Spain Guide


Bilbao History

According to historians, Bilbao was officially born on June 15th 1300 when the lord of Bizkaia (Biscay) Don Diego Lopez de Haro bestowed the "carta magna" upon local people, granting them a trading monopoly on the river estuary.

Little is known about the history of the town before this date but Roman coins found in the estuary have led some historians to conclude that this was once the Roman settlement of Flaviobriga. The theory has never been proved conclusively.

There's no doubting that the "Bilbainos" were in contact with the Normans, the undisputed masters of the Atlantic arc in the 9th century, who probably passed on their knowledge and skill in the fields of commerce and sailing.

The Historic Origins of Bilbao

The town developed along the banks of the Nervion River which supplied drinking water, irrigation and inshore fishing. The early residents were fishermen and later ironworkers and artisans who exploited to the full the rights granted to them by the feudal duke Don Diego.

With the water power and transportation potential of the Nervion River and Bilbao's proximity to the coast, the town began to flourish as a thriving commercial port. During the 12th and 13th centuries Bilbao and nearby Bermeo, situated on the coast to the north of Bilbao, vied with each other for prime position as the region's most important port. The rivalry continued for centuries until Bilbao finally established itself as the undisputed centre of commerce during the industrial revolution.

Originally there were two distinct settlements the miners and iron workers lived on the left bank while the right bank was populated by those handling the flourishing trade in and out of the port. The two were united by the San Anton Bridge

The populace made full use of the raw materials to be found in the neighbouring mountains coupled with the trading rights conferred on them. They cut timber from the local forests of timber, beech and oak and built boats to take them in search of new trade and business opportunities.

The port flourished as the gateway for the export of goods from the Kingdom of Castille and the Ebro Valley and as a vital link with America, northern Europe, Africa and the Far East.

But its greatest prosperity was to come in the 19th century when Bilbao's well established trade, mining and iron industries meant it was perfectly placed to seize the golden opportunities of the industrial revolution.

Bilbao was officially named capital of Bizkaia, heavy industry developed apace, the shipping and railway companies transformed the town and banks and the Stock Market arrived on the scene.

The history continues...

It's from this era that many of the city's most important historic buildings and structures originate including the Duesto University, the Baroque style town hall, the Hanging Bridge, built in 1893 to ferry people and vehicles across the river, the Plaza Nueva and the Teatro Arriaga.

It was also during the 19th century that Bilbao produced one of its most famous sons the celebrated writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamano who became rector of the University of Salamanca.

The town outgrew its medieval centre with its narrow, cobbled alleyways and expanded to take in the neighbouring districts of Begona, Deusto and Luchana.

At the beginning of the 20th century the port was further developed with the introduction of an outer harbour, a vast sheet of water protected by the breakwater of Santurtzi and the pier of Algorta. Bilbao was by now one of the biggest and most important ports in Europe.

The mid to late 20th century saw less glorious developments the birth of ETA out of Franco's repression of the Basque people and the declining fortunes of the city's heavy industry in the 1970s and 80s.

The opening of the extraordinary Guggenheim Musuem in 1997 captured the imagination of the world and signalled the dawn of a new Bilbao, determined to embrace the very different opportunities of the next millennium.