If Bilbao’s ecological progress had equalled that of its economic, cultural and aesthetic revitalisation in recent years, it would probably be among the world’s greenest cities. After the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997, new buildings and infrastructure projects fronted by star architects have transformed what was a declining industrial city into a vibrant economic and cultural hub.
Central to that has been the transformation of decontaminated industrial sites into urban regeneration projects. Around Bilbao, world-class architecture now springs up between charming structures of old. The river snaking through the city has also been cleaned, allowing state-of-the-art buildings to reside by the waterfront. Bilbao has not just received a facelift, but a thorough health check too.
So how to enjoy this renovation? Here is a brief eco-guide to visiting the Basque city.
Walk the city
Although Bilbao’s overhauled transport system remains impressive (typified by the Norman Foster-designed metro system), it is unrequired for the cultured visitor. Essentially crammed into a narrow valley, the city is so dense that everything is reachable by foot. Typical attractions are the Guggenheim Museum, the Santiago Cathedral and the medieval quarter – the Casco Viejo.
Cycle along the river
Biking is a wonderful way to explore Bilbao. The best route goes along the River Nervión, which slices the city in half. A wide, modern walkway hugs the waterfront. En route you will find the City Hall, the magnificent Guggenheim, the Euskalduna Congress Centre and the monumental Arriaga Theatre. Bikes can be rented privately or from the city council.
Go to the Saturday flea market
On a budget? Or just looking for an authentic souvenir? On the first Saturday of each month, the Dos de Mayo Street fills with stalls that sell second-hand clothing, accessories, antiques, books, vinyl and more. It’s like treasure hunting; only the imagination limits what you may find, and bargains are sure to be on offer. Traders usually arrive at 10.30 and leave at 16.00. And forget the car; traffic is closed off.
Attend the Mercado de la Ribera
The Basque are known for their passion for food. This is said to be largest indoor market in Europe, and with its 10,000 square metres you wouldn’t bet against it. Located in the old town at 20 Calle de la Ribera, near the Casco Viejo, stalls across three floors tempt you with regional specialities; everything from fresh fish and seafood to hams, cheese, olives and peppers.
Take the Artxanda Funicular
Located in a valley, you’d be mad not to enjoy Bilbao from a view. Take the red funicular railway up the Artxanda Mountain, anchored just north of the Zubizuri Bridge, opposite of the Guggenheim. The 800-metre track elevates you 227 metres to a stunning view across the city and the surrounding green hillsides. Once on top, hotels, cafés and restaurants are available. Services normally go every 15 minutes.
Location: Bizkaia; one of three Basque provinces, near the Spanish north coast.
Size: 41 square kilometres
Currency: Euro (€)
Time zone: GMT+2
Photos: A.B.G., Alberto Loyo, Jane Rix, Lazar Mihai-Bogdan, Romanchuck Dimitry [all via Shutterstock.com], Funicular de Artxanda S.A