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Once upon a time there was a grimy port city that became an international art hotspot overnight. When the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997, a city mired in industrial decay was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight. Almost 20 years on, the eyesores of industry have made way for a refurbished riverside, stylish restaurants and innovative architectural experiments. In spite of this boost to the city’s economy and self-esteem, Bilbao has not forgotten where it came from. With great food, impressive art and architecture – but enough rough edges to reflect its old roots – this is where your Basque journey should begin.
How to get around : Walk or take a tram. How to get there : Fly to Bilbao International.
HOTEL MIRÓ Alameda Mazarredo, 77, (34) 94 661 18 80
Conceived by Catalan fashion designer Antonio Miró, and equidistant from the Guggenheim and the Museo de Bellas Artes, the boutique Hotel Miró is a practical option for artistic exploration of the city. The style of the rooms is modern and minimalist; red cushions ofer an accent to the black carpets and the clean white walls embellished by contemporary artwork. The restaurant only serves breakfast – a Spanish-style bufet – but features impressive views of the Guggenheim over the road. After a day of exploring, book into the wellness suite for some R&R or put your feet up in the open-plan sitting room with complimentary tea, cofee and soft drinks. Rooms from £90 per night
MR MARVELOUS 48009, Heros Kalea, 18, 48009 Bilbao, Bizkaia, Spain
The newly opened Mr Marvelous has a quirky interior and a cool, relaxed vibe. Their menu features light bites such as housemarinated smoked salmon, as well as more substantial mains.
CAFE IRUÑA Bilbao, Jardines de Albia, VIZCAYA, 48001 944 237 021
For a traditional experience, Café Iruña – the city’s oldest dining establishment – has acquired a near-mythical status. Pick pintxos from the marble counter or sit in the Moorish-style dining room.
MINA Muelle Marzana, S/N, 48003 Bilbao, Bizkaia
Don’t leave Bilbao without eating at Michelin-starred Mina – an intimate canal-side restaurant serving earthy, elegant cuisine. The open-plan kitchen is engaging and allows head chef and owner Alvaro Garrido to talk you through his seasonal creations, 90 per cent of which are sourced from the market opposite. The seven-course menu at €55 (£43) is excellent value and changes daily depending on what the market has to ofer – possible options include turbot served with swiss chard and slow-cooked beef with chimichurri and watercress juice.
PLAZA NUEVA Plaza Nueva, 9 Bilbao, 48005
For pintxos, head to Plaza Nueva in the medieval Old Town. The square is lined with lively bars offering the best of the Basque Country’s elaborate bar snacks. Try Victor Montes and the royal blue Café Bar Bilbao.
COLOMBO Rodríguez Arias Kalea, 32, 48009 Bilbao, Bizkaia
Eclectic furniture, a burning woodstove and brightly coloured bottles lining the walls make Colombo the ideal spot for those in search of international cuisine and innovative design. Try the fried aubergines with hummus and honey, followed by the steak with soy sauce and sesame oil.
GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM Avenida Abandoibarra, 2, 48009 Bilbao
Bilbao owes a lot to Canadian-American mastermind Frank O. Gehry. Set on the edge of the Nervión River and guarded by a 12-metre statue of a dog made of flowers, the Guggenheim Museum is a captivating fusion of curved metallic forms that hark back to the city’s industrial past. The permanent collection includes works by Rothko, Modigliani and Pollock, whilst Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time installation is sublime. Entrance costs €13/£10 and the museum is closed on Mondays.
MUSEO DE BELLAS ARTES Museo Plaza, 2, 48009 Bilbao, Vizcaya
A five-minute walk away from the Guggenheim, the Museo de Bellas Artes houses a compelling trajectory of art from classical to 20th-century works. Come here to see Goya, El Greco and Basque painters José Arrué and Aurelio Arteta.
ALHÓNDIGA Plaza Arriquibar, 4, 48008 Bilbao, Vizcaya
French designer Philippe Starck has transformed an old wine cellar into a multi-purpose exhibition centre that houses a theatre, a cinema, a library and a gym. The Alhóndiga is lit by a huge artificial sun and supported by 43 intricately decorated columns, each an example of a diferent artistic movement. Standing in the entrance hall, you can see the swimmers in the glass-bottomed rooftop pool when you look up.
SAN JUAN DE GAZTELUGATXE Bermeo, 48370, Bizkaia, Spain
The coastal road from Bilbao to the legendary hermitage of Gaztelugatxe is quite an adventurous stretch. Anticipate confused GPS signals and hairpin-bend terrors, then prepare to forgive and forget them both as soon as you get there. The 10th-century church that sits atop the rocky outcrop is dedicated to John the Baptist, and the treacherous climb up the staircase that winds from the mainland to the highest point of the peninsula serves as a timely reminder of the hardships of sainthood. Park by Eneperi restaurant and follow the trail until you find a narrow bridge and 231 stone steps. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Venture out to the Ribera Market for an evening drink overlooking the river, then cross the water towards San Francisco, Bilbao’s most up-and-coming neighbourhood with a burgeoning underground arts scene.
BAR MARZANA Martzana Kalea, 16, 48003 Bilbao, Bizkaia, Spain
Housed in a former tavern, this pastel-coloured bar has views over the river and is popular with local students and artists.
Nestled in the heart of the Old Town, Quesería is the place to go for first-rate speciality food products. Bilbao is not a destination for the fashion elite, but try Persuade for brands such as Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons. The newly opened, urban Scandinavian-style cafe-cum-boutique Trimmer sells young, independent designers such as Masscob and Ölend as well as bouquets of wild flowers.
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