At last, a hotel that reflects Bilbao's status as a newly cool capital of Euro art and architecture. The Gran Hotel Domine, which opened in July, is one of the city's most impressive design statements since . . . well, since Frank Gehry put the last titanium panel on the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 and forever changed the face of architecture.
Before the Guggenheim, this small provincial capital attracted mainly shipbuilders, sailors, and a few intrepid gourmets making the pilgrimage to sample Basque cuisine, arguably Spain's best. Now Bilbao has a sleek Santiago Calatrava-designed airport terminal with direct connections to major European capitals, and a week's worth of very good restaurants. But until now there hasn't been anywhere chic to lay your head.
Audaciously plunked down within 100 feet of Gehry's extravaganza, the Domine is clad in six stories of black-mirrored windows that reflect the museum on the outside and frame it for knockout guestroom views. The first hotel by noted Barcelona artist-designer Javier Mariscal (in an unlikely partnership with the otherwise nondescript three- and four-star Spanish Silken hotel chain), it is a boldly original creation worthy of its neighborhood.
At its core is a sinuous six-story atrium traversed from floor to skylight by Cypress Fossil, a cypress-shaped sculpture of rocks bound within a wire mesh. Like the red figure-eight sofa at reception and the lamps, fabric headboards, and huge armchairs in the 134 rooms and 11 suites, the sculpture is by Mariscal. The rest of the furnishings are selections from the classics in 20th-century design—Arne Jacobsen sinks, Alvar Aalto shower stools, scarlet sofas from Ron Arad, and the Hat Trick Chair from Gehry himself, wittily placed in the library to look out at the Guggenheim. It's essential that you do too, so be sure to book a museum-facing room.
On the fourth and fifth floors, one gets a compelling sense of the Guggenheim's scale. From room 418, you can lie back in your Philippe Starck bathtub and look out the window directly into the eyes of Puppy, a giant, gloriously kitsch "flower" sculpture by Jeff Koons. The sixth-floor Gran Suite Domine has its own balcony and deck with the ultimate view. Colors throughout the hotel are bright and strong; rooms come with five-star amenities like wool-cashmere spreads, a selection of pillow styles, and Internet-access TVs.
The food at the Domine is excellent (a good thing, since it took four tries to get room service—an example of the frustratingly patchy service experienced on a visit soon after the hotel opened, but which seemed to have more to do with linguistic barriers than attitude). In addition to the black-and-chrome-walled Café Metropol, with furnishings from a who's who of Bauhaus designers, there's the restaurant Beltz the Black, whose consulting chef, José Ramón Berriozabal, is one of Spain's top chefs. The minimalist Basque cuisine features local delicacies unadorned with flashy sauces, such as delectable bacalao (salted cod) and kokotxas de merluza (hake jaw muscle with a morsel of flesh on either side). On the roof terrace, new in November, there will be breakfast service and a glassed-in gym where guests (including folks like Calvin Klein and chic hotelier Ian Schrager, who booked rooms for the September opening of the Guggenheim's Rubens show) can work out in full view of the hotel's grand neighbor.
The food is a good reason to choose the Domine over the Miró, another contemporary hotel also putting its money on the Guggenheim view. Scheduled for a late-October opening, it was designed by Spanish fashion king Toni Miró with a fashionista-hip aesthetic. In such a setting, though, we can't help preferring the Domine's paean to the greats of modern design. Rooms, $180-$885. At 61 Alameda Mazarredo; 34-94-425-33-00; www.granhoteldominebilbao.com.