The city of Bilbao is divided into eight districts, but we get a better picture of the true topography if we keep in mind that the city is divided by la ría del Nervión (the Nervión estuary) into two halves.
To get to District 1, called Deusto, we have to cross either the recently-built Puente (bridge) de Euskalduna or the older Puente de Deusto, which up till a few years ago still used to be raised to let big boats pass under. Walk along the Ribera (bank) de Deusto to get a glimpse of how one part of the estuary flows through city life. While here, a must-see is the Universidad de Deusto. Established in the 19th century and run by Jesuits, this university has been the alma mater of such luminaries as the banker Mario Conde, the politician Arzalluz or the former president ("Lehendakari") of the Basque government, Garaikoetxea. All in all, the neighborhood has a rather student-like feeling and is filled with bars, cafes, restaurants, etc. If you've been out partying all evening, this is a great place to pass the very last hours of the night.
Still on the same side of the estuary, use either the Calatrava footbridge or the Puente del Ayuntamiento to get to District 2, called Uribarri. Take a stroll in Campo Volantín or get a closer peek at the Ayuntamiento de Bilbao (City Hall). From here we can take the Funicular de Artxanda to the top of Archanda Hill, from where we can enjoy the fantastic views and the fresh air, or have a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants.
From here it's straight over to District 4, Begoña, where we find the Basílica de Begoña, the "Amatxo" (mother) of Bilbao. Walk to the church along the Calzadas de Mallona, which begins in the Casco Viejo, or if you're the lazy type, there's always the elevator or the metro.
We've arrived in District 5, the Casco Viejo. It's clear how one can easily spend time in this lively neighborhood -- eating and drinking in one of the numerous establishments, listening to the street musicians, and doing a bit of shopping. But before diving into the sensual delights of the Casco Viejo there's a few other things you could see, such as the Edificio de la Bolsa (the stock exchange building). Or try and sneak into la Sociedad Bilbaína, one of the old-established and most elegant cultural and recreational societies in Spain. If you're the gaming type you can try your luck at Casino Nervión. For more high culture, cross the Puente del Arenal to visit the Teatro Arriaga and the San Nicolás de Bari church. Once there you can slowly make your way to Siete Calles by way of the Ribera, taking in the Puente de La Merced on the way to the Iglesia de San Antón (but don't forget to stop in the Mercado de La Ribera and admire the amazing selection of vegetables, fish and meat!). Finally we are in the heart of Casco Viejo, and just like a pilgrim tracing the route of the Camino de Santiago, let's make our final stop here at the Catedral de Santiago.
Time to hop over to the other side of the estuary, to Abando, District 6. Beginning at the monument on the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón, stroll down the Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro. Measuring one-and-a-half kilometers, this avenue is lined with houses with charming façades --keep an eye out especially for the Edificio Sota and the Edificio de la Diputación. A stroll down the Gran Vía will take you along the relaxing Parque de Doña Casilda Iturrizar with its Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) de Bilbao. Halfway down the Gran Vía we come to the quaint Plaza Moyúa, on which are located the Palacio del Gobierno Civil and the Hotel Carlton. At the far end of Gran Vía, we come to Plaza Circular where monument in honor of the founder of the town sits. Other places worth checking out in this area are the Palacio de Justicia, the Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir (a church in 12th-century Basque Gothic style), the Plaza de Albia and the Mercado del Ensanche. As well, we're not far from two streets that are very popular for bar hopping, Ledesma and Licenciado Poza. From here we can see the city's "other" cathedral, that is to say, the Estadio de Fútbol de San Mames, which may not be quite as spiritual as the Cathedral de Santiago, but you can be sure there are many citizens of this town that consider the city's soccer team, Athletic de Bilbao, to be sacred! For real soccer fun head all the way to Mazarredo street and visit the little palace that houses the headquarters of the Athletic. The area around Mazarredo is another very popular night haunt, as are the pubs found in the Urquijo galerías (passageways). And for lovers of a bloodier sport, we're not far from the Plaza de Toros de Vista Alegre (whose name ironically means "Happy View Bullfighting Ring") and its bullfighting museum, the Museo Taurino. There's a lot of other places to visit in this district, such as the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, the Palacio Euskalduna, the Estación de Abando (a.k.a. Estación del Norte) with it's magnificent stained-glass windows, the Santa Casa de Misericordia, and the Alhóndiga.
