The Ensanche, a stylish and cosmopolitan district
The centre of Bilbao is a lively and busy area, filled with shops, museums and parks where time seems to stand still
In the late nineteenth century, the narrow streets of the Old Town and Bilbao La Vieja were no longer capable of accommodating the growing population.
The city had to expand, making a leap to the other side of the estuary into the open area of Abando. It was then that the Ensanche was born – and, with it, modern Bilbao.
The Ensanche district has become the commercial and financial hub of the capital of Bizkaia. Its main street, Gran Vía, is flanked by shops, banks and stately homes built by bourgeois families. The Ensanche is Bilbao’s most stylish and cosmopolitan district.
On your leisurely walk along the streets in the Ensanche, you will find diverse architectural styles, as well as Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, the green lung of the city and home to ducks, swans, peacocks, and the first big museum in town, the Fine Arts Museum.
The Bilbao effect
Cities where tradition and avant-garde come together
Bilbao’s transformation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was similar to the changes undergone by the city after the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. These two major transformations took place facing the Nervión estuary.
The city took a leap over the Nervión to build the Abando and Indautxu districts, in the first and second periods of urban growth, respectively. The local bourgeoisie would look to cities like London or Paris as models. The architecture of the Ensanche, in particular the Gran Vía, is noted for its eclecticism. Modernist facades rub shoulders with functional buildings in the Baroque or the traditional Basque styles, among others. The result is a dynamic city that never stops changing.
You cannot leave Bilbao before doing some window shopping along Gran Vía, in the shade of the lime trees. You will pass by the Palacio Foral (seat of Bizkaia’s Assembly Hall), right on Gran Vía. In the adjoining streets (Ledesma, Jardines de Albia, Diputación) stands the Biblioteca Foral (Bizkaia’s Library), a building with a glazing façade. This area is perfect for having pintxos. Ercilla and the nearby streets are dotted with nice shops. Oh, and say hello to the Meninas!
Azkuna Zentroa is an iconic building of the cultural and cosmopolitan city Bilbao has turned into. In the past, it was the Alhóndiga, a wine warehouse that has become a leisure and cultural centre. It was named after Iñaki Azkuna, former Mayor of Bilbao, who succeeded in putting the city on the global map for tourism and the arts. The renovation project for Azkuna Zentroa was developed by designer Philippe Starck, who converted the 43,000m2 building into a cultural venue that runs concerts, workshops and exhibitions, and houses cafés and restaurants, a gym, a library and a cinema theatre. Come to see the 43 different columns on the ground floor, each with a unique design, and the huge sun that welcomes you past the entrance.
Next to Nuevo Bilbao (New Bilbao), in the haven of green peace that is Doña Casilda Park, there stands the Fine Arts Museum, one of the top museums in Spain. The museum’s collection spans over 800 years, from the thirteen to the twenty-first century, and includes works by such great artists as El Greco, Francis Bacon, Eduardo Chillida or Joaquín Sorolla. The Fine Arts Museum and the Guggenheim Museum are Bilbao’s top galleries, and they are within walking distance to each other.
Our city tour starts at Plaza Circular, where you will see the statue of Don Diego López de Haro, founder of the town in 1300. Here, you can ask for information at the Tourist Office and take a look at the iron dome of Abando Station.
In the streets of the Ensanche, the modern and the traditional live together in harmony
Accommodating fine shops, they are great to soak in the culture of the city. Across the station are the BBVA headquarters, the tallest building in Bilbao until the Iberdrola Tower grabbed the trophy from the bank.
The Gran Vía was the avenue chosen by the bourgeoisie to build their mansions, shops and banks. The Bank of Spain and BBVA have offices here: Majestic buildings with colossal columns in the classical Greek style. Alameda de Mazarredo leads to Jardines de Albia, a lovely area brimming with coffee shops, walkways, benches and stylish gardens, plus the Church of San Vicente, which is older than the Ensanche itself.
Retrace your steps to the Gran Vía and continue along Alameda Urkijo. Hidden behind the Post Office is the Campos Elíseos Theatre, a modernist gem with a beautiful façade in the art nouveau style. Standing on Alameda Urkijo, look out for the dome of Azkuna Zentroa, a symbol of the classical-avant-garde fusion in architecture, represented by the Neo-Baroque façade by Ricardo Bastida and the contemporary design by Philippe Starck. Exit through the main entrance toward Plaza Moyúa. On your way, you will be amazed by the Osakidetza building (the headquarters of the Basque Health System), provided with a faceted glazed facade by Coll-Barreu Arquitectos.
Plaza Moyúa is at the core of the shopping district. It affords views of the mountains that protect the botxo (hole), as Bilbao is popularly known. The square itself is surrounded by classical buildings marked by a European style like the Palacio Chávarri or the Carlton Hotel. It also features the fosteritos: The glassy entrance canopies to Metro Bilbao designed by architect Norman Foster, also the author of the underground stations.
Take Alameda Rekalde, where there lies Casa Montero (also known as Casa Gaudí), whose organic shape and daring Modernist lines break away from the sobriety that characterises the street. Back on the Gran Vía, you will walk past stately mansions like Casas de Ramón de la Sota or Casa Lezama-Leguizamon, both of them built for bourgeois families in the early twentieth century.
Gradually, the trees and the pergola of the Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park will become visible. The park, with areas to relax or to have children play, is named after the lady who donated the plot. Doña Casilda Park is also known as Parque de los Patos (Duck Park). Close to Plaza Euskadi is the Fine Arts Museum, which is worth a visit.
How To Get There
The Ensanche district in Bilbao is easily accessed on foot. It contains a semi-pedestrian area, criss-crossed with busy streets lined with shops, office buildings, bars, museums and green spaces. In foul weather, you can always get around by bus or underground.
When you arrive in Bilbao on a Renfe train, your entrance to the Ensanche is Abando. If you are coming by Euskotren, you can get off at either Abando or San Mamés. Both stations are linked by Metro Bilbao.
Both lines of Metro Bilbao stop at the three main spots in the Ensanche: Abando at the beginning, Moyúa, and San Mamés, at the far end of the district.
You can get off at Abando or San Mamés to start your walking tour through the Ensanche, or at Guggenheim to visit the Fine Arts Museum first.
Where to eat
The Ensanche district, spanning the Abando and Indautxu neighbourhoods, is Bilbao’s shopping and business area par excellence. There are shops, office buildings, bars and restaurants, where the people who work here go to have hamaiketako, or their mid-morning snack.
The Ensanche is a semi-pedestrian zone. Together with the Old Town, it is the district where local people meet for drinks, pintxos or a formal dinner. Among the busiest streets and areas are Diputación (Moyúa Station), Ledesma and Jardines de Albia (Abando Station), and Licenciado Poza (popularly known as Pozas) or Maestro García Rivero Streets in Indautxu.
Where to sleep
Abando and Indautxu, in the heart of the Ensanche, have many hotels, B&Bs, hostels and apartments to choose from. The two neighbourhoods are a pebble’s throw from the main attractions in Bilbao and are easily accessible by tram, underground or bus.
Staying in the Ensanche, you can enjoy Bilbao’s world-class nightlife, its cocktail bars, theatres, cinemas and concert halls, all a short walk from your hotel.