Bilbao – art and the Guggenheim

The Tall Tree and the Eye installation by Anish Kapoor outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

After spending our first few hours in Bilbao exploring its historic centre, our second day was spent focusing on the city’s architectural gems and art galleries.

Arriving in the city near the central train station, we again crossed the Bilbao River at Arenal Bridge, but this time instead of continuing straight ahead into the old town, we turned left and followed the curve of the river all the way to the Guggenheim.

City Hall in Bilbao

The stroll along the river bank was pleasant and we passed a number of the city’s architectural highlights along the way, including Bilbao’s impressive city hall (above), which dates back to 1892.

Zubizuri Bridge over the Bilbao RIver

My favourite part of the journey was the Zubizuri Bridge (above), a curved, white footbridge. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering and while it looked impressive from a distance, it was even better up close and we decided it was the perfect spot to cross the river.

Maman, a giant metal sculpture of a spider, by Louise Bourgeois outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Continuing our stroll, we soon arrived at the Guggenheim and as we approached it, the first thing we saw was a tall, giant metal spider (above) with lots of people huddled underneath it’s long spindly legs. The spider by Louise Bourgeois is one of a series of playful art installations in and around the museum.

Brightly coloured flowers float on water as part of an art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

One of my favourite installations was the brightly coloured paper flowers (above) floating on a small body of water as it was fun and cheery. I also liked the tall statue of silver balls by Anish Kapoor, a little further along the river bank, which was simple but effective against the titanium-clad museum.

The Puppy by Jeff Koons outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

By now, it was almost midday so we stopped at a small outdoor café opposite the museum for a quick drink and then headed up to the main entrance, where we were greeted by the sight of a giant multi-coloured puppy (above) made from lots and lots of flowers by Jeff Koons.

The curved titanium and glass Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

As we’d walked around the outside of the Guggenheim, we were full of admiration for the building designed by Frank Gehry. The gleaming, curved titanium behemoth, which twists and turns in a variety of shapes, photographs beautifully from every angle. The impressive architecture continued inside, too, with a tall confection of curved white walls, metal and glass (below, left).

The museum is huge and our first port of call, once we got our bearings, was the permanent exhibition on the first floor, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (above, right), which features eight massive steel sculptures that curve in different ways.

I had great fun walking in and out the mega structures – some of the paths inside the structures are very narrow and claustrophobic, others lead to a dead end. But that’s all part of the fun, blindly wandering through them and not knowing what you’re going to find or where you’re going to end up.

From there, we visited an exhibition of Georg Baselitz’s work featuring young men, painted between 1965 and 1966. The paintings were powerful and admirable, but not really my cup of tea. We then moved on to an exhibition devoted to the work of Bill Viola, which I really disliked. It was a collection of moving images, mostly short videos of people doing nothing in unreal situations, which I found creepy and pointless, so after a quick look around we swiftly moved on.

The exhibition of modern masters featuring works by the likes of Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat was more my speed. The collection was a mixed bag – some of the works were the usual eye-rollingly pretentious nonsense you find in modern art galleries, but some of the works, especially those by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, were fantastic. One of the most famous works on display was by Andy Warhol and featured 150 screenprints of Marilyn Monroe in different colours.

The final exhibition we visited was Paris, Fin de Siécle,  which featured a series of paintings, drawings and illustrations by artists living in Paris during the 1890s. Monet’s Waterlillies in vivid dark purples and greens, and Toulouse Lautrec’s iconic posters and paintings of the Moulin Rouge, were the standouts. But Odilon Redon’s The Egg was my favourite as it was clever, playful and memorable.

Tulips by Jeff Koons on display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Overall, I wasn’t that impressed by the Guggenheim and found it disappointing. Despite the enormity of the building, I didn’t feel there was much to see inside and many of the works that were on display weren’t to my taste. A lot of the artworks were very pretentious, too. The building itself is by far and away the most impressive work of art – it’s superb and rightly considered iconic. It’s worth going to the Guggenheim to see the building, but if you skipped the art inside, you wouldn’t be missing much as it’s only so-so.

The courtyard at the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao

After lunch, we made our way to our next art gallery of the day – the Fine Arts Museum (above). I’d read in a guidebook that the museum’s artworks were far superior to those of the Guggenheim and I’d have to agree. It’s a superb gallery and features a great mix of art from across the ages. It’s also deceptively big and packs in a lot.

Our first stop was the temporary Alicia Koplowitz Collection. Magnificently curated, the collection featured pieces from Roman times to the present day with works by the likes of Goya, Canaletto, Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Van Gogh, to name but a few.

From there, we moved on to the modern art section, which was full of interesting and thought-provoking pieces, and I liked almost everything on display. Eduardo Chillida’s iron sculptures, in particular, were memserising.

We continued through the gallery into a series of rooms featuring works by Spanish artists, such as Joaquín Sorolla, and I enjoyed getting to know the artists and their art. The final rooms featured some of the oldest pieces in the gallery, and included royal portraits and paintings by Goya and El Greco.

Four artworks of women outside the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao

I came away from the Fine Arts Museum with a new-found appreciation of Spanish art, having discovered a number of Spanish artists I wasn’t familiar with. It’s well-curated,  relaxed and was practically empty on the day we visited, which meant we could enjoy the museum at our own pace. If you only have time to explore one gallery in Bilbao and you want to see some great works of art, I’d recommend the Fine Arts Museum.

After a day of non-stop art, we made our way back towards the train station via the Lopez de Haro, a huge shopping street in the centre of the city home to popular Spanish brands such as Mango and Zara, along with high-end labels such as Max Mara, Michael Kors and Massimo Dutti.

