Casco Viejo is the medieval area of Bilbao, which used to be the fortified part of the city protected by walls until the 19th century. It is composed by Las Siete Calles, the seven main streets, and many narrow alleys called cantons that connect them. The old quarter is an area of incredible interest in Bilbao, and it is one of the most visited areas of the city, partly thanks to its accessibility connecting other neighborhoods in town. This makes Casco Viejo a natural stop in one’s explorations of the city; read on for the top ten sights you’ll find in this historic part of Bilbao.
Plaza Nueva (also called Plaza Barria, meaning ‘new square’) takes its name in reference to what used to be Plaza Vieja, the “old square” that once stood on the current site of La Ribera. Built in 1821 in neoclassical style, Plaza Nueva is surrounded by arches, called cuevas, and beautiful arcaded buildings. The main building in the square used to be the seat of the Biscay government, which was the historical province of Bilbao. A new palace was built to replace that building in 1890, and this is now the site of Euskaltzaindia, the Basque language Royal Academy. Many of the oldest traditional taverns and restaurants of the city can be found by peeking through Plaza Nueva’s many cuevas. (If you stop in the taverns, don’t miss the opportunities to try pintxos, Bilbao’s version of the Spanish tapas, usually made with a small slice of bread topped with some amazing local ingredients.) Don’t miss the flea market that takes place here each Sunday morning, selling old books, coins, stamps, flowers, and even birds.
You’ll find the Euskaltzaindia palace while exploring the Plaza Nueva. The Basque name Euskaltzaindia literally means ‘group of keepers of the Basque language’, but it is most often used to indicate the Royal Academy of the Basque language. This is the official academic language regulatory institution charged with protecting the ancient Basque language, while also conducting linguistic research and establishing the modern, standard use. Euskaltzaindia was established around 1918, during the renaissance of the Basque language, which around that time was being recognized as a central cultural value deserving protection and further promotion. Today, Basque language is spoken by about 27% of Basque in northern Spain and also southwestern France.
Mercado de la Ribera
Mercado de la Ribera is the biggest covered market in Europe, spanning a total area of 10,000 square meters. Since 1929, every day more than 60 local merchants set up shop here to sell traditional fresh products such as meat, fish and groceries in the many stalls lined inside. One area of the market is completely dedicated to the local farmers’ products. The interior of the Ribera market is a completely open space, often aglow from the natural light that pours down through the ceiling and reflects off the translucent floor. On the outside, the market is decorated in Art Deco style and with floral decorations which give the windows a particular delicate beauty. In 1990, the Ribera market was recognized as the most comprehensive food market in the world by the Guinness Book of Records.
Portal de Zamudio
Portal de Zamudio is a space of 800 square meters located between calle Tenderia, calle Somera and calle La Cruz, from which it is possible to access the church Iglesia de los Santos Juanes. The area takes its name from one of the portals that gave access to the Casco Viejo through the old walls that protected it. Another portal, Portal be Ibeni, is located in the Axturi neighbourhood, which used to be a suburb south of the old walled town. Today, Portal de Zamudio is a lovely area where many locals and tourists criss-cross paths while strolling around the Casco Viejo, with a scattering of benches and a fountain for those who’d like to pause and rest.
This majestic Cathedral was officially built and completed between the 14th and 15th centuries as Bilbao’s main parish church, but according to many historians, it probably existed in one form or another before the foundation of Bilbao in 1300. The church was only recently declared a cathedral in 1950, when the city Roman Catholic Diocese of Bilbao was officially created. The beauty of this particular cathedral is in its mix of differing architectural styles: the cloister and the main vault respect the style of the 15th century, while the façade and the spire were built in Gothic revival style. Near the cathedral you’ll also find the famous Puerta del Angel, the portal that give access to calle del Correo. Consecrated to Santiago (Saint James the Great), Bilbao’s cathedral was an important point of transits for pilgrims who followed the Way of Saint James from the northern side.
Santiago Cathedral, Plaza de Santiago, 1, Bilbo, Spain, +34 944 15 36 27
Iglesia de los Santos Juanes
Located between calle Ronda and calle la Cruz (in the area of the Portal de Zamudio) the Iglesia de los Santos Juanes was built in the 17th century in the classic baroque style. It previously served as the Church of Colegio de San Andrés, managed by the order of the Jesuits until the 18th century. The Juanes that the church refers to are the two evangelists San Juan Batista (Saint John Baptist) and San Juan Evangelista (Saint John Evangelist). As with many other buildings of the Casco Viejo, this church was completely renovated after the 1983 floods.
Iglesia de los Santos Juanes, Gurutze Kalea, 4, Bilbao, Biscay, Spain, +34 944 15 39 97
Iglesia de San Antón (Church of Saint Anthony)
The Iglesia de San Antón, dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great, is such an important site in Bilbao that it bears the city’s own coat of arms. Built at the end of the 15th century, this church was one of the few buildings that maintained elements of pure Gothic style – especially impressive since it had to be rebuilt many times after numerous floods, given its position nearby the Nervión river. These Gothic elements include the church’s distinctive pointed arches and rib vaulting. However, other parts of the church vary in style. The façade embodies the Renaissance style of the 16th century, while the arches of the entryway are built in Romanesque style. This variety of styles can be explained with the many religious reforms the church survived throughout Bilbao’s history.
Iglesia de San Nicolás (Church of Saint Nicholas)
Another important historical church of the Casco Viejo of Bilbao is the Iglesia de San Nicolás, dedicated to the saint patron of sailors. Dating back to the 18th century, this church was built in mid-Baroque style. Its most particular feature is its octagonal floor plan and octagonal dome. This church was designed by the local architect Ignacio Ibero, who planned it on a Greek cross shape set in a square – a design that was very unusual, especially for the time.
Iglesia de San Nicolás, Plaza de San Nicolás, s/n, Bilbao, Spain, +34 944 16 34 24
Euskal Museoa – Museo Vasco de Bilbao
The Euskal Museoa, or Museo Vasco de Bilbao, is home to Bilbao’s main archaeological, ethnographic and historical collections centered around northern Spain. Located right beside the Iglesia de los Santos Juanes, it stands where the Colegio de San Andrés used to be and was completely renovated in recent years. In addition to the collection, it offers libraries patrons can peruse full of historically significant documents and photographs.
Price: 3 Euros
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 AM – 7 PM; Sunday 10 AM – 2 PM. Closed on Tuesday
Watch out for: their library and collection of photos
Euskal Museoa, Plaza de Miguel de Unamuno, 4, Bilbao, Bizkaia, Spain, +34 944 15 54 23
This beautiful theater was built in neo-Baroque style to emulate the Paris Opera, and was designed by the same municipal architect who built Bilbao’s city hall, Joaquin Rucoba. Opened in 1890, it was later christened Arriaga in 1902 in honor of the renowned Bilbao musician Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga. His talent and personal history have earned him many comparisons to Mozart, as he composed his first opera at the age of 13, but unfortunately died of tuberculosis before he turned 20. Today, the Arriaga Theater hosts the city’s biggest and brightest performing arts events – check their schedule here and catch a performance while you’re in town!
Teatro Arriaga, Plaza Arriaga, 1, Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain, +34 944 79 20 36
By Giulia Luzi