A tour of Bilbao, a city revitalised through architecture

A brief guide to the buildings that have changed the Basque capital’s appearance and destiny: to swim in Philippe Starck’s swimming pool or cheer at César Azcárate’s San Mamés, waiting for the new neighbourhood designed by Zaha Hadid. 

Bilbao is a beautiful city and a good place to live. fDi Intelligence, a magazine providing an authoritative voice on investment, is the latest to say so: among medium-sized cities – with a population between 200,000 and 500,000 – the Basque capital attracts talent and promotes business. Bilbao appeals because it was redesigned by architects, because it pursues sustainability, because it offers a higher quality of life than Madrid and Barcelona (this time the ranking is by OCU, Organisation of Consumers and Users).

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Courtesy Guggenheim Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Courtesy © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2021

Bilbao is a unique example. In 1988, it was a polluted and degraded city on the brink of ruin, cluttered with the remains of the river port. There is a newspaper article that is always referred to as a reminder of those times. The headline was: either we get a move on, or we die. 


Today, instead of the rusty containers choking the Indautxu neighbourhood, there is Jeff Koons’ gigantic Puppy. Bilbao is a benchmark for the contemporary world: from Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, celebrating its first 25 years (“Sections/Intersections” is the exhibition, from 8 September, showing his entire collection for the first time) to Zaha Hadid’s future Zorrotzaurre neighbourhood, which is finally taking shape, everything speaks of ecological reconversion and urban regeneration.

Ponte di La Salve, Frank Gehry, Bilbao. Courtesy Zorrotzaurre Managment Commission
Frank Gehry’s bridge that leads to the Zorrotzaurre district, Bilbao. Courtesy Zorrotzaurre Managment Commission

It took a strong political will and all the pride of Bilbao’s citizens for this to happen. On the one hand the creation of Bilbao Ria 2000, a public company financed 50% by the central government and the other half by the Basque authorities. On the other, the creation of Bilbao Metropoli 30, an association of universities, non-profit organisations, local public authorities, banks and foundations. Over time, the project has successfully convinced Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Arata Isozaki, César Pelli, Rafael Moneo and Philippe Starck.

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