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Portugalete's Old Quarter

Historical Background

Portugalete's Old Quarter, known as Casco Viejo de Portugalete, is steeped in history and cultural significance. The town's origins date back to the 14th century when a small fishing village was established on the banks of the River Nervión. In the 15th century, Portugalete gained strategic importance due to its location at the mouth of the river and became a major port for trade and commerce. This led to the construction of the Transporter Bridge, a marvel of engineering, and the growth of the town. Throughout the centuries, Portugalete has played a significant role in maritime activities, shipbuilding, and industrial development, leaving a rich legacy of historical landmarks and cultural traditions.

Important events and people associated with the area

  • In 1322, the town was granted its charter by the Lord of Biscay, Diego López V de Haro, which laid the foundation for its future growth and development.

  • In the 16th century, Portugalete became a key port for the Spanish Armada, and many ships departed from here to fight against the English navy.

  • In 1893, the Transporter Bridge, designed by Alberto Palacio Elissague, was inaugurated, connecting Portugalete with the neighboring town of Getxo and becoming a symbol of the town's industrial prowess.

  • Famous people from Portugalete include the Basque writer and poet Gabriel Aresti, the painter and sculptor Eduardo Chillida, and the filmmaker Imanol Uribe.

Architectural Highlights

Portugalete's Old Quarter is a treasure trove of architectural wonders, showcasing a harmonious blend of medieval, Renaissance, and modern styles. Among the notable buildings is the Church of Santa María, a Gothic masterpiece that dominates the skyline with its soaring spire. Its intricate carvings and stained-glass windows are a testament to the skill of Basque artisans.

Another architectural gem is the Town Hall, an elegant 18th-century building that houses the local government. Its Baroque façade, adorned with intricate balconies and a grand clock tower, reflects the town's wealth and importance during that period.

The Plaza del Solar, the central square of the Old Quarter, is surrounded by historic buildings with arcades, balconies, and wrought-iron railings. The Rialia Museum occupies two former warehouses, showcasing local history, art, and contemporary exhibitions.

Strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets, visitors can admire the unique architectural features that define Portugalete's Old Quarter. Traditional Basque houses, with their colorful facades, wooden balconies, and wrought-iron embellishments, line the streets, creating a charming and authentic ambiance.

Charming Streets and Squares

Amidst the architectural wonders of Portugalete's Old Quarter, its charming streets and squares invite leisurely strolls and offer glimpses into the town's rich history and vibrant local culture.

Calle del Medio stands out as the main artery of the old town, a narrow, cobbled street lined with colorful buildings and traditional Basque shops. The street exudes a medieval charm, with its wrought-iron balconies and overhanging eaves casting intricate shadows on the cobblestones.

Off Calle del Medio, a labyrinth of smaller streets and alleys reveals hidden plazas and secluded corners. Plaza del Arenal is a picturesque square dominated by the Church of Santa María, its Gothic facade contrasting with the surrounding colorful buildings. The square comes alive during market days, when vendors set up stalls selling fresh produce, artisanal crafts, and local delicacies.

Another hidden gem is Calle Santa María, a narrow street leading to the riverfront. Its whitewashed houses with blue shutters and flower-adorned balconies create a postcard-perfect setting. The street offers stunning views of the River Nervión and the iconic Transporter Bridge, a symbol of Portugalete's industrial heritage.

These charming streets and squares are not just architectural marvels but also vibrant social spaces. Locals gather in the plazas to chat, children play in the cobbled alleys, and the air is filled with the sounds of laughter and conversation.

Shopping and Dining

Portugalete's Old Quarter is a shopper's paradise, with a plethora of local shops and boutiques offering unique souvenirs and handcrafted items. From traditional Basque clothing and accessories to locally produced ceramics and artwork, there's something for every taste and budget. One can find charming shops selling artisanal jewelry, leather goods, and home décor, all reflecting the region's rich cultural heritage and craftsmanship.

When it comes to dining, the Old Quarter is a culinary haven, offering a delightful array of traditional Basque cuisine and restaurants. From cozy tapas bars serving pintxos, small plates of Basque delicacies, to renowned seafood restaurants offering the freshest catches of the day, there are options to satisfy every palate. Don't miss the opportunity to indulge in local specialties such as bacalao al pil pil, a succulent codfish dish, or txakoli, a refreshing local white wine. Many restaurants have outdoor seating, providing diners with a chance to soak up the charming atmosphere of the Old Quarter while savoring their meals.

Riverfront Promenade

A picturesque stroll along the Nervión's banks

The picturesque River Nervión, flowing through the heart of Portugalete, offers a tranquil escape from the bustling streets of the Old Quarter. Embark on a leisurely stroll along the scenic Promenade, a charming walkway that meanders along the riverbank. Take in the breathtaking views of the Old Quarter, with its colorful buildings and iconic structures reflected in the calm waters of the Nervión.

