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.