Bilbao is a city that is constantly changing. At its heart is the river estuary, the Ría del Nervión.
This was an industrial area during the last century, and the city turned its back on the river, but now it has become the focal point of Bilbao's process of urban revitalisation, where the finest architects of our times are leaving their mark.
The industrial areas of the last century are being transformed by the modern buildings of the future. In Bilbao, it is easy to sense the past by looking into its "future".
For over 10 years now, Bilbao has been immersed in a process of urban redevelopment in which the markedly industrial nature of the past is gradually being pushed aside to make way for a city tailored to suit people, with a stunning commercial, cultural and artistic offer.
History of Bilbao
Bilbao is a city whose history has a profoundly commercial bias. This commercial development has had a lot to do with its proximity to iron ore mines, steelworks and the river estuary that provides a means of transport down the river and out to sea.
Thanks to its strategic location, it provided commerce with connections to other international trade routes, at the same as a safe harbour.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Bilbao became a major trade centre and forged commercial ties with other European cities, such as Bruges and Nantes, and in time with the colonies in the Americas and then with Britain.
Yet it was in the 19th century when the metropolitan area experienced its period of greatest growth. The mines and the iron and steel industry gave rise to shipyards and railway companies, which in turn led to the presence of financial institutions and a stock market.
The enlargement of the city, the Villa de Bilbao, spread to the other side of the river from the Old Quarter, with stately middle-class housing with an urban layout based on straight streets, circular plazas and avenues. This 19th century expansion led to the building of the Arenal Bridge, at the same time as the Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro became the city's main artery and the central avenue around which the city went about its business, with the building of a whole new suburb called the Ensanche.
In 1985, the port, as a key component of the city's development, began to plan the strategy for its future growth, and that future involves a port that whilst acknowledging its industrial origins is committed to commercial activities.
Today, thanks to its strategic location Bilbao is a focal point for domestic and foreign trade due to its excellent communications by air, sea and land.
The impact of the new Abandoibarra area has had a significant influence on the streets of Bilbao. Since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao's image as an industrial and financial city is acquiring a new facet: as a destination for international tourism attracted by its cultural offer.
On the back of this transformation, the port has increased its range of services by becoming a port-of-call for cruise liners sailing along Europe's Atlantic seaboard, now featuring on tourist routes that were once out of reach.
Once again, and after almost seven centuries of parallel existences, the City and the Port continue to show that, as in the past, their present and future are closely linked.
Shopping is one of Bilbao's main attractions.
A shopping spree around Bilbao becomes a pleasure all in itself. Sweeping avenues and pedestrian precincts make for a convenient and accessible setting in which shopping is an absolute delight.
If there is one thing that defines shopping in Bilbao it is the wide range of options it provides. The big names in Spanish and international fashion, major chains, shopping centres in the very heart of the city and small specialist shops all share the streets of Bilbao, providing shoppers with a complete retail experience.
Shops are open from 10 o'clock in the morning to 1.30 at midday, and then from 5 to 8 in the evening, although there is now an increasing number of shops that do not close for lunch in order to provide a service that is more in tune with their customers' requirements, and these include department stores, shopping centres, supermarkets and fashion shops.
All shops and department stores are open on Saturday afternoons; with a few exceptions, they all close on Sundays.
Bilbao is made up of 12 districts, each one with its own personality, which makes them special and easy to distinguish from one another.
Discover the different Shopping Areas in Bilbao
This is one of the most genuine expressions of our character traits and one of our main bonding features.
Linguists reserve a special place for Basque amongst European languages, as it does not belong to the group of languages that anciently came from Asia. It is not linked to any other language, at least not in its immediate surroundings. Europe basically has two language families: the Indo-European family and the Uralic one; but Basque is genetically far removed from both of them.
In all the language classifications made in today’s encyclopaedias, Basque has a place of its own, with no family tree or close relatives.
Bilbao provides an extremely varied cultural programme in such diverse artistic performances as dance, theatre, cinema and music, amongst others, as it has major infrastructures that make perfect venues, such as the Arriaga Theatre and the "Euskalduna" Conference Centre and Music Hall, which hosts, amongst other events, an opera season that is extremely popular amongst local people.
The Euskalduna building was designed by the architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios, as a ship permanently under construction, standing on a slipway on what was once the Euskalduna shipyard.
In addition to the Guggenheim, Bilbao has one of the finest galleries of classical art in the whole of Spain, namely, the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, as well as numerous private galleries.
A stroll around Bilbao is an absolute pleasure, as even the city streets are full of works of art and sites of architectural interest, with work by some of the world's most famous names, such as Santiago Calatrava, Arata Isozaki, Peña Ganchegui, Norman Foster...
If there is one thing that makes the Basque Country stand out it is the CUISINE that can be enjoyed here, and Bilbao is a fine example of this.
There is an unparalleled range of food on offer, and in both Bilbao and the surrounding area visitors can savour Basque cooking at any one of the numerous bars and restaurants, which skilfully combine traditional cooking with the innovative features of nouveau cuisine.
One of the mainstays of Basque cooking involves the famous pintxos, dishes in a miniature version that are crammed onto the counters in Bilbao's bars, and which delight locals and visitors alike.