Bilbao is a fantastic city. There isn’t masses to do and what there is to do, you can easily do in a day and a half, but it has a cool vibe, and fabulous food and drink. It’s unpolished, unrefined, imperfect and a little rough around the edges – but that’s what makes the city so great. It feels like a city that’s lived in, as opposed to a perfectly polished tourist hub, and as a result it makes for a wonderful place to spend a weekend.

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Bilbao – the old town

Colourful houses on the banks of the Bilbao River in central Bilbao

When I think of Bilbao, the first place that springs to mind is the Guggenheim Museum, the Frank Gehry-designed curved titanium and glass behemoth that put the Basque capital firmly on the international art map in the late 1990s. But there’s much, much more to the city than its most iconic building.

I recently spent a day-and-a-half in Bilbao on my way to the Haut-Béarn region in France. I arrived in the city with no expectations, other than knowing I wanted to go to the Guggenheim, and I found a city that’s cool and edgy, a mixture of old and new, brimming with culture, history, art and exceptionally good food. Needless to say, I loved every minute there.

The grand Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Bilbao, and keen to see as much as we could in the next few hours, we made a beeline for the old town, the city’s historic centre. Crossing the Arenal Bridge over the Bilbao River, we came upon the Arriaga Theatre (above), a grand, elegant 19th century architectural gem that’s still in use as a theatre.

Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

From there, we walked through the narrow streets of the old town to Santiago Cathedral (above). The Basque-Gothic cathedral, which dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries, is said to be the oldest building in the city and after paying the €5 entry fee (which also gave us entry to the nearby San Antón Church), we headed inside.

The pale stone walls inside the simple, but elegant, Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

The cathedral, which boasts three naves, is beautifully simple, with pale stone walls, high-vaulted ceilings and delicately-patterned stained glass windows. The cathedral has been destroyed by flooding on a number of occasions, resulting in extensive restoration work, but you’d never know it walking around. It’s impeccable and a simple, ornate but classy building.

Inside the cloisters at Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

Having had a good look around the main body of the church, we headed to the adjoining cloisters, which feature a small garden filled with lemon trees in the centre. I really liked the simplicity of the cloisters and the small gargoyles atop the outer wall and the leafy green pot plants dotted throughout added to its charms and helped create a sense of tranquility.

The Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Having seen all there was to see in the cathedral, we wandered down one of las 7 calles, the so-called seven oldest streets in Bilbao, which run parallel to each other and make up the heart of the old town. At the end of the street, we came upon the Mercado de la Ribera on the banks of the Bilbao River.

A sign inside the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

I’d read good things about the market, which is the largest covered market in Europe, so we crossed the road and had a look inside, and were thrilled to discover an amazing food hall. The food hall is home to lots of stalls selling all manner of pintxo (Basque tapas), along with a central seating area where you can enjoy your purchases.

From the market, we made our way to the neighbouring San Antón Church (above, left). Dating back to 1453, the church is tiny and looks really old from the outside. It’s much more modern inside, with cream stone walls and an altar filled with paintings and statues. There’s a glorious chandelier in one of the chapels (above, right), and you can also see the remains of the original foundations through a series of glass floor panels near the altar and the entrance. It’s a nice enough church, simple yet unremarkable.

After our visit to San Antón, we continued to amble through the narrow warren of streets, taking in the sights and sounds. Many of the buildings were quite rundown and the streets were home to a bizarre array of shops, selling all manner of goods, including clothes, hams, furniture, paintings, pastries, household goods, and fruit and veg.

The old town has a cool, edgy vibe to it, and as I walked through the streets, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. All the shops were independent, there wasn’t a chain store in sight, and many of the characterful bars were teeming with locals.

Santos Juanes Church in the middle of the old town in Bilbao

Our final destination in the old town was Santos Juanes Church, a Basque-Classicist church dating back to the 17th century. The church was far more ornate and lavish inside than it’s nice, simple exterior suggested.

The ornate altar inside the Santos Juanes Church in Bilbao

Inside, at the far end of the church, there was a lavish altar that was dripping with gold, while along the sides of the church, there was a series of chapels featuring elaborate and ornate guilding, and very expensive-looking paintings and statues. It was a small, interesting church and in total contrast to the simplicity of the cathedral.

Olives with accompaniments on sticks at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

By now we’d thoroughly explored the old town, so we headed back to the Mercado de la Ribera for dinner. Being able to pick and choose small bites from lots of different stalls was great, the only downside was that everything looked so tempting, I had trouble deciding what to eat.

I ended up choosing a series of olive skewers from La Bodeguilla (above) to start. Each skewer featured different accompaniments such as anchovies, gherkins, quail’s eggs and tomatoes. The skewers were delicious and cheap (€1.10 each), and I could easily have had an entire meal of them.

Mixed pintxo at the Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Next up, I shared half a slice of ham pizza, which was tastier than it sounds, and finished my meal with cod pintxo with squid ink and aioli, a pastry puff with goat’s cheese and tomato sauce, and a cheese croquette on a slice of bread from Me Tienes Frit@ (above). I got a little carried away buying the pintxo, but thankfully the man who ran the stall suggested I stop at three, and I’m glad I listened to him, as by the time I’d polished it all off I was stuffed.

Santander train station on the banks of the Bilbao River in central Bilbao

With dinner over, we had a pleasant walk along the riverbank back to the train station (above). I really enjoyed my first few hours in Bilbao as it turned out to be a wonderful, unexpected afternoon filled with great experiences.

Stay tuned for my second day in Bilbao, including my trip to the Guggenheim…