Tapas Temptations

The Puente Zubizuri bridge.
Malene Lundahl

Throughout the day the Guggenheim changes with the light. An evening stroll around the sculpture park is a must. You can’t miss the giant metal spider by Louise Bourgeois and Jeff Koons’s huge flower dog that changes colour with the seasons

With its heavy industry and polluted rivers, Bilbao in the 1980s was a dump.  So how did it become such a chic cultural metropolis? The answer lies in the Nervión River and the Guggenheim Museum, a limestone, glass and titanium icon designed by Frank Gehry, that opened in 1997.

Jeff Koons’s huge flower dog changes colour with the seasons. Picture: Lars Thestrup

Throughout the day the Guggenheim changes with the light. An evening stroll around the sculpture park is a must. You can’t miss the giant metal spider by Louise Bourgeois and Jeff Koons’s huge flower dog that changes colour with the seasons.
Along the Nervión River, industrial sites have been converted into conference centres, hotels and shopping arcades. Green fields and grazing sheep surround residential areas.  The classical town hall and old railway station still shine.

Spectacular bridges such as the Puente Zubizuri span the river. Further east, you end up at the old town, Casco Viejo, with narrow streets and beautifully decorated houses.  Las Siete Calles forms the labyrinthine center. Here houses and churches date back to medieval times and tapas is offered at every eatery.

Spain’s largest indoor market, Mercado de la Riberat sells offers everything from dried serrano ham and chorizo ​​sausage to mature Manchego cheese and fresh vegetables. The fish section sells silvery sardines, huge tuna and squid as big as bags. Come early.

Flagship stores such as Louis Vuitton, Max Mara, Mandarina Duck, Benetton, Zara and El velassortede Cotes Inglés line the main street Gran Via.

Musicians in the old town section of Bilboa. Picture: Lars Thestrup

In the old town small shops sell clothes, shoes, perfume and food.

Across the river, browse Calle Dos de Mayo and Calle Hernani streets where the designer collective TrakaBarraka sells dresses, handbags, jewellery and shoes and Dos de Mayo has a street market on the first Saturday of each month.  On Sundays, the flea market on Plaza Nueva sells coins, stamps, gilded birdcages, and antique frames.

  • Hotels:

Just 200 meters from the Guggenheim, the four star designer hotel Miró offers original art and laidback luxury. Hesperia Bilbao is on the northern side of the river and from the French balconies you can see the The Guggenheim and the Zubizuri.  Petit Palace Arana Hotel in Bilbao’s old town dates back 160 years. The location could not be more central, but brace yourself for noise from the neighborhood.

Eating out:

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa.

With its unbeatable location, Restaurant Guggenheim Bilbao has been declared the country’s leader in modern Basque cuisine. Prices are steep but you can expect perfection.  Irrintzi is a bustling tapas bar in the old town where you can devour sesame fried shrimp with guacamole, serrano ham with aubergine and quail rillette with crispy apple chips. For authentic Basque cuisine, La Guria has been family-run since 1920. Think baked peppers with garlic cream, grilled crab and cod with four sauces. And for the most traditional tapas head for Plaza Nuevas and the 100-year-old Cafe Bar Bilbao.

Getting Around:

  •  Take a boat from Plaza de Pío Baroja and enjoy the city’s beautiful buildings and bridges from the river. Rent a scooter or bike from guided bike tours  or explore Bilbao’s efficient Norman Foster-designed metro . Take the metro for 10km to the beaches near Getxo or rent a car and drive the 100 miles to San Sebastian, where you can see historic buildings along the promenade from your beach towel. The trip is an hour each way by bus.