Stretching for some 14km beside the Río Nervión, Bilbao (Bilbo) is a large city that seldom feels like one. Even though its urban sprawl now fills the narrow valley, you can always see the green slopes of the mountains to either side beyond the high-rise buildings of the city centre. Bilbao’s great achievement has been to reinvent itself since the collapse of its traditional industrial base at the end of the last century. The dramatic success since 1997 of the Museo Guggenheim, which transformed a postindustrial wasteland right in the city centre into a major tourist attraction, triggered further visionary redevelopments that continue to this day, including the construction of a new metro and airport.
Holding around 350,000 people in its urban core, and a further 500,000 in the metropolitan district, modern Bilbao is much the biggest city in the Basque Country, and serves as the capital of Bizkaia province. While it can’t match San Sebastián for beaches, or sheer prettiness, Bilbao still has plenty to offer, from its exuberant cutting-edge architecture and stimulating museums, to the lively alleyways of its old town, the Casco Viejo, and its friendly inhabitants.
From the compact old town, at the eastern edge of the city centre on the river’s right bank, an easy and pleasant stroll leads all the way to the Guggenheim, crossed by way of the showpiece Zubizuri footbridge. Only when Bilbao industrialized, in the nineteenth century, did it expand back onto the left bank, to create the much larger new town, or Ensanche. All but encircled by a huge loop in the river, this remains the commercial heart of the city, with its broad avenues radiating from the central Plaza Moyúa.
Frank Gehry’s astounding Museo Guggenheim looms over the left bank of the Río Nervión, ten minutes’ walk west of the Casco Viejo. Completed in 1997, it was hailed by architect Philip Johnson as “the greatest building of our time”. The construction of such a showpiece project on a derelict industrial site represented a colossal gamble by the Basque government, which hoped to stimulate the revitalization of Bilbao. Amazingly enough, it worked. A gargantuan sculpture, whose sensual titanium curves glimmer like running water in the sun, it has inevitably overshadowed the artworks it contains.
The best way to approach the museum is along the river, either along the quayside, or by crossing the high Puente de la Salve road bridge from Deusto on the north bank. One of Louise Bourgeois’ fearsome spindle-legged spiders, Maman, patrols the water’s edge, while Anish Kapoor’s column of glittering silver bubbles, Tall Tree and the Eye, stands in a reflecting pool alongside the building. The actual entrance, however, is via a walkway that descends from the structure’s city side. Jeff Koons’ enormous Puppy here, clad in colourful living flowers, was originally installed as a temporary exhibit for the opening ceremony, but became a permanent fixture after bilbainos clamoured for it to stay.
A great way to see the Guggenheim is to book onto a private guided tour. Other excellent bookable tours in the city and beyond include those to the San Mamés Museum and Stadium and a guided Pintxos Tour.
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