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Bilbao: Build It And They Will Come

Feb 1, 2010
2010 / Feburary 2010

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come,” and he proceeds to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his vast Iowa cornfield, attracting thousands of curious tourists and the ghosts of baseball players past.

A few years later, and an ocean away, politicians in the Basque city of Bilbao, in northern Spain, must have heard the same message, for they persuaded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to build an art museum in an industrial wasteland on the west bank of the polluted Nervion River. No one could have known at the time that the Frank Gehry-designed museum would forever change the fate of this 700-year-old city.

When it opened in 1997, the $100 million Guggenheim Bilbao — with its gleaming, titanium-covered roof and Jeff Koons’ 43-foot-tall flowered Puppy sculpture out front — was the most-talked-about building in the world, a crazy-angled UFO juxtaposed against the bleak surroundings of rusted iron factories, derelict shipyards and Bilbao’s 19th-century stone buildings.

Before the Guggenheim, Bilbao was a traditional, hardworking Basque city of 350,000, founded in 1300. Its residents labored in steel factories and shipbuilding yards, fished in the Bay of Biscay and put whatever extra energy they had into Athletic Bilbao, their beloved fútbol team. The shining, metallic Guggenheim shattered Basque traditions by calling attention to itself and, thus, started out quite isolated — not only in the minds of the reserved Bilbaínos, but physically as well, standing alone outside of downtown, surrounded by old cranes and shipping containers.

But, as with the miraculous Field of Dreams baseball diamond, crowds began to arrive in Bilbao, in dribs and drabs at first: a few wealthy art patrons and groups of student backpackers, then curious Europeans in tour buses and Americans and Japanese in rental cars. Architects, urban planners, journalists, celebrities and photographers soon followed, often heading straight to the Guggenheim before checking into their hotels. Even the startled Bilbaínos grew to admire, if not love, their strange-looking neighbor.

Frank Gehry’s daring design began a trend in “architecture tourism,” with travelers and industry professionals following the world’s leading “starchitects” — Gehry, Foster, Hadid, Libeskind, Piano, Calatrava, Koolhaas, among others — and their newly completed buildings. Big cities and small towns all over the world now compete to pay big-name architects for new and dramatic cultural attractions. What these cities are really hoping for, of course, is to be blessed by what is now called the “Bilbao effect” — that period following construction and media hype when the new mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” is achieved.

Fortunately for Bilbao, Gehry’s innovative building continues to attract not only visitors but also other famous architects who love the challenges of the Basque terrain and the city’s ethereal Spanish light, which turns the museum’s 33,000 titanium shingles into shimmering planes of gold, purple, magenta and pink as day turns to night. Although Bilbao has not been immune to Europe’s economic downturn, its current unemployment rate of about 12 percent is still only half of what it was prior to the Guggenheim’s opening. Local Basque officials take note of the museum’s 950,000 visitors and 4,000 created jobs in 2008 and calculate that total direct expenditures in Bilbao generated by the activities of the museum last year was approximately $347 million; more than $40 million of that ended up in the Basque treasury, which reinvests much of the money in new technology parks, well-designed residential apartment blocks and public amenities ranging from modern and efficient public transport to city parks. The Bolsa de Bilbao (Bilbao Stock Exchange), founded in 1890, and local businesses like Banco Bilbao Vizcaya were instrumental in Bilbao’s early industrial development and still play a role in its economic and cultural revitalization.

The Bilbao Metro, designed by British architect Sir James Foster in 1996, is noted for its innovative glass entrances. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed the eye-catching concrete and steel Zubizuri Bridge (1997), its white, curved, Postmodern lines set against the rugged, former industrial terrain and the now clean Nervion River. Calatrava also designed Bilbao’s new airport terminal (2000), a soaring white concrete and glass structure known locally as La Paloma, the Dove.

Near the Guggenheim is the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall (1999), designed by Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios. Located on the site of the former Euskalduna shipyard, its exterior resembles a ship. Its 2,164-seat performance theater, home to the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, is the second-largest stage in Europe.

The revitalization of the Abandoibarra District, where the Guggenheim is located, is one of the more ambitious undertakings in Bilbao’s master plan. The area’s most visible construction project is the Iberdrola Tower, designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli and partly financed by Bilbao’s largest electric company. At 40 stories, it will be the city’s tallest building when it opens in 2011.

Completing an expensive revitalization project like Abandoibarra would be pushing the envelope for most cities, but Bilbao is also in the early stages of an even larger urban project. The Zorrotzaurre District, another forlorn riverside parcel, will be turned into an urban technology park with retail space and more than 5,000 residential units. Its design — by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who recently completed Rome’s new Maxxi Museum of Contemporary Art — will bring more striking architecture to the city when construction begins in 2012.

“In 10 years’ time, the Abandoibarra and Zorrotzaurre projects will be finished, and we will have a new San Mamés Stadium [where Athletic Bilbao, the city’s premiere soccer team, currently plays], new science and research facilities and perhaps a high-speed train to the airport and Madrid,” said Bilbao’s mayor, Iñake Azkuna.

The announcement in late 2009 of a possible second Guggenheim — combining art and nature, to be constructed 24 miles outside the city in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve — took many people by surprise. Although it is still early in the planning process, Bilbao’s Vizcaya provincial government is in discussions with the Guggenheim Foundation in New York City and has already earmarked more than $100 million for the project.


