Walking tour of twenty-first-century Bilbao
Lying at anchor in the estuary of the river Nervión, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is the flagship of a new, cosmopolitan, avant-garde Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum’s opening in 1997 was a kick-starter to the transformation of Abandoibarra, which switched from industrial port area to world-class design and urban planning model.
On your walk through Abandoibarra, you will find impressive buildings that have become symbols of twenty-first-century architecture, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the Iberdrola Tower, the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall or the Isozaki Towers.
The estuary – the backbone of Bilbao – has witnessed the transformation that put the city on the map.
The bridges across it – old and new; made of stone, wood or concrete; suspension and drawbridges – reflect the changes that took place in the city.
The Bilbao effect
Cities where tradition and avant-garde come together
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is an extraordinary example of the most ground-breaking architecture of the twentieth century, as well as a major tourist attraction in Bilbao. It looks like a ship at anchor on the left bank of the river Nervión – a tribute to the shipyards that once stood in Abandoibarra.
Rewarded with a steady million visitors a year, the Guggenheim Bilbao was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who said his design was based ‘on the port it was and the city it is’. The museum stands on the bank of the river Nervión, on the site where the Compañía de Maderas used to be. Seen from above, it is shaped like a rose with unfolding silver petals.
To the magnificence of the building crafted in titanium, limestone and glass with curved surfaces, we should add the brilliant contemporary art exhibitions the Guggenheim Bilbao hosts. The permanent collection includes works by Mark Rothko, Antonio Saura, Andy Warhol or Jean-Michel Basquiat, plus Richard Serra’s enigmatic corridors of The Matter of Time.
Art is not confined to the museum’s interior. Next to the building’s main entrance stands Jeff Koons’s giant Puppy covered in living flowers, one of the icons of the new Bilbao. And outside Gehry’s building, facing the river, stand other sculptures like Anish Kapoor’s shiny tall tree, Jeff Koons’s tulips, Louise Bourgeois’s terrifying spider, Yves Klein’s Fire Fountain, and the fog sculpture created by Fujiko Nakaya.
The surrounding area is no less splendid. The river estuary and the bridges over it, the parks, gardens and iconic buildings have turned Bilbao into a model to imitate. The Nervión attracts water sports enthusiasts too, as it is great for canoeing, kayaking or stand-up paddle-surfing.
The walking tour of the architectural landmarks of Abandoibarra starts at the Town Hall, a French-style building in Plaza Ernesto Erkoreka dating back to the nineteenth century. Across the Town Hall, there sits Jorge Oteiza’s sculpture titled Oval-shaped Variant of the Sphere’s Idleness.
The route across Abandoibarra will take you on a journey through the best of contemporary architecture
On Campo Volantín you will make out the Zubizuri or Calatrava Bridge in the distance. The bridge looks like a white sailing boat standing 10m high above the river estuary.
Cross the bridge for a view of Isozaki Atea, the gateway to twenty-first-century Bilbao. Connecting the Ensanche district to the river, the glass windows of the twin towers designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki are mirrors where the sky looks at itself.
Before reaching the Guggenheim Museum, you will see La Salve Bridge, with its green concrete columns and the red arches designed by French artist Daniel Buren to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the museum. Under the bridge is the Olabarri Palace, a fine example of the Neo-Baroque eclectic style. From Avenida de las Universidades you will see the Guggenheim Museum, the building that turned the city upside down by opening it to the world. To begin with, you can look at the sculptures outside and only then enter the building to explore the interior, one of the most magnificent examples of twentieth-century architecture. Campa de los Ingleses, from the Museum to the Deusto Bridge, is a lovely green area to take a break. From there, you will see the façade of the Domine Hotel, designed by Javier Mariscal.
Across the river, at the far end of the Pedro Arrupe footbridge, there rises the University of Deusto and its library, designed by Rafael Moneo, which has a collection of about a million books. Opposite the library is the auditorium of the University of the Basque Country, a work by Álvaro Siza made of white stone, in contrast to and yet in harmony with the adjoining building.
The area is crowned by the Iberdrola Tower, designed by architect César Pelli. A 41-storey, 165m-high tower, it is the tallest building in Euskadi and the heart of Bilbao’s new financial district. Its glazed envelope proudly reflects the surrounding cityscape. Take Avenida de Abandoibarra, by the river estuary, and go past the Deusto Bridge – an iron drawbridge that opens up to let the vessels go through. Continue on Paseo de la Memoria toward the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall, built on the site of the Euskalduna Shipyard. Architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios designed the building in the shape of an unfinished ship. It hosts concerts, opera performances and conferences.
Continue ahead to pass by the Euskalduna Bridge. Beneath the bridge stands the Maritime Museum, built in stone, stainless steel and wood – all materials used in shipbuilding. The exterior shows the former docking area of the old Euskalduna Shipyard. Look up to spot the temple of the football ‘lions’: San Mamés Barria, Athletic Bilbao’s stadium.
How To Get There
Abandoibarra and the Guggenheim Museum are at the very heart of town, by the estuary of the river Nervión. You can get there by tram, underground or bus, all accessible to disabled passengers. Weather permitting, Abandoibarra can also be reached on foot.
The stations closest to Abandoibarra are San Mamés, next to the San Mamés Stadium, and Abando, close to the Arenal Bridge.
Moyúa Station (exit Ercilla-Guggenheim) is about 500m to the Guggenheim Museum. If you start your walking tour at the Euskalduna Conference Centre, get off at San Mamés. If you are planning to visit the Town Hall first, get off at Abando.
Bilbao is easy to explore on foot; however, the tram is an excellent way of getting around. It stops near the Guggenheim Museum (Guggenheim), at the Euskalduna Conference Centre (Euskalduna), next to the Zubizuri Bridge and the Isozaki Towers (Uribitarte), and across the Town Hall (Pío Baroja).
Different bus routes served by Bilbobus have stops in the area. Lines 01, 10, 13, 18 and A7 have stops in Henao/Museo 1. Lines 13, 27, 38 and 48 stop at Alameda Rekalde 31, 12 and 11. And lines 11 and 71 stop at La Salve Bridge and Campo Volantín.
Departing from Donostia-San Sebastián or Vitoria-Gasteiz (A68 and A8), you will have to take the ring road and enter Bilbao by way of San Mamés. At the end of Avenida Sabino Arana, at Plaza del Sagrado Corazón, there are direction signs that will help you find the Guggenheim Museum. Take Avenida de Abandoibarra, bordering the river estuary. Parking in the area is an issue, but there are two nearby car parks in Plaza Pío Baroja and Plaza Euskadi.
Where to eat
In Bilbao, gastronomy has been taken to the level of art. Bars with counters full of tempting pintxos (tasty bite-size food typical of Bizkaia) and restaurants for more formal dining dot the city. There are eateries for all tastes and budgets, from modern, Michelin starred restaurants close to the river estuary to places serving more traditional food.
In Abandoibarra, pick a table at a restaurant close to the river and enjoy the cityscape, with the buildings that have turned Bilbao into a world-class city and a fine example of urban planning.
Where to sleep
Bilbao is a top tourist destination that can receive hundreds of thousands of visitors all year round. A dynamic city, it hosts conferences, music festivals and other events, which means you must book your hotel in advance so that you can choose the one that best suits your needs.
In Abandoibarra there are properties belonging to leading hotel chains as well as hostels, B&Bs and holiday apartments to stay while you are in the capital of Bizkaia.