Basking in Bilbao’s Renaissance: A Walking Tour of the Basque City

As we passed Bilbao’s state-of-the art structures, juxtaposed with timeless buildings flashing Old World flair, I had a hard time imagining what the Basque Country’s largest city was like before the Guggenheim Museum sparked its economic renaissance in the late 1990s. Still new to Bilbao, I was also fascinated with what constituted a Basque identity – what makes the Basque people unique from others in Spain. Our host, Marta, would help me better understand both as we explored the northern Spanish city’s highlights.

“Bilbao used to be grey and sad,” Marta said, as we began our day together. “It was dirty and industrial. There were political problems and high unemployment. People used to always say ‘I’ll go through Bilbao, but I don’t want to step foot there.'”

On this summer day, however, the aesthetics of Bilbao were a treat for the senses, because it was so different from other European cities we’d explored.

From the Alhóndiga, a former wine warehouse-turned-cultural center, complete with a glass-bottomed pool and state-of-the-art library, to the shimmering Guggenheim Museum holding court at the sight of a once-unsightly wharf, we found Bilbao to be lively, well-organized, and forward thinking. Abstract sculptures dotted street corners beside an old cathedral, and a red Torii – a traditional Japanese gate, welcomed visitors to the grounds of the city’s Fine Arts Museum.

As we walked in the once-industrial district revitalized by the Guggenheim Museum, the ever-smiling Marta recalled the excitement she felt when the first wave of tourists started trickling into Bilbao.

“Not long after the Guggenheim was opened, I remember seeing a visitor from Asia. He was taking pictures, and I thought to myself ‘what is he doing in Bilbao?’ There were many Bilbao residents who thought the Guggenheim Museum was too modern and not a good fit for our city. Even my friends and family asked me why I would choose to study tourism. I told them, ‘someday (tourism) will grow here.'”

Marta’s words turned out to be prophetic. “Today, I still sometimes feel like a tourist. Everything is so new, even for me. It’s fantastic!”

In the Casco Viejo, over a filling spread of tapas (Marta suggested we opt out of the Basque Country’s ubiquitous pintxos to more easily avoid gluten) and a bottle of Txakolina wine, we learned that Marta’s family roots are actually in southern Spain, but that she identifies more with her Basque personality traits, having grown up in the heart of Spanish Basque Country. I found this fascinating. A Basque identity wasn’t purely ethnicity-based; it was also something one could adopt.

“I am universal, but I feel more Basque. I was born here, I take in this air, and my feet walk these streets.”

Marta continued, attempting to paint a picture of what it’s like to live in Bilbao.

“Basque people are well educated and they highly value knowledge and the arts. In Bilbao, we have access to the theater, cinema, libraries, musical performances and art galleries. We like mixing tradition and innovation, and friends and family are very important.”

Our rich conversation about Basque Country also included: the importance of family meals, all-male gastronomic societies, Bilbao’s geographic position at the bottom of a valley which has led to the nickname of el Botxo (the hole), the Basque penchant for exploration and discovery, and a respect for their roots.

“There’s a certain energy that comes from living in Bilbao. Bilbao residents, or Bilbainos, joke that they stay in ‘the Botxo.’ Indeed, it’s hard to get away.”

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Puppy
The Guggenheim Museum, the project responsible for Bilbao’s renaissance. It was designed by architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. In the front of the structure is the museum’s ‘pet’ exhibit, Puppy. The flowery dog modeled after a West Highland White Terrier is comprised of thousands of expertly-coiffed flowers that grow in a steel frame.
Plaza Circular Bilbao
Pedestrians near Plaza Circular amid brilliant-red begonias.
funicular de artxanda bilbao
Up we travel via the Artxanda Funicular, which was opened in 1915. At the top, we were greeted by stunning views of the city, including the Guggenheim Museum in miniature.
Bilbao Skyline Funicular View
It’s no wonder that Bilbao’s nickname is ‘el Botxo‘ literally ‘the hole’ or ‘basin.’ As Marta explained, Bilbao can’t really expand because of its land-locked, mountainous position, making the revitalization of older buildings even more important.
Basque Country Flag and Palm Tree Bilbao
A Basque Ikurrina flag flies in front of a souvenir shop just around the corner from the Guggenheim Museum. The origins of the Basque people and language have long puzzled anthropologists. The language is unrelated to its Indo-European neighbors, and as Marta pointed out, its words often sound like the element they are describing.

