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.