Bilbao: modern architecture and tradition
Bilbao is a cosmopolitan and modern city, which is the result of a transformation that has taken place over the last two decades. The Guggenheim museum, by Frank Ghery, is an important ingredient of this development, but certainly not the only one. Other good examples are the Underground, designed by Norman Foster, or the Zubi Zuri Bridge and the Airport, by Fernando Calatrava.
Although these projects have increased the popularity of Bilbao, the heart of the city is still the “Casco Viejo”. This charming old town is a pedestrianised area with a combination of traditional and modern shops, bars and restaurants. Visitors will enjoy Basque gastronomy, considered highly prestigious both nationally and internationally, as well as sampling the city’s fun night life.
Bilbao is not a big city, the best way to get to know it is by walking. We recommend 3 walks:
- From Bilbao Sagrado Corazón to Bilbao Arriaga , through Gran Vía (main street).
- Walking through the streets of “El Casco Viejo” (old town).
- From Arriaga to the Guggenheim Museum.
All 3 can be done in a day, or 2 of them in an afternoon. Other ways of visiting Bilbao are the double decker touristic Bus (Bus Turistikoa) and the Boat (Bilboats). The second options is a nice and relaxing one, but they give no tourist explanation.
What to see
Casco Viejo de Bilbao
Bilbao’s charming old town is a pedestrianised area full of life. There are shops of all kinds, including both well known brands and also original and different shops of all kinds. It is also known as “Las 7 Calles” (7 streets) because of the 7 streets that, since the 15th century, have been part of the Old Town: Somera, Artecalle, Tendería, Belosticalle, Carnicería Vieja, Barrencalle, Barrencalle Barrena.
The “Casco Viejo” is a perfect area to try Pintxos (Basque Tapas) at lunch time or in the evening, and to soak up the night life atmosphere.
What to see: Plaza Nueva, Santiago Cathedral, Riverside Market, San Anton Bridge and Church, Migue Unamuno’s Birthplace, Basque Museum, Arriaga Theater, Arenal Square Gardens…
Ensanche de Bilbao and Gran Vía
The word in English for “Ensanche” would be “widening”. It refers to the expansion of the old city. This area of Bilbao was built between the 19th and 20th centuries. The “Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro” (Main street) belongs to this part of Bilbao. Part of this Gran Vía is now a semi-pedestrianised area, only available for buses and taxis. It is a good area for shopping, where famous shops such as Zara, Mango or El Corte Inglés, have settled. A very elegant area, with mythical bars such as the “Iruña”, ideal for a wine and a “pintxo Moruno”. There are also many bars for pintxos on both sides of the Gran Vía.
What to see: Arenal Bridge, Abando Railway Station, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Carlton Hotel, Doña Casilda Park…
The Right Side of the Estuary
A beautiful walk with really nice views. It is also the best place to see the Guggenheim Museum building and other new buildings in Bilbao.
What to see: The Arenal Walk, City Hall and City Hall Bridge, The ZubiZuri Bridge (Calatrava), University of Deusto…
This area is representative of the new Bilbao. It used to be a very grey and industrial area, with ship-building factories. Now it is one of the most beautiful parts of the city, full of new buildings. The Guggenheim museum was built here, but it was just the first step.
What to see: the Guggenheim Museum, Euskalduna Palace and Bridge, Pedro Arrupe Bridge, Memory Lane, Maritime Museum, Zubiarte Shopping Center…
Around Sagrado Corazón
For football lovers, the San Mamés Football Stadium, Home of the Bilbao Athletic Club, is near Sagrado Corazón Area. There is also a museum there.
The exact year is unknown, but the origin of the city of Bilbao were the settlements on both sides of the river Nervión. They experienced such developement that in year 1300 Don Diego López de Haro V, Lord of Biscay, gave the city the official title of “Villa”. This developement was due to the good location of the city by the Nervion, the ease of navigating the river and the proximity to the sea.
The growth continued throughout the following centuries, both originating from commerce and from the arrival of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was the most important city in Biscay.
The oldest part of the city is the “Casco Viejo”. It was originally made up of 4 districts. In the 15th century, 4 new streets were added and since then this area has been known as the “7 calles” (7 streets).
The city kept expanding and the economic growth continued. In the 19th century, the economic developement was at its peak. The explotation of the nearby iron mines began and this allowed the maritime commerce to improve and increased the importance of the port of Bilbao. Important iron and steel factories, as well as ship building factories emerged and Bilbao became very strong financially and economically. This is also when the city expanded the most, with new residencial areas, walkways and promenades.
In the 20th century, Bilbao continued to be the most important city in the Basque Country. The city continued growing during the whole century and it was one of the most important destination for immigrants of other Spanish provinces after the civil war.
But at the end of the 20th century, the iron and steel industry that had become the basis of economic growth fell into a deep crisis. The economy of Bilbao and Greater Bilbao experienced very hard years. The base of the economy had to be reconsidered, and Bilbao and its surroundings experienced a radical change: the city became a city of services and a city for tourism.The economy recovered and the city bloomed, experiencing a physical transformation. The first step for that transformation was the building of the Guggenheim Museum, after which other well known architects have left their footprints on the city: Norman Foster (the underground), Calatrava (Zubizuri), Mariscal (Domine Hotel)…