Cafe Bar Bilbao

Basque Style Homes Bilbao
Half-timbered homes (or baserri) cling to Bilbao’s hillsides.
Alhóndiga Bilbao Cultural and Leisure Centre Exterior
The Alhóndiga was originally built as a wine warehouse in the early 20th century. When it was abandoned decades later, city officials were uncertain whether it should be demolished or renovated. Eventually, they decided to turn it into a multi-purpose venue and in recent years, French designer Philippe Starck transformed the building’s interior to include a library, glass-bottom swimming pool, meeting and shopping space. The exterior largely retained its original appearance.
Alhóndiga Bilbao Cultural and Leisure Centre
Look up and you can see swimmers doing laps overhead in Alhóndiga’s swimming pool.

Alhóndiga Bilbao Swimming Pool

Alhóndiga Bilbao Entrance
Alhóndiga’s main entry-way: new buildings within an old building. If you look carefully you can glimpse a handful of the 43 fantastic and unique columns that support the upper stories. Made of everything from brick, steel, cement, bronze, terra-cotta, marble and wood, the columns were designed by different artisans. They feature swirly patterns or geometric motifs and some even represent vases and classic columns.
Alhóndiga Bilbao Library
Alhóndiga’s ultra-modern library.
Bilbao Student of Gaudi Building
The Casa Montero, an intricately-decorated building designed by one of Antoni Gaudí’s disciples.
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Schoolchildren
Schoolchildren play in front of the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao’s Fine Arts Museum.
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
A red Torii, a traditional Japanese gate, and peering through a sculpture made by English artist Henry Moore, on the grounds of the Fine Arts Museum.
Bilbao Walking Tour
A juxtaposition of old and new architecture – a scene that’s common in Bilbao. On the right, our delightfully-friendly walking tour host, Marta. Marta’s parents are originally from the southern part of Spain, but Marta says she has more of a Basque identity and characteristics having grown up in Bilbao. “I am universal, but I feel Basque. I was born here, take in this air, and my feet walk these streets.”
Bilbao Casco Viejo Old Town
Bilbao’s vibrant Casco Viejo (Old Town) district. We loved the elaborate sets of enclosed glass sun porches that are a ubiquitous architectural feature in Bilbao. They’re known as a mirador.
Mercado de la Ribera Bilbao
The Mercado de la Ribera, Europe’s largest covered market. We arrived there a bit late in the afternoon, missing the morning flurry of activity.
Mercado de la Ribera stained glass
Jewel-toned stained glass over the market’s entryway.
Mercado de la Ribera vegetables Bilbao
Stalls are labeled in both Basque and Spanish.

Bilbao Street Sign

Bilbao Mass Transit
Bilbao has a fantastic mass transit system. Here, a modern streetcar stops in front of the Mercado de la Ribera.
Santiago Cathedral Bilbao Spain
The Santiago Cathedral, Bilbao’s oldest church. It is a stopping point for pilgrims following the Way of Saint James (El Camino de Santiago).
Camino de Santiago Bilbao
A plaque bearing a scallop shell, a symbol of the pilgrimage route. Bilbao is a stop on the Camino’s northern route.

