Take $100 million, add a world-famous architect and a lot of titanium, and you've got a formula to revitalize an industrial Spanish city. That's what the Basque government hoped when it built the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. And the plan has worked. Tourists, art connoisseurs and architecture aficionados have flocked to see Frank Gehry's remarkable design ever since the Guggenheim opened in 1997. In its first year over 1.3 million people visited the museum, three times more than had been estimated.
As Bilbao celebrates its 700th anniversary this month, it's looking toward a far brighter future than was predicted in the 1980s, when the city's mining, steel and shipbuilding industries atrophied and threatened to turn the Basque region into the Spanish equivalent of America's rust belt. In addition to the Guggenheim, several other important design projects have recently been finished, including a new metro system with ridged, caterpillar-like entrances that was designed by Norman Foster, the English architect who won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize last year. And Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, perhaps today's most famous bridge architect, designed a gleaming, arched footbridge, the Pasarela de Uribitarte.
But there was plenty to see even before the recent revitalization. The Museo de Bellas Artes showcases such Spanish artists as Goya, Velázquez and El Greco, as well as modern Basque art. In the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter), the Mercado de la Ribera, a covered market, sells almost every food product grown or made in the area--from Tolosan red beans and chorizo to farmhouse eggs collected fresh that morning--and the ancient Siete Calles neighborhood, the city's seven original streets, has some of the best tapas bars in the city. Bilbao's restaurants alone are worth the trip. Here are some suggestions for where to eat, drink, sleep and shop in Bilbao.
Basque cuisine, which evolved from the food of the region's shepherds, fishermen and farmers, may seem simple, but it ranks among the best in the world. Many classic dishes are based on the seafood caught in the Bay of Biscay: anchovies, sardines, hake, squid and spider crabs. Yet the most typical local dishes are made with bacalao, dried salted cod; many judge a restaurant by its variations on this ubiquitous fish. Basque country is also known for the excellent wines of Navarra and La Rioja, which many of Bilbao's restaurants feature. Here are some suggestions for where to eat, in order of distance from the Guggenheim. (All of the restaurants but one are within a 15-minute walk of the museum.)
Restaurante Guggenheim Bilbao (2 Avenida Abandoibarra; 011-34-94-423-93-33). Executive chef Martín Berasategui--one of the most famous chefs of the Basque country, whose eponymous restaurant in Lasarte has two Michelin stars--recently entered into a partnership with three of his protégés, one of whom, Bixente Arrieta, is now chef at the Guggenheim. The menu updates many traditional dishes; for example, caldo de sopakos con chipiron guisado y salteado combines two classic Basque preparations: garlic soup and squid stewed in its own ink.
Zortziko (17 Alameda Mazarredo; 011-34-94-423-97-43). Head chef and owner Daniel García's inventive cuisine, extensive wine list and excellent service have earned his restaurant Bilbao's top spot in Spain's Gourmetour Guide. The menu is balanced between his eclectic creations, such as seared scallops with tomato "carpaccio," and upscale versions of home-style Basque dishes like ruvuelto de perretxiko,scrambled eggs with mushrooms.
Gorrotxa (30 Alameda Urquijo; 011-34-94-443-49-37). Don't be put off by the odd location, in a downtown shopping center; step inside and you'll find an elegant, antiques-filled room. Carmelo Gorrotxategi, the chef and owner, has earned a Michelin star for both his alta cocina (haute cuisine) dishes, such as foie gras with a warm raisin sauce, and his more traditional ones, such as the lightly grilled, melt-in-your-mouth kokotxas, tender pieces of meat from the lower jaw of hake, served with a garlic-and-parsley vinaigrette.
La Gabarra (18 Botica Vieja; 011-34-94-447-70-62). Just across the Deusto bridge from the Guggenheim, this typical Basque asador y sidrería (roast-and-cider house) specializes in wood-grilled steaks and fish. Other regional dishes include cogollos de Tudela, lettuce hearts from Navarra served with slivered scallions and house-cured anchovies, downed with fizzy cider or Rioja.
Andra Mari (22 Barrio Elexalde, Galdácano; 011-34-94-456-00-05). Ensconced in an old hillside farmhouse on the city's outskirts, this rustic restaurant is home to two talented chefs, José Miguel Olazabalga and Eneko Atxa, who turn out modern versions of Basque classics, such as the degustación de bacalao--dried cod prepared four ways. The waitresses wear traditional Navarra outfits, and the decor includes old winepresses and exposed wooden ceiling beams.
Hotel Carlton (2 Plaza Federico Moyúa; 011-34-94-416-22-00; double rooms, $85 to $175). Facing a graceful oval plaza in the heart of Bilbao, this recently refurbished landmark 1920s Beaux Arts--style hotel is near the Guggenheim, the main shopping areas and many of the best restaurants. Just outside its doors is the city's equivalent of the Champs Elysées, the Gran Vía.
Hotel Conde Duque (22 Campo de Volantín; 011-34-94-445-60-00; double rooms, $70 to $115). Location is everything: This hotel faces the Nervión River, the Campo de Volantín river promenade and the Pasarela de Uribitarte; plus, it's near both the Old Quarter and the Guggenheim.
Hotel Ercilla (37-39 Calle Ercilla; 011-34-94-470-57-00; double rooms, $85 to $130). The building is modern, but the hotel has an old-world feel. Stop in during the bullfighting season and you might see toreros walking through the lobby; they dress here before entering the ring. Once, star bullfighter Francisco Rivera put his hand in the mouth of a tiger in the lobby as a publicity stunt. The Restaurante Bermeo at the Ercilla has long been considered one of Spain's top hotel restaurants, and the hotel bar is a meeting place for many of the city's oldest families.
López de Haro (2 Calle Obispo Orueta; 011-34-94-423-55-00; double rooms, $185 and up). Located in a quiet area near the Guggenheim, this classically decorated luxury hotel is home to the highly respected restaurant Club Naútico, where chef Alberto Vélez stuns diners with his stylized modern Basque dishes, such as red mullet in a pine-nut crust.
Basandere (4 Calle Iparraguirre; 011-34-94-423-63-86). This store near the Guggenheim specializes in the products of local artisans and in regional foods, such as ventresca de bonito, tins or jars of prime tuna belly.
D'Vinno"La Tiende" (6 CalleIbáñez de Bilbao; 011-34- 94-423-48-82). Esperanza Ares, the knowledgeable and personable owner, ensures that her wine shop carries plenty of rare Spanish bottles from such producers as Alvaro Palacios L'Ermita, Remírez de Ganuza and Torremuga.
El Club del Gourmet (79 Gran Vía; 011-34-94-425-35-00). Located inside El Corte Inglés, the Spanish equivalent of Macy's department store, the shop carries first-rate specialty food products and a fine selection of Spanish wines.
El Viandar de Sota (45 Gran Vía; 011-34-94-415-25-00). This remarkable gastronomic complex on the main street has a well-stocked kitchenware shop; a bakery and coffee bar; a tapas bar specializing in Spanish hams; and a restaurant specializing in chuletones, wood-grilled steaks.
Gerry Dawes is a New York-based writer who has been traveling the food and wine trails of Spain for 30 years.