The poteo is still a popular custom in Bilbao, and it involves a group of friends who go from bar to bar in a street, tasting the fine wines from nearby Rioja, the local txakoli from Bizkaia or cider, all accompanied, of course, by a delicious pintxo.
The most typical dishes are bacalao a la vizcaína (salt cod in a tomato and red pepper sauce, merluza en salsa verde (hake in an oil and garlic sauce), txipirones (baby squid in a black sauce made with their own ink) ...
Lunch is normally served in restaurants between 1.30 and 3.30 and dinner is usually served between 9 and 11 in the evening. There are also food outlets that are open all day.
Our festivals, the fiestas
The Aste Nagusia, the Big Week, is Bilbao's main festival, which is held every year over 9 days. The festivities start on the first Saturday after the 15th August.
The celebrations kick off with the txupin, which since 2001 has been held in the square outside the Arriaga Theatre. It includes the firing of a rocket, or txupin, by the maid of honour, the txupinera, and the reading of a proclamation, the pregón, by the guest of honour, the pregonero or pregonera.
Marijaia has been the official symbol of the festivals since 1978.
Marijaia is a combination of the name María and the Basque word jaia (party in English). This doll-like character is made to look like a traditional Basque woman, wearing her rural costume and a scarf tied around her head. She has a funny face, with protruding features and rosy cheeks, a great big smile and her arms are held up high as if dancing.
On the final day of the festival the effigy is burnt in the same square outside the Arriaga, bringing the nine days of festivities to an end.
At the same time, Bilbao organises a huge programme of cultural activities. An obligatory stop on the way is the vast array of outdoor bars, the txosnas, populating the El Arenal beside the river, where a tasty baguette sandwich and a kalimotxo (wine and cola) is the typical fare on offer.
The festivity in honour of St. Thomas is held on 21st December and signals the start of Christmas in Bilbao. A market fair is held in Bilbao featuring the traditional products from the Basque farmhouses, baserriak, and anyone can go along and buy or taste the delicious produce in a festive atmosphere.
More than 300 farmers, baserritarrak, display different products, amongst which one can find pulses, sweets, vegetables, cakes, breads, flowers and cheeses, amongst so many other things. It also a tradition to sample talo – a tortilla-type bread made of cornflower, water and salt – filled with a chorizo sausage and washed down with a glass of local txakoli wine.
The stall holders compete amongst themselves as they vie for the prizes in the different categories, with the most hotly contested ones being for the best cheese, honey or txakoli. Also on display are live hens, chickens and pigs.
This day is a popular festival that no one wants to miss, and it has become one of the city's most eagerly awaited events.
The fair is held between the Arenal area beside the river and the nearby square, the Plaza Nueva de Bilbao. Whilst visiting the stalls in the fair visitors can also enjoy the various typical dance performances held in the streets, as well as the procession of carts dating back to the times when the farmers used this method for transporting their produce to market. Also on display, and being played, are typical Basque musical instruments, such as trikitilaris, panderojoles, albokaris and dulzaineros. Another colourful note is provided by the bertsolariak (ex-tempore Basque verse singers).
Athletic Club de Bilbao is the area's leading football team and most popular sports club.
It was founded in 1898 and together with Barcelona and Real Madrid it is one of only three clubs that has always played in Spain's top division and never been relegated.
Athletic is the third club in Spain in terms of the number of competitions it has won, with its honours including 8 League titles, 23 Cups, and 1 Super Cup; it was also once the runner-up in the former UEFA Cup. The club also has a women's team, which has won the Spanish Super League on four occasions.
Athletic's traditional playing strip is a shirt with red and white vertical stripes and black shorts and socks.
Its stadium is called San Mamés, being also popularly referred to as "La Catedral". It was opened in 1913 and can hold 40,000 spectators, being one of the oldest in the "primera liga". Over the course of its almost 100 years of history it has witnessed major events that, together with the local fans, have made it one of the world's most unique football grounds. The so-called "spirit of San Mamés", alluding to the unconditional support and fervour with which the local fans urge on their team, has made San Mamés one of the most difficult grounds for rival teams.
The sporting philosophy is governed by the principle that specifies that the team can only contain players who have come up through the club's own ranks or have learnt their trade with other clubs in the Basque Country, which for these purposes covers the following areas: Bizkaia,
Gipuzkoa, Araba and Navarre on the Spanish side and Lapurdi, Zuberoa and Nafarroa Behera in the French Basque Country, in addition, of course, to those players born in any one of these.
In the hours leading up to a match, the bars around the San Mamés stadium are packed with people, with the charismatic Pozas street being especially busy, as fans enjoy the traditional pre-match tipple, or poteo, which ensures there is a special atmosphere when Athletic plays its home games.
At the end of the 2003-2004 season, Bilbao Basket won promotion to the first division. The ACB, Spanish basketball's top flight, is considered to be the best league in the world after the NBA.
Following this meteoric rise to the top, and far from having a fleeting acquaintance with the ACB league, Bilbao Basket has become something of a sensation over these first few years, and in a short time has been acknowledged as one of the teams to watch in the ACB. This, compounded by the massive support it attracts from society at large in Bizkaia, has made it the second most popular sports club in the area.