The Right Bank of Bilbao and the Seven Streets

Unamuno’s “Little Silver Cup”

The cosmopolitan city of Bilbao is known among its inhabitants as the botxo (the hole) because of its location in the valley of the Nervión and Ibaizábal Rivers, surrounded by mountains. In its historic quarter you can discover the Seven Streets, the medieval nucleus of Bilbao which emerged from the Carlist sieges as, in the words of writer Miguel de Unamuno, the “little silver cup.” The charming Old Town of Bilbao includes Deusto (and its prestigious university) and the village of Begoña. If you cross the bridges, you will find the modern area of Bilbao on the left bank, which also includes the old village of Abando.

Plan Your Visit to the Old Town of Bilbao

The best way to experience the Old Town of Bilbao is by taking a relaxed stroll to all its cultural and historical sights. This is due to the fact that the Old Town was designed for pedestrians and is well-connected to other places. Bilbao is accessible by train to towns along the Basque coast– all the way to San Sebastián– as well as the rest of Spain. Both sides of Bilbao, the Old Town and Modern Bilbao on the other side of the river, are beautiful places to take a walk. The buses and metro connect with the coastal towns of Portugalete and Santurce (on the left bank of the Nervión river) and with the beach towns of Algorta (in Getxo), Sopelana and Plentzia (on the right bank). The Old Town of Bilbao is full of quality restaurants to experience Basque cuisine, modern hotels, and unique historical and cultural sights. Below, you can find our top recommendations to make your stay in the Old Town of Bilbao unforgettable.

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In 1300, Diego López de Haro V founded the town of Bilbao on the right bank of the estuary on land seized from the Begoña village, generating a rivalry that lasted for centuries. The strategic location of Bilbao had four advantages: it was the southernmost point of the Ibaizábal River (although the people of Bilbao liked to attribute this character to the Nervión River, and it has remained that way ever since, despite being a mistake) making it possible to cross from one shore to the other during low tide; the tides flowed in that direction, making it possible with the high tide to access ships from the Bay of Biscay (located 14 kilometres away); it was completely safe from the attack of privateers, who so frequently devastated coastal enclaves for centuries; and it was closer to Castile than its rival Bermeo.

In 1310, María Díaz de Haro issued Bilbao a new set of privileges that obliged all merchants on the route from Castile to the sea to enter the town. In addition, it granted Bilbao a wide jurisdiction in order to control all trade from the Nervión River to the Cantabrian Sea, avoiding competition from other localities. Over the years, the town became a stop on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James).

During the 15th century, the town created its first urban expansion plans which added four new streets to the three main ones in the town centre (Somera, Artecalle and Tendería). Thus, the famous Seven Streets of Bilbao were born, perpendicular to the estuary up to the hills of Begoña.

The definitive push of the town happened in 1511, when Juana I of Castile granted Bilbao the title of Consulate (House of Contracting, Court of the Businessmen of Sea and Land), from which it acquired the control of the estuary and a monopoly of textiles and Castilian wool. Bilbao seized these assets from Portugalete, provoking a multitude of lawsuits between both places. From then on, the port of Bilbao became one of the main ports of Spain, supported by the important naval industry that settled in the estuary.

In 1602 it became the new capital of Vizcaya, replacing the old capital of Bermeo.

The village was not occupied at the beginning of the War of Independence, and in August of 1808 the Bilbao population rose in arms. The French army occupied it a few days later, looting it and imposing stiff fines. It would be taken back by the patriots weeks later, alternating ownership again and remaining in constant tension for the rest of the war. In 1834, during the First Carlist War, Bilbao was a top-priority target for the troops of Infante Don Carlos due to its reputation as major urban and liberal centre. It suffered two sieges during the struggle. During the first one, Tomás of Zumalacárregui was fatally wounded. The second ended with the liberal victory of Espartero’s troops. In April of 1874, during the Third Carlist War, Bilbao was under siege for the third time. These exploits have given the town a cosmopolitan and liberal aura that can be appreciated in its people today.

Casco viejo de Bilbao (Margen derecha)

The conflicts of the war did not paralyze Bilbao, and it continued to grow due to a strong industrialization and the contribution of large numbers of immigrant populations. The railway arrived in the middle of the century and the University of the Compañía de Jesús was installed in the village of Deusto in 1886. The town centre was extended on the left bank of the estuary, which belonged to the rival Abando village.