Witness the lively activity of the river as boats navigate the waters, creating a vibrant atmosphere. Admire the impressive bridges that span the river, each with its unique design and history. Stop to rest on one of the many benches along the promenade and soak in the tranquility of the surroundings.

Enjoy a leisurely picnic on the grassy areas near the river, relishing the fresh air and the serene atmosphere. For a unique perspective, take a boat trip on the Nervión, offering stunning views of the Old Quarter from the water. Capture the beauty of the riverfront in photographs or simply relax and let the peaceful surroundings soothe your senses.

Church of Santa María

The Church of Santa María is a prominent landmark and a symbol of religious devotion in Portugalete's Old Quarter. Its construction dates back to the 13th century, making it one of the oldest churches in the region. Visitors are drawn to its impressive Gothic architecture, characterized by its ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and intricate stone carvings.

The interior of the church is adorned with beautiful stained-glass windows, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and various saints. The church is particularly renowned for its Gothic altarpiece, a masterpiece created in the 15th century. This elaborate altarpiece features intricately carved biblical scenes and is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic art in the Basque Country.

Beyond its architectural and artistic significance, the Church of Santa María holds a special place in the hearts of local residents. It serves as the main parish church of Portugalete and is the site of numerous religious ceremonies, festivals, and processions throughout the year. Whether you are a history buff, an art enthusiast, or simply seeking a spiritual experience, a visit to the Church of Santa María is a must when exploring Portugalete's Old Quarter.

Transbordador de Portugalete

The Transbordador de Portugalete is an iconic symbol of the city and a remarkable feat of engineering. This gondola ferry system, locally known as the "Puente Colgante," spans the River Nervión, connecting Portugalete with the neighboring town of Getxo. Inaugurated in 1893 and designed by Alberto Palacio Elissague, it was the first of its kind in the world and remains a testament to the region's industrial heritage.

The Transbordador operates on a simple yet ingenious mechanism. Two counterbalanced gondolas, each holding up to six cars, glide smoothly across the river, powered by an electric motor. The journey takes just five minutes, offering passengers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, including the old town, the riverbanks, and the iconic Puente Vizcaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Beyond its practical function as a means of transportation, the Transbordador holds immense historical and cultural significance. It has become an enduring symbol of Portugalete, featuring prominently in local folklore, literature, and art. The structure's elegant design and intricate latticework have earned it recognition as a remarkable example of industrial architecture.

A ride on the Transbordador is a must-do experience for visitors to Portugalete. It offers a unique perspective of the city and the surrounding area, while providing a glimpse into the region's rich industrial past. Whether you're a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply seeking a thrilling adventure, the Transbordador de Portugalete is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Plaza del Solar

The Plaza del Solar is the vibrant heart of Portugalete's Old Quarter, a captivating square steeped in history and local life. Once a bustling marketplace, it served as the town's commercial hub where traders gathered to exchange goods and ideas.

Surrounded by colorful buildings with traditional Basque balconies, the plaza exudes a timeless charm. At its center stands a beautiful fountain, a reminder of the square's former role as a water source for the town.

The Plaza del Solar is a place where locals and visitors alike come together to socialize, relax, and soak up the atmosphere. On market days, the square transforms into a lively bazaar, filled with vendors selling fresh produce, local delicacies, and handmade crafts.

Throughout the year, the Plaza del Solar hosts various events and festivals that showcase Portugalete's rich cultural heritage. From traditional Basque dancing and music performances to food fairs and art exhibitions, there's always something happening in this vibrant square.

Whether you're seeking a taste of local life or simply looking for a delightful place to people-watch and soak up the atmosphere, the Plaza del Solar is a must-visit destination in Portugalete's Old Quarter.

Town Hall

Architectural Features and Historical Importance

The Town Hall of Portugalete, also known as Casa Consistorial, stands as a majestic symbol of local governance in the heart of the Old Quarter. Constructed in the 18th century, the building showcases a blend of Baroque and Neoclassical architectural styles. Its elegant façade, adorned with intricate carvings and wrought-iron balconies, reflects the grandeur and prestige of the town's administration.

Inside, the Town Hall boasts a series of grand chambers and offices, each adorned with ornate furnishings and historical artifacts. The main assembly hall, with its high-vaulted ceiling and elaborate chandeliers, serves as a venue for important meetings and official ceremonies. Portraits of former mayors and other notable figures line the walls, adding to the sense of history and tradition within these hallowed halls.

Local Government and Cultural Events

As the seat of local government, the Town Hall plays a vital role in the administration of Portugalete. It houses the offices of the mayor and other elected officials, who oversee the various departments and services that cater to the needs of the town's residents.

In addition to its official functions, the Town Hall also serves as a cultural hub for the community. It regularly hosts exhibitions, concerts, and other events that showcase local talent and promote cultural exchange. These events provide a platform for artists, musicians, and performers to share their work and connect with the wider community.

