On my first visit to the northern Spanish city of Bilbao some years ago I was a little apprehensive about what to expect from the city and its people. I was aware of the city’s industrial heritage, its famous football team and its apparent support for the Basque separatist movement but little else other than reports its growing tourism industry thanks largely to the locating of the Guggenheim Museum there. Arriving at Bilbao’s, Santiago Calatrava inspired, Sondika airport couldn’t have been more impressive and the 10km taxi ride to our city centre hotel along a modern highway seemed to take no time at all. First impressions were of a lively, modern city with impressive architecure, a wealth of historical sights and an abundance of attractive bars and restaurants. Any doubts about visiting this city were quickly dispelled as we wandered its charming streets and shared many glasses of wine with the lovely Basque people who made us feel so welcome. Interestingly when I enquired as to why they didn’t speak Basque they simply informed me that it’s because it’s too hard!
What To See and Do in Bilbao
Once famous for its shipyards, Bilbao has experienced an incredible transformation thanks largely to the inspired decision to locate the magnificent Guggenheim museum there. Even if you’re not interested in the museum’s exhibitions you should visit the Guggenheim just to admire the shape and titanium structure of this amazing building which was designed by the North American architect Frank Gehry in the shape of a fish with scales. Sitting proudly on the banks of the River Nervión where the former shipyards once flourished, it is a clever reminder of Bilbao’s history as a port city. As you approach the main entrance look out for the huge scullpture called “Puppy” which has come to symbolise the city and is covered in thousands of fresh flowers.Whilst the Guggenheim and the ‘Museo de Bellas Artes’ are a must for art enthusiasts there’s a lot more to this earthy city than its newly found fame as a member of Spain’s prestigious art circuit. To really get a feel for the history and culture of the city you need to take a head into the old part of the city known as the ‘Casco Viejo’. Here you’ll discover the heart of the real Bilbao away from the art galleries where you can join the locals as they wander between tapas bars sampling an amazing selection of ‘pintxos’ as you go. Here you’ll stumble upon lovely buildings and ‘plazas’ with charming cafes where you can sit outdoors and watch the world go by, in fact, if you want to experience the ‘real Bilbao’ you really should try to stay in a hotel within walking distance of the old town.
From the city it’s difficult to appreciate the beautiful setting of Bilbao which is surrounded by the rolling, green hills of the Basque Country to the south and the wild Bay of Biscay to the north. Take a short walk to the Artxanda funicular railway which climbs steeply to the top of a hill overlooking the city and gives you a panoramic view of the whole region. And finally, if you’re a football fan you should head out to Athletic Bilbao’s historic San Mames stadium where there’s an interesting stadium tour. In fact, if you’re in town when there’s a match on get yourself a ticket and experience what is possibly the best atmosphere of any of the football grounds in Spain.