Bilbao became a destination for art lovers as soon as the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened in 1997. Occupying land that was once a shipyard beside the Nervión River, the museum designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is now the city’s top attraction.

With this in mind, Guggenheim Bilbao is the primary reason most people travel to Bilbao. In particular, both the museum and the Michelin-starred Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao, located on the premises, appeal to the discerning traveler with a taste for contemporary art and fine dining.

Bilbao is a vibrant city with much to offer a visitor, and without a doubt merits a leisurely stay. But what happens when a visitor brings a keen interest in art and fine dining but is short on time? Our recommendation: combine a Guggenheim museum visit with lunch or dinner at Nerua Guggenheim, and enjoy a dose of cutting-edge style.

Basque Country boasts a vibrant art and gastronomic scene, and the Guggenheim provides visitors to Bilbao with both. Of course, the city and region have much more to offer, but the Guggenheim is a bucket-list item for good reason.

The Guggenheim art walk begins outside

Renowned architect Frank Gehry chose titanium to cover the Guggenheim’s irregular facades, as the metal responds to the region’s light and clouds to great effect. Some observers have likened the shape of the museum to that of a ship, while an aerial view of the structure shows its curves as a floral form.

Either way, its facades change color with changes in the intensity and reflection of the light. Eye-popping art surrounds, complements and challenges Frank Gehry’s magnificent building. From any perspective, the approach to the Guggenheim is a stroll through compelling art.

Situated at a curve in the river, the museum presents a full-on viewing experience from across the Nervión, and most photographs of the Guggenheim present this view. The main entrance is actually at the foot of a residential street on the opposite side of the building. There, Jeff Koon’s Puppy guards the entrance, tempting visitors to take selfies until it’s time to enter the building’s atrium.

Two pictures of massive outdoor sculptures--stacked silver balls and an enormous bronze spider

Display along the quay: Tall Tree & The Eye by Anish Kapoor and Maman by Louise Bourgeois

The Guggenheim’s permanent collection

The airy spaces inside the museum feature natural light and soft curves, and a central atrium that is an orientation area for visitors. The atrium also provides access to approximately 20 galleries on three levels.

The Guggenheim holds singular works by various artists, and the collection highlights several historical artistic movements. The galleries present the works of a single artist or a group of artists exploring shared themes from their individual perspectives. Some exhibition spaces are especially well suited for the display of bold artworks, such as the massive sculptures of Richard Serra, which mimic the lines of the building itself.

Massive dark brown and rust-colored sculptures, waves and circles of iron

At Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: The Matter of Time, by Richard Serra

Temporary exhibitions

Thought-provoking special exhibitions draw on Guggenheim’s membership in an international network of contemporary art museums. Last summer, Motion. Autos, Art, and Architecture showcased the parallel worlds of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography and film.

The earliest Mercedes autos were on show, as well as the futuristic designs of Buckminster Fuller and the clay modelling process used for 50 years to produce Cadillacs and other fine cars.  A Bugatti from the 1930s sat beside a Calder mobile. Elsewhere, James Bond’s Aston Martin was on show beneath a running video sequence from Dr. No. An entire room paid homage to America’s 20th-century car culture.

A 1930s Bugatti on display as sculpture

A special Guggenheim exhibition: Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture

Architecture meets fine dining

The design principles of the museum carry over into Nerua Guggenheim, creating a spare and sophisticated dining atmosphere. White walls, natural materials, and open space set the stage for a dining experience that perfectly complements the museum’s contemporary art.

Minimalism characterizes the cuisine of Nerua head chef Josean Alija. From starters to desserts, meals are local and innovative, with a focus on the vegetable gardens, the sea and the farms around it. Dishes here pull inspiration from Basque terroir to dazzling effect.

Chef Alija cooks with “muina,” Basque for heart or essence. His dishes and tasting menus are carefully crafted, seasonal experiences that feature traditional, locally sourced ingredients and contemporary preparations. Every dish is prepared and presented to emphasize its essential product, with minimal ingredients added.

A well-choreographed gastronomic performance

We chose an eight-course tasting menu with wine pairings and were rewarded with an impressionist rendering of summertime Basque country. Servers were knowledgeable, friendly and unobtrusively efficient. The meal was a marvelous way to celebrate a special event, and a highlight of our bucket-list trip to Bilbao.

For our summertime tasting menu, the concise flavors of each dish were enhanced by carefully curated wine pairings. As just one example, a dish of sliced veal loin with spinach puree and beetroot, and a dollop of Osetra caviar, was paired with an artisanal 2019 Cuvee Las Santas from the micro-vineyards of Aseginolaza & Leunda in Navarro. The winemakers are environmental biologists originally from the Basque Country, who make wines with minimal intervention, such as a sublime 100% old-vine Grenache.

Two plates with sliced meat and vegetables, two stemmed glasses of red wine

On the tasting menu at Nerua: roast veal with spinach, beetroot and caviar

Guggenheim Bilbao dining options

Museum visitors who prefer a casual meal, or just pintxos as a time-out to a museum visit, have alternatives. The museum also has casual dining options: Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao, open for both lunch and dinner and offering online reservations; and Bar Guggenheim Bilbao, with a selection of pintxos.

What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • The tasting menu at Nerua is good value: reasonably priced and each dish reasonably portioned.
  • The setting is intimate: a handful of tables in the main dining room; and a possibility to enjoy a tasting menu in the dining room or book a seat at the Chef’s Table in the Nerua kitchen.

Take note:

  • Both the museum and the restaurant are popular destinations, so advance booking is well advised to avoid disappointment.
  • An audio tour of the museum is available for smartphones, but the setup is uncertain. Museum staff is ready to help with this!


Be sure to get the whole scoop on Bilbao on Anita’s Feast!

Surprising Bilbao, Spain

Photo credits: All photos Tom Fakler and Anita Breland

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Promenade beside river at Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, with bronze spider sculpture