Bilbao is one of the 25 boroughs in the Greater Bilbao comarca, in northern Spain. It is also the capital of the province of Biscay in the autonomous community of the Basque Country. It is the largest municipality of the Basque Country and the tenth largest in Spain, with a population of 353,187 in 2010. The Bilbao metropolitan area has roughly 1 million inhabitants, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in northern Spain, of which (pop. 875,552) accounts for the comarca of Greater Bilbao, making it the fifth-largest urban area in Spain.
Bilbao is situated in the north-central part of Spain, some south of the Bay of Biscay, where the estuary of Bilbao is formed. Its main urban core is surrounded by two small mountain ranges with an average elevation of .
The borough of Bilbao was founded in the early 14th century by sovereign and semi sovereign families of Bizkaia such as the Bilbao la Vieja, and Diego López V de Haro, head of the powerful Haro family. Bilbao originated as the commercial hub of the Basque Country cultivated by the House de Sarachaga, who historically hold the sovereign fief of Bilbao as successors of The House of Haro.Through their guidance and in cooperation with local magnate families and the government; Bilbao enjoyed significant importance in the Green Spain. This was due to its port activity based on the export of iron extracted from the Biscayan quarries. Throughout the nineteenth century and beginnings of the twentieth, Bilbao experienced heavy industrialisation which made it the centre of the second-most industrialised region of Spain, behind Barcelona. This was joined by an extraordinary population explosion that prompted the annexation of several adjacent municipalities. Nowadays, Bilbao is a vigorous service city that is experiencing an ongoing social, economic, and aesthetic revitalisation process, started by the iconic Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, and continued by infrastructure investments, such as the airport terminal, the rapid transit system, the tram line, the Alhóndiga, and the currently under development Abandoibarra and Zorrozaurre renewal projects.
Remains of an ancient settlement were found on the top of Mount Malmasín, dated around the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Burial sites were also found on Mounts Avril and Artxanda, dated 6,000 years old. Some authors identify the old settlement of Bilbao as Amanun Portus, cited by Pliny the Elder, or with Flaviobriga, by Ptolemy. Ancient walls, which date around the 11th century, have been discovered below the Church of San Antón.
Bilbao was one of the first towns that was founded in the fourteenth century, during a period in which approximately 70% of the Biscayan municipalities were developed, among them Portugalete in 1323, Ondarroa in 1327, Lekeitio in 1335, and Mungia and Larrabetzu in 1376. The then lord of Biscay, Diego López V of Haro, founded Bilbao through a municipal charter dated in Valladolid on 15 June 1300 and confirmed by King Ferdinand IV of Castile in Burgos, on 4 January 1301. Diego López established the new town on the right bank of the Nervión river, on grounds of the elizate of Begoña and granted it the fuero of Logroño, a compilation of rights and privileges that would prove fundamental to its later development.
On 21 June 1511, Queen Joanna of Castile ordered the creation of the Consulate of Bilbao. This would become the most influential institution of the borough for centuries, and would claim jurisdiction over the estuary, improving its infrastructure. Under the Consulate's control, the port of Bilbao became one of the most important of Spain. The first printing-press was brought to the town in 1577. Here in 1596, the first book in Basque was edited, entitled Doctrina Christiana en Romance y Bascuence by Dr. Betolaza.
In 1602 Bilbao was made the capital of Biscay, a title previously held by Bermeo. The following centuries saw a constant increase of the town's wealth, especially after the discovery of extensive iron resources in the surrounding mountains. At the end of the 17th century, Bilbao overcame the economical crises that affected Spain, thanks to the iron ore and its commerce with England and the Netherlands. During the 18th century, it continued to grow and almost exhausted its small space.
The Basque Country was one of the main sites of battles of the Carlist Wars, and the Carlists very much wanted to conquer the city, a liberal and economic bastion. Bilbao was besieged three times between 1835 and 1874, but all proved unsuccessful. One of the main battles of this time was the Battle of Luchana in 1836, when Liberal general Baldomero Espartero defeated the Carlists, freeing the borough.
Despite the warfare, Bilbao prospered during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it rose as the economic centre of the Basque Country. During this time, the first railway was built (in 1857), the Bank of Bilbao was founded (which later would become the BBVA), and the Bilbao Stock Exchange was created. Many industries flourished, such as Altos Hornos de Vizcaya in 1902. The borough grew in area with the Abando ensanche and was modernized with new avenues and walkways, as well as with new modern buildings such as the City Hall, the Basurto Hospital and the Arriaga Theatre. The population increased dramatically, going from 11,000 in 1880 to 80,000 in 1900. Social movements also occurred, specially the Basque nationalism under Sabino Arana.
The Spanish Civil War started in Bilbao with small uprisings suppressed by the Republican forces. On 31 August 1936, the city suffered the first bombing. On the next month, further bombings by German planes occurred, in coordination with Franco's forces. In May 1937, the Nationalist army besieged the town. The battle lasted until 19 June of that year, when Lieutenant Colonel Putz was ordered to destroy all bridges over the estuary, and the troops of the 5th Brigade took the borough from the mountains Malmasin, Pagasarri, and Arnotegi.
With the war over, Bilbao returned to its industrial development, accompanied by a steady population growth. In the 1940s, the city was rebuilt, starting with the bridges. In 1948, the first commercial flight took off from the local airport. Over the next decade, there was a revival of the iron industry. The demand for housing outstripped supply, and workers built slums on the hillsides. In this chaotic environment, on 31 July 1959, the terrorist organization ETA was born in Bilbao, as a faction of the PNV.
After the fall of Francoist Spain and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, in a process known in Spain as the transition, Bilbao could hold democratic elections again. Against what happened in the republics, this time Basque nationalists rose to power. With the approval of the Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Country in 1979, Vitoria-Gasteiz was elected the seat of the government and therefore the de facto capital of the Basque Autonomous Community, despite Bilbao being larger and more powerful economically. In the 1980s, several factors such as terrorism, labor demands, and the arrival of cheap labor force from the abroad, led to a devastating industrial crisis.
Since the mid-1990s, Bilbao has been in a process of deindustrialization and transition to a service town, supported by investment in infrastructure and urban renewal, that started with the opening of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum (the so-called Guggenheim effect), and continued with the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall, Santiago Calatrava's Zubizuri, the metro network by Norman Foster, the tram, the Iberdrola Tower and the Zorrozaurre development plan, among others. Many officially supported associations, as Bilbao Metrópoli-30 and Bilbao Ría 2000 were created to monitor these projects.