On my journey to Bilbao, the largest city in Spain’s Basque Country, I had two lingering questions in my mind:
- Would the Guggenheim museum be as amazing/impressive/awe-striking as everyone made it out to be in the 90’s?
- Would there be anything else to Bilbao except the museum?
I was filled with trepidation. My concerns weren’t helped by the fact that several good friends did not rate Bilbao highly. However, I’m happy to report a wholehearted YES to both questions. The Guggenheim is amazing and Bilbao is a wonderful place to spend a few days exploring. Here’s an overview of some of my favourite things.
The Guggenheim – Looks Good and Delivers
I had high hopes for the Guggenheim and it delivered. It’s a fairly small museum, with a central core atrium with just a few galleries that lead off of this point. The audio guide you receive on entry tells you lots about the museum and its history and construction are fascinating. One of the intriguing points is how “open” the site is – as you can see in the photo above, you’re practically outside even when you’re inside. As well, the quirks and curves of the museum are sure to entertain you as you explore the galleries.
The museum frequently rotates exhibitions, so you’ll never know quite what you’ll get. But the few gallery pieces that are there permanently are well worth a closer look; some of them, such as Maman (the scary spider found behind the museum) I didn’t really care for, but after hearing the audio guide I had a totally different appreciation for them.
Tip: The audio guide mentions an outdoor tour. Don’t bother. I thought it would provide some interesting additional information about the museum, as well as take you full circle around the site, but it just walks you to the ‘Fish gallery’ and repeats much of what is already said on the indoor tour. Instead, if it’s nice out, enjoy an excellent cafe con leche at the pintxos bar next door with a great view of the museum and the shoreline.
The Bilbao Charm
The Bilbao Flower Puppy. Isn’t he SO CUTE??
There is indeed more to Bilbao than the Guggenheim. I mean, check out the Bilbao Flower Puppy pictured above – he’s so adorable (and as my mother says, practical – you only have to water him, not feed!). But he’s only one of a few really nice things you’ll find elsewhere in Bilbao:
- Walking along the Nervión. This is the river that runs right through the city centre in Bilbao, and the reflections of the old-world architecture that sit beside the river is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. I did this walk twice, once during the day and once at night, and both were brilliant. I’d suggest you actually stay in the city centre then use this opportunity to walk to the Guggenheim (30 minutes each way) – it’s an essential part of the experience.
- Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Art). When I was there it was practically empty of people, but it’s filled with art that suits all tastes – religious works, watercolours, modern art, and everything in between. Spare a few hours to check it out.
- Casco Viejo, the historic part of Bilbao. These narrow lanes are filled with some of the best boutique shops in Spain as well as some great Pintxos bars. Explore them during the afternoon siesta, where you’ll nearly have them to yourself, then come back in the evening for the bustling shopping and pinxtos-munching atmosphere.
Getting Away – Portugalete
Portugalete is the port of Bilbao, and well worth a visit. Pictured above is the Vizcaya Bridge (Puente Colgante), the world’s first transporter bridge build in 1893. You can head up to the top and walk across the upper deck, offering some brilliant views of the sea and the surrounding villages. It’s lovely (and not at all as scary as it looks). You can get to Portugalete in 20 minutes on the tourist-friendly metro; make sure to take a map though, because once you leave the metro it’s a confusing walk down to the shore. (Despite this, there’s a wonderful tourist info centre at the waterside.)
Check out the old town on the Portugalete side of the bridge, then once you’ve explored the bridge, arguably Bilbao’s original architectural landmark, head to the other side and make your way down to the shore. This is called Getxo. You’ll find beaches, high-end hotels, an old village, and plenty of time to relax as the wave roll in. Enjoy the fresh air and have some pintxos before making your way back to Bilbao from one of the metro stations on this side of the river.
A Warning If You Go
Just a quick note if you go: stay away from the San Francisco neighbourhood. I was warned before I went, and my accommodation also asked me to avoid the area as there had been even more troubles recently. Thankfully it’s easy to avoid as it really isn’t on the way anywhere, but make note of it and stay out, especially at night.