Start with the reason you’ve come to Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum (2 Abandoibarra, tel 34 94 435 90 00); its striking exterior and permanent and temporary exhibitions will delight even the most jaded traveler. The nearby Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (2 Museo del Plaza, tel 34 94 439 60 60) offers classical, contemporary and Basque art in a beautiful modern building. Become better acquainted with local culture by visiting the Basque Museum (4 Plaza Miguel de Unamuno, tel 34 94 415 54 23, ) and San Mamés Stadium (tel 34 94 441 39 54, ), the city’s true heart and soul and Spain’s oldest soccer stadium, built in 1913. A modern, new stadium will debut next to the old one in 2014. Athletic-Bilbao’s stadium retail store is open daily, so you can buy a red-and-white-striped scarf or shirt and be welcomed in any bar.

Take in the ballet or opera at the historic Arriaga Theatre (1 Plaza del Arriaga, tel 34 94 479 20 36) or the symphony at the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall (4 Abandoibarra, tel 34 94 431 03 10), which also offers fine dining and meeting venues.

Be sure to visit Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s Old Town, where the bustling crowds in the Mercado de la Ribera confirm the city’s dedication to eating fresh food. Plaza Nueva, a large Neoclassical square built in 1821, is busy most nights with families, youngsters kicking soccer balls, teenagers in party mode and everyone else participating in the age-old Basque tradition of going from bar to bar, having small glasses of wine at each stop. Many of Plaza Nueva’s pintxo (tapas) bars are sheltered within the 189-year-old arches around the square.

The magnificent Basque countryside is just beyond the city limits, easily reached by rental car or the modern and clean metro, which goes all the way to the Atlantic coast in about 30 minutes. The upscale residential and shopping area of Getxo is a good destination for lunch, or enjoy an afternoon of golf at a course overlooking the sea. A slightly longer auto trip will lead into the mountains and valleys of Vizcaya Province, where wineries and historic Basque villages provide great off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Info to Go

Bilbao Airport (BIO) is seven miles north of the city. Taxi fare to downtown Bilbao is approximately $30; a less expensive option is the airport bus, 15 minutes, about $1.80. Several car rental agencies maintain desks within the terminal. Visit www.spain.info.

Just the Facts

Time Zone: GMT + 1 (GMT+2 April–Oct.) Phone Code: 34 Spain; 94 Bilbao

Currency: Euro

Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens may enter Spain for up to 90 days for tourist or business purposes without a
visa. The passport must be valid for at least three months beyond the period of stay.

Official Language: As part of the Basque Country Autonomous Region, Bilbao has two official languages, Euskera and Spanish, which are spoken throughout the city and appear together on street signs. English is spoken in most hotels, restaurants, museums and shops.

Key Industries: Financial services, technology, tourism, chemicals, metallurgy


The Hotel Carlton
This historic (1919), centrally located property offers 142 beautifully renovated guestrooms, a restaurant and public areas that exude old-world charm and tradition. 2 Plaza Federico Moyúa, tel 34 94 416 22 00, $$$

Miró Hotel Bilbao
Located between the Guggenheim and the Fine Arts Museum, with all 50 guestrooms brilliantly conceived by Spanish fashion designer Antonio Miró. 77 Alameda de Mazarredo, tel 34 946 611 880, $$$

Silken Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao
Check out the Philippe Starck designed bathtubs in the modern, design-oriented, 135-room, 5-star property opposite the Guggenheim Museum. 61 Alameda de Mazarredo, tel 34 944 253 300, $$$$


El Perro Chico
A small and intimate eatery on a tiny street above the Nervion River overlooking Casco Viejo. Basque cuisine includes fresh tuna with black squid ink sauce. 2 Aretxaga, San Francisco, tel 34 94 415 05 19 $$$$

Restaurante Atlanta
A family-run restaurant with 10 tables, Basque-style fish and seafood fresh off the boat. Order torrija de brioche with homemade coconut ice cream. 63 Gran Via, tel 34 94 442 26 45 $$$$

Restaurante Etxanobe
Chef Fernando Canales’ restaurant, on the roof of Euskalduna, has a Michelin star and a Best Restaurant in Spain award. 4 Avda. Abandoibarra, tel 34 94 442 10 71, $$$$

Checking in with Marga Meoro
Associate Director of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Why did the Basque government petition the Guggenheim Foundation to locate a museum in Bilbao?

The city was in a crisis in the 1980s because of the decline of the iron, steel and shipbuilding industries; and the government needed to change the city’s image from an industrial city to a cultural and service city. In 1991, officials set up a redevelopment plan designed to clean up the river, change our urban environment by demolishing old factories and creating new green spaces and constructing new cultural attractions and high-technology buildings.

Does the museum attract more foreign or more domestic visitors?

Foreign visitors make up about 60 percent of the total, but more Spanish visitors, especially from the Basque region, are now coming to the museum. We run several exhibitions that are not targeted to serious art patrons, like our successful Armani and Art of the Motorcycle shows, which attracted many Spanish people who can easily drive here for the day or weekend. Many school groups also visit every day for special shows and lessons on art and design.

Is it true that the Basque government is working with Guggenheim directors to establish a second museum just outside of Bilbao?

There have been discussions, but it is just in the early stages and no decisions have been made. The Basque government has to look at its strategic goals and determine if a new Guggenheim facility, perhaps more focused on the environment, will attract enough people to make it financially feasible. We are averaging about 1 million visitors each year at this museum, and everyone is looking at the potential for a second museum just outside the city, but it will be some time before a plan is presented for a project such as this.


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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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