Bilbao, in the Basque Country of northern Spain, became an international tourist destination when the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum opened here in 1997. It’s hard not to be wowed by the iconic building’s wavy titanium-covered exterior and the surrounding sculpture garden, but even diehard fans of contemporary art can be underwhelmed by some of the museum’s permanent collection. Not to worry: There’s much more to enjoy here.
WALK THIS WAY
Bilbao is a pedestrian-friendly city. Start with a long stroll to admire the views along the banks of the Nervión River, on which the Guggenheim sits. Cross the river via Santiago Calatrava’s graceful Zubizuri footbridge and get a great angle for photographing the Guggenheim.
If this is your first visit, definitely tour the Guggenheim (admission is usually $15*; book well before you arrive, at guggenheim.org/bilbao). Once you’re finished there, walk a few blocks to the Fine Arts Museum, considered among the best in Spain. Displays are divided into master art (El Greco, Goya and Van Dyck, among others); contemporary art (Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Antoni Tàpies); and regional Basque art. It’s $9.50 per ticket, but for $18 you can gain admission to both museums.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore the winding streets of Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s compact old quarter, which dates from the 13th century. Small shops sell traditional foods, like baccalà (salted and dried cod) and jamón ibérico (the tasty Spanish challenger to Italian prosciutto), plus fancy pastries, toys, gifts, artisanal crafts and high-end fashions and jewelry.
The bars and restaurants in the old quarter’s Plaza Nueva attract locals as well as tourists. You’ll also find street performers here, and a popular Sunday morning flea market. At the entrance to Casco Viejo is the neo-Baroque-style Arriaga Theater, modeled on the Paris Opera house. Opened in 1890, the Arriaga was rebuilt after a fire in 1919 and beautifully restored in 1986. Theater, opera, ballet and concerts are performed here year-round.
TAPAS AND MORE
Many Bilbao restaurants celebrate Basque cuisine, from the traditional to the nouveau, along with the region’s wines—most notably Txakoli, a very dry and slightly sparkling white, and Rioja, a robust red. Tapas bars, which serve small plates of local specialties, give you the opportunity to sample a wide range of dishes accompanied by Spanish wines and beer. Residents love to argue about which of the city’s dozens of tapas bars is the best. Whatever they tell you, don’t miss the Moorish-style Café Iruña, across from Los Jardines de Albia. It has a dining room, but sit at the bar for a more authentic experience—plus faster service and a view of the tapas selection. Be sure to try the house specialty: spicy kebabs cooked in a wood-burning oven. And if you’re not sure what you’re ordering, just point. It’s the perfect way to taste and learn about Basque cuisine—and feel like a local while you’re doing it.
Fine Arts Museum: museobilbao.com
Arriaga Theater: teatroarriaga.com
Café Iruña: cafeiruna.com/en/
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.