Casco Viejo

Alde Zaharra

Old Town

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The urban area of the Old Town comprises the original nucleus of Bilbao, which received it foundation charter in 1300 from Diego López de Haro due to its condition as an upriver port. Located on the right bank of the Estuary, it is made up of seven parallel streets connected by cross streets, together with the initial radial expansion towards the northeast.  Its medieval structure includes a town wall constructed from 1334. The old church of Santiago was replaced by a gothic building in the XIV century. In the XV century the church of San Antón was built outside the town walls beside the Estuary. Convents and religious orders were also established outside the town walls: San Francsico, San Agustín, La Encarnación, San Andrés. The tower-houses and mansions of the more powerful families were located on the side of the town facing the port. In the inner streets the town’s social fabric was made up of sailors, artisans, traders, shopkeepers and scribes, crowded together in the available space.

In the mid-XV century it became necessary to extend the town beyond the walls toward the northeast, with streets arranged in a radial form. The late XV century saw the start of an intense phase of demographic and economic growth based on the transportation and exchange of goods. In the mid-XVI century Bilbao formed part of the big international trade circuits, to which it contributed its own products (besides wool from Castile and Navarre), which included iron, fish, shipbuilding and garment making, and it became the main port of Spain. 

Following the great fire of 1571 and the severe flooding of 1593, the town’s urban planning was reconsidered. On the one hand, stone was used instead of wood for building and, on the other, the alignment and sites of buildings were rearranged and the medieval walls eliminated. In the XVII century spaces outside the medieval town were developed, such as the area around the Prado del Arenal and La Sendeja, which became a new area of port activity. Similarly, elegant residences were constructed along the banks of the Estuary such as the Arana Palace, which is still standing today.

At the end of the XVIII century the town had a very high population density and the Lorenzo Plan of 1786 was a major intervention aimed at extending the urban fabric and modernizing the buildings. In the last decade of that century the Arenal area was consolidated, bearing witness to Bilbao’s transition from a medieval town to a modern, open and growing city, prior to its expansion towards the Abando meadow on the left bank of the Estuary.

At the end of the XIX century the state of urban congestion, together with constant flooding, made Bilbao one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe. It had one of the highest mortality rates and the Estuary was a focus of infection. Facing this situation, the new Expansion was proposed in 1873, which marked the city’s definitive spread towards the Abando meadow. In spite of that, the Old Town continued to hold a central position for some time and it was reformed internally. Simultaneously, there was saturation and social degradation in the suburbs on the left bank like San Francisco, with the massive arrival of working class families who were housed in poorly constructed buildings.

At the start of the XX century, following the creation of the external port and the Abando wharves, port activity gradually disappeared from the Old Town and new activities connected with provisions (shops and taverns) appeared. Similarly, the central provisions market was consolidated, culminating in today’s building, which was constructed in 1930 and occupies what was historically the main square. 

The flooding that occurred in 1983 marked the start of major rehabilitation work, which affected both housing and public buildings and was carried out by the municipal organization Surbisa. Nowadays, it can be said that facades predating the XVII century can no longer be found in the Old Town, although internally (in its layout and communications nuclei) historical elements survive. The cityscape is fairly homogeneous, consisting of four-story buildings. In certain areas there is an element that was incorporated from the mid-XIX century onwards: the enclosed balcony, which became a recognizable architectural feature of bourgeois residences built between 1890 and 1930.


Francisco J. García de la Torre y Bernardo I. García de la Torre


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