Things to Do in Basque Country
Inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
The conception of this iconic museum was born out of a grand mission to revitalize Spain’s fourth-largest city, considered one of the nation’s most critical ports. Traditionally an industrial metropolis, the creation of Bilbao’s cutting-edge museum generated -- in its first three years -- over four million tourist visits and enough economic activity and taxes to more than pay for its cost.
During a trip to the riverside museum, you can wander its over 100 exhibitions, all interconnected and arranged around the central light-filled atrium.
San Sebastian’s main crescent-shaped beach is of softest sand and punctuated at both ends by craggy hills: Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. Translating into English as ‘the shell’, La Concha was fundamental in the incarnation of San Sebastian as an elegant seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty back in the 19th century.
The beach fills to bursting in the summer, when the bumpy waters of the Bay of Biscay are calm and pleasantly warm to swim in. Lifeguards are always on duty and there are showers and other facilities on the beach, making it safe and easy for families to enjoy a day on the sand. Two floating pontoons out in the bay are just the spot for sunbathing; beyond them the small, rocky islet of Santa Clara has a tiny beach that is a prime picnic spot and can be reached by motorboat or hired canoe. Now backed by formal gardens, a brightly painted carousel, and a row of charming hotels, seafood restaurants and bars.
Get to know Bilbao beyond just its artsy image by taking a trip to the city's Casco Viejo. Dating back to Medieval times, this – the Old Quarter – and its original seven streets still retain an almost untouched charm, free of the touristy trappings you might find in other big cities.
This once walled-in neighborhood originally consisted of exactly seven streets and, for that reason, is sometimes still called Los Siete Calles (“seven streets” in Spanish). Each of these original avenues still exist, with names such as Tendería Kalea (Shoekeeper's Street) and Carnicería Vieja Kalea (Old Butchery Street). Since Medieval times, the barrio has expanded to include still more streets beyond those seven originals, and also squares like Plaza Berria and Plaze Nueva.
The Casco Viejo draws a crowd for more than just its historical appeal, too. Head to the old-world district to fulfill your culinary cravings by popping from one bar to the next for pintxos.
Lying between El Muelle harbor and the River Urumea, San Sebastian’s Old Town has its origins in medieval times although it was largely rebuilt following the large-scale destruction of the city by fire in 1813.
By day the Old Town is a maze of charismatic alleys and clusters of townhouses hosting the city’s chaotic daily Pescadería (fish market). The Municipal Museum San Telmo, the fine Gothic church of St Vincente and the Baroque basilica of Santa María del Coro are also found here, and much of the incessant action centers around the dynamic Plaza de la Constitución. This arcaded and balconied square was once a bullring and by night it buzzes with laughter and chatter from the numerous crowded bars and restaurants; this is the best place to sample pintxos, the famous Basque-country tapas of bite-size snacks on bread with typical toppings including peppers, tortilla, garlic prawns or cod.
Constitution Square sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.
Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square (or Plaza de la Constitución in Spanish) still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th. Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar.
Wandering the narrow medieval streets of Bilbao's Casco Viejo, you'll stumble upon the towering exterior walls of Santiago Cathedral. It is believed that the church, which serves as a stop for pilgrims trekking the northern Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), dates back over 600 years, when it was built on the site of two previous even older churches.
Today's cathedral – which shouldn't be confused with the much larger one of the same name located in Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Camino de Santiago – has expanded over the course of time, growing to the cathedral that you see now. During a visit, you can peruse its many chapels, wander the peaceful 15th-century gothic-style cloister, or just take in the exterior with its 19th-century gothic-revival facade and spire.
One of the two headlands that bookend the sweep of San Sebastian’s sandy La Concha Bay, Monte Igueldo stands to the west of the town and is the perfect vantage point for panoramic views over the rocky islet of Santa Clara toward the hump of Monte Urgull at the east end of the beach.
