It’s not often a museum puts a whole city on the travelers map, making it a destination in itself. When the Guggenheim opened in 1997 it rejuvenated Bilbao and is very much tied into this city’s newfound energy. I went with three friends as a day trip from San Sebastian, just to visit the Guggenheim, picturing Bilbao as an industrial, ugly city. Yet, Bilbao is underrated, it’s a city on the move, and we were surprised to like it as much as we did. In fact I‘d love to go back and spend more time there.
The Guggenheim may be the star, but the Museo Bellas Artes is considered an excellent Fine Arts Museum, located in Iturrizar Park.
Other options for lunch or dinner near the Guggenheim are: Michelin starred Zortziko for fine dining with a creative twist or the perennially popular Café Iruna for a more casual meal located opposite the Jardines de Albia.
The Basque country can be quite rainy, especially in the winter months. The best time to visit is late April through October, though July and August can be very crowded. I'd pack a rain jacket regardless as there is always a chance for wet weather in Northern Spain!
The Main Event: Wow! The Guggenheim Bilbao lives up to its hype and deserves the throng of visitors it has attracted from day one. I’m sure you know it was designed by Frank Gehry, I’m guessing you have seen pictures, but nothing prepares you for the architectural extravaganza that this limestone, glass, and titanium, building delivers. No exaggeration, it is awe-inspiring. You need time to take it all in, plan on walking around the exterior before you even enter the museum. (Make sure you cross the bridge to see the building from the other side.) From the moment you are greeted by Jeff Koon’s larger than life flower “Puppy” at the entrance you know this is going to be a fun museum! (Also outside is Louise Bourgeois 30 ft. spider “Maman” - less cute, but no less dramatic.)
Inside: While the architecture may be the star here, the contemporary art inside is worth a visit, especially Richard Serra’s permanent installation “The Matter of Time”. Located in the largest gallery, this warehouse size room houses eight monumental sculptures Serra designed for the Guggenheim. This is a very interactive installation: you are meant to wander in the sculptures, even getting lost in the maze of one of the larger pieces. Children were running around, people were singing and humming as they walked through to hear the echoing effect. Also of interest is another site-specific installation, Truisms, by the artist Jenny Holzer. These poignant one-liners, blinking on nine vertical, double sided L.E.D. display boards, alternate between Spanish, Basque and English. Take time to explore the current exhibitions and grab a coffee in the café if you need to refuel.
Lunch: It was raining when we left the museum and we were hungry so we went directly across the street to Serantes for excellent fresh seafood. (If we hadn’t been eating pinchos in San Sebastian for the past three days we may have gone to some of the pinchos bars in the old quarter.)
Stroll: Walk south from the Guggenheim along the Nervion River towards the Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Bilbao. This walk highlights the juxtaposition of old and new that you are constantly surprised by during a visit to Bilbao. Walk across Santiago’s Calatrava’s Zubizuri Bridge (commonly referred to as the White Bridge.) Everywhere is an exciting example of urban renewal and interesting architecture. Upon arriving at the old quarter, called Los Siete Calles, it once consisted of just seven streets, make your way to El Mercado de la Ribera, Europe’s largest indoor food market. Check out Santiago Cathedral and the Museo Vasco to learn more about Basque culture. Wander the seven streets and check out the shops.
For Next Time: If we had more time we would have liked to take the Funicular to the top of Artxanda Mountain for great views of the city.
- A Daytripper itinerary 10.16.14