Bilbao's Old Town Walking Tour, Bilbao

Bilbao's Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Bilbao

Bilbao's old town, also known as The Seven Streets, is the medieval heart of the city. Indeed, this ancient neighborhood, a place where the city began and which had been fortified by walls until the late 19th century, today consists of seven main streets and many narrow alleys – called cantons (kantoi, cantón) – that connect them.

Often regarded as a jewel of Basque architecture and cuisine, the up-and-coming Old Town remains one of Bilbao's most visited areas. In large part, this is due to the several historical churches found here, such as the Church of Saint Anthony the Great and Church of Saint Nicholas. One of the main local attractions, undoubtedly, is the iconic 14th-century Santiago Cathedral, featuring a stunning Gothic-Renaissance façade.

Just as well, the old quarter attracts locals and tourists alike with the numerous pintxo bars where they can indulge in the region's culinary delights. For this reason, the beautiful Plaza Nueva, a hub of social life lined with cafés, bars, and restaurants, is yet another popular site in the area. There is a tradition of middle-aged men doing a tavern crawl drinking short glasses (chiquitos) of wine and singing choral songs.

Aside from great food and architecture, however, the Old Town allows visitors a chance to learn about Bilbao's vibrant history and culture. Places like the Basque Museum provide insights into the region's past, while the landmark food market, Mercado de la Ribera (Ribera Market), offers a glimpse into the daily life of the city.

For those keen on exploring all of this, a self-guided walk around the lively and colorful Old Town of Bilbao will present an incredible interest.
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Bilbao's Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Bilbao's Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: Spain » Bilbao (See other walking tours in Bilbao)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.6 Km or 1 Miles
Author: nataly
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Plaza Nueva (New Square)
  • Iglesia de San Nicolas (Church of Saint Nicholas)
  • Teatro Arriaga (Arriaga Theatre)
  • Catedral de Santiago (Santiago Cathedral)
  • Mercado de la Ribera (Ribera Market)
  • Iglesia de San Anton (Church of Saint Anthony the Great)
  • Puente de San Anton (San Anton Bridge)
  • Museo Vasco (Basque Museum)
  • Plaza Miguel Unamuno (Miguel Unamuno Square)
Plaza Nueva (New Square)

1) Plaza Nueva (New Square) (must see)

Construction of the Neoclassical New Square began in 1828. The first stone was laid by King Fernando VII. The King's statue was to be in the center of the square. But Fernando died in 1833. A pond took center stage, replaced by a statue of Diego Lopez de Haro, founder of Bilbao, in 1890. Construction was ongoing. The square opened in 1851.

The New Square is surrounded by Askao Street (Calle Askao), Sombrereria Street (Calle Sombrereria), Fueros Street (Calle de los Fueros), and Correo Street (Calle del Correo). Sixty-four arches in colonnades with pintxos bars tucked underneath enclose the square. The main building of the Basque government on the New Square was replaced in 1890 by the Euskaltzaindia Palace, The Basque Royal Language Academy.

Every Sunday, there is a flea market in the square. There is a brisk trade-in of old books, coins, stamps, and even birds and flowers. Taverns, restaurants, and some unique shops nestle under the arches. Folkways events, festivals, and concerts are often hosted in the square. Since 2008, the Bilbao City Council has provided free Internet access via Wi-Fi in the New Square.
Iglesia de San Nicolas (Church of Saint Nicholas)

2) Iglesia de San Nicolas (Church of Saint Nicholas)

The Church of Saint Nicolas, a Catholic Church that opened in 1756, was designed by architect Ignacio Ibero. It is in Saint Nicholas Square (Plaza de San Nicolas), facing the Arriaga Theater. The original church, built close to the estuary in 1490, was eventually ruined by flooding.

Ibero's basic design in the 1743 plan was a large circle within a square. The presbytery and the main entry are on one axis. The two side entrances are on a perpendicular axis, which creates exedras (large niches) at the corners of the square. The four exedras hold two altarpieces joined by two tribunes (galleries) and a choir.

The principal facade is topped by a balustrade and flanked by twin towers. The Belfry, centered over the main entrance, partly conceals the octagonal drum under the dome with oculi. A bronze tympanum by sculptor Josep Llimona depicts Saint Nicolas amongst fisherfolk. Above the tympanum is the coat of arms of the Town Council.

Inside is an unusual set of five Rococo altarpieces. Designed in 1752 by architect Diego Martinez de Arce, they display ornate carvings and reliefs. The altarpieces are dedicated to the saints Crispin, Crispiniano, Lazaro, Blaise, and La Piedad.

In the chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe, there is an 18th-century painting of the Virgin. There is also a relief of The Visitation and an image of San Judas Tadeo, a favorite saint of Bilbao.
Teatro Arriaga (Arriaga Theatre)

3) Teatro Arriaga (Arriaga Theatre)

Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga y Balzola, a brilliant Basque composer known as "the Spanish Mozart," died at the age of twenty. He was born on the same day as Mozart, 27 January, but fifty years later. Only fragments of his extraordinary works remain. The Neo-Baroque opera house, Arriaga Theatre (Teatro Arriaga), was built in 1890 and was dedicated to his memory.