Rearing up at the end of La Concha Bay, steep Monte Igueldo can be ascended by car or on foot along the winding Paseo del Faro; alternatively a funicular runs up the hill from Plaza del Funicular, 4. Once up there, there are viewing terraces and a small theme park but most people just visit for the panoramas, which are especially wonderful at sunset as the lights of the town twinkle below. Although the amusement park won’t impress hardened Disney veterans, it has a certain passé charm and enough to entertain families with toddlers for a couple of hours, from bumper cars to carousels and gentle roller coasters as well as themed rides in the Pirate Park.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastian was flourishing as an aristocratic seaside resort; it was promoted to cathedral in 1953. Buen Pastor is the largest religious construction in the city, made of sandstone harvested from Monte Igueldo and with a tapering spire that serves as a local landmark.
The vast church was designed by Basque architect Manuel de Echave along elegant, slender Gothic lines; its needle-like spire is the tallest in the Basque country at 246 feet (75 meters). Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida created the ‘Cross of Peace’ that adorns the main façade. Based on the Latin cross, the cathedral has three naves and the interior is awash with light flooding in through the stained-glass windows by Juan Bautista Lázaro; vast chandeliers hang down from the vaulted roof and rose windows illuminate both ends of the transept.
If your visit to Bilbao has gotten you into an artistic mood, then embrace that notion with a little theater at the city's Teatro Arriaga. The 19th-century Neo-baroque theater goes easy on the traveler's eyes with an elaborate facade that overlooks the east bank of the Nervión River, and a fancy interior of plush red chairs, golden balconies and ornate crown molding.
This may sound like theater-viewing perfection, but Teatro Arraiga's past hasn't been quite as flawless. Designed by Joaquín Rucoba, the theater was opened in 1890, and dedicated to Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, considered the Mozart of Spain. Flash forward to 1914, when a fire essentially demolished it, followed by other setbacks, such as its closing for a time during the Civil War. Then came threatening floods in 1983, which inundated the structure to the second floor, closing it once more.
With formal gardens that tumble down to the beach edge at Ondarreta, the Miramar Palace was once the retreat of Queen Marie Christine Habsburg, the wealthy widow of King Alphonse XII of the Spanish ruling royal family; she was responsible for putting San Sebastian on the map as a popular seaside vacation resort in the late 19th century.
The palace was the work of Basque architect José Goicoa, and was completed in 1893 in the English style. The influence of his design partner, English architect Seldon Wornum, can be seen in the mock-Tudor detailing in the patterned brickwork, gables, tall thin chimneys, and rounded towers. The gardens of Marie Christine’s summer palace are so extensive that a road runs underneath them, connecting San Sebastian’s beaches with the elegant suburb of El Antiguo. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the Spanish royal family and local government officials, the gardens now form an elegant public park.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
Just a few blocks off Bilbao’s main Plaza Moyúa is one of the city’s most unique and surprising structures: the Alhóndiga Bilbao. The multi-purpose venue marries culture and leisure, the past and the present, and is a free-to-enter stop you should definitely add to your list of things to do during your visit.
Indeed, the Alhóndiga Bilbao didn’t start out as such an innovative concept, but instead as a wine warehouse. Inaugurated in 1909, it was designed by Ricardo Bastida, and, come the 1970s, had an uncertain future, with proposals to turn it into public housing, a museum of modern art, and even to simply demolish it. But the structure had a more promising future in store: the Basque Government decided to declare it a “Public Property of Cultural Interest,” and henceforth it has become the center that you find today.
Wandering Bilbao's streets, you'll inevitably end up crossing Plaza Moyúa. Also known as Plaza Elíptica, due to its oblong shape, this main “square” is more than just a central crossroads, but a garden- and fountain-filled roundabout worth checking out and even stopping in (especially given its central area accessible to pedestrians).
