"Beyond the Guggenheim" Bilbao by IoannaE

Bilbao Travel Guide: 850 reviews and 2,215 photos

I happened to spend a weekend in Bilbao in 1998, after a business trip to Santander. The new Guggenheim Museum had recently opened to great acclaim and I seized the chance to see it.

I wasn't taken with the city at first. It seemed horizonless, hemmed in by mountains, grey and conservative. The city centre was littered with abandoned industrial sites, and the Nervion river was the most polluted I'd ever seen.

But one look at Gehry's outlandish museum convinced me that this city was not just resting sedately in its valley. Much as I admired the Guggenheim's architecture, a large part of my admiration was directed to the city authorities - the people who had the audacity to commission such a building, like a gigantic UFO occupying the middle of an otherwise perfectly respectable bourgeois town... The juxtaposition was particularly startling during my visit, as the main entrance to the museum faced a field of containers (from the harbour nearby). I was told this would shortly be cleared out to make way for a conference centre; but I would have liked to keep it just as it was, a vast lot of industrial grime and a gleaming titanium art palace standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

There were other signs of civic pride too, not least the humble footbridge over the Nervion. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, it suggested not just the shape but also the motion of a sailing boat at sea.

Speaking of the sea, in Spain do as the Spaniards do - eat seafood. The Spaniards are second only to the Japanese in fish and shellfish consumption and this was very evident in Bilbao's central market (and the area around it wasn't bad either). More fish than I'd ever seen, excepting the market in Barcelona...

Then I took a walk in the back streets, looking for a good place to eat, and came across a bunch of seafood restaurants where families were milling around. People would take an order of crayfish or shrimps to their table, dump it straight onto paper sheets, sprinkle lemon and dig in. Good stuff, and a great atmosphere. I later found much more sophisticated fish restaurants - after all, this is the Basque country, famous throughout Spain for good food - but when I think of Bilbao, I think of crayfish peels piled on a tabletop, cheap white wine, kids milling about, and loud greetings between friends.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Modern architecture, good restaurants and bars
  • Cons:Claustrophobic landscape
  • Last visit to Bilbao: Apr 1998
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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