Stretching 14km along the narrow valley of the Río Nervión, BILBAO (Bilbo) is a large city that rarely feels like one, its urban sprawl having engulfed a series of once-separate communities. Even in the city centre you can always see green mountain slopes beyond the high-rises. Prosperous and modern, with a busy and attractive centre, Bilbao has reinvented itself since the collapse of its traditional industrial base in the 1980s and 90s. Steel mills and shipyards have been transformed into conference centres and luxury flats, and the Museo Guggenheim, which opened in 1997, has sparked a tourism boom.
Though Bilbao originally started out as a cluster of fishing villages on the left bank of the river, what's generally regarded as the old town – the Casco Viejo, which grew up between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries – lies across the river on the east bank. Then, when Bilbao expanded hugely as it rose to industrial prominence, a much larger area on the left bank, all but encircled by a huge loop in the river, became home to the new town, or Ensanche. This remains the commercial heart of the city, a formally planned cityscape where the broad avenues that radiate from the central Plaza Moyúa afford direct views out to the mountains. Its main thoroughfare, the Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro, runs from the Plaza Circular by Estación de Abando, to the Plaza Sagrado Corazón, situated between the Euskalduna and the huge Campo de San Mamés, home of Athletico Bilbao.
The new metro, airport and celebrations of Bilbao's seven-hundredth anniversary in 2000 brought new impetus to the redevelopment programme. Today, Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque Country with a population of around 450,000, and the capital of Bizkaia province. It also holds some of the best places to eat and drink in Spain, and very open, friendly inhabitants with an abundance of civic pride.