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Bilbao Travel Guide

Opened in 1997 this awesome structure was designed by American Architect Frank Gehry. At a cost of around US$100 million the 24,000 square feet museum houses a permanent collection of the most prominent American and European artists from nineteen fifties and beyond, featuring works by Warhol, Liechtenstien and Richard Serra. There’s also an intriguing collection of works by leading Basque artists including 20 or so sculptures by celebrated artist Christina Iglesias. One of the most fascinating exhibitions is ‘5,000 years of China’; a collection of approximately 500 exhibits covering the country’s history from Neolithic times to the present day.

Impressive as the copious exhibits of the Guggenheim may be, there are many who believe that the structure itself is even more remarkable. This viewpoint is certainly not unfounded. The Guggenheim is quite possibly the most breathtaking building of the twentieth century. The swirling, towering titanium plated edifice incorporates elements of Bilbao’s past and present economy. Inspired in part by the anatomy of the fish and the hull of a boat, the structure also assimilates the nearby bridge and railway and blends almost seamlessly into the bank of the river by which it is situated.

To outsiders arriving in Bilbao for the first time the creation of the Guggenheim and the other recent initiatives - the newly opened ultra-modern subway system, the extensive development of the waterfront areas and construction of the futuristic new airport terminal - may be interpreted as something entirely out of character. But, in many ways, the current regeneration reflects the attitude held by the city since its golden age when it was one of Europe’s centres of heavy industry. One has only to look at the architecture of the old city for evidence of the bourgeois lifestyle of its financial boom period during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Internationally, the residents of Bilbao have a reputation for being very business orientated, and rightly so. But its economy has remained surprisingly buoyant even during the recession of the eighties and we are, after all, in Spain. Beyond the sober air of the city’s commercial centre lies a world of fun and entertainment on a par with most of the country’s foremost cities. A night at Calle de Barrencalle is really something to remember (or not, depending on how much you have to drink). An outrageous nightly ritual of drinking dancing and absolute madness it can hold a torch to even the wildest of Spain’s myriad party hot spots.

As you would expect from such an affluent commercial region there’s a splendid choice of excellent places to eat out. Several of Bilbao’s finer restaurants offer what is called ‘Menu Bit’ which allows diners to try the haute cuisine at a pocket friendly price. It is also one of the very best places to try traditional Basque food and many of the bars have restaurants attached at the rear of the building serving delicious traditional dishes. Like most of their fellow countrymen, bilbainos are very fond of tappas hopping - the perfect way to combine a night of drinking, dining and socialising.

For visitors looking for a really special night out there is a choice of several theatres with the two most prestigious venues presenting a wide range of world-class stage shows and concerts. You may even be lucky enough to catch a performance by Bilbao’s own symphony orchestra. On a more international level, at nearby Gexto, the first of Spain’s three Jazz festivals takes place. This weeklong event is a firm favourite with artists and audiences the world over, drawing impressive crowds and a regular line up of international blues and jazz musicians.

Bilbao also plays host to two major festivals. Early February sees the Santa Aqueda feast day with it’s colourful parade featuring traditional ‘big heads’. Throughout the day the Casco Veijo is invaded by numerous choirs, each singing praise to the saint whilst beating the floor with wooden sticks or staves. The Aste Nagusia begins on the 1st Saturday after 15 August and consists of 10 days of parades, music and cultural events. This is the city’s main celebration and consists of over 300 free events including concerts, dances, theatre, children’s activities, firework display and the renowned bullfights in the Vista Alegre bullring.

Bilbao may well not be everyone’s ideal holiday destination but it has always ranked highly amongst business travellers and is well certainly worth a checking out, if only for a few days.

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