1. Art Attack. Beyond the Guggenheim.
Bilbao’s rags-to-riches story is not unique among cities, but it might be the most dramatic. Until the late 1990s, this was a sleepy but successful port and neighbour to chichi San Sebastián to the east. And then came the Guggenheim and everything changed; at "rst it was just the art-curious, who would come and marvel at Je Koons’ 12-metre-high kitsch $ower sculpture, Puppy, before heading inside for their "ll of Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer and just about every other major name of the late 20th century. As word spread and the city’s facilities improved, Bilbao became a major tourist destination, and hotels and restaurants began to spring up.
But this is only half the story. Bilbao already had its fair share of attractions, and among them was an overlooked but world- class collection of "ne arts in the unsung Museo de Bellas Artes (museobilbao.com). As César Ochoa, who works in the museum’s education department, says, “It oers a broad overview of artistic styles from Gothic times to the present day, focusing on works from the Flemish school and, of course, Spanish artists.”
!e collection runs to more than 10,000 pieces, and includes paintings by Goya, Zurbarán and other Spanish masters, as well as works by El Greco, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Robert Delaunay, Francis Bacon and many more.
2. Architectural extravagance. If you build it, they will come.
The Guggenheim (guggenheim.org/bilbao) was about more than its art, of course. Its major appeal was Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad building, a wildly ambitious tumble of shapes that pay homage to the city’s industry and shipping, and a nod to "shing with an exterior that seems to be armoured with oversized scales. !e vastly tall atrium pays its respects to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous rotunda in the original Guggenheim in New York and the entire building, according to local architect Josep Egea, “...can bring about a new experience, whether it is through a never-before revealed detail, a small hidden corner where light bounces back and forth through its multiple layers, or the sensation of spaces contained within other spaces.” Again, this is only part of the picture. Most visitors will have already witnessed Santiago Calatrava’s airport building, a vast gleaming white insect crouched in the hills outside the city. As Egea puts it, “It is dicult to "nd a city in Europe that has undergone a transformation of this magnitude in such a short period of time.” Sir Norman Foster was dra&ed in to create light-hearted, futuristic metro entrances (delightfully known as ‘fosteritos’), Philippe Starck took part in the funky repurposing of the Alhóndiga warehouse into a leisure centre and Arata Isozaki created the stunning residential complex that now bears his name.
3. Take a hike. Green and pleasant land.
!e dramatic coastline and rolling hills of the Basque Country make for some great walking near the city, and fairly steady rainfall ensures a verdant landscape year-round. Stuart Butler, author of Lonely Planet’s guide Hiking in Spain, recommends that those travelling with kids, particularly, should head for the Bosque de Oma (Oma Forest), near Guernica (the Guernica immortalised in Picasso’s painting of the same name), for an easy two-hour round-trip. !e walk winds through tree trunks painted in rainbow colours and adorned with eyes by local artist Agustín Ibarrola.
But, says Butler, for some real mountain hiking, the Parque Natural de Urkiola, marked by the jagged limestone ridges and peaks that dominate the countryside to the east of the city, “oers shepherds’ pastures, limestone landscapes and a nerve- wracking scramble to the sheer-sided summit of Anboto (1,331m). Even if you haven’t got the nerve to make the "nal push right to the summit of Anboto, the views over the coastal plains and rolls of mountains are worth all the hung and pung.”
As an alternative, he also recommends the Parque Natural de Gorbeia, where you can either climb Gorbeia itself (1,482m), “or the perhaps more rewarding Itxina massif, with its $ower meadows, beech forests and high pastures. All of these are accessed via Atxular’s Eye, a natural rock gateway.”
4. Get out. day trip to San Sebastian.
After a couple of days amid Bilbao’s edgy architecture and urban bustle, head to the wonderfully elegant resort of San Sebastián, which Gabriella Ranelli, owner of Tenedor Tours (tenedortours.com), describes as “the grande dame to Bilbao’s brash young Turk.” Its gastronomic clout is well known – San Sebastián famously has the highest number of Michelin stars per capita of anywhere in the world – and Ranelli describes the city as the birthplace both of the pintxo and what is known as New Basque Cuisine.
She herself runs food and wine tours, but she insists it is, “more than just a pintxo route”. She waxes lyrical about the quirky boutiques (“!ey have personality!”); its graceful bay, La Concha; its saltwater spa, La Perla, down on the beachfront; and, above all, its many festivals.
“Come when the jazz festival is on in July,” she advises. “!ere is great music everywhere – the beach, the streets... the buzz is incredible.” She also recommends the seven-day "rework competition in August as part of the Semana Grande festivities, and, of course, the "lm festival in September, when, in addition to the increased chances of bumping into Johnny Depp, you can also catch indie "lms that won’t get widely distributed.
San Sebastián also has its fair share of museums. Prime among them is the Museo de San Telmo (santelmomuseoa. com), which is housed in a former convent. Ranelli recommends seeing the 17 canvases by José María Sert, which have been recently restored (“they are now amazing,” she says), and hang on the walls of the chapel, telling the history of San Sebastián.
5. Glorious food. The World's best?
Prior to the 1970s, Spanish cuisine had changed little in hundreds of years. !en a group of talented Basque chefs led by Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana started a culinary revolution that would ultimately pave the way for Ferran Adrià to create ‘the best restaurant in the world’ on the Costa Brava 30 years later. But it is still the Basque Country that is considered the powerhouse of gastronomy, and this permeates at every level of society and at every age.
“As children we were taught to eat before we were taught to walk,” says Martín Berasategui, holder of three Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte, an hour’s drive away, and three others at various restaurants around the country. Happily, the region’s dense constellation of stars doesn’t mean that excellent food is only for those with deep pockets. For around a euro, you can get a morsel of "ne-dining in almost any bar. !ese, the Basque take on tapas, come on a slice of French bread and are called ‘pintxos’, a&er the little spear (usually a toothpick) that holds them together. Bilbao is so proud of its pintxos, that the "ercely contested ‘Concurso de Pintxos’ has been running for 16 years. !is annual competition awards gold, silver and bronze not only to establishments, but also to particular pintxos – ask at the tourist oce for a copy of the lea$et detailing the entrants for the previous year’s prize. Many of these bars will be on or around the arcaded Plaza Nueva, which is a good starting point.