Bilbao, a city to dream
Avant-garde, innovative, traditional, genuine, and open: Bilbao is a city that must be experienced
What remains constant in Bilbao is that it never stops changing. Initially, this small commercial port on the Estuary of Bilbao was first transformed into a giant of the industry and steel manufacturing. Later changes gave way to the reborn modern cosmopolitan city it is today, always offering the best services and strongly committed to culture.
Although Bilbao reinvents itself every day, an untouched heart keeps beating in neighbourhoods like Casco Viejo, San Francisco and Atxuri, where the city started writing its history.
It is easy to understand why Bilbao is affectionately known by local people as ‘Botxo’ or ‘hole’ when you look at it from the Mirador de Artxanda. There, the whole city lies below you, spreading out between green mountains, crossed by the Estuary of Bilbao. Operative since 1915, a short funicular railway allows us to enjoy that wonderful panoramic view, helping us understand how the city has changed since it was founded in 1300.
The backbone of the city’s transformation, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, can be seen from the heights of Artxanda. Designed by Frank Gehry, this stunning architectonic sculpture with a titanium skin, one of the best examples of avant-garde architecture in the 20th century, proudly stands next to the Estuary of Bilbao.
Apart from its excellent temporary exhibitions, the innovative contours of the museum permanently house one of the most remarkable collections of international modern and contemporary art, including works by artists as prestigious as Rothko, Saura, Twombly, Oteiza, Kooning, Barceló, Serra, Basquiat, Rosenquist, Tàpies, Chillida, Schnabel, Clemente, Kiefer, Urzai, or Warhol. There you can go on a journey through the most relevant trends, interpreted by the most important artists in recent decades.
Art also permeates the surroundings of the museum. The ‘Arcos Rojos’ sculpture by Daniel Buren on La Salve Bridge welcomes those who approach the museum and the city’s Ensanche. Designed by Jeff Koons, our charming ‘Puppy’, a 12.4-metre-tall floral sculpture of a West Highland, guards the entrance to the museum. At the terrace on Level Two is the ‘Wish Tree for Bilbao’, a subtle participatory work by Yoko Ono. Yves Klein’s ‘Fire Fountain’ and Fujiko Nakaya’s ‘Fog Sculpture #08025 (F.O.G.)’ can be found in the pond next to the estuary, opposite Koons’ colourful ‘Tulips’. On one end of the pond stands Anish Kapoor’s ‘Tall Tree and the Eye’, with its seventy-three mirror spheres, and to the other side, near the pedestrian footbridge, you cannot miss ‘Maman’, Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic spider.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is only a sample of a series of great architectonic interventions that have taken place in Abandoibarra, a former industrial and harbour area on the banks of the Estuary of Bilbao, located between the Zubizuri and Euskalduna bridges. This area, which now showcases the very best of present-day architecture, was given a new life thanks to a more people-friendly urban design. It is here that you can find the tallest building in the Basque Country, the Iberdrola Tower by César Pelli; the elegant Bizkaia Aretoa UPV/EHU by Álvaro Siza; the Isozaki Atea twin towers, designed by Arata Isozaki; or the more austere Deusto University Library, by Rafael Moreno; which together with the minimalist Metro Bilbao by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers’s skyscraper in Garellano; and the Zorrozaurre urban regeneration project, planned by Zaha Hadid, complete the list of Pritzker Prizes awarded to the architecture of Bilbao.
Zorrozaurre is the part of Bilbao that is currently going through the most profound transformation. What before was an artificial peninsula, created when the Deusto Canal was opened, is now an island that will be home to a new residential area replete with entertainment and culture. The colourful neighbourhood of Olabeaga, Bilbao’s ‘Little Norway’, and Athletic Club stadium San Mamés, also known as ‘La Catedral’, are on the left bank, opposite the island. The neighbourhood of Deusto stretches on the right bank. Plenty of cultural events are held in the premises and buildings that once belonged to the industrial factories in Zorrozaure, which make it the perfect place to go for a walk alongside the estuary, to pick up real bargains in its lively markets, or to take part in the alternative activities that are regularly organised there.
Despite the significant development that has taken place in the last few years in Bilbao, the city never forgets its roots. Its most historic and traditional neighbourhoods are those that lie around the church of San Antón and its bridge, namely Casco Viejo, Atxuri, and San Francisco. Each one having their own personality and an incomparable ambience, these three neighbourhoods are the city’s epicentre. Here you can spend time with your family or friends, taste some pintxos, drink txakoli, eat dinner at a traditional restaurant, discover new gastronomical experiences, walk around the Mercado de La Ribera while you have a look at its food counters full of the best local products, indulge yourself with a typical sweet, spend an afternoon shopping at either vintage or trendy shops, get a bargain at the street markets that are held in the squares, go for a walk alongside the estuary or in El Arenal, visit those places where the history of the city is still alive, explore its museums, or attend any of the events, concerts, or plays celebrated at any of its theatres or concert halls.
