For this month’s column, Susan Llewellyn discusses her recent trip to Bilbao ­– exploring its many attractions, rich history and plentiful art and design inspiration.

Rising out of industrial obsolescence and rust, a huge riverfront redevelopment plan has emerged from nowhere to become, in 20 years, one of the most exciting cities in Spain. 

The Basques, in spite of their past troubles, are poised to move forward as the region – and particularly Bilbao – is fast becoming a tourist destination. A lot of money, a lot of nerve, creative ideas from Frank Gehry and the Guggenheims: it is no surprise, once you’ve seen it, that tourists have been flocking to visit the city and its iconic museum. 

The play of complex shapes and the use of unusual materials such as titanium – its playful and organic style of architecture and aesthetic excellence; the Guggenheim is an iconic building. 

One of the best views of the museum can be seen from the 5-star Gran Hotel Domine. This masterpiece, designed by Javier Mariscal, is unique and has a simple avant-garde design. Inside, the white and red ‘Splash and Crash’ bar represents the 60s.

You can sip a glass of wine or a cocktail while you listen to a fine selection of piano music. It is smart and relaxing. The Doma restaurant on the seventh floor has breathtaking panoramic views of the capital. Chef Martin Berasategui has seven Michelin stars for the Doma and its traditional ‘Berasategui’ cuisine and modern dishes. 

The Gran Hotel Domine gives a grandstand view of the museum and of ‘Puppy’, a giant dog sculpted in coloured flowers. Looking down on the square below where all the action is going on, there are street entertainers, couples having a romantic stroll and visiting the cafes, listening to music or walking their dogs, taking their children to the playground. 

I had a spacious room with a balcony that was simply but elegantly furnished, a view taking in the backdrop of the mountains in the distance. The main street is in fact a river, and it is one of the most delightful centrepieces a city could ask for, lined with busy quays and old, tall houses painted in Basque red and green. 

El Viejo Bilbao, or the old Bilbao, is well worth a visit. It is situated on the left bank. On 15th June 1300 Diego Lopez de Haro, Lord of Vizcaya, signed Bilbao’s town charter.  The left bank was where the miners and their families lived. Diego Lopez de Haro chose the right bank. Here you will find the Church of Santiago, which has grown over the years into a cathedral, with a striking neoGothic façade and tower, and Gothic cloister. 

Known to the locals as ‘La Plaza’ is the largest indoor market in the world. I am always interested in food and local cuisine and it is well worth seeing the fish, meat, fruit and vegetable stalls which provide a keen insight into the superb quality of Basque cuisine. This can be savoured at the Doma.  

The Arriaga Theatre, built in 1890 and named after the local composer Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, who died at 19, nonetheless considered ‘The Spanish Mozart’, is the work of Joaquín Rucoba. It is a fine example of the Belle Epoque and has a spectacular interior. I love the grandiose style and feel it is deserving of a visit from a design perspective.

The ‘Feve’ railway station, in contrast, warrants a visit from a completely different point of view.  The stained glass windows tell the history of the city. The Metro station is contemporary and chic, with its glass-front structures known affectionately by the locals as ‘fosteritos’ as a tribute to their designer, Norman Foster. All adds its mark to the contrasts of this city.

I love the interior of the Iruna café and restaurant. It is exciting and inspiring. The Kafe Antzokia too is very interesting, with its geometric style.

With the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the Museum of Fine Arts is a brilliant example to inspire design of a bygone era. It has been the town’s hidden jewel, set in a glorious park. I was there in the autumn and loved the autumnal leaves complementing the colours of the building. The collections housed within are a visual delight. There are nearly 10,000 exhibits and they have some particularly good examples from 1945 that I enjoyed. I would allow time for two visits to this museum – as a visitor, you would gain so much knowledge for your future inspiration.

Wonderful news and well-deserved – this year, 2014, Canadian-American Frank Gehry wins the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts for his contribution to architecture. His creation, the Guggenheim, is a virtuoso of complex shapes, the use of unusual materials such as titanium. The organic style and aesthetic excellence of this masterpiece has had an enormous impact on its surroundings, generating wealth from visitors. I was thrilled to hear about it, congratulations Mr Gehry!

The prize covers excellence in recognising cultural heritage and artistic expression in cinematography, theatre, dance, music, photography, painting, sculpture, architecture or any other form of artistic expression.  For this he will be endowed with 50,000 euros, a commissioned sculpture donated by Joan Miro and an insignia. These will be presented in Oviedo in a grand ceremony, chaired by HRH the King of Asturias.

Now come with me to explore the museum in further detail. The foundation stone was laid in 1997.   ‘Puppy’, the enormous floral dog I mentioned, designed by Jeff Koons, sits at the entrance. The Bilbaoans have a great sense of humour and the locals joke that the building is Puppy’s kennel! 

The building itself is a series of interconnected voids clad in pale honey limestone, glass, curved and twisted shapes. The overall effect is breathtaking and I suggest your first viewing of it is at night, from the Deusto Bridge.

Inside, there are 19 galleries – one is 130m long and 30m wide, without columns. Just five days before the official opening, a police officer was killed by ETA when he challenged two men acting suspiciously. By this act he warded off a terrorist attack. The Plaza de Jose Maria Aguirre is now named after him, in honour of his courage. The museum offers a series of permanent exhibitions from pop art; Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gilbert & George to Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, to name a few. Film, video and dance – including the premiere of Alex Katz’s ‘Smiles’ when I visited – it can all be found here.

Outside you will see Anish Kapoor’s sculpture ‘Tall Tree and Eye’, from 2009. Inside, in the largest gallery and made from stainless steel and carbon, a permanent installation pays homage to the past history of the steel industry. Acting as link through the building, ‘The Matter of Time’ is by Richard Serra. It is a double ellipse – as viewers we are able to walk through and experience a dizzy, unforgettable sensation of space in motion.

I was thrilled also to see a special exhibiton of Antoni Tàpies’ unusual works and the most fascinating and revealing aspects of this Catalan artist’s career. How his creative mind worked with familiar, everyday objects in our lives. Wardrobes, chairs, beds and books. As designers, we need to venture into what he was about – he turns an ordinary object into a sculpture by petrifying it forever in a solid fireclay or bronze.

For example, he takes a chair overloaded with clothes, then freezes it in time. He turns what could be an irritating untidiness into a thought-provoking work of art.

Writing this article has made me relive my last visit. I gained so much inspiration and I cannot wait to return as I know there is so much more to find out and feast upon visually and help us to grow creatively.