Old Bilbao absorbed the village of Begoña, steadily growing along the right bank as a residential, administrative and educational centre, preserving an important historical and cultural legacy.

The main focus of interest for tourists on the right bank of Bilbao is the Casco Viejo (Old Town), an area of narrow streets buzzing with shops, markets, people and pintxos bars.

This is precisely where we propose you start your visit in Bilbao. We recommend a route that starts from the farthest point and then approaches the most modern part and continues  to the other side of the Nervión River. You can park your car in one of the suggested car parking lots and, with the tram that runs through the Biscayan capital, get off at the Plaza de los Santos Juanes in front of the Emilio Campuzano secondary school, which was first a hospital and then the city’s School of Arts and Crafts. From there there are two possibilities, the first of which is to get further away from the centre by walking towards the picturesque Atxuri Station (1913), a work in Basque regionalist style by Manuel María Smith, and towards the old Convent of the Incarnation, where the Museum of Sacred Art is currently located. Or, on the contrary, you can go to the Market of the Ribera, located on Ribera Street, just in front of which there is another tram stop. The market, located next to the estuary, has been a commercial symbol in Bilbao’s history since its foundation in the 14th century and today, thanks to a recent renovation, it has been restored it to its former splendour. The current building, with the appearance of a boat stranded on the banks of the estuary, was designed by Pedro Ispizua in 1929, who conceived an open and light-filled interior space with a distinct Art Deco exterior design. Next to it, near the Plaza de los Santos Juanes and the Puente de San Antón, built between 1871 and 1877 in the vicinity of its medieval predecessor, stands the Church of San Antón or San Antonio Abad, from the late fifteenth century. Built on the ruins of the ancient fortress, it contains a beautiful plateresque altarpiece by Guiot de Beaugrant. The importance of the ensemble formed by this bridge and temple is such that its representation occupies almost the entire shield of the city.

To enter the Old Town of Bilbao, we suggest you first visit the Seven Streets (zazpi kaleak) and immerses yourself in its pleasant atmosphere and surroundings, full of remarkable Renaissance, Baroque and 19th and 20th century buildings such as the Arana Palace (16th-17th centuries); the Stock Exchange building (18th century), renovated for municipal services and the Municipal Library, a monumental modernist building of the late 19th century designed by Severino de Achúcarro. There are also several fountains scattered around this area, such as the Fuente del Perro (Fountain of the Dog). In the centre of town at the Santiago Square you can find the Cathedral of Santiago, which was constructed between the 14th and 15th centuries. It is the main Gothic church of Vizcaya and the oldest building in Bilbao. The church has interesting architectural elements such three naves, a triforium, an ambulatory, and ribbed vaults. It also has an adjoining cloister to the north, which can be accessed via Calle Correo (Correo Street). It is known as Puerta del Ángel and here you can see the symbol of the pilgrim’s shell, in clear reference to the church’s Jacobean tradition. The tower and the main façade of the temple are, however, later works of neo-Gothic origin, completed in 1887 according to the design of Severino de Achúcarro.

If we continue from the cathedral along the street Calle de los Santos Juanes we will reach Plaza de Unamuno (Unamuno Square), named after Miguel de Unamuno who was a native of the town (in fact, his birthplace is at the address 16 Calle Ronda). The square, presided over by a bust of the famous writer sculpted by Victorio Macho, is a meeting place for Bilbao residents. It is home to the Basque Museum and the Church of Santos Juanes. The Basque Museum, which occupies the old building of the San Andrés de la Compañía de Jesús College of the 17th century, provides an educational journey through the history of Bilbao through its collections on the different work, sports and religious activities of the Basque people. The key feature is undoubtedly the Idol of Mikeldi, a statue that which presides over the entrance to the cloister. As for the Church of Santos Juanes, it was the old Parish of the Jesuit school. Baroque in style, although with Renaissance elements, it was founded in 1622 by Martín Ibáñez de Zalbidea and still retains its function as a place of worship.

