The district of Ibaiondo, intersected by the meandering Nervión river, is home to the original maze-like alleyways that witnessed the birth of Bilbao more than 700 years ago, commonly known as Siete Calles or Zazpi Kaleak (meaning Seven Streets in Spanish and Basque respectively). With more than 60,000 residents distributed across its 10 neighbourhoods, the so-called fifth district is today a veritable kaleidoscope of cultures and lifestyles in constant change. The Casco Viejo neighbourhood, where the city’s oldest buildings are located, including the Cathedral-Church of Santiago and the Church of San Antón, sits charmingly alongside the repurposed Bilbao La Vieja neighbourhood, and the new neighbourhood of Miribilla, created in 2001 on top of the hill of the same name whose abandoned mines hark back to the region’s industrial past.
Situated to the far southeast of the Basque city, Ibaiondo borders the districts of Begoña to the east, Uribarri to the north, and Abando and Rekalde to the west. Today, it still consists of two areas that have remained distinctive ever since they were founded, when two settlements with contrasting characters lay separated by the Estuary of Bilbao. The western part was once a mining area, where iron was cast in the foundries. Today, it is home to the neighbourhoods of Zabala, San Francisco, San Adrián, Bilbao La Vieja, La Peña and Miribilla. On the right bank of the river are vestiges of its merchant past as a port and former gateway between old Castile and the countries of the north. Today, it is home to the remaining neighbourhoods of Casco Viejo, Iturralde, Solokoetxe and Atxuri.
From the Arenal Gardens, the entry point into the Casco Viejo neighbourhood, you can take a short stroll through time taking in points of cultural interest such as the Basque Museum, which straddles the border shared with the neighbourhood of Iturralde; or architectural gems such as the aforementioned Cathedral of Santiago, built between the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in honour of the patron saint of Bilbao, and a transit point during the coastal pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago.
From the aforementioned cathedral, Calle Somera, one of the aforementioned Siete Calles, leads us to the origins of Bilbao, in a highly commercial, pedestrianised zone, declared a Historical and Artistic Site in 1972. The road meets the river at a perpendicular angle, at the site of the Church of San Antón, built in Gothic style in the late fourteenth century on top of the ruins of the city’s ancient Alcázar. From here you can make out the La Ribera Market, recognised by the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest covered food market in the world, as well as Atxuri station, built in 1883 in Basque regionalist style, which serves as a gateway to the neighbourhood of the same name. San Antón bridge crosses the estuary and takes us to the area known as Bilbao La Vieja, traditionally made up of the neighbourhoods of Zabala, San Francisco and Bilbao La Vieja. This area, nicknamed by some as Soho Bilbaíno, is the city’s most multicultural area, and its graffiti-splattered walls house an array of different establishments such as BilboRock (a former place of worship converted into a live music venue), Museo de Reproducciones Artísticas and the 2 de Mayo Flea Market, held in the streets on the first Saturday of each month.
The newly-built neighbourhood of Miribilla follows on from Bilbao La Vieja, and is the gateway to Ibaiondo’s other neighbourhoods, such as San Adrián and La Peña. Lying on the outskirts, they are largely industrial due to their location at the feet of the Pagasarri-Ganekogorta hills and, in turn, their proximity to the mines that were operated by residents for over 100 years until they were abandoned in the 1970s.
The different neighbourhoods of Ibaiondo can be explored in under an hour and a half, but we suggest spending the whole afternoon there so that you can stop off in the many bars and restaurants that the district has to offer. Licorería Hernani (Hernani, 8), open since 1943, or El Perro chico (Calle Arechaga, 2), with more than 120 years of service under its belt are typical establishments that contrast with the innovative cuisine of Berebar (San Francisco, 65) or the Latin-Japanese fusion food of Dando la brasa (Calle Arechaga, 7).
Set to the rhythm of the Bilbainadas, the Casco Viejo quarter reveals the origins of the city that emerged 700 years ago on the right bank of the Nervión-Ibaizabal estuary.
One thing is for sure, every visit to Bilbao should include a day put aside especially for a pintxo route through the city. This style of eating or dining is an experience that is unique to the Basque Country and, without a doubt, it is one of the most authentic ways to really get to know its spirit.
The place of worship, built between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, has housed the Diocese of Bilbao since 1949 in a building replete with chapels and tombs belonging to ancient noble families.