Hundreds of folk tales and curiosities about the city are hidden in the corners of these neighbourhoods. This is the case of the Paseo de los Caños, a walk that runs from La Peña to Atxuri and whose name comes from the system of aqueduct pipes installed 400 years ago in order to take drinking water from the nearby springs to the Ibeni Inn, in Calle Ronda, where the guards of the city walls made patrols.
A Metro Journey Away from Bilbao
The ‘Botxo’, bordered as it is by mountains, is relatively small so most places in the city can be easily reached on foot. Given the considerable growth that Bilbao has experienced during all these years, especially after the industrialization process brought about by the mining and the steel industry in the 19th century, it is not surprising that the once small and rural sea towns that were scattered on the banks of the Estuary of Bilbao ended up growing parallel to the Biscayan capital. With the aim of improving the connections between Bilbao and the neighbouring towns, Metro Bilbao was born. Conceived by Norman Foster, who received the Brunel Award for its outstanding railway design and architecture, this functional and original feat of engineering is a quick and convenient way to get to know the towns along the course of the estuary.
On the left bank of the estuary is Barakaldo, the second most populated municipality in Biscay. Barakaldo was formerly prominent because of its thriving manufacturing industry, but now it is better known for being home to the Bilbao Exhibition Centre, a venue that not only hosts major international trade-show events but also provides the setting for large concerts.
Barakaldo also preserves wonderful examples of late 19th century architecture. The Conservatorio de Música perfectly illustrates the Vienna Secession style found in Biscay. The Mercado de Abastos surprises visitors with the striking tiles on its façade. Finca Munoa, a bourgeois palace renovated by Ricardo Bastida in the French Second Empire style, is surrounded by gardens with a view that stretches from the Estuary of Bilbao to its mouth. Following the Old English designs conceived by an influential architect called Manuel María de Smith, the Casas Baratas de Barakaldo, translated as ‘cheap houses’, were built next to the church of San Vicente between 1916 and 1920 for the people who worked for Altos Hornos de Bizkaia. The Botanical Garden, with plant species native to several parts of the world, was designed in a way that, at any moment – no matter the time of the year –, at least one of the parts it is divided into can be appreciated at its best.
A few stops away from there by Metro is Portugalete, also called ‘Villa Jarrillera’, a town founded in 1322. Apart from the famed Vizcaya Bridge, it features a lively historic centre, which contains three medieval streets that run up the hill and where some Renaissance and Baroque palaces can also be found. At the highest point of the medieval core are Torre Salazar, a tower house from the 15th century that nowadays serves as a museum, and the Basílica de Santa María, a Gothic basilica characterised by its flying buttresses, gargoyles, and portals, from where you can see the estuary and the Bilbao Abra. Inside it, you can see a Virgin Mary from the 14th century, a Renaissance altarpiece made in walnut wood, and several chapels that belong to the most illustrious families in town.
Next to the estuary, there is a walk along which you can discover the porticos of the Town Hall of Portugalete; the Plaza del Solar with its eclectic bandstand; the monument to the renowned local businessman Víctor Chávarri; the Rialia Museo de la Industria, an industry museum that takes us on a journey through the 19th and 20th centuries to see the transformation of the environs of the estuary; the curious Mareograph, a device installed in 1883 to measure the sea-level; and the Muelle de Hierro, an 800-metre-long iron pier built to solve a problem of sandbar formation at the mouth of the estuary.
Metro Bilbao’s Line 2 ends in Santurtzi, a town on whose fishing port the ‘sardineras’ once got the sardines they later sold, walking from one town to another, as the popular song goes “Desde Santurce a Bilbao”. Nowadays, it is still possible to try these delicious sardines, which are grilled near the port. You have the chance to learn what the life of the seamen was like in the traditional tuna fishing boat Agurtza. You can also go for a stroll in the park, have some pintxos near the church of San Jorge, do water sports, go on a boat trip to discover the cetacean species that populate the coastal waters, or even climb Mount Serantes to have a panoramic view of the Bilbao Abra and the Cantabrian Sea.
On the right bank, opposite the Bilbao Abra is Getxo, an ideal destination for those who want to spend a day on the beach. Las Arenas, Ereaga, Arrigunaga and Gorrondatxe-Aizkorri are four of the beaches accessible from the Biscayan capital via Metro Bilbao’s Line 1, each one with its own personality. We invite you to discover the colourful traditional houses at Puerto Viejo in Algorta, and old port with a charming seaside atmosphere; to follow the routes along the cliffs of La Galea and the Molino de Aixerrota, suitable for all ages; and to admire some of the most distinguished manors built in Biscay at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th in the Paseo de las Grandes Villas. These are but just a few of the many reasons why you should come and visit Getxo.