Speak to any Spaniard who has revisited Bilbao after an interval of 15 years and their first comment is sure to include the expression ‘dramatic change’. Once a gritty, industrial town built along the previously grubby Nervión River, this Basque city is now a vibrant, people-packed, multi-cultural hub which is fast catching up with neighbouring San Sebastián as the Basque Country’s main tourist destination.
The secret of this tourist draw is undoubtedly heavy investment in the arts. Boasting a Norman Foster underground system, a Santiago Calatrava bridge and, the iconic Frank Gehry titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao has embraced the ‘futuristic’ with a passion. Take a twenty-minute stroll along the north side of the river from east to west for a view of the emblematic bridge and museum.
Yet Bilbao is not only about modern design. The ‘Casco Antiguo’ (Old Town) is wonderfully atmospheric and packed with tapas bars and restaurants. ‘Pintxos’, the Basque name for tapas, may well have evolved, but the town has long been famous for its delicious bite size snacks. Visit the Plaza Nueva, a traditional arcaded square, the Catedral de Santiago, and the Mercado de la Ribera on the edge of the old town. This is Europe’s largest covered market and dates back to the 1840s.
South of the river and west of the Old Town, lies the town’s genteel shopping area. The main street is the Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro, a wide, smart, boulevard full of elegant shops and restaurants. Packed with people at weekends, the area nonetheless manages to avoid the ‘push and shove’ onslaught of shoppers that takes the fun out of window shopping.