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A city almost forgotten by residents and previously overlooked by visitors; Bilbao boasts a beautiful medieval city centre on the right bank of the Nervión river. Today this maze of narrow winding streets is filled with trendy shops, delicious tapas bars and sunny terraces. Find your favourite spots on the shaded squares or along the river.
In the 1990s, the Casco Viejo (Old Town) was still the territory of junkies and the homeless. But just like the rest of the city, its old downtown experienced a revival after the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the subsequent influx of tourists. The heart of the old town is formed by the Siete Calles, the 7 streets between the Gothic Santiago Cathedral and the meandering river, right at the spot where Bilbao was founded. Here are 3 tips for a fun afternoon in – and above – the Casco Viejo.
Along the river are still 3 remnants from the Belle Époque period. The Teatro Arriaga was built in 1890 and modelled after the Paris Opéra; reserve in advance to take a tour or attend a performance here. The Estación de la Concordia from 1902 is possibly the world's most romantic train station, with a façade of colourful ceramics and elegant wrought iron. Pay an early morning visit to the compelling modernist Mercado de la Ribera from 1929 to watch the fishmongers theatrically ply their catch of the day.
Somera, Artecalle, Tendería, Belosticalle, Carnicería Vieja, Barrencalle and Barrencalle Barrena: the Seven Streets already sound lovely in Spanish, but in Basque they become even more exotic - then the 5th street suddenly becomes Harategi Zahar kalea. This part of the city – especially around Plaza Nueva – is teeming with tapas bars, although these are called something else here. In the Basque country people don’t eat tapas but pintxos, culinary artwork served on a cocktail skewer. At café-bar Bilbao you can order a plate with every pintxo on the menu for 20 euros. Buen provecho!
Bilbao is quite flat along the riverbanks, but as the rest of the city is quite hilly you don’t need to go far for a great city view. Take the lift to the upper city from the square behind the Iglesia de San Nicolás for a great view of the Casco Viejo, set against a backdrop of green mountains. The Basilica Nuestra Señora de Begoña, home to Bilbao's patron saint, is a 15-minute stroll away. An ancient funicular railway squeals its way to the top of Artxanda for an even higher – and more expansive– view.