From Plaza de Unamuno we can head up the steep stairs of the Calzadas de Mallona, which lead to the Campo de Mallona area, the former cemetery of the city where every year there is a civic procession in memory of the auxiliary fighters of the Site of 1874. We can make a stop at the Archaeological Museum of Biscay or continue the ascent to top, through the street of the Virgen de Begoña, until we reach the Basilica of Begoña. It is a Gothic building from the early sixteenth century with a beautiful Renaissance doorway and is one of the most interesting sights in the Old Town of Bilbao. The temple was built on the place where the virgin appeared at the beginning of that century. Inside, your attention is drawn to the Camarín de la Virgen, which features an image of the patron saint of the city, the Amatxo, a figure of great devotion among the Bilbao residents.

Next to Plaza de Unamuno you can find Plaza Nueva, which can be accessed from the streets of Correo or Sombrerería. This is a sober, neoclassical porticoed plaza built between 1786 and 1851 on a marshland. From there we can easily reach the Church of San Nicolás de Bari, the Plaza de Arriaga and the Paseo del Arenal. The monumental baroque temple of San Nicolás de Bari (1743) contains five Rococo altarpieces with sculptures, mostly works by Juan Pascual de Mena. Next to the estuary you can find Plaza de Arriaga, which is home to Arriaga Theatre, which has an interesting horseshoe floor plan. This theatre is one of the most notable buildings of 19th century Spanish theatre architecture, built by Joaquín Rucoba and Octavio de Toledo between 1886 and 1890. In the neo-baroque style, it presents a general structure inspired by the Paris Opera.

Universidad de Deusto

Once on the bank of the estuary in front of Arriaga, we can continue our journey along the left bank, crossing the Arriaga bridge, or walk along the right bank to Deusto.

From the Paseo del Arenal, which has gardens and a small music stage, you can see the Casa Consistorial, an eclectic building also designed by Joaquín Rucoba and inaugurated in 1892. A bell tower crowns it and statues and bas-reliefs are scattered on its main façade, representing various illustrious figures in the history of Bilbao which form a striking sight. If you make an appointment, you can go inside to marvel at the luxury and magnificence with which the spaces were designed, especially in the neo-Arab reception hall, which  is one of the best examples of this style in Spain.

Continuing on our journey, we can find the sculpture “Variante Ovoide de la Desocupación de la Esfera” by Jorge Oteiza opposite the Town Hall, next to the bridge that bears the artist’s name. This is where the Paseo del Campo Volantín begins, a garden area with palaces and villas that reaches the neighborhood and bridge of Deusto. If we choose to take this pleasant stroll along the right bank of the estuary, we will have a view of some of the landmarks of modern architecture that are located on the left bank, towards the Uribitarte pier, such as the Isozaki Towers, the Zubizuri Bridge or the Guggenheim Museum itself. We will pass the Universidad Literaria (Literary University, 1886), a classicist building belonging to Marqués de Cubas, and the Universidad Comercial (Commercial University, 1916), attached to the previous one, both of which are historical sites of the University of Deusto.

This is one of the main universities in Spain and one of two that have their headquarters in the Basque Country. It opened its doors during the 19th century on land on the right bank of the estuary, although some of its facilities were later moved to new buildings erected on the opposite bank. For example, the library, the work of Rafael Moneo in Abandoibarra, was recently built next to the Guggenheim.

Towards the middle of Campo Volantín, and from the streets of Múgica and Butrón, you can access the Funicular of Artxanda, which will allow you to comfortably ascend the mountain to enjoy some of the best panoramic views of Bilbao if its a clear day.

Must See

Teatro Arriaga
Ayuntamiento de Bilbao

Practical Data

Coordinates

43° 15′ 25″ N, 2° 55′ 25″ W

Distances

San Sebastián-Donostia 100 km, Santander 102 km, Madrid 398 km

Parking

Parking Pío Baroja, Train Station of Abando, Parking Plaza de Indautxu

Altitude

19 m

Population

349 356 (2013)

Carnival, Nuestra Señora de Begoña (15th of August) and Semana Grande (the Saturday before 22 August), Santo Tomás (21st of December), Saint Bartholomew (24th of August)

Bilbao BBK live (July), Zinebi, Festival of film documentaries and short films (November)

Vino Txakoli D.O. Bizkaia Bodegas Berroja, Eguzkialde y Kokolo

Other Places to Visit

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