The Statesman’s Yearbook Online

edited by Dr Barry Turner


Image courtesy of wikipedia


Bilbao, the biggest city of the autonomous Basque region, is situated in Bay of Biscay in the north of Spain. Best known for the iconic Guggenheim Museum, the city is exceptional for its metamorphosis from a decayed industrial cluster with severe environmental problems to a centre of culture and innovation attracting thousands of visitors every year.


Bilbao was granted city status by Lord Biscay, the head of state of the autonomous territory, in the early 14th century. With an economy based on thriving maritime commerce the city's population increased steadily and in 1511 the Spanish Crown ordered the creation of the Consulate of Bilbao, paving the way for the city to develop into the principal Spanish north coast port during the period of the Spanish Empire. Trading routes expanded beyond Europe to the new colonies in America and the rapid economic growth led to Bilbao becoming the capital of Biscay in 1602.

Bilbao's prosperity was fostered by the discovery of iron in the nearby hills. The exploitation of iron ore was crucial to the city's ability to overcome the economic crisis of the late 17th century, brought about by widespread conflict and instability in Europe. It was, however, the arrival of the industrial revolution that shaped Bilbao's future. Industrialization launched a broad range of mining, steel and shipbuilding industries. The arrival of the railways fuelled commerce and the establishment of banks and insurance companies gave birth to a dynamic financial sector. The city became a financial and economic bastion, emerging at the beginning of the 20th century as the flagship of the Spanish economy.

Prized for its industrial capabilities, Bilbao was besieged and captured by Franco's nationalist troops during the Civil War. During his dictatorship (1937–75), Bilbao's heavy manufacturing stimulated the Spanish economy. Slums appeared on the hillsides when accelerated immigration from Spain's less developed regions coupled with the scarcity of land, leading to chaotic expansion. Under Franco, the Basque country was stripped of its special autonomy, culture was suppressed and the use of the Basque language banned. Growing demands for self-determination led to the formation of ETA in 1959, founded as a movement to promote Basque culture before evolving into a paramilitary organization. Despite turbulent times, the city continued to grow expanding to neighbouring towns to form Greater Bilbao.

The return to democracy in 1978 saw Bilbao regain its autonomy, but the decline of heavy industry brought about a period of economic uncertainty and population decline. Since the mid-1990s Bilbao has reinvented itself through large-scale urban renewal and infrastructure projects, focusing on services and tourism. The opening of the landmark Guggenheim Museum in 1997 heralded the beginning of an era of regeneration, turning the city into an attractive destination for investors and tourists.


Bilbao is located in the north of Spain, on the northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. It is the capital of Biscay, one of the three provinces that make up the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country. It lies between two mountain ranges on the banks of the river Nervion, which flows into the Bay of Biscay some 14 km north of the city centre.

Bilbao occupies a total area of 41.3 sq. km, with a population of 350,558 (2011). Greater Bilbao has a population of 872,540 and is spread over 370.0 sq. km.


Bilbao has a mayor-council government system. The mayor and councillors are elected for a four-year term. The executive branch consists of the mayor and a board of governors and the Plenum, made up of 29 councillors.

The current mayor is Inaki Azkuna, first elected in 1999. Born in Durango, Biscay, in 1943, Inaki Azkuna Urreta is serving his fourth consecutive term in office. He is an eminent cardiologist and the author of two books and numerous articles in the field. After receiving his PhD from the University of Salamanca, he worked as the director of Cruces hospital and as the general manager of the Basque Country's health service before being elected mayor in 1999.

Azkuna's management of Bilbao, especially his use of the high-profile Guggenheim Museum to resurrect the city, has seen annual visitor numbers grow from fewer than 100,000 in 1997 to over 700,000 in 2011. His administration has implemented a number of urban development and infrastructure projects while managing to reduce Bilbao's debt, paying it off in 2011.

Azkuna's visionary leadership and long-term approach to city planning has emphasized an environmental clean-up and social integration. His work on regenerating and transforming Bilbao has been recognized both at home and internationally. In 2012, he was awarded the World Mayor Prize.


The economy is fuelled by services that contribute 86% of the city's GDP of €12.67m. (2011). Tourism has become increasingly important as other major sectors—including construction and industry—have contracted in recent years. The city is home to the multinational bank BBVA and Spain's largest energy group, Iberdrola. Bilbao is the fourth busiest port in Spain in terms of freight handled.

The average annual income per person has remained significantly higher than elsewhere in Spain (€35,865 compared to the Spanish average of €22,533 in 2011). However, as with the rest of Spain, unemployment presents a major problem, standing at 17.9% in early 2013.


The first major project in the urban revitalization of Bilbao was the construction of an underground system inaugurated in 1995. It currently stretches over 40 km; in 2011 around 90m. journeys were taken. EuskoTrain connects Bilbao to the rest of the Basque Country and RENFE operates services to Madrid, Paris and Barcelona. The city's airport is located in the municipality of Loiu, 12 km north of Bilbao's centre. Its new terminal, nicknamed 'La Paloma' (The Dove) owing to its resemblance to a dove taking flight, was opened in 2000; in 2012 it handled more than 4m. passengers.



Aste Nagusia (the Big Week), in late Aug. every year, is Bilbao's largest festival. Ten days of celebrations attracting 100,000 visitors include street performances, traditional music, dancing, sporting events, bullfighting and a fireworks display. In July, Bilbao BBK Live, an open-air rock and pop music festival, is held on the slopes of Mount Cobetas.

Places of interest

The Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, immediately became a cultural hotspot and was hailed as one of the most important structures of contemporary architecture. Its opening transformed the image of Bilbao, boosting tourism and generating a general positive image referred to as the 'Guggenheim effect'. An architectural masterpiece, the building is wrapped in titanium panels creating what appear to be random organic curves. When viewed from the river the museum resembles a ship and the curves of its titanium panels imitate fish scales. The museum houses permanent and visiting exhibits of works by Spanish and international artists.

The Casco Viejo (The Old Town), known locally as 'Las 7 Calles' (The Seven Streets) after the seven streets that originally formed the medieval town, is at the heart of the city. Churches and narrow cobbled streets lead to the spacious Plaza Nueva with its cafes and terraces. Basque cuisine is famous for its pintxos (snacks on a skewer) and ciders.


Second to only to El Prado in Madrid, the Fine Arts Museum houses a collection of over 6,000 artworks of Spanish, Flemish, Italian and Dutch works in addition to work by local Basque artists stretching from the 12th century to the present day.

The Basque Museum at Unamuno Square exhibits collections featuring the Basque Country's history, archaeology and ethnography. It contains a presentation of Basque culture from prehistoric times to the 21st century.


Principal newspapers published in Bilbao include El Correo, the largest Spanish daily, Deia, a bilingual daily, and Berria, available only in the Basque language.


Guggenheim viewed from the river

Casco Viejo

The City Hall Square

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