When planning a weekend visit to Bilbao, prepare for an onslaught of amazing architecture and food. Bilbao, known as the city of the Grey Eyes, is so-called for its history as an Iron mining hub. In sharp contrast with the “Pearl of the Cantabrian”, San Sebastian, Bilbao was historically cloaked in a fine layer of grey dust, hiding in the hills and hardly a busy tourist destination. You will be delighted if you give it a chance though – bursting with modern architecture, a humming young atmosphere, and a million bars. We stayed in Casco Viejo, the old town, filled with winding cobblestone streets and a high density of pintxos bars. Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, are served on small pieces of bread, and such a fun way to experience the local food scene. I arrived from Madrid at the main train station, ideally located on the river, with the most amazing stained glass window. Already a hint at the beautiful art and architecture littering the city. We started our weekend trip to Bilbao at Basque Boutique hotel, located in the heart of it all – unbeatable location, but with all the little things that come along with old buildings – small rooms, thin walls, and questionable plumbing. Old Town has a unique architectural style – enclosed wooden balconies typically found all over Pais Vasco (Basque Country), along with arched entryways and intricate patterns reminiscent of Art Nouveau.
For something truly different though, head to New Town. Strolling away from the river along Gran Via, you will run into Plaza Moyua, once the city outskirts, now encircled by Grand buildings of varying styles and vintages. A summer home designed by a Belgium architect sits across the street from a grey tax building, with the emblem of the dictator Franco still sitting prominently atop. Beside this is a hotel, modeled after the Ritz hotel in Nice. It´s eclectic to say the least, but so beautiful.
The City Health Records center is probably the most beautiful records building ever – entirely enclosed in a modern “cage” of glass panels, which actually serve to regulate the internal temperature of the building with little environmental impact. It´s astonishing and like nothing I´ve ever seen before. At Plaza Bizkaia, an ancient wine warehouse which stood unused for years was offered to Frank Gehry as a site for renovation, an offer he declined in favour of another project (we´ll get to that later). The warehouse space as it is today perfectly sums up the flavour of the city – all at once functional, practical, cohesive, and beautiful. A collection of brick “buildings” within the building serve as various amenities for those who buy a membership. Kinda like a retirement community for a younger generation, but stripping away the dreary sleepiness. A cooking school, café, rooftop bar, gym, cinema, library, and rooftop pool are just some of the amenities on offer.
Continuing on, the buildings don´t cease to impress – an office space with Andy Warhol-esque prints covering selected zones, again acting as an environmentally friendly temperature regulator and sunshine filterer. A Belgium style cathedral. The Iberdrola tower, an elliptical soaring building designed by the famous architect Cesar Pelli.
On Plaza Euskadi stands a new building, purposely mashing together everything the city has to offer – wooden Basque balconies, red stone reminiscent of the Old Town, grey stone for the iron mines, and domes and statues for the Belgium influences. Amazing. But, somehow, still paling in comparison to the Crown Jewel of the city – the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao is an astonishing thing to see in this rather un-touristy little town, considering the “other” Guggenheims tend to sit in cities like Berlin, New York, and Venice. The building was part of an effort to revitalize the city, and boy did it do its job. The fluidity and movement of the building is something indescribable, all at once naturally melding into the river and mountains around it, while at the same time standing out as an incredibly gorgeous feat of modern construction and architecture.
The sense of being near and inside the building is hard to describe – something of a dream. The $89 million dollar project uses limestone, glass, and titanium sheets a mere 0.038 mm thick. The building footprint is a massive 32 500 square meters, stretching along the river with various shapes and angles. Inside is all at once open and like exploring a geometric puzzle – all angles, edges, curves, and windows to the outside world. The art itself is a bit hard to focus on, but the Guggenheim in Bilbao houses an impressive collection of modern art. We did a good wander around the exhibits, then crossed the river and admired the building from the opposite side.
It was a beautiful walk back to Old Town, past even more amazing old and new buildings.
Eventually after a shower and foot-rest, we embarked on the second important aspect of Bilbao – the food. Stay tuned!