Frank Gehry’s masterpiece building, which put Bilbao firmly on the tourist map and first inspired architectural tourism, is only the beginning of Bilbao’s architectural charms. The airport and striking Zubizuri walking bridge are by Santiago Calatrava and around the tree-covered Jardines de Albia Art Nouveau facades include Cafe Iruna, a traditional stop for tea and pastries.
Gran Via, between Plaza Abando and Plaza Moyua, is the main shopping and fashion district, with Zara, Mango, H&M and El Corte Ingles department store. The outstanding Bilbao Fine Arts Museum attracts art lovers with works by El Greco and Goya, and by French impressionists, old masters, Medieval woodcarvers and 20th-century Basque artists.
New riverfront parks and promenades make Bilbao one of Spain’s most walkable cities and handy maps from the tourist office point the way to charming old Casco Vieja, Bilbao’s Medieval heart. Here clients will discover streets where medieval pilgrims followed the legendary Camino de Santiago, the route of St. James. Suggest they look for scallop-shell tiles marking the way to the cathedral of St. James, with its carved stone portal and peaceful cloister. In this oldest quarter, houses retain their historic balconies and shuttered porches that overhang the street.
Suggest a stop in one of the cafes under the arcades of beautiful Plaza Nueva for a glass of wine and a plate of tapas, called pintxos here. For dinner, Restaurante Porrue is just around the corner from the Gran Domine on Alameda Recalde. Small and smartly decorated, they offer both traditional and inventive dishes based on local seafood.
New CRUISE Port
The recently opened Cruise Terminal Bilbao (www.bilbaoport.es) welcomes cruise passengers and helps them see the best of the surrounding region with free shuttles into Bilbao, a dedicated port-side tourist office, an excellent seafood restaurant and shore excursions to Bilbao, San Sebastian, the Pyrenees and the charming vineyard-clad villages of the Rioja Wine region, all easy day-trips from Bilbao.
On the way to the city from this state-of-the-art port facility, visitors pass Art Nouveau mansions around the inner harbor, and can stop to ride across the UNESCO-acclaimed Vizcaya Bridge. The world’s first bridge carrying people and vehicles on a high suspended car, it is an outstanding invention of the Industrial Revolution.
Spain’s Northern Coast
With the end of ETA separatist movement’s terrorist activity, tourism in Spain’s Basque region has increased exponentially. Clients may not be familiar with this north coast between Bilbao and the French border, with its broad golden beaches and cities filled with history and charm, so be sure to point it out.
The former royal resort of San Sebastian, slated as European Capital of Culture for 2016, sits on a long crescent beach, with streets of elegant homes and glittering shops. Constitution Square was originally the bull ring, and numbers on the apartment doors once marked box seats of rich spectators. An aquarium, maritime museum and richly ornate churches are worth seeing, and San Sebastian is one of Spain’s food capitals, so you’ll want to share local favorites with clients. Calle 31 de Agosto is lined with tapas bars, and locals hop from one to another, sampling wines and pintxos at each. They nibble on these at the bar paying for everything at the end, or take a table and order from the blackboard. Suggest La Cepa at #7 (www.barlacepa.com), and for a full meal or pintxos, suggest the excellent Gandarias at the corner of San Jeronimo (www.restaurantegandarias.com). A reliable central hotel is Silken Amara Plaza (www.hoteles-silken.com/ho tel-amara-plaza-san-sebastian).
Rioja Wine Region
Wines, picture-perfect Medieval towns, outstanding food and luxury lodgings are a winning combination for tourism in the Rioja, and again it was architect Frank Gehry who jump-started it, by designing the hotel complex at Marques de Riscal winery in Elciego. Huge titanium and steel panels -- tinted pink, silver and gold - suspend in flowing curves above the stone building housing a luxury hotel, restaurant, wine museum and a spa offering wine-based therapies (www.hotel-marquesderiscal.com).
Learn more about Bilbao and its surroundings at www.spain.info