This year sees Bilbao celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim museum, an institution that brought art and its lovers to the north coast city, and started an urban relaunch in which its industrial past was overlaid with fluttering palms, promenades and a proliferation of wonky, asymmetric, eye-popping glass and steel buildings by many of the world’s best architects – Norman Foster, Philippe Starck, Santiago Calatrava and Arata Isozaki among them. Thankfully, Bilbao’s old Basque soul remains intact. The additions enhance the old city, and tourism hasn’t disrupted the enviable lifestyle of its inhabitants, in which lifelong friendships, culture, pintxos (Basque tapas), and the spirit of football figure large.

Tucked into green and mountainous countryside, the city flanks the Nervión river, and there’s a string of beaches (Las Arenas, Getxo, Plentzia) within the metropolitan area, reachable by metro trains. A good way to get to grips with the city centre is to walk for half an hour along the Nervión’s left bank from San Mamés, home of Athletic Club Bilbao, past the Guggenheim to La Merced bridge. Cross the river for the narrow streets of Casco Viejo and the gourmet heaven that is Plaza Nueva; or keep south for the cool bars and cafes of Bilbao la Vieja, the former miners’ neighbourhood.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Guggenheim Bilbao

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It’s impossible to visit Bilbao and not see the Guggenheim – through planning and topography, it’s there almost everywhere you look. The Frank Gehry-designed abstract ship of glass, stone and titanium scales is sublime inside and out. And there’s art in it too! Robert Motherwell, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Eduardo Chillida, Anselm Kiefer are in the permanent collection, as is Richard Serra’s massive curved steel walkthrough installation The Matter of Time. The art outside has possibly even more impact. There’s something shocking and energising about walking past Jeff Koons’ flowery Puppy and Anish Kapoor’s big pile of steel balls, or pausing to check your messages between the legs of Louise Bourgeois’ Maman spider.
From 11–14 October, the outside of the Guggenheim will be used as a canvas to tell the story of two decades of cultural transformation in Bilbao through an animated show called Reflections

Markets

Dos de Mayo flea market in Bilbao la Vieja fills the street of the same name on the first Saturday of the month, when the area’s galleries and vintage clothing shops, which are all too often shut, fling open their doors. On the first and last Sundays of the month, the action shifts north to a soon-to-be-redeveloped industrial site on the Zorrozaurre river peninsula. General knick-knackery, art, vinyl and old clothes, plus cafes selling fabulous pintxos, vermouth, coffee and cakes, spread between a disused biscuit factory and Zawp (Zorrozaurre Art Work In Progress), a cluster of former warehouses that also host a ukelele jamming session every Sunday at 6pm. Sunday is also the day for the Casco Viejo flower market, and another, packed with antique books, canaries, and small boys trading football cards, nearby in the main square, Plaza Nueva.