The last district, District 7, called Rekalde, is reached by crossing the highway to Larrasquitu. This is a popular excursion for people wanting to scale the Pagasarri hill. At the top there is a little refuge from where one gets some splendid views of the south side of the "botxo" (the pit). If you don't already know why Bilbao is known affectionately by this name, you will once you see it from here!
What to see:
Opening in October 1997, it's first exhibit included over 250 examples of cubist, futurist, constructivist and other 20th-century art movements. There's a permanent collection of late 20th-century art featuring more of the century's best creative talents including young Basque and Spanish artists. Frank O. Gerhy designed this complex with its spectacular curtains of glass, stone curves, titanium and glass walls, walkways hanging from the ceiling, transparent elevators and immense open spaces. There's a bookshop, a gift shop, cloakroom, library, restaurant and cafeteria.
Playas de Gorliz y Plentia
A large shell-shaped bay houses the Gorliz and Plentzia beaches. Spacious and safe, these two family beaches are set in two of the largest Basque summer destinations. Near Gorliz beach and the huge building housing the Maritime Sanatorium which was built in 1909 by Mario Camiña, there is a collection of pine trees which people use for picnicking in the shade. For its part, the village of Plentzia has a marina, a fishing port, as well as an enchanting sea promenade, full of little boats, all very close to the Metro station.
In Gran Vía, between Plaza Moyúa and Sagrado Corazón, is a grand structure built in 1919 and occupied by the Sota family during its early days. One striking features this magnificent building has (an early example of luxurious residential architecture in 19th Century Bilbao) is its facade, with towers, arched galleries, pronounced eaves, turrets and pinnacles. It is a clear example of the regionalist tendencies and mountain influences that are evident in its creator's earlier work, the Atxuri station. Social drawing rooms and rooms formerly designed as family quarters are today partly used to house various offices. On the ground floor of the building are several important fashion outlets.
Where to eat:
The best place in town to sit down and try cured Iberian meats, fresh fish and free-range beef. You can also buy all these products to take-away from the delicatessen counter. The bar offers a delicious selection of tapas, or pintxos, to savour with a glass of fine wine, like the house Paternina or a 1994 vintage Rioja. The huge range of spirits (including brandies and whiskies) behind the counter looks like a museum exhibition. You'll recognize it by its outstanding modernist facade coloured black with gold trimming, hidden behind one of the arches on Plaza Nueva, in the heart of the Casco Viejo (Old Town). You can sit out on the terrace in summer, if you can find a space.
You can be sure you're getting fresh food here because you can watch the chefs prepare everything in the open-plan kitchen. Grilled meats and fish are the specialities and they're best accompanied by fine wines like Viña Vallabona, very reasonably priced at 1000 ptas (EUR 6.01) a bottle. The interior perfectly evokes the style and atmosphere of an authentic old tavern, with bare stone walls lit by old-fashioned wrought-iron lamps. The lunchtime clientele tend to be office workers, but on weekends it's a much more varied crowd.
The Dubliners is a pub right in the centre of Bilbao, in the Plaza Moyua, which sprang up because of a boom in the city in the late 1990s, resulting in a number of real Irish pubs opening there. The Dubliners serves the most genuine Irish fare such as breakfasts of brown bread, butter and marmalade, and traditional raisin bread. To satisfy your hunger and thirst, it serves typical Irish dishes and Guinness and Kilkenny stout and beer and of course Irish whisky.