Museo Guggenheim Bilbao

Opened in 1997, Bilbao’s shimmering titanium Museo Guggenheim Bilbao is one of modern architecture’s most iconic buildings. The museum almost single-handedly lifted Bilbao out of its postindustrial depression and into the 21st century, boosting the city’s inspired regeneration, stimulating further development and placing Bilbao firmly in the spotlight. For many travellers, this extraordinary building is the primary reason for visiting Bilbao.

The Design

For most, it’s the architecture itself that is the real star of the Guggenheim show. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum's flowing canopies, promontories, ship-like shapes, towers and flying fins all covered in shimmering titanium tiles are irresistible. Allow plenty of time to walk around the exterior, observing how the patterns and colours change with the light.

Puppy

Outside, on the city side of the museum, is Jeff Koons’ kitsch whimsy Puppy, a 12m-tall Highland terrier made up of thousands of flowers. Originally a temporary exhibition, Bilbao has hung on to ‘El Poop’. Bilbaínos will tell you that El Poop came first – and then they built a kennel behind it.

Maman

On the riverbank just outside the museum is Louise Bourgeois’ Maman: a skeletal spider-like canopy said to symbolise a protective embrace.

Temporary Exhibitions

For many people, it is the temporary shows – from retrospectives of the groundbreaking contemporary video artist Bill Viola to wide-ranging exhibitions that explore fin de siècle Paris – that are the main attraction.

Atrium

The atrium, a huge cathedral-like space, serves as your first taste of the museum’s interior. Light pours into this entrance gallery through what appear to be glass cliffs. At one end Jenny Holzer's nine LED columns of ever-flowing phrases and text fragments (in English, Spanish and Basque) appear to reach for the skies. The atrium was designed to provide views of the river and surrounding hills.

The Matter of Time

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to permanent exhibitions. One of the most popular with visitors is Richard Serra’s rust-red steel The Matter of Time. Despite the grand name, this is best described as a giant steel maze, which often seems to serve as much as a children’s playground as a work of art.

Tulips

From the atrium head out onto the little terrace surrounded by shallow pools of water to see Jeff Koons’ Tulips, whose bubbly, colourful form represents a bouquet of giant balloon flowers (more than 2m tall and 5m across). The work belongs to his ambitious Celebration series.

Fog Sculpture #08025 (FOG)

Outside the museum, lying between the glass buttresses of the central atrium and Ría del Nervión, is a simple pool of water that regularly emits a mist installation by Fujiko Nakaya. In case you missed the play on words here, FOG are also the initials of the building’s architect.

Fountain

In the open area to the west of the museum, a fountain sculpture randomly fires off jets of water into the air while the young at heart leap to and fro across it. Nearby is an impressive children’s play park.

Waking

While some of the conceptual art in the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao is sometimes hard to fathom, Gilbert and George’s Waking is a bright and bold piece that, on the surface at least, is easily accessible. It represents the passage from boyhood to maturity.

Lightning with Stag in its Glare

Created by German artist Joseph Beuys, the suspended bronze triangle represents a bolt of lightning illuminating various startled animals. The three-wheeled cart represents a goat and the up-ended ironing board a stag.

Tall Tree & the Eye

Outside the museum is Anish Kapoor’s work, Tall Tree & the Eye. It consists of 73 reflective spheres anchored around three axes, each of which distorts reality as you look into it.

Don't Miss

  • The Matter of Time
  • Maman
  • Puppy
  • Fog Sculpture #08025 (FOG)

Top Tips

  • The Artean Pass is a joint ticket for the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, offering significant savings. It’s available at both museums.
  • Entry queues can be very long on wet summer days and around Easter. Try and visit at a different time or come early.
  • Purchasing advance tickets online allows you to skip entry queues.
  • For a bird’s-eye perspective of the museum, ride the Funicular de Artxanda to the park high above the city.

Take a Break

Head to the Guggenheim’s Nerua restaurant for top-quality Basque cuisine.

For something cheaper and less formal, try the in-house Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao.

Getting There

Metro Go to Moyúa station and walk five blocks north and one block west.

Tram It's an easy walk from the riverbank Guggenheim station.

Strapline

Architecture that defines a city.

POI

Feature: The Vision Behind the Masterpiece

Designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao dominates the city's waterfront, its look and mood changing with the rising and falling light. The building sits on the grounds of a former industrial wasteland and the city’s shipping, industrial and fishing heritage is evoked in its form, which some describe as resembling a ship or shimmering fish.

After the collapse of shipping and heavy industry in Bilbao, the authorities embarked on a regeneration of the city. One of the key requirements was a world-class cultural exhibition space, and from that idea came the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. Since its opening in 1997, the museum has done much to transform Bilbao from run-down industrial city to a bona fide cultural hub. As well as playing off the city’s historical and geographical context, the building also reflects Gehry’s own interests, not least his engagement with industrial materials. The gleaming titanium tiles that sheathe most of the building like giant scales are said to have been inspired by the architect’s childhood fascination with fish.

Museo de Bellas Artes

Bilbao's fine arts museum might not have the glitz and glamour of its more famous cousin, but the truth is that many people rate the exhibits here higher than those in the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. Collections range from works by well-known masters such as Goya and El Greco to pieces by more modern artists.

Classical Collection

The heart of the museum’s huge collection of art (some 10,000 pieces) consists of the classical collection, with works dating from the 12th to 19th centuries. Showstoppers include Murillo’s St Peter in Tears, which depicts St Peter at the moment of his repentance. El Greco’s The Annunciation also draws crowds, as does Goya’s Portrait of Martín Zapater.

Contemporary Collection

Stars of the contemporary collection, which covers the period from the 20th century onwards, include Paul Gauguin’s Laveuses à Arles, which depicts washerwomen in Arles, France, where Gauguin lived for a time, and Francis Bacon’s Lying Figure in a Mirror, which shows, in a rather abstract way, a male figure reflected in a mirror.

Basque Collection

The Basque Country’s finest art gallery wouldn’t be complete without a comprehensive body of work from the region’s best-known artists. This includes sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s Trembling Irons, which was one of the pieces that brought him to worldwide attention. Ignacio Zuloaga and Juan de Echevarría are also represented.

Temporary Exhibitions

The permanent collection of the Museo de Bellas Artes is one of the finest in Spain outside of Madrid, but the temporary exhibitions are what draw the crowds. See the website for details of upcoming exhibitions.

Don't Miss

  • Murillo’s Saint Peter in Tears
  • EduardoChillida’s Trembling Irons
  • El Greco’s The Annunciation

Top Tip

  • The Artean Pass is a joint ticket for the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, offering significant savings. It’s available at both museums.
  • Queues for temporary exhibitions can be very long. Buy an advance ticket online.
  • Learn more by picking up an audio guide (€3) at the museum entrance.
  • After you’ve enjoyed the art, reflect on all you’ve seen in the neighbouring Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar.

Take a Break

The museum's on-site cafe offers tasty pintxos, sandwiches and drinks, and it has lovely outdoor seating.

A few blocks southwest of the museum, Colombo serves up fusion fare in a creative, characterful setting.

Getting There

Metro Go to Moyúa station and walk four blocks west and two blocks north.

Tram Take the riverside tram to Euskalduna station and stroll east through the Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar.

Strapline

A wondrous Basque art collection.

POI