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The precise origins of Bilbao have not been determined. However, a settlement had already been established and had significantly developed on both banks of the "ría del Nervión" before it officially became a villa. It was Don Diego López de Haro V, lord of Vizcaya, who gave the city his title in the year 1300, due to its great importance as a commercial and maritime centre at the time.
The singular location of the city allowed it to continue growing. The maritime business developed rapidly, whilst the original population spread out on both sides of the river. The commercial exchanges fuelled the cultural enrichment of the city, which also benefited from the arrival of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.
Bilbao consolidated its commercial status during the 15 th and 16 th centuries, becoming the most important economic centre in the manor of Vizcaya. Exchanges with other ports in the continent became stronger in this period, and, besides, the city began to trade with the American colonies. The population continued to grow and the city expanded.
Towards the mid 15 th century, the heart of the ancient "Casco Viejo" (citadel) consolidated when the oldest part of the city was expanded with four new roads. Hence, "Siete Calles" (seven roads), the name given to the historical centre of Bilbao. In this very area the "Catedral de Santiago" (Santiago Cathedral) was built, replacing the old chapel dedicated to apostle Saint James. This Gothic temple is amongst the city's most emblematic buildings.
Economic growth slowed at the end of the 16 th and continued well into the 17 th century, but urban expansion continued unhindered. Bidebarrieta and Correo streets opened Bilbao out towards the Arenal, later to become the centre of the city's social life.
The 18 th century breathed new life into the city, with continued economic development and a search for fresh space for its growing population. It was the 19 th century, however, that would truly transform the city, for throughout this century, Bilbao experienced unprecedented development through the exploitation of nearby mineral deposits. This helped to strengthen maritime business and port activity, and during this time strong iron and steel as well as shipbuilding industries emerged and became essential to economic development.
Meanwhile, with the arrival of the railway in Bilbao, the city strengthened its importance as an economic and financial centre. During this time, the Banco de Bilbao and the Banco de Bizkaia were founded. The Stock Exchange would be founded at the end of the century.
The city and its surroundings changed radically. Economic growth was followed by urban expansion. Some of the town's biggest projects were undertaken, bringing into life many of Bilbao's most characteristic buildings. The town spread out towards Abando and widened. Promenades, straight roads and walks were made and this new architecture transformed Bilbao into a modern city. The Plaza Nueva, the present City Hall and the Arriaga Theatre, inspired by the Opéra de Paris, are some of its new symbols.
At the beginning of the 20 th century, Bilbao was the great economic icon of the Basque Country and amongst the most important cities in the State. Its outstanding expansion and significant cultural development would only be interrupted by the Civil War (1936-1939), but the city would soon recover its capacity to generate wealth, becoming an attractive area for immigrants searching for a job in its flourishing industry. The urban and industrial landscapes would change to face rapid expansion, growing beyond the city's boundaries and reaching neighbouring towns on both sides of the ría del Nervión, thus forming today's Great Bilbao.
However, after Bilbao's imThe Mediaive economic boom, the iron and steel industry fell into a deep crisis at the end of the 20 th century that forced the city to think the foundations of its economic development over. Within a few years, the city and its outskirts were obliged to face the challenge of industrial restructuring and to deal with its negative consequences.
After years of financial uncertainty, Bilbao has once again become a dynamic city, full of amenities and focused on environmental and urban regeneration. With its lands freed from the old industrial settlements, the city is now undergoing a new physical transformation, becoming more and more appealing to visitors. The Mediaive Guggenheim Museum and the Euskalduna Palace, a conference and music centre, have become the icons of the new Bilbao, a city that is gradually regaining space and handing it back to the people.