The original opera house of 1890, known as the New Bilbao Theater, was built by architect Joaquin Rucoba, who also designed the Bilbao City Hall. The New Bilbao Theater soon took the name Arriaga Theater from Arriaga Square, where it was located.

Rucoba's design combined classical decoration with every technological advance available at the time. In 1890, the opera La Gioconda, by Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli, marked the inauguration. A fire destroyed the building in 1914. Reconstruction was directed by architect and urban planner Federico Ugalde.

The theater today is a free-standing edifice with three divided elevations. The base level has pillar-supported enclosed arches topped by a continuous cornice. The second level holds the main "noble" floor with rectangular openings and decorated oculi. The third-level cornice has a railing and smaller rectangular windows.

The main facade is curved-convex. It is flanked by twin turrets. The side and rear exteriors have balconies supported by "Atlantean" corbels. The turrets have domes. The roof is sloping by mansards surrounding the building.
Catedral de Santiago (Santiago Cathedral)

4) Catedral de Santiago (Santiago Cathedral) (must see)

The Santiago Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the apostle Saint James the Greater. It is a stop on the Pilgrims' way to the shrine of Saint James of Compostela. Santiago Cathedral, built in 1379, is located in the Old Section of Bilbao.

The cathedral has a Latin cross plan with three naves. The naves are separated by supporting columns. The presbytery is within a nave and ambulatory. The Gothic cloister has two porticos. The religious temple represents the 15th-century Gothic and Gothic Revival architectural styles in the facade and spire.

The facade and rose window are Neo-Gothic in style. The ogival doorway is flanked by statues of Peter and Paul. The Neo-Gothic tower is a work of the architect Severino de Achucarro.

On the north side is the 16th-century Gothic portal, Angel Gate (Puerta del Angel). The large portico on the south side was built over the old necropolis in 1580. It acts as a buttress for the epistle nave. The southern portal is the Gothic style featuring flared archivolts and no tympanum.

The wide ambulatory houses eleven chapels. There is a total of 16 chapels in the cathedral, including the crypt-oratory. The cloister is attached to the north side of the building. The cloister garden is bounded by four vaulted bays. It has two accesses, from inside the church, and from the street, via the Angel Gate (Puerta del Angel).
Mercado de la Ribera (Ribera Market)

5) Mercado de la Ribera (Ribera Market) (must see)

Seen from the front, on the bank of the Nervion Estuary, the Ribera Market looks like a Mississippi steamboat made of stone and glass. Built in 1929, it covers 10,000 square meters. It is the largest covered market in Europe. It was mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records in 1990 as the largest food market in the world.

The market is located on Ribera Street near the Main Square (Plaza Mayor), the Church of San Anton, and the Town Hall. The market houses the Conde de Mirasol Walkway and connects to the San Anton Bridge. Ribera Street is between the estuary banks and the buildings of the Old Town of Bilbao (Casco Viejo), also called the Seven Streets (Las Siete Calles).

The market of Bilbao has existed since the 14th century. It was referred to as the "nerve center" of the town and was described by 19th-century Bilbao composer and writer Emiliano de Arriaga as "a well-stocked market with whatever the most refined gourmet could desire." In the 1800s, an enclosure of iron and glass was built to house the market.

In 1928, a new market, designed by architect Pedro de Ispizua, was built in the trendy Rationalist style. The aim was open spaces without columns with good ventilation and natural lighting. Stained glass, latticework, and decorated facades made for an eclectic Art Deco appearance. In 2010 the market foundations were strengthened.

The market has never closed. Fishmongers are on the ground floor. There are fish, fresh and frozen, shellfish, and pickles. The first floor houses meat, delis, pastries, and preserves. The second floor offers fruits and vegetables, flowers, seeds, and grains; most products are brought directly from nearby villages.

There are also gourmet bar-restaurants in a space that, thanks to a recent initiative, is filled with the sounds of jazz daily.
Iglesia de San Anton (Church of Saint Anthony the Great)

6) Iglesia de San Anton (Church of Saint Anthony the Great)

The Church of Saint Anthony the Great is a Catholic church in the Old Town district of Bilbao. The church is an example of the Gothic style of church architecture, favored in the 15th and 16th centuries. Despite reconstructions, it remains possible to observe some Gothic features.

At the time of its consecration in 1433, the Church of Saint Anthony the Great had a single nave with a vaulted roof. It was enlarged in 1478. The enlarged portion was in the Gothic style. The edifice went through floods and civil disturbances, especially during the Carlist Wars. In the 19th century, it was used for arms storage. Restorations were made in 1881.