Bust Basque Museum Bilbao

Children playing soccer Bilbao
Children play soccer in the Plaza Nueva, framed by cafés and bars.
Traditional Basque Clothing Bilbao
Traditional Basque attire in a souvenir shop. The four-headed symbol is known as a lauburu.
Egia Enea Txakolina wine
To cool off, we enjoyed a chilled bottle of Txakolina, one of the most popular wines from the Basque Country. This one came from the Egia Enea winery, and had 13% alcohol content. It had lovely citrus notes and was crisp and fresh.
Tapas Bonito Tuna
Marta wanted us to have an authentic pintxos-eating experience, but decided on Berton-Sasibil, an Old Town restaurant serving tapas, to guarantee a wider selection of gluten-free dishes. (Pintxos often are served on bread.) We started off with a new Basque phrase – on egin! (bon appétit) – and a plate of Bonito fish, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
Tapas Green Peppers
Grilled green peppers brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Over lunch, we learned that many Basque men are quite fond of cooking. “They have gastronomic societies,” Marta explained, “in which only men participate. Politics and religion are also not allowed.”
Tapas Anchovies Bilbao
Anchovies swimming in a sea of olive oil.
Tapas Leeks in Vinaigrette
Tender leeks sprinkled with balsamic vinegar.
Tapas Octopus Pulpo a la Gallega
Galician Octopus (Pulpo a la Gallega) garnished with paprika and copious amounts of olive oil.
Cuajada Casera Dessert Bilbao
Marta sprinkles a bit of sugar onto Cuajada Casera, a light yogurt-based dessert that was the perfect finish.
Flan Dessert Bilbao
Shawn’s custard dessert, Flan, garnished with a pirouette wafer.
Bilbao Tapas Pintxos Restaurant
Thoroughly stuffed and ready for a siesta following a filling and tasty feast.

Bilbao Windows miradores

Vizcaya Bilbao Locals
Locals converse near the Vizcaya Bridge during the early-evening hours.
Vizcaya Bridge Bilbao Spain
The Vizcaya Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 1893 and designed by one of Eiffel’s disciples, Alberto Palacio. A one-way fare in 2014 cost us € 0.35 (about 45 cents US).
Vizcaya Bridge Fishing Bilbao
Engineers aspired to connect the two towns on either side of the Ibaizabal River, without building an even larger bridge structure that would need ramps. Their solution: a gondola that could transport both passengers and cargo. Today, it even regularly ferries cars. On the right, a fisherman, having planted numerous poles, waits for a catch near the famous bridge.

Vizcaya Bridge Bilbao

Video of this Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

Disclosure & Thanks:

This day’s tour of Bilbao and lunch were provided by the Bilbao Tourism Board, to which we extend thanks.

Eskerrik asko  – an extra special thank you to our guide Marta, and to Jimmy and Elixabete for coordinating all the behind-the-scenes details.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.

43 thoughts on “Basking in Bilbao’s Renaissance: A Walking Tour of the Basque City

    1. Juliann, from the green mountains that surround the city, to its blend of old & new architecture, it is now a colorful, vibrant place. Because of that, it’s hard to imagine it when it was economically depressed and grey (pre-late 1990s). It’s fascinating to think how the Guggenheim Museum sparked that rebirth too!

    1. Bilbao surprised us because there’s so much to do there! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go to all the museums we wanted to, such as the Basque Museum, etc. And there are many pintxos yet to be eaten too. :)

      What were your most memorable moments in Bilbao?

  1. An amazing set of photographs…such a rich place full of culture. It is something else to hear that “Bilbao used to be grey and sad,” such a contrast to your descriptions and photos. It is neat to see how a city can come out of a history of doldrums to reinvent itself and capture life and hope of its population. Such things make it a destination for those to visit (and home to those that live there). Enjoyed the video too!

    1. Randall, Bilbao’s story is indeed an inspiring example for other cities that are economically-challenged. Since visiting Bilbao, we’ve read that the term ‘the Bilbao Effect’ exists to describe cities that use one major anchor (such as the Guggenheim) to attract tourists and promote a ripple effect that helps the city develop economically.

