When people hear the word Bilbao, they automatically think: Guggenheim. There is so much more to Bilbao to see and experience, including the optimistic spirit of its residents. Liz Pitt writes about The Alhondiga. This rare historical building is where people of the city find community on many of those rainy days and is a place where tourists rarely go.
By Liz Pitt
Take a guess what my favorite building in Bilbao is. You guessed the Guggenheim, didn’t you? Close, but not quite.
When I first moved to Bilbao, my roommate came home after exploring the city with a friend. She kept raving about a building that had a café, a gym, and a swimming pool on the ceiling. I was perplexed and set out to find this mysterious building for myself.
I finally came across the enormous Alhóndiga. I’m not exactly sure how to categorize the Alhóndiga. It has cafés, restaurants, shops, a cinema, gym, library, and hosts various art and cultural exhibitions. And yes, there is a pool in the gym that you can watch people splash around in from below.
The Alhóndiga opened to the public in October 2010, and before it was renovated, it was a winery, originally built in 1909. When the bodega (winery) moved, the building sat empty for years. This prime piece of real estate was one of the possible sites for the Guggenheim Museum, but was passed over for its current riverfront location.
The inside of the building is just as impressive as the facade. When you enter there is a giant screen that shows the sun and forty-three columns decorate the central square. Each of them are different and were designed by Phillippe Stark. It’s dimly lit, and in the winter gets a little chilly, but I have heard that this is on purpose, to encourage secret trysts behind the pillars. Hormonal Spanish teenagers, take note.
The Alhóndiga is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon in Bilbao. Wander through the modern library, have a drink in the café (if you’re lucky to get a bit of sun, there’s also a rooftop terrace), and browse the shops. The Alhóndiga is my library, gym, and where I go for coffee. The Guggenheim Museum is a great building, but it just can’t give me everything the Alhóndiga can.