxos in the meat and vegetable Mercado de la Ribera

Because you can’t dine in starred restaurants every day, in Bilbao they also offer the famous pintxos.

These are Spanish tapa-like tidbits, but there is quite a difference.

They’re called ‘pintxos’ because here they mostly come on skewers. You can find out all about pintxos in Katja’s article about our pintxo forays through San Sebastiàn.

Mercado de la Ribera Bilbao

Mercado de la Ribera and the San Elisa church on the Nervión river

Mercado de la Ribera Bilbao

Entrance to the market halls

Pintxos Mercado de la Ribera

A choice of pintxos in Mercado de la Ribera

Tables at Mercado de la Ribera

Tables by the pintxo bars

If you aren’t inclined to test all of Bilbao’s pintxo bars, stick with the Mercado de la Ribera.

In the ‘food court’ style Gastro Plaza you’ll find innumerable bars, each with its own specialty.

We agonize over the choices, but in the end order in the Vermuteria by Bacardi Martini, the one with the biggest and most beautiful variety on display.

But, other chefs are also making goo-goo eyes at us…

Pintxos Gloria Bendita at Mercado de la Ribera

Pintxo presentation by the Gloria Bendita chain

The market booths of the butchers and vegetable sellers are located on both upper floors of the Mercado.

Address:
Mercado de la Ribera
Erribera Kalea s/n
48002 Bilbao
Phone: 688 699 426
Website: laribera.eus

Business hours:
Monday through Thursday: 8:00h bis 0:00h
Friday and Saturday: 8:00h bis 2:00h
Sunday: 9:00h a 0:00h

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6. Bilbao’s shopping mile

Shopping is of course not to be missed when doing a city trip. Certainly as far as Katja is concerned!

And so we go a-hunting from Zara by way of Mango to Desigual and beyond to Sephora. And lots of other stores whose names escape me. It seems there is a never-ending number of them…

Shopping mile in Bilbao

Zara on the shopping mile

Shopping mile Bilbao

Rituals shop on Bilbao’s shopping mile

Address:
Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro (abbr.: Gran Vía)

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7. Athletic Bilbao’s Estadio de San Mamés

For the guys on the other hand, the San Mamés stadium is an attraction. It is not just the home pitch of the Athletic Bilbao soccer team but truly a place of pilgrimage for most Basque soccer fans.

That is, unless they are devotees of its great rival club Real Sociedad San Sebastián.

San Mames soccer stadium Bilbao

San Mames soccer stadium, home of Athletic Bilbao

They say going to an Athletic match is worth it, because this is where you can feel the passion of the Basques in your face and loud to boot. But better queue up early for one of those hard-to-get tickets.

What makes this soccer club special: Athletic Bilbao only signs Basque players.

During home night games, the stadium shines with the red and white club colors.

Thanks to its special infrastructure, the stadium that holds 58,000 spectator got Bilbao a spot as one of 12 venues for the European soccer championships in 2020.

Address:
Rafael Moreno Pitxitxi, s/n
48013 Bilbao
Admission price (to the club museum): 5 Euro

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8. The Bilbao tourist office

By any measure, including a tourist office in my must-see list is unusual.

But, since the visitor has to get oriented in the city, might as well start out here.

Not only does it offer staffed windows for asking specific questions, the attractively set up interactive multimedia stations are also handy sources of information.

Tourist office Bilbao

Informative videos in the tourist office

Katja at the tourist office Bilbao

Katja informs herself in the handsome tourism office

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9. The Vizcaya bridge

El Puente de Vizcaya is also known as the Puente Colgante (‘Hanging Bridge’ i.e. suspension bridge in Spanish). It was designed by Basque architect Alberto Palacio, a student of Gustave Eiffel.

This is a so-called transporter bridge. It has a 164-meter long horizontal span that is suspended from two 45-meter high steel framework towers. A transport gondola suspended by cables from a track on the span carries people and vehicles back and forth across the river.

Bridge of Biskaya

Transporter bridge with gondola for pedestrians

The bridge links the towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas (just on the outskirts of Bilbao).

Today just nine of this type of bridge survive in the world; the Vizcaya bridge is the oldest.

It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006.

Prices:
Crossing: 0.45 Euro (adults)
The crossing charge for vehicles depending on size ranges from 1.60 and 7.00 Euro.
Touring the ‘Pasarela’: 10.00 Euro (adults)

Addresse:
Puente de Vizcaya Zubia
Las Arena, Getxo

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10. Excursions in the region

San Juan Gaztelugatxe

It takes about 50 minutes by car from Bilbao to the Biscaya coast on the Cantabrian Sea.

On a small island near Bakio stands the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

Stone bridge to Gaztelugatxe island

Stone bridge to Gaztelugatxe island

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Walter und Katja on the way to Gaztelugatxe

To reach the chapel, it is necessary to cross a stone bridge. It’s best to park on the Urizarreta main parking lot on Highway BI-3110 between Bakio and Bermeo.

From the visitor parking lot you first negotiate a few stairs and paths down to the rocky coast only to climb up an even steeper 241 steps on the other side to reach the chapel.

In summer heat, the climb is rather sweat-inducing! It pays to get up early, which also helps avoid sooo many tourists queuing up.

In any event, be sure to book a visitor ticket ahead of time online at tiketa.eus

That’s because since June 2018 they started controlling access to help manage the streams of tourists.

Incidentally, the ticket is free.

The Faro De Matxitxako light house is just around the next cliffs. While you reach it via a very beautiful access road through dense forest, there is not much to see here…possibly excepting a few surf boys camping out.

Getxo

Visitors interested in a beach vacation can drive to the sea at Getxo.

The beach here has two sections with the appropriate pinxto bars.

Tourist office Getxo

Tourist office on the beach by Getxo

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Where to stay in Bilbao – 3 hotel tips

During our visit we lodged three nights in design hotel Tayko.

The hotel recently renovated in industrial-chic style not only offers the best location on the edge of Old Towns, but it also boasts the ‘La Ola’ gourmet restaurant or the ‘Patri’ bistro by star chef Martín Berasetegui.

Restaurant Patri Bistro Bilbao

Astronaut Tayko in the Patri gourmet bistro by Martin Berasetegui

If you’re looking for a totally special lodging, you’ll find the attic suite 702 very inviting.

Tayko Hotel Bilbao

Hotel Tayko suite 702 in Bilbao

Other hotels that also made our short list are the nearby NYX Bilbao or the also centrally located Barceló Bilbao.

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Hop On – Hop Off Bus

To get a first look at the relevant attractions, you can’t improve on catching the double-decker Hop On – Hop Off Bus.

Except for the stop in front of the Guggenheim Museum (by the Jeff Koons floral Puppy), the HoHo bus does not have its own stops. It stops instead at the same green bus shelters as Bilbao’s public Bilbus buses.

Easiest to recognize is the stop in the tight curve in front of the Teatro Arriaga (Bilbao’s opera house) or the one by the white Calatrava bridge, on the river bank across from the Guggenheim.

Incidentally, you can find more tours at Getyourguide:


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About Author

Walter Schaerer’s extensive background in the travel industry, passionate enthusiasm for photography and a firm belief that luxury destinations can also be affordable; were some of the main factors that motivated him to create the travel blog travelmemo.com. In his day job Walter is an online marketing manager based out of Zurich, Switzerland.

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