The capital of Biscay (or Vizcaya) in the Basque Autonomous Community in northern Spain, the Bilbao metropolitan area has a population of over one million. Situated on the banks of the Nervión, a tidal river, surrounded by green hills, the north coast stands in sharp contrast to most parts of this generally dry peninsula, with much greater rainfall and a milder climate. Temperatures rarely below freezing in winter, or above 35ºC in summer.
Since its foundation in the early 14th century the city has been a commercial hub, and an important port, with trade links to all of northern Europe. Beginning in the nineteenth century heavy industry, shipyards and steel mills fed by iron ore from local quarries flourished, making the region second only to Barcelona for Spanish industrial production. Today the per capita income is the highest in Spain, and ranks among the highest in the European Union. Now post-industrial, the economy is dominated by banking, services and information technology.
Euskadi (Euskal Autonomia Erkidegoa) is the Basque language name for the province, País Vasco the Spanish name. A slight majority of people here are considered Basque, but parts of surrounding areas, including the French city of Biarritz, are also within the larger Basque Country, or Euskal Herria. Young people 16-24 are twice as likely to prefer speaking Basque over Spanish than their elders, and tension remains between the linguistic groups. Consequently you may feel more welcome here speaking English or French, although Spanish is universally understood. Also you’ll rarely see Spanish colors on display, even during international football/soccer championships at which the national teams excel. When in doubt, follow the lead of those you meet.
Much of the increase in tourism to the city this past decade came after the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. This museum of modern and contemporary art, one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture, also has two fine, and equally avant-garde restaurants. The gay scene centers around the Casco Viejo near the historic "seven streets" of the old city center, and the area between the river and San Frantzisko Kalea (Calle de San Francisco). All points area easily walkable, one from another. Gay Pride marches take place in late June, organized by Hegoak.
The Basques enjoy good food, with traditional dishes going back many generations served at local restaurants. Fish figures prominently, as do pintxos, the finger foods served at most taverns, similar to tapas in the south but often more elaborate. Many restaurants are in the Casco Viejo and Old Side, as well as in the nearby commercial center around Metro Plaza Moyua, on Gran Via. Here also is a cluster of shops ranging from upscale boutiques to the big Corte Inglés department store.
For those interested in Basque culture and heritage in the USA, there is a Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise Idaho (611 West Grove St), and the Boise Basques keep the old traditions alive in dance, sports, food and language. California alone is home to over 20,000 Basque-Americans. The Forua of Biscay (Biscay code of laws) influenced parts of the US Constitution after John Adams traveled here in to study in 1779, and praised the Basque love of liberty.
Bilbao Airport is the busiest terminal in the Northern Iberian coast, 12 km (7.46 mi) north of the city, between Loiu and Sondika, with top destinations throughout Europe. BizkaiBus (route number 3247) operates a connection every 30 minutes between the airport and city center.
Metro Bilbao, the underground rail network, has 2 lines connecting both sides of the river in the Bilbao Metropolitan Area. A third line is planned. Bilbobus operates 43 lines, including some in "micro-bus" zones, too narrow for regular buses, and 8 all-night lines. Over 100 BizkaiBus lines, connect Bilbao with points around Biscay and in parts of Alava, from Termibus, the city's main bus station, near San Mamés Stadium.
Commuter rail lines operated are operated by Renfe (the Spanish railway network), FEVE, and EuskoTren which also operates the EuskoTran tram line between Atxuri and Basurto. The tram links landmarks such as the Arriaga Theatre, the Guggenheim Museum, the Euskalduna Palace and the San Mamés Football Stadium. Estación Abando, the RENFE station has an impressive stained glass atrium --worth a visit even if you don't need to take a train. Next door is Estación de Santander, the FEVE Station completed in 1902, has an interesting art nouveau façade that was added in later years.
El Transcantábrico operates Gran Lujo luxury coach service between Santiago de Compostela to San Sebastián. Four original 1923 vintage Pullman lounge cars travel the old tracks of the La Robla trains, which once brought coal from León to Biscay. The 8-day journey includes lunchtime and overnight stops, with visits to the Guggenheim, caves, and medieval towns and villages for sightseeing, shopping and fine dining. The views are spectacular from the panoramic lounge and their bedroom suites and services resemble those of the finest hotels. Live music and parties are on offer nightly, and daily papers, TV and internet access can keep you in touch. Prices run from 37 to 75 hundred euros per person.
Media & resources
The ALDARTE GLBT community center has news, listings, an online map (click on "ampliar mapa" for full-size version with key), and tips for getting around in gay Bilbao, in Basque and Spanish (use Google Translate if necessary).
See a list of gay bars, clubs, gay-friendly restaurants, plus some hotels and the main museums in town at our map & listings page, with locations, phone numbers and website links.
Bilbao Tourismo is a good English-language (also in French, Spanish and Basque) information resource for just about everything else. The Bilbao Council and Spanish Tourism/ Bilaboa also have useful websites.
The tourist office at Teatro Arriaga can provide maps, information and details about the local fiestas including Aste Nagusia (Semana Grande), the city's major celebration of nine days each August.