Choose from 13 Fun Things to Do in Bilbao
This cuddly canine giant was created by Jeff Koons, the American artist who found fame during the 80s, particularly for his pieces that hover between pop and pure kitsch. The life of this flowery man’s best friend didn’t start in Spain, though, but rather in Germany, where it was originally commissioned for a castle. Not done with traveling, the West Highland White Terrier puppy relocated to Sydney Harbour’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and ultimately to the grounds of Bilbao’s museum, where it is now part of its permanent collection. Since then, its journey has continued, making a temporary appearance in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
These days it’s back home, though, where it has become an almost universally recognizable image of Bilbao, the Spanish industrial city that rises as an artistic and culinary metropolis. Filled with over 25 tons of soil, the chrome-and-stainless-steel structure is covered in some 70,000 blooming and growing flowers that range from marigolds to begonias, petunias, impatiens and more.
This may sound like theater-viewing perfection, but Teatro Arraiga's past hasn't been quite as flawless. Designed by Joaquín Rucoba, the theater was opened in 1890, and dedicated to Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, considered the Mozart of Spain. Flash forward to 1914, when a fire essentially demolished it, followed by other setbacks, such as its closing for a time during the Civil War. Then came threatening floods in 1983, which inundated the structure to the second floor, closing it once more.
The curtain of course rose again, though, and the intimately sized theater – seating some 1,500 people – has welcomed audiences ever since.
- The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a must-see for art lovers and first-time visitors.
- Choose between a single admission ticket or a combo ticket that includes entrance to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
- Bring a light jacket during the summer months, as the temperature inside the galleries can be quite cool.
- No photography of any kind is allowed inside the museum.
- The museum is wheelchair accessible, and free wheelchairs are available for use.
In 1491, on the once much humbler site of this enormous and ornate Mudejár-style shrine that is the Sanctuary of Loyola, a family of minor nobility welcomed its 13th child, who would one day change the world. San Ignatius Lopéz de Loyola, a soldier turned to the priesthood by his strange visions, founded the Brotherhood of Jesus, or Jesuit order, whose radical interpretation of Catholicism left its mark on both the New and Old World.
A place of pilgrimage and wonder for the devout and secular alike, San Ignatius' former home has been transformed with Chirriguerresque flair into a grand compound. In addition to the basilica and shrine, there is an art museum displaying a few of his belongings and writings, as well as religious objects collected over the centuries. Shrines to other Jesuit saints are also arranged around the grounds.
The gardens and surrounding mountains make a fine backdrop to the scene, and you're welcome to stay on at their inexpensive hostel.
The best time to visit is July 31, the feast day of San Ignatius. Buses run between Apeita and Azkoitla, stopping off at the Santuario. To get here by car, take the A-8 between Elgolbar and Zarautz, exiting south to Azpeitia and Azkoitla; the sanctuary is signed.
Founded in 1908, the Fine Arts Museum that you see today didn't come into being until 1945, when it merged with the Modern Art Museum, moving to its current location in the corner of Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. Home to more than 10,000 works, the museum is the perfect compliment to the Guggenheim: The Fine Arts Museum is intimate and traditional, focused primarily on local artists, while the Guggenheim is grand, abstract and largely features international pieces.
Indeed, among the Museo de Bellas Arte's galleries, you will find a more conventional museum collection (compared to the Guggenheim), ranging from paintings to sculptures, engravings, drawings and more. The bulk of these were amassed when the two original museums merged, and then via acquisitions and donations over the years, especially from local artists. And while the majority of the collection features Spanish and Basque artwork, you'll also come across Flemish and other international pieces as well.
This once walled-in neighborhood originally consisted of exactly seven streets and, for that reason, is sometimes still called Los Siete Calles ("seven streets" in Spanish). Each of these original avenues still exist, with names such as Tendería Kalea (Shoekeeper's Street) and Carnicería Vieja Kalea (Old Butchery Street). Since Medieval times, the barrio has expanded to include still more streets beyond those seven originals, and also squares like Plaza Berria and Plaze Nueva.
The Casco Viejo draws a crowd for more than just its historical appeal, too. Head to the old-world district to fulfill your culinary cravings by popping from one bar to the next for pintxos (essentially Basque tapas with a gourmet twist) and glasses of txakoli, a local dry white wine. While there, visit the nearby Mercado de la Ribera, the largest food retail market in Europe; the city's over 600-year-old church, Santiago Cathedral; or stick around on Sundays for retail therapy at the market in Plaza Nueva.
Today's cathedral – which shouldn't be confused with the much larger one of the same name located in Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Camino de Santiago – has expanded over the course of time, growing to the cathedral that you see now. During a visit, you can peruse its many chapels, wander the peaceful 15th-century gothic-style cloister, or just take in the exterior with its 19th-century gothic-revival facade and spire.
Santiago Cathedral is located amidst the original seven streets of Bilbao's Casco Viejo (old quarter). While the interior is quite humble compared to many of its other European cathedral counterparts, it serves as a tranquil respite from the busy medieval barrio, and of course provides a unique look into Bilbao's past.