Bilbao’s beating heart
Bilbao’s amazing history is hidden in a 240,000 metre square area known as Siete Calles (Seven Streets). Take a stroll through the narrow streets of the Old Town to discover it
Bilbao was founded 700 years ago. Back then, the village’s economy was based on fishing and activity along the river Nervión. The busiest area was what today is known as Siete Calles (Seven Streets). The village was divided into two districts by the river estuary.
On the left bank was Bilbao La Vieja (Bilbao the Old), a mining area that lived out of the exploitation of iron ore, and on the right bank was the Casco Viejo (Old Town), whose main activity revolved around trade and the port. The Old Town and its three parallel streets were protected by a city wall that eventually was torn down, giving ground to another four streets. Such was the origin of the Siete Calles.
It is the busiest part of town, full of shops, bars and restaurants. The old buildings in this neighbourhood are key elements of the town’s historical and architectural heritage. Get lost in the streets and alleyways that make the beating heart of Bilbao: The Old Town, one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
The Bilbao effect
Cities where tradition and avant-garde come together
No visitor should leave Bilbao without taking a stroll through the Casco Viejo, the city’s oldest neighbourhood. It hosts emblematic places and buildings like the Plaza Nueva, the Arriaga Theatre, the Cathedral of Santiago and the Churches of San Antón, San Nicolás and San Juan.
The Siete Calles are Somera, Artekale, Tendería, Belostikale, Carnicería Vieja, Barrenkale and Barrenkale Barrena – words that stand for old trades or locations in Basque or Spanish. Carnicería Vieja (Old Butchery), for instance, is called this way because it was on this street that Bilbao’s first slaughterhouse stood. Nowadays, the whole district of Casco Viejo is a historical and artistic complex. Its streets store up genuine architectural treasures erected in past centuries.
The 1983 flood was the worst natural disaster in the history of Bilbao. The effects of the rain in terms of material damage were enormous. Nevertheless, the city’s valuable architectural treasures were rehabilitated and the Casco Viejo remained one of Bilbao’s main tourist attractions.
Treasures of the Old Town
Besides the Siete Calles, you will find historic treasures in other streets in the Old Town. The Bidebarrieta Library is one of the city’s top cultural centres, with more than 100,000 books. Casa Mazarredo, built in the seventeenth century, is a fine example of the luxury houses of the time. In Calle Pelota there stands Palacio de Yohn, popularly known as La Bolsa. The lintel over the doorway is quite uncommon in Bizkaia.
The oldest stately mansion in Bilbao is Palacio Arana, built in 1590 in the late Renaissance style, with a round arch decorating the doorway. Also interesting is Atxuri Station, with its mix of the regionalist style typical of the mountains and the traditional Basque style. Casa Cuna, on the Urazurrutia quay, is a beautiful Modernist building that was used as a day care facility for workers’ children. In Plazuela San Nicolás stand the BBVA (formerly Banco de Bilbao) headquarters, an impressive building from 1868 where cultural events like exhibitions and concerts are held.
To explore the Casco Viejo without missing anything, start at the Arenal, an open area where the inland port was first built. The port served as a major trade link between Bilbao, Europe and the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragón.
The beautiful Plaza Nueva is Bilbao’s culinary nerve centre, with bars and restaurants offering delicious pintxos
In the lovely Arenal gardens, you can take a gentle walk to the bandstand. On the left-hand side is the Church of San Nicolás and on the right you will see the Arriaga Theatre, with its iconic façade.
Cross the road and head for the Casco Viejo by way of Calle Askao and Calle de los Fueros. The heart of the Old Town is Plaza Nueva. Now, the square is enclosed by pintxo bars and restaurants on all four sides. There is plenty of outdoor seating.
Get off Plaza Nueva through the archway onto Calle Sombrerería and walk in the direction of Plaza Unamuno. Bilbao, proud of Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno, has a sculpture of him in the square that bears his name in the heart of the Casco Viejo. Continue on Calle de la Cruz until Portal de Zamudio. The façade of the Church de los Juanes Santos and the Basque Museum is what you will see first. The portal is the gateway to the Siete Calles and the site of the ancient city wall. Take the street to the left and then Somera (Goienkale, the upper street).
Somera is crowded all day long. Both young and not-so-young Bilbaínos meet here early in the evening to socialise before dinner. Walk along the street to find the Bridge and Church of San Antón, the saint that is believed to protect the city.
Next to San Antón stands La Ribera Market, on the bank of the river estuary. It is the largest indoor food market in Europe. Down the Ribera portico and Belostikale, you will find your way back to the Siete Calles. Choose the thoroughfare you like.
Santa María, Jardines and Perro Streets are lined with bars displaying mouth-watering pintxos on trays. To get to Santiago Cathedral, take Calle del Perro. The Cathedral is a Gothic structure that had been on the site way before the foundation of Bilbao. Leave the Cathedral behind to take Calle del Correo, a street full of shops that leads back to the Arriaga Theatre.
How To Get There
The Casco Viejo, one of Bilbao’s top attractions, can be easily reached by underground, train, tram or bus. If you are coming by car, park in the car park in the Arenal, as parking spaces in the Casco Viejo are usually unavailable.
Euskotren has two stations in the Casco Viejo: Zazpi Kaleak (E3 line, Lezama-Kukullaga and E1 line, Bilbao-Donostia) and Atxuri (E4 line to Bermeo).
The underground is the fastest means of transport. Get off at Casco Viejo, right in front of the Siete Calles. The station has two exits, one onto Plaza Unamuno and another onto Plaza San Nicolás.
The tram stops at Arriaga, right in Plaza del Teatro, at the entrance to the Casco Viejo.
Many Bilbobus lines stop at the Arenal: 03, 11, 22, 28, 30, 40, 56, 58, 62, 71, 72, 75, 77 and 85. All of them run very often.
If you drive on the A-8 from Santander, get off at exit 116A. Past the roundabout, continue on road Larreagaburu and Avenida Miraflores, whose name changes to Atxuri and then Ribera. This road takes you directly to Plaza del Arriaga. If you are coming from France on the A-8, take exit 116B.
Where to eat
The Casco Viejo has more than a hundred bars and restaurants to choose from. They serve everything from meat, fish or vegetables to desserts… You will find it difficult to pick one.
If you are planning to go on a pintxo tour, begin with the bars in Plaza Unamuno, Plaza Nueva and Calle Somera. They serve a wide array of beautifully crafted pintxos of regional specialties and new flavours. If you prefer a formal dinner at a restaurant, go from Calle del Perro up to Santa María, a street dotted with restaurants offering affordable menus and more pricey ones, all of them tasty.
From Thursday to Saturday, the Siete Calles are wrapped in a festive atmosphere. On weekends, the often crowded bars usually serve pintxo-pote: a combination of pintxo + drink. The area is particularly boisterous on matchdays when Athletic Bilbao play at home.
Where to sleep
The streets of Casco Viejo are home to numerous B&Bs, hostels and hotels. The Casco Viejo is the soul of Bilbao and boasts all types of accommodation.
The Casco Viejo is a lively area by day and by night. For a quieter place, look for a hotel in the Ensanche or Abandoibarra.