      I’d love to go back sometime soon – so many more museums and tasty pintxos await. :)

  2. Tricia, the last few days I felt the urge going on a trip ( though in a month I will go to Germany and Poland), so today here it was, you took me on a beautiful trip to Bilbao, such refreshing post of yours. The Guggenheim Museum, designed by Architect Frank Gehry, has so much in common in it’s architecture of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. http://corneliaweberphotography.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/disney-concert…in-los-angeles/

    1. Cornelia, I’m happy to have virtually taken you on a trip yesterday, and appreciate you sharing your set of images from the Disney Concert Hall in LA! You’re right – Gehry’s signature style is apparent in both buildings. I also liked your reflection shot – we couldn’t resist doing something in a tulip sculpture outside of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. :)

      1. Reflection photography is my passion. And it’s also so much fun. Thank you for liking the shots from L.A. Disney Hall, it is just a paradise for a photographer, just you enjoyed shooting Guggenheim Museum.

      2. I see why you’re drawn to reflection photography, Cornelia. Puddles, rivers, shimmering materials – they offer a unique take on a scene.

        There were so many fantastic details to capture at the Guggenheim Museum that I have an upcoming post dedicated solely to it, and its delightful flowery pet, Puppy. I’d love to see some of Gehry’s others structures someday too. Not far from Bilbao, for example, is a hotel that he designed in Rioja wine country: http://www.hotel-marquesderiscal.com/en I’ve only seen it in images, but it looks quite dramatic among the vineyards. Curious what the locals think of it since its architectural style is very different from that of neighboring old-town buildings.

      3. Thank you dear Tricia. I looked up the hotel website, the architecture is truly mind blowing, yet doesn’t seem to fit into the surrounding nature. 650 EURO for a night wouldn’t be my budget, uhh, I prefer more local and authentic places to have my head rest on a pillow. Looking forward to your detailed post of the Guggenheim. Have a great week!

      4. Cornelia, that’s also a bit outside of our budget :) but I’d be curious to see its exterior and how it blends into the landscape someday.

        We explored Rioja wine country for two days last month and were impressed by the area’s blend of architecture – traditional bodegas vs. streamlined, all-glass structures, some even resembling metallic waves.

    1. Darlene, Bilbao surprised us with all its cultural offerings, interesting history, and as you mentioned, delicious food. Though this dining experience was a more casual one, I read that the Basque Country has an abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants too.

  3. Thanks for that wonderful tour! We whizzed in and out from Barcelona on a day trip. Would love to return someday just for those delectable pintxos!! :-)

    1. Madhu, glad to bring back memories from your whirlwind visit to Bilbao. It sounds as though much of your time was understandably devoted to the cuisine, something we also enthusiastically enjoyed. :) I’m guessing you also visited some of the museums? There were more we wanted to see, but we did get to see two: the Guggenheim & the Fine Arts Museums.

  4. Not somewhere we have considered visiting but you make it sound so attractive , and your photographs are so evocative. Wonder why the dog in front of the Guggenheim was modelled from a Scottish West Highland terrier? Interesting.

    1. Dorothy, it would be interesting to hear why artist Jeff Koons selected that breed for the sculpture. When I was growing up, two of my family’s dogs were Westies. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of Bonnie and Jenny when we met the Guggenheim’s ‘pet’ attraction. :)

  5. A vibrant city thanks to the cultural renaissance. Guggenheim’s presence has changed it from what it was to what it is. Lovely tour and pictures, Tricia. I love those glass balconies.

    1. Lynne, I’m also a big fan of those enclosed balconies! When our host heard this she explained that it can get quite grey in Bilbao during the winter months, and that residents need all the light they can harness into their apartments. :) Either way, I think they add wonderful flair to Bilbao’s buildings.