Originally designed back in 1873, Plaza Moyúa sits in one of Bilbao's most exclusive neighborhoods, where it bisects the bustling shopping street Gran Vía. The plaza itself is dotted by various noteworthy buildings, such as the 20th-century Flemish-style Palacio Chávarri, the headquarters of the Civil Government since 1943, and the Hotel Carlton, the city's most famous hotel, which stands alone on its own spoke-like corner of the square.
The plaza is also a convenient location to catch the city's Metro – the third-busiest in Spain -- which rises out of Moyúa with its glass-domed entrance.
Site of many battles from the 12th century onwards, Monte Urgull is San Sebastian’s eastern headland and was an important defensive and lookout position until the town’s defensive walls were destroyed by the French and Portuguese in 1863. It is traversed with a tangle of hiking paths and topped by the small, fortified tower of Castillo de la Mota, built around 1150 and once used as a prison.
Today the castle provides glorious views west over La Concha Bay plus its little rocky outcrop Isla de Santa Clara. It also houses a small museum, the Casa de la Historia, which is chiefly memorable as it displays the sword of Boabdil, the ill-fated last Moorish king who saw his kingdom collapse at the hands of Isabella and Ferdinand in the 16th century. Above the castle looms the Monumento al Sagrado Corazón, a statue of Jesus that was erected in 1950 and looks beadily down over its verdant surroundings toward San Sebastian’s photogenic Parte Vieja (Old Town).
San Telmo Museum is in the heart of the Old Town, housed in a 16th-century Renaissance convent structured around a lovely cloister. For the second half of the 19th century, the convent was used as a barracks and slowly fell into disrepair. It was rescued from dereliction and in 1932 became the city’s municipal museum. The year 2011 saw the addition of a new gallery coated in aluminum, creating a seamless blend of Renaissance and contemporary design.
The museum examines the development of Basque culture from Neolithic times to present, helped along by the 11 murals in the chapel painted; these were painted by José María Sert in the 1930s and highlight the main events over the centuries. The fine-art collection contains lots of gloomy oil paintings, with a couple of standout masterpieces by El Greco as well as fine portraits by Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla.
Just south of the Guggenheim Museum resides Bilbao's White Bridge, yet another inventive structure in this city so known for pushing the artistic envelope. Also called Campo Volantin Bridge or Calatrava Bridge, the unmistakable Bilbao silhouette is more often referred to as Zubizuri Bridge, which means “white bridge” in Basque.
The Zubizuri Bridge was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who also claims the Bilbao airport as another of his works. The tied arch footbridge is made of an intriguing curved walkway suspended by steel cables. Since its opening in 1997, it has become a beloved part of the Bilbao skyline, for the most part anyway: its deck, which is made of translucent glass bricks, turns into a slippery hazard on the city's often rainy days. As such, for safety reasons the bridge walkway has now been covered in black mats (much to the dismay of the original artist).
You may think that the Guggenheim has satiated your appetite for art, but Bilbao has another museum up its sleeve: The Museo de Bellas Artes, or the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
Founded in 1908, the Fine Arts Museum that you see today didn't come into being until 1945, when it merged with the Modern Art Museum, moving to its current location in the corner of Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. Home to more than 10,000 works, the museum is the perfect compliment to the Guggenheim: The Fine Arts Museum is intimate and traditional, focused primarily on local artists, while the Guggenheim is grand, abstract and largely features international pieces. Indeed, among the Museo de Bellas Arte's galleries, you will find a more conventional museum collection (compared to the Guggenheim), ranging from paintings to sculptures, engravings, drawings and more.
Extensively revamped in 2008, San Sebastian’s aquarium has an enviable waterside position at the foot of Monte Urgull, is one of the most up-to-date in Europe, despite its location in a 1928 building. With 31 aquaria featuring marine eco-scapes from Cantabria and the tropics, the premier attraction here is the 360-degree perspex tunnel that dives through the Oceanarium while more than 40 species of fish, including bull sharks, turtles, sinister stingrays and jellyfish, swim merrily past.
