Bilbao is the poster child for European city regeneration, thanks to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao museum, which opened in 1997 and single-handedly put this Basque settlement of 350,000 souls firmly back on the travel agenda. The striking museum has been the catalyst for improvements in Bilbao event venues and hotels, with the result that tourism numbers jumped from 25,000 in 1996 to 700,000 today. Bilbao remains the Basque Country's (Pais Vasco, or Euskadi) principal industrial center. New developments such as its Abandoibarra and Zorrozaurre areas are continuing to energize Bilbao.
The main travel portal, Bilbao Airport (BIO), inaugurated a Santiago Calatrava-designed terminal in 2010 and is now seeing more than four million passengers per year. It is six miles north of the city center and has service from all over Spain, as well as the rest of Europe.
Chief among convention venues, Bilbao Exhibition Center, which is in the nearby town of Barakaldo, has 2,702,330 square feet of space in six exhibition pavilions, as well as a shopping mall, two hotels, a 180,000-square-foot conference center, a 415,000-square-foot atrium, and the Bizkaia Arena with 18,000 seats.
The meetings-ready hotel at the convention center is the 203-room Novotel Bilbao Exhibition Center, which has eight meeting spaces of its own. Hotel venues in Bilbao central are the 172-room Melia Bilbao, which has five meeting spaces, the largest able to host up to 300 persons; the 145-room Silken Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao (which faces the Guggenheim and the Jeff Koons artwork Puppy) is trendy and has a stunning atrium for events; the stylish, 64-room Petit Palace Arana Bilbao, which has one meeting space for up to 50 persons; and the equally art-inspired, 50-room Miro Hotel, which takes its name from Joan Miro, one of Spain's most famous artists, and has space for meetings of up to 35 persons.
Unique function spaces in the city include the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall, which has a 2,164-seat auditorium, 61-seat theater, a gallery, an exhibition hall, and 12 meeting rooms; Alhondiga Bilbao, an events space in a former, 1909 wine warehouse, which has been co-designed by Philippe Starck, opened in 2010, and contains a cinema, library, auditorium, and a restaurant, among other spaces; Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, which is a fine art museum, with the Chillida Hall for 450 persons, a 206-seat auditorium, and Mogrovejo Hall for 120, among other spaces; the 1890 opera house Teatro Arriaga Antzokia, which has a main theater for 1,206 persons, a foyer for 250, a main hall also for 250, and two meeting rooms; and the Museo de Pasos de Semana Santa de Bilbao, which chronicles the history of Easter celebrations in the city, is in another old wine warehouse, and has gallery space and a mezzanine for events.
The Basque Country is famed for its cuisine, perhaps most notably tapas, or as they are called in this region, pintxos. It is quite hard to go wrong food-wise here. Great restaurants for pintxos choices include Atea and El Huevo Frito, or The Fried Egg. Other notable establishments include Aizian, inventive Bascook, and equally inventive, stylishly designed Etxanobe.