Explore the local scenery, which many say is more akin to that of rural Britain than the aridity of Spain’s more southern climes. And of course, don’t miss the striking Guggenheim Museum.
Founded in the fourteenth century, the city grew off the back of iron export, and later steel production, shipping, ship building and banking. Its strong Basque identity is noticeable most strongly in the language, the festivals and the cuisine.
A staple of Basque menus are “pinchos” or “pintxos” which are similar and generally smaller than tapas, ranging from simple bites like potato and onion omelette or anchovies through to scallops or foie gras with white beans. While you’ll find pintxos bars in Bilbao Old Town, San Sebastian has gained a particular reputation for these delicious morsels. The town where Queen Maria Cristina established her royal summerhouse during the 1800s also delights with its curved bay, white sand beaches, lovely promenade and Belle Époque buildings.
Bilbao’s Old Town is also known as “the seven streets,” which formed the original medieval town. They remain a colorful and beautiful center, where the arcaded Plaza Nueva and the Gothic Cathedral de Santiago are main attractions. Nearby stands the Arriaga theater, as it has for over 120 years, with its domes and curved façade.
Food lovers may want to make a visit to La Ribera Market, the biggest indoor market in Europe. Since the 1920s its home has been a cavernous Art Deco building with large stained-glass windows.
The Museo de Bellas Artes should be high on the sightseeing list, with works dating from the 12th century to those by Cézanne and Gauguin. La Alhóndiga is another of Bilbao’s culturally important buildings, a former wine warehouse that has been transformed into a space for exhibitions, concerts and more; its design by Philippe Starck includes 43 columns, all in playfully different styles. Finally, of course, there’s the Guggenheim museum. The arresting curves of its gleaming titanium panels have been created to reflect the light and the river by which it stands. Architect Frank Gehry’s masterpiece has become an emblem of the city, known as much for its striking exterior as for the collections it hosts.