A small museum of marine history displays the bleached skeleton of a whale caught off the Atlantic coast in 1878, and a smattering of fascinating whaling and fishing boats that showcase San Sebastian’s enduring relationship with the sea.
Like a fantasy castle straight out of Middle-earth, the pride of the Vizcaya looms above the Butrón River, marking the spot of a key fortification that kept the Butrón clan in control. The original structure of Castle of Butron probably dated to the 11th century, though the earliest verifiable records refer to a stone tower that existed by 1250 AD. The castle was expanded as regional wars raged, and the Basque's ruling families spilled much blood in its shadow. As peace fell across the beautiful countryside, the great families allowed their fortress to fall into utter disrepair. Finally, in 1878, new owners hired architect Francisco de Cuba to rebuild the ruins but this time with a romanticized silhouette for relaxing, rather than fighting. Today, the old Castle of Butrón seems something from a fairy tale, with turreted towers and Bavarian style that will have you wondering when the next dragon will arrive. The gardens make a fine spot for a picnic, or wander around inside.
The shimmering panels of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum may capture visitors’ oohs, but it’s the giant Puppy that draws all the awes. Standing at 43 feet tall, the flower-covered topiary stands out as a colorful symbol of Spain’s fifth-largest city, and will undoubtedly capture both your heart and the attention of your camera lens.
This cuddly canine giant was created by Jeff Koons, the American artist who found fame during the 80s, particularly for his pieces that hover between pop and pure kitsch. The life of this flowery man’s best friend didn’t start in Spain, though, but rather in Germany, where it was originally commissioned for a castle. Not done with traveling, the West Highland White Terrier puppy relocated to Sydney Harbour’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and ultimately to the grounds of Bilbao’s museum, where it is now part of its permanent collection. Since then, its journey has continued, making a temporary appearance in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
The Guggenheim isn’t the only waterside architectural wonder in Bilbao; just up the river sits another impressive construction, the Euskalduna Palace. The building, which was inaugurated in 1999, features mosaic-style windows, and massive exterior walls of rusty looking corten steel. The inspiration behind the look: to stand symbolically as the last vessel built in the dry dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard, which played an important role in the city’s growth and history. The architecturally acclaimed Euskalduna Palace houses over 50,000 square meters of space, and boasts both the largest and second largest stages in Spain. The multipurpose venue serves as an opera house, concert hall and conference center, and therefore hosts a range of events from cultural to corporate. Temporary exhibitions are held here as well.
Backed by a promenade and stretching almost 0.5 km (0.3 miles), the beach is only slight less busy than La Concha in the summer, when it fills up with families huddled in the shade of blue-and-white striped beach tents and kids playing beach tennis or volleyball. It shares the same views of Isla de Santa Clara floating out in the bay, which is a lovely spot for a summer picnic lunch. Less protected from the whims and winds of the Bay of Biscay than La Concha, Ondarreta is the place of choice for surfers when the waves pick up. At the end of the beach, at the foot of Monte Igueldo in the residential district of El Antiguo, there’s a spectacular piece of sculpture by Eduardo Chillida entitled Peine del Viento.
Victoria Eugenia Theater (Teatro Victoria Eugenia) Just steps away from San Sebastián’s old quarter sits the Victoria Eugenia Theater. There, the commanding Belle Époque-style building stands watch over Okendo Plaza, as well as the River Urumea, which flows out to the Bay of Biscay.
Francisco de Urcola designed the early 20th-century property in response to the Basque city’s growth as a destination for Spanish and European aristocrats. Now, it’s considered one of the most beautiful buildings in San Sebastián and also as one of the most prestigious theaters in all of Spain. And upon seeing it, there’s really no surprise as to why. It boasts an attractive sandstone exterior, whose columned front façade is adorned by four prominent sculptures, each of which represents opera, tragedy, comedy and drama. Meanwhile, the interior dazzles with golden balconies filled with red velvet chairs, and a ceiling of frescoes illuminated by an elaborate chandelier.
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