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Bilbao History

It was not until the 20th century that Bilbao picked up its paintbrush and decorated its own destiny with artistic aplomb.

Before then though, this gritty port was already a palette of colourful history that swirled with wars and was brushed with Basque pride.

It began on 15 June 1300, when Bilbao became a chartered town. Clues confirm the city had been settled before this, mainly along the Ibaizabal-Nervión estuary of the Bilbao La Vieja neighbourhood.

After becoming chartered, Bilbao grew rapidly. It became the main port of the Kingdom of Castile and, in 1372, Juan I of Castile decided to strike while the iron was hot and allow free transportation of the metal through the town.

By the 16th century, Bilbao wasn’t just the economic centre of the Biscay region, but its capital city too.

Bilbao found itself under attack during the Carlist Wars of the 1800s. It survived to tell the tale and went on to become the seat of the Basque autonomous government in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, before being besieged by the Nationalist army, who destroyed all the city’s bridges in May 1937.

Reconstruction began in 1940s and the iron industry picked back up, but the discontent continued in the name of regional pride.

In 1959, the Basque nationalist and separatist group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), was formed here. ETA killed, kidnapped and injured thousands of people in their quest for independence.

Still, the industrial era of the 19th and 20th centuries continued to bring Bilbao wealth. But the city’s aesthetics paid the price.

Business was good until the last decades of the 20th century, when industrial decline set in. A deep economic crisis developed, but after investing heavily in tourism, culture and regeneration, Bilbao turned itself around and became a success story.

Did you know?
• Cava has been called ‘Bilbao water’ here since the early 20th century.
• Steel wool and sand were sprinkled into Bilbao’s first flagstones to stop people slipping in the rain.
• The city commissioned a new font for its street signs in 2000 called the Bilbao Alphabet.

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Featured Hotels



This budget offering is clean and comfortable and offers a good buffet breakfast. Situated in a fairly central location, in downtown Bilbao, there are a slew of funky rooms to choose from, all of which have been decorated to represent a different building in the city. Most points of interest are within walking distance and the hotel itself runs a photography tour of Bilbao. Other extras include bicycle rental, ironing and laundry services, TVs in rooms, free Wi-Fi and a 24-hour bar. It also has a secure garage for those travelling with vehicles.

Iturrienea Ostatua

Iturrienea Ostatua is a pension in Bilbao's Old Town that's chock-a-block with colour and character. It has restored antique furniture throughout and great attention to detail has been paid to the decoration of the 21 bedrooms. The lovely exposed stone walls and oak beams give this place its charm and all in all, it represents very good value. In decent weather, breakfast can be served in the garden.

Miró Hotel Bilbao

Devised by famous fashion couturier, Antonio Miró, this modern boutique hotel combines functional design and personalised service to great effect. It's a tasteful establishment with great views of Bilbao, and it offers guests access to its spas and gym on a complimentary basis. There are 50 minimalistic rooms to pick from and many come with views of the Guggenheim. All, though, have large TVs, colossal beds and chic marble bathrooms.

Hotel Bilbao Jardines

This pleasant, comfortable and reasonably priced 2-star hotel is located in the heart of the historical centre of Bilbao, next to the cathedral and the Arriaga Theatre. It offers good service, spectacularly clean rooms and a very relaxed ambience, so the dated quilts and covers can be easily overlooked. What's more, most rooms come with a bath and shower and have decent sized TVs. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout.

Hotel Lopez de Haro

A favourite with celebrities, up to and including the Dalai Lama, this is one of the best top-class hotels in Bilbao. You’ll find free Wi-Fi, a complimentary gym-spa, a champagne bar and an opulent selection of rooms and suites. The location, too, is handy for the city centre and the Guggenheim Museum. The staff are incredibly helpful, the breakfast is excellent and the soft drinks and chocolates in the mini-bar are included in the price.

Hotel Carlton

A favourite of Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner and many a bullfighter, Hotel Carlton is a Bilbao institution. It is set in a grand neoclassical building with a restaurant and a 1930s-style bar. Drenched in history (it was the Euskadi government's headquarters during the Civil War), it's a splendid and very elegant hotel. Discount prices are available online if you book well in advance.