Exploring Bilbao’s Art District

Bilbao, in northern Spain, has long been a major industrial and economic driver for the whole Basque region, but over the last couple of decades it has also gained a worldwide reputation as an artistic and cultural centre too. This has helped to make what was already a bustling city into a major attraction for art lovers everywhere.

If you're hiring a car in Bilbao, it's well worth putting a day aside to soak up some culture - here are the highlights of Bilbao's world-renowned art district.

Guggenheim Museum

Back in 1991 the Basque Government approached the Guggenheim Foundation with a proposal to begin the regeneration of the city's old shipbuilding yards adjoining the Nervión River that runs through Bilbao. The Foundation agreed and six years later, King Juan Carlos cut the ribbon on the new museum.

The resulting architectural triumph, designed by the famous American architect Frank Gehry has made the city an iconic cultural destination. More than a million people visit each year to cast their eyes on the exhibitions, as well as the objects on loan from the Foundation. Previous exhibits inside the museum have included a series of huge sculptures by Richard Serra, Yoko Ono's Half-a-wind Show and Christian Marclay: The Clock.

Sala Rekalde Gallery

Near to the Guggenheim on Recalde Zumarkalea is another avant-garde art space, set up in 1991 by the Culture Department of the Executive Council of Biscay.

It's divided into two separate exhibition spaces, the Main Space and the Abstract Cabinet. The former holds exhibitions from major national and international artists that in the past have included Doug Aitken, Sharon Lockhart and Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, while the latter is dedicated to art events in which spectators are encouraged to bring their own works and become participants themselves.

Bilbao Maritime Museum

Another remarkable piece of architecture, Bilbao Maritime Museum has both indoor and outdoor areas. Inside, it's divided into three distinct sections, which explore the physical environment of the port, the evolution of commerce in the city and its long history of shipbuilding.

Outside in the Euskalduna dock area there are a large number of boats to climb aboard and explore Bilbao's seafaring past.

Outdoors: sculpture and architecture

Bilbao has gone further than simply having some great museums and exhibitions to enjoy, as the whole urban environment is gradually being transformed into an art installation itself. There are around 150 sculptures from different ages around the city, with the area between the Euskalduna Palace Conference Centre and Bilbao City Hall siting a large number of parks and sculptures to visit.

Two of the most dramatic pieces are thosebythe artist Yves Klein called Fire Fountain - which shoots five flames into the sky - and a 40-foot high puppy by Jeff Koons that stands guard over the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum.

With the investment in creating and preserving culture, Bilbao has long since proved itself as a worthy competitor to many other major art centres in the world. Why not see for yourself?