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Until recently considered the poor, bleak neighbour of Spain’s posh resort town of San Sebastian, Bilbao has recently captured the hearts of tourists around the world with the opening of Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim Museum.

Rising high above the banks of the Nervion river in surrealistic swaths of curving metal, the Guggenheim is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most impressive contemporary architectural structures – an awesome addition to Bilbao’s post-industrial landscape and a symbol of the city’s millennial renewal.

But the artistic treasures don’t end at the door. Inside its high ceilings is a wide selection of modern art – from Dali to Picasso, Monet to Warhol – from one of the world’s greatest collections.

A bustling city of half a million people nestled in the green mountains on the Bay of Biscay, Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque Country, where people consider themselves separate from the rest of Spain.

Though Spanish is spoken everywhere, Basque is the first language of the region, especially outside of Bilbao. The city, meanwhile, offers a multitude of surprises beyond the Guggenheim. For art lovers, there’s the Bilbao Museum of Art, and the newly-renovated Ariaga Theatre, offering top-class Spanish and international theatre, concerts and opera. The theatre is located across from Bilbao’s Old Town, a labyrinth of narrow pedestrian streets branching out from the Plaza Nueva.Bilbao (1)

By day, the Old Town is abuzz with shoppers – Bilbao boasts countless shoe, clothes and speciality shops, from the classic to the ultra-trendy. By dusk the streets fill up with locals engaging in the favourite Basque past-time – the ‘poteo’ – ambling from bar to bar in groups of friends, nibbling on ‘pintxos’ (the Basque version of ‘tapas’), accompanied by small glasses of beer or the finest Spanish wines from the nearby Rioja region.

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For those who prefer to sit down to enjoy the local Basque cuisine – widely considered to be the best in Spain, with its delicous fresh seafood, cheese, and local produce – Bilbao is home to some of the region’s finest restaurants, from inexpensive, cosy family-run eateries to five-star restaurants. After supper you can enjoy a couple of ‘copas’ in a quiet bar or cafe, or go on to one of Bilbao’s many nightclubs. And if you make it up on time, every Sunday morning the riverside across from the Old Town is converted into a vibrant flower market, while the nearby Plaza Nueva holds flea-market treasures for the more adventuresome, with birds, second-hand books and magazines, and everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. But you’ll have to fight your way through the crowds who are already back in swing with Sunday’s pre-lunch ‘aperativos’ and ‘pintxos’.Bilbao (3)

A taste of the quieter life is attainable with a visit to the Basque countryside or sea coast, just a short drive or train ride away. The coast between Bilbao and San Sebastian is punctuated by majestic cliffs with drops down to beautiful sandy beaches, interspersed with lovely old port towns like Mundaka and Bermeo, former fishing villages whose harbours are dotted with colourful, bobbing boats. The mountainous countryside, meanwhile, is populated with lovely old villages that offer a more authentic slice of Basque life than bustling, cosmopolitan Bilbao. Here you can still see traditional ‘basserriak’, centuries-old Basque farmhouses in which the lower half of the house is occupied by livestock in stables, while the farming families live on top.

Whether you’re travelling to a nearby part of Spain, or considering a weekend city break, Bilbao is well worth a visit.


I’m Matteo (Matt in English) But Italians naturally throw in an ‘0’ where ever possible, especially in the bedroom. When embarking on a new trip, I worry when opening my backpack, in case my mother has climbed in. Want to know more? Click Here

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