Dazzling Art and Architecture in Bilbao, Spain

by | Jun 23, 2024 | Arts and Culture, Europe, Museums and Buildings | 7 comments

I still haven’t finished telling you about my gallivant around Europe, which happened back in March and April and is fast becoming ancient history. I’m going to keep on peppering you with one or two European posts a month until all the stories are told.

Today I’m returning to Bilbao, Spain, home to the spectacular Guggenheim art museum.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain
The Guggenheim, an architectural marvel designed by Frank Gehry, is by far the most famous building in Bilbao. But there are many other architectural highlights in this funky city.

I really liked Bilbao; of all the towns and cities we visited in Spain, it was the place where I could most envision myself living. Apparently Bilbao was quite a gritty, down-and-out place just a few decades ago, with a dying iron-mining industry, struggling economy, and a serious heroin epidemic. Then the city’s leaders pulled off a miracle by snatching the Guggenheim project (which, I learned, was initially planned for Salzburg, Austria) in the 1990s, and the city turned around, becoming one of Spain’s top tourist destinations. I like stories like this because they give me hope for Joburg.

Bilbao is also a Basque cultural center in northern Spain; the Basque people have their own language (most of the city’s signs are written in both Spanish and Basque) and very distinct culinary traditions.

Three Days in Bilbao

We were only in Bilbao for three days but I think we saw and experienced a lot during that short time. Here are my favorite photos of the city’s architecture and art. I’ll write more about Basque culture and food in a future post.

Street art in old town Bilbao
Some street art I liked in Bilbao’s old city, near where my friend Michelle and I stayed. Bilbao was founded in the 13th century and has beautiful medieval architecture mixed in with the more famous contemporary stuff.
View along Bilbao's river
View along the Nervión River that runs through town. The colorful building on the right is the main city market. The buildings in this area were almost totally destroyed by a devastating flood in 1983, but have been mostly revived.
Modern architecture
There’s lots of great modern architecture in town.
Reflective building
I was obsessed with the reflections on this building.
Bilbao modernist church
I was also obsessed with this modernist church — such a nice contrast to the myriad of ornate, over-the-top medieval churches I visited in Spain. I tried very hard to get inside but failed.
Famous bridge
Famous bridge — forgot the name.
Pretty Art Nouveau building
I also don’t know the name of this building but liked it. The red-and-white banner above the door is for the Bilbao Athletic Club football team, which was playing a huge match later that week. The Athletic Club flags were everywhere.
We took a fantastic alternative culture and street art tour with Susanne Kotsampasi from Guru Walks. Most of the history mentioned in this post came from Susanne. She also gave us great insights on Bilbao’s political culture and street art, and she made really good restaurant recommendations. If you happen to go to Bilbao and want to take an offbeat walking tour, I highly recommend booking with Susanne.
Historic daycare center in Bilbao
Susanne took us past this beautiful Art Nouveau building, Casa Cuna, in La Vieja, a historically working class neighborhoods. Casa Cuna was built in 1912 as a daycare center for the children of poor working mothers — a revolutionary concept at the time.
Street art in La Vieja
Pretty street art in La Vieja.
Iron worker in La Vieja
This 91-year-old man, Emiliano, is one of Bilbao’s oldest surviving iron miners, according to Susanne. She had just been telling us about him, and how she wished she could include him in her tours, when we happened to walk past his flat and see him chilling in the window.
Women artist street art
One of my favorite murals, depicting women artists of Bilbao, which Susanne showed us.

The Guggenheim

I’ve been to the Guggenheim in New York City a couple of times and I’d seen pictures of the Bilbao Guggenheim. But nothing could have prepared me for the actual place — it was awe-inspiring and I loved all of the art inside. Although it’s a huge museum, I found the exhibits very digestible. We made it through the whole place in a couple of hours without rushing.

In front of the Guggenheim
In front of the Guggenheim with the famous puppy sculpture by Jeff Koons.
Puppy sculpture from the side
The puppy is made of real plants and changes with the seasons.
Maman spider sculpture at the Guggenheim Bilbao
“Maman”, the famous spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois.
Matter of Time at the Guggenheim
“The Matter of Time”, another flagship Guggenheim exhibition by Richard Serra. It’s very hard to explain what this exhibition looks and feels like without actually going there. Highly recommend.
Matter of Time exhibition at the Guggenheim
We probably spent about 20 minutes walking through. In hindsight, I could have stayed longer.
Exhibition at the Guggenheim
I don’t remember what this is but I loved it.
Guggenheim pop culture exhibition
The sculpture in the middle, Tulips, is also by Jeff Koons. The enormous picture on the right is by the brilliant Gilbert and George, about whom Thorsten and I recently watched an excellent documentary. I’m not sure about the picture on the left.
Michelle in the Guggenheim
I don’t remember what the installation was about, but this is my favorite picture from the Guggenheim.

Tickets to the Guggenheim cost €18.00 (about $19, which I think is a great deal) and are best booked in advance. In case you’re wondering, we stayed at the Bilder Boutique Hotel in Bilbao and found it very nice.

Keep an eye out for future posts about Spain (and Portugal!) in the next several weeks.


  1. dizzylexa

    Oh yes please we need something along the lines of the Guggenheim project in central Joburg. Love that “Maman” spider. Great photos and post.

    • 2summers

      That would be amazing!

  2. AutumnAshbough

    Wow, I loved this post because I was all, “Wait a minute! That Guggenheim looks just like the Downton LA Disney Concert Hall!” And sure enough, Gehry designed Disney first. Hopefully he made improvements because the curvature here actually, famously, melted cars by reflecting the sun at certain times of the year, LOL. And then I saw “The Matter of Time” pictures and thought, “Didn’t I just see something like this at LACMA?!” And yes, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has Richard Serra’s “Band” sculpture on display, which my friend JM and I saw back in April. So very cool on a personal level (wow, I feel so cultured), but I love that a single building can revitalize a whole city. The Guggenheim Bilbao a pretty spectacular building, though, and I’m glad it reflects light on the river which is probably safer.

    • AutumnAshbough

      Okay, the Disney building doesn’t look exactly the same, but the style is unmistakable.

      • 2summers

        Is there a Disney Bilbao?!

    • 2summers

      Obviously I read my comments in reverse order 😂

      • AutumnAshbough

        LOL, WP Reader is a huge fan of reverse chronological.


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