Although Bilbao is not known for its knock-out beauty, it’s def a must while in the north of Spain. The city’s appearance reflects its history as an industrial hub, but investments over the past few decades have breathed new life into the city: The Guggenheim, inaugurated in 1997, has become one of the world’s best-known museums. Below I sum up my weekend in Bilbao, featuring pintxos, pinturas (paintings), and paseos (strolls), from my visit with friends in July 2021 😍.
Weekend in Bilbao
Dinner on García Rivero Maisuaren Kalea
This area in the center of the “new city” was recommended to us by friends of friends from Bilbao…as well as by our taxi driver, lol. Kalea is Basque for calle in Castilian Spanish, or “street” – García Rivero Maisuaren Kalea is a bustling little lane full of cider and pintxo bars frequented by locals. We enjoyed our pintxos, cider, and txakoli (a special Basque white wine) there!
The Guggenheim is likely the first stop on anyone’s list for a weekend in Bilbao. This towering titanium structure, designed by famed Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, helped propel the city into the international limelight in the 21st century. Gehry’s design reflects Bilbao’s identity and historical shipbuilding and fishing industries: The titanium tiles resemble fish scales and also showcase Gehry’s own personal interest in marine life.
A stroll to visit the artworks that surround the Guggenheim is just as important as a visit inside! Louise Bourgeois’ iconic Maman, meaning “mom” in French, is meant to represent a protective embrace. However, this spider creeps me out more than it makes me want to hug it, lol.
In my opinion, Jeff Koons’ Puppy, a giant figure of a terrier covered in colorful flowers, seems to be a much more cuddly option, haha.
Upon entrance into the museum, you’ll find a variety of modern and contemporary art, featuring artists such as Americans Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol.
The French artist Yves Klein gave his name to the now well-known “Klein Blue,” which he created and patented. In Large Blue Anthropometry, Klein’s medium was his signature blue paint and…a model who rolled around the canvas covered in it 😮. Klein directed the model’s movements as she rolled around in order to achieve his desired result. Pretty cool! 💙
I was particularly struck by a work called Spain by American Julian Schnabel. The central medium here is actually broken ceramic plates, cups, and other such items. This gives the work an incredibly unique texture and appearance, and it blurs the line between a two-dimensional painting and a three-dimensional sculpture or building. Schnabel’s inspo for these plate paintings was a visit to Barcelona. Schnabel was fascinated by Gaudí’s mosaics and sought to depict a mosaic surface in the form of a painting. I thought this was so interesting!
Lunch and a Stroll
The Casco Viejo, or old town, is, in my opinion, the most charming part of the city. After visiting the Guggenheim, we crossed the Zubizuri, which means “white bridge” in Basque, to head into the Casco Viejo for lunch. The bridge was completed in 1997, the same year as the Guggenheim, thus contributing to the city’s revitalized cityscape.
We then grabbed some ice cream while strolling the Casco Viejo and its characteristic Siete Calles, or “seven streets,” which are the city’s original streets dating back to the 1400s.
The cathedral, Catedral de Santiago, or Bilboko Donejakue Katedrala in Basque, is a 14th-century Gothic structure with old-world charm.
Evening Beers for the Sunset
On Saturday evening we drove out to La Bocatería Sopela, a casual place for burgers and sandwiches with great views of the sunset on the beach. I recommend going for sunset beers and snacks, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an ideal spot for dinner, as the menu is pretty limited.
Breakfast in the “New” Part of Town
Although my favorite part of Bilbao is the Casco Viejo, the newer part of the city, roughly corresponding to the Abando area, is worth a stroll as well.
Flower Market on the Paseo del Arenal
After breakfast, head back to the old town, passing by City Hall, built in the late 19th century, and toward Paseo del Arenal. On Sunday mornings, you’ll find a flower market in this area and a generally bustling ambience. Other buildings of interest in this area include the Church of St. Nicholas; the Teatro Arriaga, built in 1890; and La Concordia Train Station, an attractive Modernist Belle Époque structure.
The yellow and green facade of La Concordia Station, formerly known as and still often called Santander Station, is quite eye-catching!
Lunch at Iturriza Taberna
Iturriza Taberna, a typical eatery located in the Plaza Nueva, features a wide selection of pintxos and Basque cider. (I 💗 cider! 🍎🍾, as you can see below 😉). We enjoyed our lunch here before heading back to Madrid!