Spectacular architecture and cutting-edge imagination
Think of the heart of the Basque region and the centre of culture and imagination and you think of Bilbao, the largest city in the Pais Vasco and a once mighty industrial centre.
Founded at the side of the river Nervión in the early 14th century, Bilbao went on to become one of the most important cities in Spain and, during the centuries of the Spanish empire, its industrial might was awakened; a feature that drove its development until the end of the 20th century.
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With the inception of the industrial revolution, Bilbao flourished in the 19th century. Heavy industries such as mining, steel and shipbuilding meant that with the dawn of the 20th century Bilbao was the riches wealthiest city in Spain.
Recently, Bilbao went through a phase of major urban renewal as it reinvented itself from being an industrial power centre to focusing on tourism and services. The modern city reflects an imaginative soul with bold new architectural developments that centre on a pristine metro system, designed by Sir Norman Foster and, perhaps one of the most emblematic buildings in the world, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum conceived by Frank Gehry.
In 2002 a new tram line was inaugurated and the Port of Bilbao which, until recently, had been located on the river, was moved to the shores of the Bay of Biscay and expanded exponentially.
Other new landmarks include the Zubizuri Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and the Euskalduna Palace, a cultural centre, further downstream. Green is also a feature and the two landmarks have been linked by a riverside green corridor that runs opposite the University of Deusto.
Bilbao is a city that is in constant evolution and has been almost completely reinvented since the grey days of the industrial revolution and its subsequent decline. Drab industrial complexes that once lined the river Nervión have been torn down and the whole city has been filled with the fruits of this new attitude of rebirth. Apart from those architectural jewels already mentioned, there are many others to explore. The result is that the nearly the entire silhouette of Bilbao has been converted into one of the most distinctive in Europe.
The city of Bilbao, and especially the old town is now one of the most sophisticated destinations in Europe. The famous Basque culinary offering is almost endless in the many delightful bars and restaurants and shopping and nightlife are varied enough for even the most daring.
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Some of our favourite places
» The Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim Museum
The most distinctive building and without doubt the most well-known of all Bilbao’s architectural attractions is the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by the American architect Frank Gehry, the doors opened to the public in 1997. Since then, many millions of feet have trod its highly individual corridors. The building is designed to look a bit like a ship and the titanium panels capture and reflect light making it scintillate in the morning sunshine.
Two sculptures placed outside the museum are now landmarks in themselves. In the front of the building, is the enormous dog made up from living flowers and designed by the artist Jeff Koons, whereas on the other side is a spider-like abstract sculpture known as ‘Maman’ on the banks of the Nervión by the Louis Bourgeois. Both are tourist destinations par excellence in their own right.
More information: https://www.guggenheim.org/
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» The Zubizuri Bridge
The Zubizuri Bridge
The Nervión river is spanned by many bridges but none of them are like the Zubzuri bridge. Built in 1997 and designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the modern curves of the bridge span the river linking passers-by to the Guggenheim Museum.
Together, these two landmarks have become symbols of the renaissance of Bilbao.
More information: Zubizuri Bridge
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» The Old Town
The Casco Viejo
The Casco Viejo, or old town, of Bilbao is called by the locals ‘las 7 calles’, the 7 streets; this because originally the medieval town comprised of, well, seven streets. The modern city has sprung up around the Casco Viejo and turned it into a centre in which colour, flavour and imagery all abound. The almost constant aroma of the famous Basque pintxos permeates the streets and there are many traditional bars all outdoing each other in culinary imagination.
The Casco Viejo is also the home of the cathedral of St James, the Plaza Nueva and the Basque Museum, all worth a visit.
More information: The old town of Bilbao from CultureTrip
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Bilbao lies at the feet of the imposing Picos de Europa, an endless dream of exploration. One of our favourite places is the Valley of the Mena, straddling the south of the Pais Basque and the province of Burgos, a place where your spirit can soar free.