Let’s start our tour of Spain’s tenth largest city with the Guggenheim Museum. It is an extraordinary building that one simply has to admire. But the story about the world-renowned museum goes deeper than the exterior: The Guggenheim Museum has been very important both to Bilbao and to the Basque region: It marked a break with a history sometimes dominated by financial difficulties.
Nowadays a true landmark both for Bilbao and for this part of Spain, the Guggenheim Museum has come to represent Basque culture and knowledge. There are those who argue that the museum with its titanium facade managed to turn a somewhat scrubby city into a star. Since the opening in 1997, more than one million visitors per year have paid the entry fee.
Bilbao’s pre-Guggenheim era was dominated by steelworks, yards and other port activities. For much of the 19th century and beginnings of the 20th century, Bilbao was the center of one of Spain’s most important industrial areas. But the city’s fortunes were to turn a different way.
By the 1980s, Bilbao was a troubled city that did not have high hopes for the future. Competition from mainly Asian steelworks and yards meant difficult times for Bilbao’s industries. Unemployment rates were skyrocketing. At the time, few could have imagined the metamorphosis that the city would go through a couple of decades later.
But dame fortune would intervene once again. In the 1990s, Bilbao was granted the possibility to construct the Guggenheim Museum. If the city’s decision makers would have leaned back after that, the rest could probably have been history. But it’s not.
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This is a city that continues to develop and embark on new and innovative projects. Examples include the Zubizuri Bridge (in the city center) and the new airport – both designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Sir Norman Foster, a British architect, is behind the city’s new subway where translucent seashells lead down to the stations.
Founded in the early 14th century, Bilbao has a population of some 365,000 people, many of which speak the local Basque language in addition to Spanish.
Bilbao’s cruise quay came into operation in 2006. 1,165 feet/355 meters long, and with berthing possibilities on both sides, it is located on the right side of the Abra Bay inside the ‘Puerto Deportivo de Getxo’ marina. Bilbao city center, and the Guggenheim Museum, are 20 minutes to 30 minutes from the port. Some cruise lines provide complimentary shuttles.
- Once you step off the gangway of your ship, you can experience Getxo. The town, part of greater Bilbao, features mansions and magnificent houses built in different European styles in the period between the late 19th and early 20th century. At the end of the promenade along the sea you will find Algorta, an old fishing port with restaurants and taverns.
- You will find the Viscaya Bridge close to Getxo’s port area. The world’s oldest transporter bridge, the 200 feet/61 meter high construction was built in 1893 according to drawings by the Basque architect Alberto de Palacio.
- Bilbao’s locals refer to the historic center of their city either as the “casco,” meaning “the old quarter,” or “las siete calles,” meaning “the seven streets.” This pedestrian-friendly area is well worth a visit, featuring a variety of shops, restaurants and bars. Try the so-called “pintxos” – small appetizers.
- The Arriaga Theatre, shaped like a horseshoe, is Bilbao’s opera house. Originally built in 1890, it was rebuilt in 1985 after being destroyed by severe flooding. The building is named after Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, a Spanish composer.
- La Ribera is one of Europe’s largest indoor markets. Stroll here for a while, soak up the atmosphere and watch the lively commerce as customers negotiate prices for fish, meat and vegetables. Most of the produce originates from the Basque countryside.
- The Santiago Cathedral (St. James’ Cathedral, in English) was built in the 14th century and is one of the region’s best examples of the Gothic style.
- The Guggenheim Museum has almost become synonymous with Bilbao – and vice versa. This museum of contemporary art was established in 1997, designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. It is built alongside the Nervion River, which flows through the city.
- Another landmark is the Zubizuro Bridge, also known as the Campo Volantin Bridge. The bridge, with its unusual design, connects the two banks of the Nervion River close to the city center.
- Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (Bilbao Fine Arts Museum) features an extraordinary collection of traditional works by artists such as El Greco, Goya, Gauguin, Velazquez and Picasso.
- Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao is the Maritime Museum. Here, you will be able to learn more about the city’s history in areas such as ship construction and maritime affairs. The museum features impressive floating exhibitions.
- For a view of the city, take the funicular from Plaza Funicular to the gardens of Artxandra, from where you will have a splendid panoramic view.
A number of shore excursions of Bilbao and the surrounding region are available. Examples include:
- Many coach tours of the city take in some of the attractions mentioned above, under Do Not Miss. Alternatives include tours with private van or car.
- Some cruise lines feature tours to Urdaibai, a natural reserve by the coast. Distance from Bilbao: 15 miles/25 kilometers.
- Immortalized by Pablo Picasso, the town of Guernica can be an alternative on some shore excursions. Distance from Bilbao: 23 miles/37 kilometers
- San Sebastian came into fashion for holidaymakers in 1886, when Queen Maria Cristina started to go there. The town retains its popularity among vacationers. Visit the town on a shore excursion from Bilbao. Distance: 61.5 miles/98.9 kilometers
The distance to Spain’s capital, Madrid, is 245 miles/395 kilometers. Barcelona, the second-largest city of the kingdom, is 376 miles/605 kilometers away.