Bilbao, Spain

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and its Puppy, Spain

Bilbao’s iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao along with its more recent guardian, The Puppy.

The Puppy was a creation by American artist Jeff Koons that was originally temporary but locals loved it and demanded the kaleidoscopic, floral hound be made a permanent attraction. And so it came to be.
And by the way, this Guggenheim museum is covered with very pricey titanium, not steel.

Visit Bilbao

Or Bilbo as it’s spelled in the Basque language (which, btw, is called Euskera), is a large and lively city in the Basque Country of north Spain. It isn’t on the coast – which is about 14 kms to the north – so the city doesn’t have beaches like neighbouring San Sebastian or Santander, but it does have a river running through it – known mainly as the River Nervión but possibly/historically as Ibaizabal (wide river in Basque). Riverside walks are pleasant, easy and offer plentiful sights, old and new.

Abando Indalecio Prieto Rail Station, Bilbao, Spain

Abando Indalecio Prieto Rail Station. Photo by Jordi Paya.

Bilbao is not an ancient city by Spanish standards as it was founded in the 14th century, but after a few hundred years of ups and downs (one of the major downs involved being bombed by German planes at the request of fascist General Franco in 1936) it’s currently experiencing a renaissance as the centre of the Basque economy, buzzing with energy and investing heavily in local life, infrastructure and art. It’s clear that the current boom was triggered by the completion of the extraordinary Guggenheim building that put Bilbao firmly on the world tourist trail in 1997.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao looking onto the River Nervión, Spain

The backside of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao looking onto the River Nervión, or is it Ria de Bilbao? Various media can’t seem to decide so we offer you both names in this case, but we’ll stick to Nervión in future.

The oldest university in the city is the University of Duesto (1886) seen on the river bank, far left, though we are more impressed by the style of the Residencia Siervas de Jesus that is almost opposite the museum.

Bilbao Weather

The sinuous Zubizuri bridge over the River Nervión, Bilbao, Spain

The delightfully, famous and sinuous Zubizuri bridge.

Bilbao has mild, wet winters and warm, occasionally damp summers. Best months are arguably June to September as the months with least rainfall though skies may be gray and rain can be expected one quarter of the time.
November – April are warm by European standards with average high temperatures of around 14C (57F) to 6C (43F) at night. July and August are the hottest months averaging highs from about 25C (77F) to 15C (59F) at night.

Architecture

Typical architecture in Bilbao's pedestrianised old town, Casco Viejo, Spain

Typical architecture in Bilbao’s pedestrianised old town, Casco Viejo. This is Plaza Santiago and behind the photographer, me, myself and I, is Santiago Cathedral.

Bizkaia (Biscayan) Regional Government Headquarters in Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro, Bilbao, Spain

Bizkaia (Biscayan) Regional Government Headquarters in Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro. So the Basques are not big on abbreviations I guess. Lovely boulevard though with masses of grand buildings and plenty of people taking a paseo (an evening stroll) along it.

Things to do in Bilbao

Museo de Bellas Artes to the left, Artklass building in the centre-back, Iberdrola skyscraper on the right and Plaza Euskadi in the middle, Bilbao, Spain

A four-attractions-for-the-price-of-one shot here, the Museo de Bellas Artes to the left, Artklass building in the centre-back, Iberdrola skyscraper on the right and Plaza Euskadi in the middle.

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes)
A small museum with an international name for its rich collection of Spanish and Basque paintings, engravings, decorative objects and sculpture dating from the 12th century through to today. The Museo de Bellas Artes has a better reputation than the Guggenheim Bilbao and a much better website too. Closed on Mondays, free of charge on Wednesdays and for children under 12 anytime.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
American architect Frank Gehry is responsible for this architectural masterpiece, a fantastical titanium fishy creation that houses a collection of modern and contemporary art in spectacular spaces. Some critics think exhibition areas are too big, overwhelming the art while others are disappointed by the permanent collection, though temporary shows are apparently worthwhile.
Closed on Mondays except for July and August when it’s open 7 days a week. The Guggenheim website is so useless and confused that it would be an offence to link to it, so we won’t. Great exterior, waste of space inside?

Teatro Arriaga Antzokia
Inspired by the Paris Opera House and finished in 1890, the facade is a mixture of differing styles. The theater is used for opera, ballet, concerts, and theater.

Casco Viejo
The Old Town is the medieval barrio of Bilbao, walled until the end of the 19th century. The Seven Streets are narrow but atmospheric and include Plaza Nueva. There are several churches, the Ribera Market, the Basque Museum, the Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology and the Arriaga Theater.

Plaza Nueva
This closed, classic Spanish Plaza inside the Casco Viejo hums with local socialising around a series of restaurants, cafés and tapas (pintxos in Basque) bars. In the summer free cultural events take place on a regular basis. It’s a brilliant place to see real Spain in action.

Artxanda Funicular up to Mount Arxanda
The cheap funicular ride up the hill is a must-ride attraction. It takes about 5 minutes to get on the top where there is a tranquil park with seating and a panoramic view of the city, including a terrific new angle on the Guggenheim.

Alhóndiga Bilbao
The Alhondiga was a vast wine warehouse 100 years ago but has now been restructured as a modern ‘Culture and Leisure Center’ interestingly supported internally by 43 fat, little, variegated columns. The busy building encompasses a gym, swimming pool, library, restaurants and cinemas.

Palacio de Congresos y de la Musica Euskalduna
From the outside this building has unique architecture that doesn’t please all, kind of like an old ship, but on the inside it’s spacious and modern and a great place to attend a concert as acoustics are perfect. It’s easy to get to and well located by the river, close to the Guggenheim. Rooms are varied and interesting.

Doña Casilda Park
This park is beside the Museo de Bellas Artes, with a pond, sculptures, a dancing waters fountain and a stage for performances. It’s the largest park in Bilbao, with masses of flowers and makes a popular promenade for both local people and visitors, particularly those lugging children.

Fronton Bizkaia
Bizkaia fronton is an exceptional space for playing Basque Pelote where tourists can see a typical super-speed Jai Alai game, like handball but using curved hand baskets to accelerate the ball to a ridiculous speed.

La Alhondiga building, Bilbao, Spain

La Alhóndiga. Photo by Mikemod.

La Alhóndiga is an old structure housing a very modern entertainment center supported by 43 columns of wildly differing styles, designed by Phillipe Starck. The lively building encompasses a gym, swimming pool, library, restaurants and cinemas.

Downsides

• parking is in short supply though there is a good underground park beside the Guggenheim. Best to get to Bilbao by train and then swing the legs into action.
• the weather spends a lot of time at the grey end of the colour spectrum, especially in winter but summer leans towards monochrome too.

Beaches? Nope. Oh well, the riverbank makes a fine promenade and you could take a swim in the bizarre Alhondiga swimming pool.
Some people have suggested beaches at Sopela, past Getxo, about 20 kms from Bilbao, and at Castro-Urdiales, west of Bilbao. Also Plentzia, which is popular due to fact that the metro terminates there and it hosts a good selection of restaurants. Then there is Bakio beach that is favoured by surfers. We haven’t been there so can’t comment.
Alternatively drive an hour to Santander for half a dozen magnificent city beaches with all facilities and great sand, though you may have trouble finding a place to park if you arrive later than about 10 am.