Transformed into a cultural draw by Frank Gehry's millennium-marking Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao—city of bars, redheads, and ball games (soccer, or jai alai)—is suddenly one of the most exciting destinations in Europe. Founded in 1300, the metropolis reached peak prosperity in the industrial revolution and remained Spain's northern capital of steel and shipping until postwar recession turned it into a decaying backwater. Resolved to put itself back on the world map, in recent years Bilbao has begun enacting pharaonic projects: a futuristic subway system, and the new museum, scaled to exhibit powerful, outsize artworks such as Richard Serra's steel sculpture The Snake and Jenny Holzer's installation of Basque, Spanish, and English words. Today Bilbao is a lively, accessible arts mecca, a dazzling mix of old and new. Given the Basques' irrepressibly playful and friendly nature, it's also a lot of fun.
Spain's largest port and fourth-largest city is on the move. Green-lighted projects: A $265 million transportation hub designed by architects Michael Wilford and James Stirling; a new airport by architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava; a vast waterfront development of parks, apartments, offices, and stores adjacent to the Guggenheim, designed by Cesar Pelli.
A shipwreck—Frank Gehry
A big fish at play—Dennis Hopper
A collapsed soufflé—El Coreo (newspaper)
A sketch instantly realized—Sverre Fehn, architect
A monument—Bianca Jagger
Chartres for the year 2000—Larry Bell, artist
Virtual reality realized—Charles Jencks, historian
A triumph—John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum
A great adventure—Eduardo Chillida, Spanish sculptor
The greatest building of our time—Philip Johnson
A soft ship—Claes Oldenburg
A cauliflower—a group of local artists
A voyage to the next century—Robert Rauschenberg
Go Underground Enter the Norman Foster—designed subway system through one of its glass entrances—some look like enormous worms rising from the ground.
Hotel Carlton 2 Plaza Federico Moya; 34-4/416-2200, fax 34-4/416-4628; doubles from $128. A grand hotel, with a columned lobby and Art Deco atrium. Breakfast here is lavish—the best in Bilbao.
Hotel López de Haro 2 Obispo Orueta; 34-4/423-5500, fax 34-4/423-4500; doubles from $138. Conventionally pretty, with English touches like striped upholstery. The dining room, Club Náutico, is the most sophisticated in town.
Roam the Casco Viejo (the old quarter), anchored at one end by Spain's largest indoor market, Mercado de la Ribera, at the other by the stately Teatro Arriaga, modeled after the Paris Opéra. Cobblestoned and car-free, the area is dense with the bustle of small enterprise—shops and cafés that fan out from a communal fountain to embrace the busy Plaza Nueva and two medieval churches, one cloistered, the other harboring a tiny jewelry store.
Basque shares equal billing with Spanish on most signs. It looks more exotic than it sounds: "tx" is usually pronounced "ch."
Botxo: local nickname for Bilbao
eskerrik asko: thank you
ez: no / bai: yes
zambat da: how much?
bizkaina: from the region
menua: three-course prix fixe
pintxos: tapas meal
txikiteo: going barhopping
Abandoning the Casco Viejo after 10 p.m., partyers flood the tiny bars along Calle Licenciado Poza—such as Bar Juantxu (No. 39)—grazing on pintxos and chiquitos (mini glasses of wine or beer). By midnight, the action flows to the clubs and strobe-lit discos in the jumping areas of Ripa, Estraunza, and the Galerías Urquijo. Faves are Jaragua (salsa heaven) at 9 Calle Ibáñez de Bilbao, Caos (beautiful people) at 10 Calle Simon Bolívar, and Chicago (billiards) and El Tres (jive) at Galerías Urquijo. The countdown to 3 a.m. is at the Cotton Club, 25 Gregorio de la Revilla, for live blues—as close to mellow as Bilbao gets.
Hobby's 57 Gran Vía. Great model planes, cars, galleons, and trains—such as the French TGV, the Eurostar, and the Italian Pendolino.
GiliGili 4 Jantzidenda Lotería. Affordable clothes with a hint of early Anna Sui.
Camper 32 Calle Ercilla. Stocks own line of popular rugged footwear.
Inglesa 4 Plaza Nueva. Dry cleaner that doubles as a funky museum of memorabilia such as old irons, sepia photographs, an antique lace wedding dress.
Blanco 29 Calle Ercilla. Pounding music sells teen cravings like satin halters and aloha camisoles.
Alegría 12 Bidebarrieta, Casco Viejo. A fancy florist with quirky arrangements of the best blooms in town.
Zara 16 Gran Vía. Sleek Spanish take on Prada, at good prices.
Frank Gehry's Hangout: Zortziko Restaurante
17 Alameda de Mazarredo; 34-4/423-9743; dinner for two $100. Gehry's first choice, for chef Daniel García's innovative specials, such as dorada al jugo de berberechos (dorado in a sauce of cockles).
Best Brasserie: Restaurante Guria 66 Gran Vía;
34-4/441-0543; dinner for two $120. Enthusiastic waiters push the bacalao (salt cod, here prepared four ways) as the best in town. They're right.
Lunch Stop: Cafeteria Restaurante Estraunza
59 Gran Vía; 34-4/442-2372; lunch for two $73. Locals favor omelettes and calamari at the busy sidewalk café; the indoor bistro serves regional fare, such as merluza (hake) a la koxkera.
Basque Nouvelle: Gorrotxa 30 Alameda Urquijo;
34-4/443-4934; dinner for two $93. A cozy oasis in an alleyway dense with nightclubs, serving stunning dishes of eel and truffled lobster À la carte or in an enticingly priced $35 prix fixe.
Eating is major for the Basques—on a par with sports. Restaurants are often booked days in advance. The cuisine is flavorful, refined, and unlike southern Spain's food—don't ask for paella here. Traditional dishes revolve around veal, lamb, and fresh fish (especially cod) prepared in olive oil sauces and colorfully presented. A signature dish is bacalao al pil-pil: slow cooking releases the salt cod's oils, which are reabsorbed for an exquisite texture.
Casa Victor Montés 8 Plaza Nueva; 34-4/415-5603. Smoky atmosphere, piano music, and a dazzling array of pintxos to choose from. You pay on the honor system.
Caffè di Roma 6 Calle Navarra; 34-4/424-6063. A counter's length of pastries, and a liqueur coffee, capricci, made with milk piped directly from bottles into foaming machines at the bar.
Iruña 13 Calle de Colón Larreátegui; 34-4/423-7021. Marbled to the hilt, Alhambra-style, with Arabic writing on the tiled walls. The custom-made drinks are a blast.