The Nervión River meanders through Bilbao, whose historic core was built inside one of its loops, with water protecting it on three sides. Most of the important shops, banks, and tourist facilities are a short walk from the Gran Vía, running east-west through the heart of town. The Old Quarter is east of the modern commercial center, across the river.

Despite the fact that Bilbao was established around 1300, it has curiously few medieval monuments. On the east side of the Nervión River, it does have an intriguing Old Quarter, the site of its most interesting bars and restaurants. The custom is to come to the Old Quarter at night and barhop, ordering small cups of beer or wine. A small glass of wine is called a chiquiteo.

The Old Quarter of Bilbao is connected to the much larger modern section on the opposite bank by four bridges. A few paces north of the Old Quarter's center are graceful arches, 64 in all, enclosing the Plaza Nueva, also called the Plaza de los Mártires, completed in 1830.

The entire barrio has been declared a national landmark. The barrio was originally defined by an area around seven streets, but it long ago spilled beyond that limitation. Its most important church is Iglesia de San Nicolás (tel. 94-416-34-24). Behind this church you'll find an elevator on Calle Esperanza Ascao, which, if working, carries sightseers to the upper town. It is open daily from 10:30am to 12:30pm and 3:30 to 8pm. You can also climb 64 steps from the Plaza Unamuno. From here it's a short walk to the Basílica de Begoña (tel. 94-412-70-91), built largely in the early 1500s. Inside the dimly lit church is a brightly illuminated depiction of the Virgin, the patroness of the province, dressed in long, flowing robes. Also displayed are some enormous paintings by Luca Giordano. Hours are daily 10:30am to 2pm and 5:30 to 8:30pm. While in the Old Quarter, you might visit the Catedral de Santiago, Plaza Santiago (tel. 94-432-01-25), which was built in the 14th century and then restored in the 16th century after a fire. The cathedral's facade was rebuilt in the 19th century. It is open daily 11am to 1pm and 4 to 6:30pm. On Sunday you may take in the flea market, starting at 8am, on the streets of the Old Quarter.

To reach the Old Quarter on foot, the only way to explore it, take the Puente del Arenal from the Gran Vía, Bilbao's main street.

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