As unlikely as a shimmering pearl nestled in a barnacle-encrusted oyster shell, the Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect Frank Gehry, has transformed the once distressed, post-industrial port city of Bilbao into a thing of visual and economic beauty. Since the museum’s opening over a decade and a half ago, Bilbao has become a global art and culture destination, and the city’s continued urban planning investments are paying off. According to the Museum’s annual report, the Guggenheim in generated over 334 million euros of direct economic impact in 2012, over 45.3 million euros in additional tax revenue for the city, and the retention of over 6,300 Bilbao jobs. While the rest of Northern Spain’s citizens appear content with traditions, the people of Bilbao are designing and installing postmodern racks on which to hang their hats and futures. No wonder cities all over the world, in a trend referred to as the ‘Guggenheim effect,’ are trying to follow Bilbao’s reinvention recipe, and no wonder this feisty, urban city sports an attitude – even on Sunday. Here’s our architectural blueprint for one day in Bilbao:
9:00 am: You’re up and out before most of the city. Street sweepers wind through the alleys of old town near the cathedral, past the shuddered doors of bars, absolving Saturday night’s sins. Bakery vans make deliveries door to door to cafés just opening for business. Silver haired señores with Basque berets walk dogs. A young woman in black jeans, t-shirt and high tops with hyacinth hair and a pierced nose sets out folding tables and umbrellas in the oldest part of the city, where seven original streets date back to the 14th century. Select a café window seat in the Plaza Arenal, fuel up on a wedge of tortilla with tuna and aioli, and nurse a café con leche while the rest of the city slowly comes to life.
10:30 am: In the Plaza de Nueva, the action at the weekly Sunday morning flea market is starting to heat up. Stamp collectors and football card aficionados ages eight to eighty huddle in clusters, punctuating their negotiations with animated hand gestures. Booksellers and record dealers spread out their collections on long red-draped tables under the colonnades. Caged canaries preen their feathers. Spend an hour people watching and browsing the market’s eclectic offerings.
11:00am: Contemplating where to have a second cup of coffee, you notice that the locals have already moved on to wine. Slide onto a barstool at Zuga in the corner of the Plaza Nueva, sheepishly order a glass of the house red and select a pair of pintxos from the platters on the counter. A man at the end of the bar sips white wine while reading the newspaper. A mother and her two young boys pile in; the bartender sings and dances to the house music coming from the kitchen as he pours another glass of wine and mixes two hot chocolates. ¡Salud!
12:00pm: On the way to the nearest tram stop, check out the flower market that has opened up at the north end of Plaza Arenal overlooking the Nervion river. Basque-blooded señoras elbow each other for dibs on the prettiest geraniums, pansies and tomato starts. Rowing crews warm up on the river, gliding silently under a series of original and contemporary bridges. Hipster moms in tapestry coats and cargo pants push toddlers on swings in a newly designed urban green space. Find a sunny bench and see how many different breeds of novelty dogs you can count, Bilbao’s apparent must-have accessory for spring.
1pm: Take the tram to the Guggenheim, which is much more at home in its urban center surroundings and less disco ball sparkly than you imagined from pictures. Take it in. Yes. You love it. Like the building, most of the current exhibits are conceptual and interactive: a Yoko Ono retrospective, a climbable, island tree house-inspired installation complete with bongo drums by artist Ernesto Neto, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, a spiraling sculpture installation, and Christian Marclay’s The Clock, an addictive, 24 hour long, cycling video installation where you join some diehards who are finishing up a special all-day screening. (Vow to be one of those diehards the next time you and The Clock are in the same place at the same time.)
5:00pm: More art! At the nearby Belles Arts Museum, you chose to spend your time viewing a provocative Markus Lüpertz retrospective rather than a Grecos exhibition. His figurative sculptures and paintings have a wild savageness about them that resonates with the broad-stroked aggressiveness of Bilbao’s transformation.
8:30pm: After a long day out and about, you were planning to self-cater for dinner. Instead you discover that, despite its contemporary exterior, Bilbao supermarkets honor an incongruous tradition of closing on Sundays and, as luck would have it, every open bar is packed beyond capacity with rabid football fans watching the Bayern Munich versus Real Madrid Champions League semi-final. TVs are placed in street side windows to accommodate the boisterous overflow. Cut your losses and take a load off in the clean, quiet and open doner kebab joint down the street from your hotel. At the end of a marathon afternoon of museum viewing, the guilty pleasure of French fries on a Turkish sandwich in Spain never tasted so good.
Final score: Madrid 4, Munich 0.