One way to see Bilbao is to take the time to walk the streets of the city admiring the eclectic mix of architectural styles, walking along the river and tasting some pintxos with a drink. This walk will take you in front of the most remarkable buildings of the new city, and, through very special bridges, also in the old town.
1 Arriaga Theatre
Start from the neo-baroque Teatro Arriaga, in the Viejo Helmet. Built in 1890, it is the seat of the city’s opera house and also hosts classical music concerts. The baroque facade of the theatre dominates the esplanade of the Arenal, between the Casco Viejo and the river. There are prose performances and classical music concerts.
2 Plaza del Arenal
Follow the river through the Plaza del Arenal, with children’s playgrounds and a Sunday flower market. Nearby is the majestic late 19th century Ayuntamiento (town hall). Where the Casco Viejo meets the newer areas of Bilbao, Plaza del Arenal is a large public space where open-air exhibitions are often held and where a fragrant flower market is held every Saturday morning.
3 Puente Zubizuri
Climb the river upstream to Puente Zubizuri: the most spectacular of the modern bridges that cross the Ría del Nervión, the Zubizuri (‘White Bridge’ in Basque) has been an icon of city architecture since it was completed in 1997. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it has a pedestrian walkway in the form of a wave suspended under a white arch, to which it is connected by a series of steel rays.
4 Guggenheim Bilbao Museum
Here you are at the most famous building in the city, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, a sparkling masterpiece that has changed the way of conceiving architecture. Inaugurated in 1997, the museum has practically managed to take Bilbao on its own from its post-industrial depression to the 21st century, encouraging the dynamic regeneration of the city, stimulating further projects and putting Bilbao in the world’s spotlight. For many travellers it is the main reason to visit the city.
Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum is a succession of shapes – fluid caps, headlands, ships, towers and winged fins – all covered in glittering titanium plates – a magnificent vision. Take your time to observe the shapes and colours that change as the light changes.
The atrium, a huge space reminiscent of the interior of a cathedral, serves to give you an initial idea of the structure of the museum. Light penetrates the room through what appear to be glass crags. On one side, the nine columns of Jenny Holze’s LEDs, with continuous sentences and fragments of text, seem to reach the sky. The atrium has been designed so that you can see the river and the surrounding hills.
The ground floor houses the works from the permanent collection. One of the most appreciated by visitors is Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, a huge steel labyrinth that represents Serra’s great reflection on space and sculpture.
From the atrium, exit to the small terrace surrounded by shallow pools of water to see Tulips by Jeff Koons: the large oblong and coloured bubbles (more than 2 metres high and 5 metres wide) represent tulips and are part of the Celebration series.
Outside, between the glass rampant arches of the central atrium and the Ría del Nervión, a pool of water emits a damp cloud at regular intervals, an installation by Fujiko Nakaya. The name FOG also recalls the initials of the architect who designed the museum.
5 Maman and Puppy
If you don’t go inside the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, look for the Maman ‘spider’ and the huge dog, the most fragrant in the world.
– Puppy Outside, on the side of the museum facing the city, stands Puppy for 12 meters, a terrier made with thousands of flowers: the work of Jeff Koons, rather bizarre, was supposed to be just a temporary installation, but Bilbao became fond of ‘El Poop’. The bilbainos will tell you that the dog arrived first, and then they had to build him a kennel.
– Maman Near the riverside, Louise Bourgeois installed Maman, a spider-like skeletal structure that symbolizes a protective embrace.
6 Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar
Continue along the river passing several sculptures. On your left you will see the Iberdrola Tower, a glass office complex which, at 165 metres, is the tallest building in the region.
Immersed in a sea of peace and quiet just behind the Museo de Bellas Artes, there is another masterpiece, the Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar. The focal point of the elegant green space is the small pond where ducks and swans swim.
8 Museo de Bellas Artes
The Museo de Bellas Artes is not a masterpiece of architecture, but for some the works on display are more interesting than those of the illustrious neighbor.
Its collections range from works by great masters of the past The Annunciation of El Greco to the Portrait of Martín Zapater by Goya.
The stars of the collection of modern and contemporary art are Francis Bacon’s Lying Figure in a Mirror, which represents a male figure portrayed in a mirror.
The collection of Basque art
The best art gallery in the Basque Country would not be complete without a substantial body of the region’s most important artists. Among these, the sculptor Eduardo Chillida with Hierros de temblor II (trembling iron II), one of the works that has earned him international fame. The museum also displays works by Ignacio Zuloaga and Juan de Echevarría.
10 Estación La Concordia
At the end of Calle López de Haro you will see the Liberty-style facade in wrought iron and small tiles of the Estación La Concordia. Built in 1902, for many years it was a colourful and valuable element in a city known only for its industrial degradation. Cross the Puente del Arenal to return to your starting point.
You will not suffer hunger and thirst along the way. Cafe Iruña, in particular, has a perfect combination of class, history, rich decor and quality food and drink. The Moorish style and a century of gossip are the characteristics that define this great ladies, the perfect place to indulge in the curious pleasure of watching people. But it is also perfect for breakfast or coffee in the afternoon, as well as for an evening lunch or drink. Don’t miss the delicious pintxos morunos (spicy kebabs).