Bilbao, a city for #UrbanLovers
Traditional and modern at the same time, Bilbao is a city of contrasts where lively streets harmonise with quiet corners and the bustle of the cultural life is entwined with the calmness of the city’s natural surroundings.
Encircled by a green belt of mountains and forests, Bilbao combines the peace and quiet of its parks with the vibrancy of a cosmopolitan city, the footprints of an industrial and mining past with the most avant-garde architecture, and the broadness of its avenues with the narrowness of its medieval streets. Its history merges with its future. Breakthrough cultural initiatives mix with deep-rooted customs and experimental cuisine coexist with the most classic gastronomy.
One of the things about Bilbao that surprises most visitors is the beauty of the nature that surrounds it. Its greenest space, the Bilbao Green Belt, comprises five forest parks: Artxanda, Monte Avril, Arnotegi, Pagasarri and Arraiz. A series of woods, fields, summits, recreational areas, and many other places of interest can be visited along this 64-kilometre circular route, which is easily accessible from any neighbourhood and offers truly spectacular views over the city.
The urban centre of Bilbao has plenty of natural areas too. Providing shade and shelter, about 30,000 trees are distributed throughout its streets and city parks. The most illustrative examples are the timeless Doña Casilda Park, with gorgeous fountains and sculptures, huge ancient trees, a famous pergola, and a pond whose ducks have kept generations of children amused; and the Arenal, the entrance to Casco Viejo, a meeting place for the locals, where everyone likes going for a walk, playing, or attending the Sunday concerts held at its beautiful bandstand.
Thanks to the transformation Bilbao has gone through in the last few decades, both the city and its green areas have grown. Nowadays, the latter cover spaces that were previously occupied by the industry. The Campa de los Ingleses, for example, next to Deusto Bridge, was once a cemetery used by the British citizens who came to Bilbao to make a living. Abandoibarra, a walk full of open-air sculptures, stretches alongside the estuary on former port areas. Even Etxebarria Park, shaped by the silhouette of a chimney that belonged to a former foundry, is now one of the main city lungs.
In contrast, Olabeaga is one of the neighbourhoods where we the legacy from Bilbao’s mining and industrial past can still be enjoyed. In the course of the industrialization process in the 19th century, this narrow stretch of land by the Estuary was turned into an active anchorage, where the ships used to fill their holds with the iron ore that was extracted from the nearby Biscayan mines. Bilbao’s “Norway”, as the neighbourhood is known due to its colourful houses and maritime tradition, is undergoing a major transformation at present, but part of the old wharf has been preserved. Now, loading bays have given way to new walking areas and pubs where you can eat delicious ‘pintxos’.
If we follow the Estuary from there towards the heart of Bilbao, we can find the majestic Carola crane. Built next to the docks of the shipyards that once thrived on the left bank of the River Nervión, it was formerly used to help ships unload the industrial goods they brought to shore. Today, Carola welcomes visitors to Abandoibarra, symbol of the most avant-garde Bilbao, and to the interesting Itsasmuseum, a museum intended for the whole family where you can learn all about Bilbao Biscay’s maritime culture and its heritage.
Abandoibarra, located between the Ensanche and the Estuary of Bilbao, has changed from housing industrial buildings, railway tracks and bustling wharfs to being a showcase of modern art and architecture, where some of the most recognised artists of our time have left their signature. The stunning Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, conceived by Frank Gehry, with its skin covered in titanium scales, is surrounded by sculptures such as Puppy, designed by Jeff Koons, a friendly West Highland Terrier covered with flowers who is in charge of greeting the people who visit the museum, or Maman, the giant spider by Louise Bourgeois. There, we can also admire the magical spheres of the Tall Tree and the Eye by Anish Kapoor, the Red Arches that Daniel Burén installed on La Salve Bridge, the colourful and shiny Tulips by Jeff Koons, the subtle Fog Sculpture created by Fujiko Nakaya, or the surprising Fire Fountain by Yves Klein found in the pond of the museum.
A walk along Abandoibarra and the renewed industrial areas of Bilbao is a good way to get to know the work of some of the Pritzker Prize winners – an award also known as the Nobel Prize of architecture –, who have contributed to the transformation of the city. Close to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, you can admire the clean and straight lines of the Paraninfo UPV-EHU by Álvaro Siza or the Deusto University Library by Rafael Moneo, which takes centre stage when it is illuminated at night. The Iberdrola Tower, designed by César Pelli, stands out in Abandoibarra as the tallest building in the Basque Country.
In the proximity of the Estuary is the Isozaki Atea, a complex that connects the river with both the Ensanche and the Campo Volantín, designed by Arata Isozaki upcycling the magnificent façade of the Depósito Franco, a bonded warehouse that was at the service of the port. British architect Richard Rogers has developed an urban plan for the Garellano area, while Zaha Hadid has been in charge of the master plan for the urbanisation of Zorrotzaurre, a new island that is bound to be a reference point in education, culture and leisure facilities. But what has undoubtedly marked an important milestone in the ‘new Bilbao’ is the underground railway system Metro Bilbao, which not only links the city and the neighbouring towns but also gives us a clear example of the perfect balance between functionality and aesthetics so characteristic of Norman Foster’s architecture.
To fully immerse yourself in the most traditional Bilbao, you need to spend some time in Casco Viejo, its heart and epicentre. Its narrow medieval streets have been witnesses to the foundation of the city, which started to grow around San Antón Church and the Bridge with the same name, and its seven initial streets called Siete Calles. Several of the most relevant landmarks of the city can be found there, including the Arriaga Theatre, Santiago Cathedral, the Ribera Market, Bidebarrieta Library, the Fuente del Perro, or the Plaza Nueva. Following in a tradition that the ‘Botxo’ has always preserved, Casco Viejo keeps being one of the main commercial hubs in the city. There are hundreds of shop windows where you can see from the most traditional to the trendiest products, all thanks to the coexistence of the old-established business and the innovative shops that dot its streets.
Casco Viejo and the Marzana district, on the other side of the Estuary, are both gathering places for those groups of friends and families who enjoy having meals at any of the many and varied restaurants situated in these areas. The choices available are incomparable. They range from the most traditional dishes to the experimental cuisine offered by Michelin Star restaurants, without forgetting the restaurants that serve international food and those who reinterpret classic recipes. To whet your appetite, before having lunch at any of these eateries, a visit to the nearby pubs for a couple of glasses of ‘txakoli’ wine and a few ‘pintxos’ –the small delicacies that are displayed on the bar counters of every local pub– is definitely a must. Somera, El Triángulo, Barrenkale Barrena, Santa María, Unamuno, María Muñoz or even the Ribera Market on the left bank of the Estuary, and Bilbao La Vieja, Arechaga, San Francisco or the Plaza Corazón de María on the right are the names of some of the places where you can enjoy a great atmosphere while you eat the best ‘pintxos’ of Bilbao.