Overall, the Town Hall of Portugalete stands as a testament to the town's rich history, architectural heritage, and commitment to local governance and cultural enrichment.

Museo Rialia

Housed in a beautifully restored 18th-century palace, Museo Rialia is a captivating cultural space that offers visitors a journey through the artistic heritage of Portugalete. The museum boasts a diverse collection of temporary art exhibitions, showcasing the works of renowned local and international artists. It also houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history and culture of Portugalete, providing insights into the town's rich past and its contributions to the Basque region.

Museo Rialia is more than just an art gallery; it is a platform for cultural exchange and community engagement. The museum regularly hosts workshops, lectures, and educational programs, fostering artistic expression and appreciation among the local population and visitors alike. It also collaborates with other cultural institutions in the region, contributing to the vibrant arts scene of the Basque Country.

Whether you are an art enthusiast, a history buff, or simply looking for a unique cultural experience, Museo Rialia is a must-visit destination in Portugalete. Immerse yourself in the world of art, discover the stories behind the masterpieces, and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural tapestry that makes this Basque town so special.

Local Traditions and Customs

Portugalete's rich history and maritime heritage have shaped its unique traditions and customs. One notable tradition is the "Pasacalles de los Gigantes y Cabezudos" (Parade of the Giants and Big Heads), held annually during the town's patron saint festival. Giant papier-mâché figures, representing historical characters and mythical creatures, parade through the streets, accompanied by large-headed figures, entertaining locals and visitors alike.

Another tradition, deeply rooted in Portugalete's fishing heritage, is the "Fiesta del Carmen" (Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel), celebrated in July. Fishermen and their families gather at the Church of Santa María to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of seafarers. Following a religious procession, a colorful boat parade takes place on the River Nervión, where decorated fishing vessels compete for the best display.

The "Txakoli Eguna" (Txakoli Day), held in May or June, celebrates the local Txakoli wine, a slightly sparkling white wine produced in the Basque Country. Visitors and locals gather at the town square to sample different varieties of Txakoli, accompanied by traditional Basque cuisine and live music.

These traditions showcase Portugalete's vibrant cultural heritage and provide a glimpse into the town's unique identity, offering visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the local way of life.

Walking Tours

Portugalete's Old Quarter is best explored on foot, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in its vibrant atmosphere and uncover its hidden gems. Organized walking tours provide a comprehensive introduction to the area, with knowledgeable guides sharing insights into its history, architecture, and local traditions. These tours often include visits to key landmarks, such as the Church of Santa María, the Transbordador de Portugalete, and the Town Hall.

For those who prefer a more independent experience, self-guided walks are also a great option. Several routes are available, catering to different interests and time constraints. A popular itinerary starts at the Plaza del Solar, the heart of the Old Quarter, and takes visitors through its charming streets and squares. Along the way, they can admire the unique architecture, browse local shops, and stop for a bite to eat at one of the many traditional Basque restaurants.

Recommended routes include the "Historical Walk," which highlights the Old Quarter's significant landmarks, and the "Cultural Walk," which focuses on its art, music, and local traditions. Visitors can download maps and guides online or pick them up at the local tourist office.

Whether opting for an organized tour or a self-guided walk, exploring Portugalete's Old Quarter on foot is a delightful way to experience its rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning scenery.


Getting to Portugalete's Old Quarter is a breeze, with several convenient transportation options available.

  • Metro: The most efficient way to reach the Old Quarter is by metro. Take the L2 line from Bilbao to the Portugalete station, which is just a short walk from the heart of the historic district.

  • Bus: Several bus lines connect Bilbao and Portugalete, offering a more affordable alternative to the metro. Buses depart from Bilbao's Termibus station and stop at various locations within Portugalete, including the Old Quarter.

  • Ferry: For a scenic journey, consider taking the ferry across the River Nervión from Bilbao's Old Town to Portugalete. The ferry terminal is located near the Guggenheim Museum, and the crossing takes approximately 20 minutes.

  • Car: If you're driving, follow the A-8 motorway from Bilbao towards Santander. Take exit 120 for Portugalete and follow the signs to the Old Quarter. Parking can be limited in the area, so consider using public transportation or parking in a nearby neighborhood and walking to the Old Quarter.

Insider Tip

Discover the Secret Garden of Portugalete: Nestled within the heart of the Old Quarter, uncover a hidden gem known as the Secret Garden. This enchanting oasis offers a tranquil escape from the bustling streets, featuring lush greenery, vibrant flowers, and a serene atmosphere. Take a leisurely stroll through its winding paths, admire the colorful blooms, and find a secluded spot to relax and soak in the tranquility. The Secret Garden is a true hidden gem that provides a unique and memorable experience for visitors seeking a moment of peace and tranquility amidst the vibrant energy of the Old Quarter.

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