I believe that most people think of Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim museum when they think of Bilbao. For people who are into football, they would also know of Athletic Bilbao, one of the better teams, in the La Liga (The Spanish football league). I’m not well-acquainted with football so J was the one who told me this little fact.
We enjoyed our three short days in Bilbao so much so that J declared that Bilbao is one of the place that he doesn’t mind retiring in. I told him I’ll meet him in San Sebastián for dinners if that happens.
Bilbao is the largest city in the Spanish Basque country and also the fifth largest urban area in Spain. Though it is very big, it is still pretty walkable in the main areas.
We took a short flight (1 hr 10 mins) from Barcelona to Bilbao because the train takes about 6.5hrs! So flying it is. When we arrived in Bilbao centre, it seemed pretty quiet as compared to bustling Barcelona but there were many modern buildings around.
Our favourite way to take in the city is to walk and so we did once we settled down at the hotel. With a foldable map in hand, we took an evening walk by the Nervión river that cuts through the city. It was nice and breezy, late autumn evening, with the sun beginning to set on our backs.
We saw many interesting modern buildings like the tallest building in Bilbao, the Iberdrola Tower, standing majestically by the river at 165m, curved and covered with 4,800 panels of glass; it was an impressive sight. One of the more memorable bridges we walked by was the White bridge (Zubi Zuri), designed by renowned architect, Santiago Calatrava. Zubi Zuri is beautiful, very modern with plenty of curves and little straight line. It seems like Bilbao can do no wrong with her architecture; every piece seems to be a work of modern art.
Then we crossed the river via Zubi Zuri and arrived in Casco Viejo (the historic old quarter). It was a huge contrast to all that modernity we have seen so far. But I like the old town – there are seven original streets (Las Siete Calles) from the 1400s in the centre of the Casco. This area is pedestrain only which made it very easy to walk along these narrow lanes and admire the colourful low-rise buildings full of character and stories.
The next morning, we took a walk to the Plaza del Funicular in the centre of an old Bilbao. We then took a ride on the old Artxanda Funicular to the top of Artxanda Hill. The ride on the Furnicular is a little like travelling back in time with a good dose of old-fashioned fun. Both the journey (a short four minutes) and destination is rewarding. The panoramic view of Bilbao city flanked by green mountains with stream of river through its veins – very beautiful on a clear day.
And of course, we set aside a full day to visit the Guggenheim museum. I’ve been fascinated with it ever since I caught the programme “Spain- On the road again” where Mario Batalli and Gwyneth Paltrow visited Guggenheim with Frank Gehry.
The exterior of Guggenheim is imposing and you will most definitely spot it without having to look for it on a map. It is almost a case of all roads lead to the Guggenheim, if you know what I mean.
The interior of the museum is just as beautiful. You can see Ghery’s vision through the use of curves and glass panels – almost fish like. But I think you will get a better understanding of his work if you listened to the audioguide provided at the museum.
The works featured in the museum deserves a mention (though I think many people flocked to the Guggenheim mainly for its architecture). One of my favourites in the museum is a steel installation by Richard Sera called “A Matter of Time” – This was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum and the dominating set of sculptures were actually made for that particular (and very huge) gallery space.
I won’t go into detail about the exhibits there because I’m no art aficionado. All I can say is that I had a good time at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
While I don’t know much about art, I can say that the food at the Guggenheim Museum is top-notched. Yes, we made reservations at the 1-michelin starred Nerua for lunch. It is small space so reservations are necessary. We didn’t manage to eat there on the day that we were at the Guggenheim but went back the next day after making reservations.
Firstly, they would give you a tour of their open-concept kitchen. It was fascinating to see the chefs preparing for service and our friendly guide gave us a rundown of the different stations. We also had our amuse bouche right by the kitchen station, just when it was done.
We opted to do the 6 course tasting menu for lunch and were off to a good start with some warm homemade bread.
While there was not much of a decor to speak of (the room was bare; plain white walls, tables with white table cloth and minmalist wood chairs), the food couldn’t be further away from being austere.
The second was seared Iberian pork with broccoli, chevil – tender but full of flavours, so far so good.
The one that really blew my mind was the grilled hake served with spinach, coconut and watercress. We don’t really get hake here and this one was cooked just right and the flavours of spinach coconut and watercress seem to marry themselves very well to the fish, bringing out its sweetness and firmness of the flesh.
The mains was a simple grilled beef tenderloin paired with a more interesting red beets gnocchi and roasted pepper juice. I do love the sweetness of the red beet gnocchi that goes with the red meat. Did I also mention how soft yet chewy these beet gnocchi are – they go so well with the grilled beef tenderloin that was done to perfection.
And when we got to dessert, we were already pretty full but extremely happy with the meal. The kiwi and shiso ice cream was wonderful, the shiso flavour complementing the kiwi in the loveliest way – I really hope that I can try to recreate this ice cream soon.
The last dessert was pure chocolate with a spicy marzipan sand.I think many restaurants like to go with chocolate because in many worlds, chocolate can do no wrong. In this case, I agree. This dessert was dark chocolate creameux paired with a “spicy marzipan sand”. It was a good ending to the meal without being overly sweet, the spice kicks in towards the end in a good way.
We said our goodbyes to Bilbao after the meal at Nerua and headed to the bus station towards San Sebastiàn. The three short days in Bilbao was way better than anticipated.
Till today, J still talks about moving to Bilbao from time to time.
Flights via Vueling take about 1 hr 10 mins.
From Bilbao airport, you can take a short bus ride via the Bilbao Termibus to the city centre (only 9km away) with stops at Gran Vía 79, Plaza Moyua and Alameda Recalde 11.
Train from Barcelona-Sants station take about 6hr 30 mins.
Take the ALSA (7 Eur) or PESA (12 Eur) bus from Bilbao (From the Termibus station) to San Sebastiàn
The journey takes about 1 hr 20 mins (check for timings because some buses have fewer stops)
Things to do
Take a ride on the Artxanda Funicular to the top of Artxanda Hill
Cost about a Euro one way. Check out the website for more details for opening hours.
Spend an evening at the Casco Viejo (the historic old quarter) shopping for souvenirs or to do some pintxos hopping
Take a walk down the Nervión river through the heart and soul of Bilbao
Visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Opening hrs: 10 am to 8 pm (Tue to Sun), do check for closings on holidays.
Admission fee: 10 Eur for adults but may vary on programme. Vist the website for more information.
Where to eat
Avda. Abandoibarra 2, 48001 Bilbao, Spain (At the Guggenheim Museum. Entrance to the restaurant is separate from the museum)
Tel: 0034 944 000430. Website for more details and reservation.