On my first day in Bilbao I decided to take a walk through the center of town. As a self-proclaimed people-watcher and building-gazer this is always how I like to get my first impression of a city. This walk was especially pleasant and I was moved by Bilbao’s charming atmosphere, combining an appreciation for both tradition and modernity.
My stroll through Bilbao began at Extebarria Park, Bilbao’s largest green space. This park sits on a hill overlooking the city in the neighborhood of Begoña. I walked along the winding trails and noted the families, dog walkers, and runners that occasionally crossed my path. From the top of the hill I enjoyed the view of the river winding its way through the city center and visualized the route I would take that day.
I descended the hill to Casco Viejo, an historic neighborhood where the original seven streets date all the way back to 1400. The narrow, colorful streets lined with charming restaurants, quirky shops, and bustling bars created a lively and unique atmosphere. I have traveled a lot in Spain and often find that I have to share these cutesy spaces with other travelers, but in Bilbao the tourists are much less plentiful. Around me instead were generations of bilbaínos, enjoying an ice cream or just an evening stroll. After walking a while I realized I did not know where I was, but I didn’t care. Getting lost in Casco Viejo is an absolute delight.
After emerging from the old quarter my wanderings lead me to Bilbao’s picturesque City Hall. This building is a former convent built in 1892 with many elegant, long lines that draw the eye to each corner of the structure. In front of the building I noted a sleek, modern sculpture. Its style was very different than the Hall behind it, yet the two complimented each other. This struck me as a reoccurring theme in Bilbao, where both the historical and modern are valued and prevalent in the public sphere.
Continuing my journey, I crossed the street from City Hall and began my walk along Bilbao’s Nervion River. As before, I noted the interplay between old and new – between the modern bridges zigzagging along the river and the old buildings that lay along its banks; between the shiny, angular high-rise buildings and the worn brick inlay with swirling banisters that surround them. I crossed the river and stopped at the middle of one of the many bridges, listening to the soft rush of the water noticing how it hummed behind the lull of Basque and Spanish languages spoken by the families around me.
My traipse along the river led me to the famous Guggenheim museum. It could be seen from afar but the grandeur of the building did not strike me until I was up close. Even from outside it was clear why people travel from all over the world to visit this museum. It exuded the classic modernity prevalent all throughout the city. Though the Guggenheim is the most popular attraction, after spending an afternoon exploring this city it is clear that no matter what draws people to Bilbao, it is the quintessential modern yet accessible and traditional charm that makes them stay. At least it did for me.