The effect of all the restorations has produced an eclectic appearance. The facade is in the 16th-century Renaissance style, whereas most of the building is Gothic. The earliest Romanesque style features the round arches of the entrance. The nave ceiling, with its ribbed vaults, is Gothic. Corinthian columns flank the entry.

Figures of Saints Peter and Paul are in niches at the doorway. The present belfry tower was done by architect Gabriel de Capelastegui. It is a Baroque four-sided tower below the ornate belfry, topped by a dome and lantern.

The church has three chapels. The Chapel of Provost has two altarpieces dedicated to Sant Ana and the Virgin of Consolation. The Chapel of Piety is Gothic, with an arch and a ribbed vault. The smallest chapel is the Chapel of San Roque. It has a ribbed vault, a Gothic arch, and sculptures of San Roque, Saint Lucy, and Saint Sebastian.
Puente de San Anton (San Anton Bridge)

7) Puente de San Anton (San Anton Bridge)

Before Bilbao was made a town, by Don Diego Lopez de Haro in 1300, there was a bridge. No surprise, it was called the "Old Bridge." It stood next to the old Church of San Anton. For centuries, it was the only vital link across the river. The bridge, which provided passage for trade from Castile, was fiercely defended by the locals.

The double arch bridge spans the estuary of Bilbao, connecting the districts of Old Bilbao (Bilbao La Vieja) and Old Town (Casco Viejo). The original bridge, from the 14th century, was brought down several times by floods and wars.

A new bridge finished in 1880 suffered damages in the Carlist wars. It was reconstructed again in 1937 after being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. The 1937 version is the one that stands today.

Trade and traffic were not the only uses of the bridge. For a time, criminals were impounded under the arches. Nobles convicted of capital crimes were not executed like ordinary people. They would have stones tied about their necks and publicly drowned under the bridge. The process was called "waterlogging."

The San Anton Bridge appears on the Bilbao coat of arms, together with its neighbor, the Church of San Anton. It also appears on the shield of the Athletic, the professional football club of Bilbao. The Euro 2020 logo bears an image of the bridge.
Museo Vasco (Basque Museum)

8) Museo Vasco (Basque Museum)

The Basque Museum, known as the Basque Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Historical Museum, opened in 1921. At present, it occupies the 17th-century Jesuit San Andreas Church and Cloister in Miguel de Unamuno Square. The museum has a collection of over 20,000 objects and artifacts from public and private sources.

The museum is articulated around the cloister and its courtyard. The cloister has four bays with several sections. There are three levels of arcades of semicircular arches and pillars. The Jesuits were evicted in 1767. The property has been a Latin school, a hospital, and a factory. In 1914 the cloister became the museum.

The lowest level is for tombstones and heraldry. In the center of the courtyard is the Idol of Mikeldi (a statue depicting a bull with a solar disc between its legs). Probably dating from the 4th century BC, it is a single sandstone block in the zoomorphic shape of a hog. In the stairwell is a replica of the 15th-century Kurutziaga cross of Durango.

The first floor is devoted to weapons, the sea, ceramics, and textiles. The second floor is concerned with the prehistoric phase of Vizcaya. On the third floor are a colossal scale model of the province and 18th-century furnishings from rooms of the Bilbao consulate.

Since 1962 the Basque Museum has been an Asset of Cultural Interest (BIC), with the category of National Historic-Artistic Monument.
Plaza Miguel Unamuno (Miguel Unamuno Square)

9) Plaza Miguel Unamuno (Miguel Unamuno Square)

Miguel de Unamuno, born in Bilbao in 1864, was a philosopher and writer who won many awards for poetry, essays, novels and plays. Bilbao celebrated him in 1934, naming him a "favorite son." There was even a street named after him. As the Civil War broke out in 1936, he came out for the Nationalist side, and these honors were withdrawn.

The square was originally Cross Square (Plazuela de la Cruz), named for its proximity to the 16th-century convent of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. In 1925 the place was called Auxiliaries Square (Plaza de los Auxilliares,) for the liberal forces in the Carlist War of 1873. In 1937, it was named for Franco's Navarra Brigades. In 1980 it was named for Miguel de Unamuno.

There are structures of note around the square, such as the Basque Archeological, Ethnographic and Historical Museum; the Archeological Museum of Bizkaia; Museum of the Holy Week Steps; the Calzadas de Mallona stairs of 1745, connecting Old Town (Casco Viejo) to the Basilica of Begona; and the Monument of Miguel de Unamuno. Nearby is the Bilbao New Square (Plaza Nueva de Bilbao).

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Bilbao Introduction Walking Tour

Bilbao is the largest city in northern Spain. Burial sites 6,000 years old have been found near Bilbao. A settlement of the 3rd or 2nd century BC was called Amanun Portus by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Ptolemy referred to it as Flaviobriga.

But today's Bilbao was founded on the banks of the Nervion River by the Lord of Biscay in the year 1300. The city was an important trading hub...  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.1 Km or 2.5 Miles