Bilbao is a beautiful city in northern Spain, with a rich history and much to explore. With alluring views, museums full of art and history, and delicious cuisine, it is a wonderful travel spot. In terms of studying abroad, it is a perfect place for students and teachers to engulf themselves within a rich culture, while learning about an impactful city in Spain.


Bilbao has an expansive history and much to learn for teachers and students alike. It is a port city and the largest in the autonomous community of the Basque Country. Located along the Nervión River, it was originally settled by seafaring people and became known for exports like iron ore. On June 15th, 1300 the Villa of Bilbao had emerged when Diego Lopez de Haro bestowed the Carta Magna upon it. Bilbao is divided into two different areas: The left (eastern) bank and the right (western) bank. The left bank of of the Nervion River includes factories, neighborhoods along with the working-class. The right bank includes commercial, historic, and residential areas. The right bank is the older part of Bilbao. Numerous parallel streets all leading to the riverbank known as Siete Calles (“Seven Streets”) is the core of the older part of Bilbao. After 1890, many towns on the left bank were annexed to the municipality which ultimately leads to the modern extension of Bilbao. There are nine bridges that run through the Nervion River in order to connect the old and new parts of the city. For hundreds of years prior to Bilbao’s economic explosion, two institutions dictated the Bilbaino way of life; the Town Hall and the Consulate. The governing body became so important that in the 17th century, Bilbainos had their own Contract House in order to do business with Belgium. The Consulate was dissolved in the 19th century after a Code of Commerce was brought about throughout the State. The integration of Bilbao into the Santiago Way brought new cultural and artistic tendencies into the area, which has left its own distinctive mark on the city of today. This port was also a center for wool exports from Burgos to Flanders. In 1511, the city gained the right to its own commercial tribunal with the ability to issue laws in the form of ordinances. In the 18th century, Bilbao prospered due to trade between themselves and the American colonies of Spain. Bilbao was one of the most important ports in Spain and beginning in the 1870s, experienced rapid industrialization based on the export of iron ore. The development of iron, steel, and shipbuilding industries also contributed to this rapid industrialization. Steel and shipbuilding industries eventually began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, which created a greater importance of tourism and service in Bilbao. Throughout the 1990s, the city underwent many changes. This redevelopment included a subway system, airport and harbor upgrades, and efforts to clean up the river as well as waterfront developments. Tourism became economically important to Bilbao after the decline of their industrial endeavors.  One of these developments was the Guggenheim Museum, built in 1997. The Guggenheim Museum is an art museum mainly dedicated to modern art as well as contemporary art, and in particular, massive sculptures can be found here. It is an ideal location for those studying abroad to explore, as it is a well-known center for it’s works and for being a must-see for those that appreciate art. For more information about the Guggenheim Museum and how to visit, see the Further Information section.

Another product of this time is the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall completed in 1999. From the works of Frederick Soriano and Dolores Palacio, it is considered to one of the most important works by Spanish architects. This building holds various types of events such as conferences, meetings, presentations, exhibitions, concerts, and theater plays. This would be a great place for teachers and young travelers to visit and catch a glimpse of other art forms within Bilbao like theater and musical performances. For more information about the Euskalduna and upcoming events to attend check out the Further Information section.

In the 1930s, the possession of Bilbao was important because of its location in the Cantabrian strip that was controlled by the Republic. It was also vital due to its heavy industries and arms factories. During the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalist army was after Bilbao. The city was protected by the Iron Ring, which was a series of fortifications. The build of the ring was outdated and similarly built to a World War 1 fortress, so modern warfare and weapons did not have trouble infiltrating. Nationalist forces were able to advance, despite the Spanish Republican forces fighting hard to defend the land. Many civilians were evacuated from the city and the remaining forces were taken out of Bilbao, resulting in the Nationalists capturing Bilbao, while the remaining parts of the Basque Country remained under the control of the Republic. The loss of Bilbao was difficult for the Republic, as it was an important industrial and mining area for them. Franco was harsh towards the people he had conquered and the Basque language was banned. Those that cooperated with the Basque government and the Republic were punished.

With the war over and having struggled through their post-war period, the city would then become a beacon for immigrants coming to work in Bilbao’ booming economic industry. The industrial and urban landscape of the city would once again change as it deals with more rapid growth and expansion which has ultimately led into the right bank of Bilbao creating the greater metropolitan area known as Gran Bilbao. However, after this economic boom, the iron and steel industry was hit by a deep crisis at the end of the 20th century that forced the city to rethink the basis of its economic development.

Bilbao’s Sports

One of the best ways to immerse oneself in Bilbao’s Basque culture is to go to see a futbola match. Bilbao is home to Athletic Club, a pioneering team that participates in the Spanish La Liga promotion. This is a great way for students and professors alike to truly experience an important piece of Basque culture, as Athletic is uniting piece for the Basque people. The club only has Basque players on the team, or players trained at Basque clubs. This makes the club a lot more than a club, but also a symbol for the unity of Basque peoples. Athletic Club is currently ranked in the top division of La Liga and is one of the three teams in La Liga that have never been relegated to the second division. This goes to show the unity and strength that the Basque culture has when they are united. Athletic Club has an important history within La Liga, especially with Basque members of the team becoming prominent figures in La Liga. The biggest of these is Rafeal Moreno Aranzadi, better known as Pichichi. Pichichi was a star fubola striker scoring tons of goals for Athletic Club and winning them multiple Copa Del Rey championships. Pichichi was such a good striker that La Liga has named their leading goal scorer award after him. Pichichi was able to accomplish all this within a short career, retiring at the age of 29. Seeing a futbola match in person is especially important to embrace Basque culture and to see it in person.  

Futbola is not the only sport that has a key place in Bilbao’s and Basque culture. There is another sport, one that originated in Basque country that still has a massive grip on the Basque people. This is the sport of Jai Alai, which evolved out of the sport, Basque pelota. Jai Alai balls are thrown with a cesta (xistera) against a glass wall, then the other person has to catch the ball and throw it back against the same glass wall. The sport is like racquetball but with the ball moving much faster. Jai Alai holds the record for the fastest moving ball in a sport, with a throw moving at 188 miles per hour. The players can throw the ball this hard because they have their whole body to put into the throw with the cesta. Professors and students will be able to go to the world class Bizkaia Frontoia facility. This facility is home to the largest jai alai court in the world and holds many different events, including tournaments and championships. Watching a jai alai match or even a whole tournament is a wonderful way for both professors and students to dive deeper into Basque culture. Jai alai is important to the Basque people and is a unique game that is becoming increasingly more popular around the world. When professors and students visit Bilbao, it is especially important that they attend at least one match, as it will help them experience the sport of the Basque people and immerse themselves in Bilbao’s Basque culture even more.  

Further information:

Guggenheim Museum –

Euskalduna Conference and Concert Hall –


Gonzalez-Torres, Miguel, and Fernández-Rivas Aranzazu. “Architecture, Urban Planning and Collective Identity: Bilbao as a Case Study.” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 80.4 (2020): 383-94. ProQuest. Web. 19 Nov. 2023.

McCall, Grant. “American Anthropological Interest and Prospects in Basque Studies.” Current Anthropology, vol. 11, no. 2, 1970, pp. 161–64. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Nov. 2023.

“Bilbao.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 4 Nov. 2023, 

“History of Bilbao.” Cafe_bilbao, Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.