Came to fame thanks to a new museum - how likely is that?
In an amazingly short time, and without losing sight of its roots, Bilbao, the dirty industrial city, has successfully transformed itself into a buzzing cultural capital. The Guggenheim museum is the undoubted flagship of this triumphant progress, a sinuous fantasy of a building that literally takes the breath away. It inspires because of what it is, but also because the city had the vision to build it. While the museum has led the turnaround, much of what is enjoyable about modern Bilbao was already there. Bustling bar-life, harmonious old and new architecture, a superb eating culture, and a tangible sense of pride in being a working city are still things that make Bilbao a little bit special, and the exciting new developments can only add to those qualities.
The Casco Viejo, the old town, still evokes a cramped medieval past. Along its web of attractive streets, designer clothing stores occupy the ground floors where families perhaps once huddled behind the city walls. El Ensanche, the new town, has an elegant European feel to it. The wealth of the city is more evident here, with stately banks and classy shops lining the planned avenues. The riverbank is the most obvious beneficiary of Bilbao’s leap into the 21st century: Calatrava’s eerily skeletal bridge, designer promenades and Gehry’s exuberant Guggenheim bring art and architecture together and make the Río Nervión the city’s axis once more. It doesn’t stop there, as ongoing work is further softening the remaining industrial edges.
The seaside suburbs, once reached by hours of painstaking river navigation, are now a nonchalant 20 minutes away by metro. Fashionable Getxo has a relaxed beach atmosphere, while, across the estuary, Portugalete still seems to be wondering how Bilbao gets all the credit these days: for hundreds of years it was a far more important port.