  6. A very interesting post, great photos and you show the most important areas of the city. Bilbao has improved a lot in the last ten years, for spaniards Bilbao wasn´t a interesting city because San Sebastian and Vitoria were very close to Bilbao and they were more beautiful. But nowadays Bilbao is almost more interesting than San Sebastian and Vitoria.

  7. I’d love to see some of northern Spain, Tricia. Alhondiga looks amazing! Love the contrast with the Gaudiesque and more traditional styles. We have a very similar kind of Transporter Bridge, just down the road from us in Middlesbrough. I remember seeing this one on Wikipedia when I was doing background for a post. :)

    1. Jo, This was the first transporter bridge I’ve visited, so it was initially quite a novelty to see the gondola-like portion of it. We rode it back and forth, and were curious about walking across the upper portion of the bridge. I’d read that the views are fantastic, but that the crossing is a bit intense. The walkway ended up being closed for the evening, which suited me (and my fear of heights) quite well. :) Have you walked across the one in Middlesbrough?

      Re: northern Spain, I’d love to explore more of the Basque Country’s fishing villages and rugged coastline. We popped into France, and loved Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, etc.

      1. Thanks for sharing, Jo. Interesting to see that while the concept remains the same, the architecture varies between the two. Perhaps you can return to yours on a pleasant-weather day and document your crossing. :)

    1. Anda, glad you enjoyed the burst of Bilbao imagery. Like you, I delighted in feasting upon the grilled green peppers. Anchovies are, however, more of an acquired taste for me. Since I like the Mediterranean countries and food so much, I think I need to get over that. :)

  8. Tricia, your tour of Bilbao is beautiful. It’s as lovely as I remember, with many newly added sights. I was so fascinated by the transporter bridge – I’d never seen anything like it. And you can certainly see Gaudi’s influence on Darroquy in his design of Casa Montero – so reminiscent of Casa Batllo in Barcelona. But most fascinating is “Puppy.” How in the world do they keep him watered and looking so good? ~Terri

    1. Terri, isn’t the bridge distinctive? When Shawn and I first arrived there, I think the locals (waiting to do their evening commute) found our enthusiasm for it amusing. It has such an elegant design, and the ride was quite smooth.

      So Puppy wasn’t there when you were last in Bilbao? He was admittedly my favorite from the Guggenheim, because he reminds me of my childhood dogs which were the same breed. I’m curious what his locks look like in the winter months?

      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful words.

    1. Iratihendaia, a flattering compliment coming from a Bilbao native – thank you! We enjoyed the few weeks that we spent in your city, and would love to get back again and enjoy more of Basque Country. Do you have any favorite spots in Bilbao that you’d like to recommend?

      1. From what I could see on your potos you went to the best places in Bilbao, and had some really good food too :) As a recommendation, and specially if you travel in summer, taking the txinbito boat across the river from Bilbao to Santurtzi is one of my favorite activities (http://www.bilbaoturismo.net/BilbaoTurismo/en/tourist-transport/txinbito-boat). Also, just 20 minutes car ride away you can visit one of the most beautiful beaches of the area, La Salvaje, in Sopelana. If you have spare days, don’t miss San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, you’ll love it :) (http://tourism.euskadi.eus/en/cultural-heritage/hermitage-of-san-juan-de-gaztelugatxe/aa30-12376/en/). Hope this helps :)

      2. Iratihendaia, while I regret missing these spots, it’s nice to have even more incentive to return. The Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe looks especially picturesque! Thank you for taking the time to share the sites and descriptions.

        And yes, the food was quite tasty. We heard that it was more Spanish than Basque in the way the tapas/pintxos were presented, nevertheless we loved the mix of dishes. The green peppers, leeks and octopus are still stand-outs in my mind!

    1. Roamingpursuits, I’ve only seen a smattering of Spain (Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, Barcelona, Sevilla) but I agree that there’s much to appreciate there. With its blend of architectural styles and renaissance story, Bilbao was a fun place to call home for a few weeks. What parts of the country, in particular, have left an impression on you?

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