Think of Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum may spring to mind, but you could just as easily be left scratching your head thinking actually, I don't really know anything about this city. It's not usually one of the first desitinations we head to in Spain, but it offers a unique charm and cultural character that makes it well worth a visit.
On arrival, the weather was overcast so we took this as a good opportunity to visit an indoor attraction. We chose the Human Bodies Exhibition. Not for the faint hearted, it takes you on an incredible journey inside the human body, explaining how it works and the effects obesity and alcohol has as well as diseases like cancer. All exhibits are real and while shocking at times, it truly is fascinating.
Next we took a walk along the river, heading in the direction of the Maritime Museum, located in the dry docks of the old Euskalduna shipyard. Before going in we had a rest stop in the museum cafe, the interior of which was an interesting mix of industrial and modern design with appropriate shipbuilding influences.
Inside, the museum was not particularly big, perhaps reflected in the entrance fee, but was nonetheless an easy way to spend an hour or so. A temporary art exhibition including works by Jose Abel was my favourite part and where I spent the most time. All in all the museum gave a good insight into the history of the city and the importance of the maritime sector not just for Bilbao, but for the Basque region as a whole.
It was match day when we arrived in Bilbao and we stumbled across the hotel where the FC Barcelona players were staying. There was a huge crowd trying to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi and his team mates as well as Athletic Bilbao fans sporting their home colours of red and white. The apparent rivalry was kept under control by security and police and in the end all I got to see was the team coach pulling away.
That evening we wandered the streets browsing souvenir shops and dodging the intermittent rain. It was the last day of the Aste Nagusia festival of Bilbao, a 9-day event held at the end of August. There were a lot of people on the street enjoying the various entertainment and stalls selling various food and gift items.
The plan for day 2 was to get a bus to San Sebastian, but it didn't quite work out. We struggled to get help at the station and when we did the fare was a lot more than we had been led to believe in the guidebook, so we set about exploring more of Bilbao. Later we learned this was for the best as the sun had been kind to us whereas San Sebastian had been grey and drizzly.
I always find it fun to simply walk around and see what you stumble across in a new place. Often this makes for the best memories and is very much what travel is all about. It's good to pop to some of the key tourist attractions, but not spend your whole trip trawling round them all. I wouldn't enjoy that at all and find what's waiting to be discovered on a hidden back street far more interesting. Just don't forget to look up now again; you never know what you'll see.
One of the things that makes Bilbao so delightfully confusing is its fusion of traditional and contemporary styles. The Guggenheim may be its stand out piece, but it displays many modern structures and art installations that push the boundaries of design interspersed with classic buildings. If you like architecture and can enjoy the old and new then you will love this city.
At night Bibao is non-threatening and the streets come alive as people frequent the many bars and tuck into the famous pintxos. We did find the concept a little strange as we ended up standing or perched at a table eating our evening meal, but it's a very cost-effective option and a great way to try and number of things in one hit.