Port of Bilbao: A Brief History


Established in 1300, the Port of Bilbao has a depth of history and a bright future moving forward. The largest port on the Iberian peninsula and the fourth busiest in Spain, it continues to grow. There are many container ships, cruises and other marine traffic that frequents this hub. Surrounding the port are beaches, trails, and historic sights. The Port of Bilbao is inseparable to life in Biscay.

Before 1900

The Bilbao Port is as old as the city. When Bilbao was recognized as a city, it was given operational control of all shipping that entered the estuary. The original docks were built 15km (9.3 miles) from the mouth of the sea at the entrance to Casco Viejo (Old town). This area was the epicenter of Biscay shipping for 500 years.

In 1877 Evaristo Churruca was appointed Facultative Director of Works for the Port of Bilbao. Under his instruction vast improvements to the port were undertaken. The Portugalete sandbar had been causing issues for many years. These sandbanks would cause congestion in the estuary and slow down shipping. Furthermore, the Bilbao estuary; also known as the Nervión River, was tricky to navigate, lacked depth and lagged in infrastructure. This led to a higher cost of doing business and was harming the booming steel and shipbuilding industries in the region.

Between the years of 1881 and 1887 the iron dock was extended by 800 meters (half mile). A curve that matched the bend of the river made the dock more easily accessible. 14km (8.7 miles) of the Bilbao estuary were dredged and straightened to make the river floor smoother and more consistent to navigate. They also made infrastructure improvements including moorage buoys, cranes, and lighting.

Then in 1888 they began the extensive project of constructing the outer port. The goal was to build a breakwater to the west of the river mouth in Santurtzi and another to the east in Getxo. The one in Santurtzi was to be 1,450 meters (4,700 feet) long and the other to be 1,072 meters (3500 feet). That would allow an opening of 600 meters (1950 feet) for ships to pass through.

The Puente de Bizkaia transporter bridge was built in 1893. The first of its kind, it was designed to be able to move people and goods between the left and right banks without disturbing the marine traffic. Today, it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Greater Bilbao.

20th Century

By the start of the 20th century the Bilbao Port was the largest in Spain. The Nervión had nearly 14,000 cubic meters (47,000 cubic feet) of earth removed from the river floor by 1908, when Evaristo Churruca retired. The swaying of the tides doubled and the port was able to handle four times the traffic it could before the start of the project.

For the next 60 years the estuary continued to be the main focal point of the Port of Bilbao. The amount of marine traffic jumped year after year as the amount of docks and cranes increased. Construction on the Deusto canal began in the 1950's in order to relieve the stress on the waterway. The neighbourhood of Zorrotzaurre was to become a man made island due to the creation of this canal. The Duesto canal was in operation until 2006, however, the canal wasn't finished until 2018, long after it's original purpose for using the space ceased.

Due to the limited capacity of the Nervión and that the size of cargo ships continued to grow, the need for the port to evolve became more pressing. The plans to dramatically expand the outer port were drawn in 1975. These plans were to install giant breakwaters at Point Galea, in the north and Point Lucero to the south. This would essentially turn the entirety of Abra Bay into the Bilbao Superport. Construction on the Superport would begin in 1985.


Nowadays, the Bilbao Port is the largest and the fourth busiest port in Spain. It has over 220 service links to over 500 ports around the world and continues to grow. There have been many new docks built, to help manage the growth.

The south side of the bay near Santurtzi is the most built up and where the breakwater on Point Lucero is located. In 2005, five wind turbines were installed along the breakwater in an effort to move the Port Authority toward a more environmentally sustainable way of operating. These five turbines combine to create 17,500 MWh per year of green energy.

There has been a cruise ship terminal built in the Getxo region of the Abra bay. It has three berths, after the most recent one opened in 2016. They were built next at Point Begona adjacent to the Muelle de Arriluze Lighthouse. The terminal hosts more than 50 thousand guests annually, with that number expected to grow.

The Port also houses seasonal ferry service between Bilbao and Portsmouth, in the United Kingdom as well as service to Rosslare in Ireland. This service has been run by Brittany Ferries for roughly ten years. The Ferry terminal is located in the town of Zierbena on the south side of the Abra Bay.

Recently, Petronor, a Basque energy company based out of Muskiz, Biscay, announced a new project at the Bilbao Port. They will be building one of the largest synthetic fuel production plants in the world. The synthetic fuel will be produced using a green form of hydrogen. There is no doubt that there will be more projects and development happening at the super port going forward.

Life in this part of the Basque world is inseparable from marine life and that is embodied by the port. It is a huge economic driver to the region and a cultural behemoth that is ever present. You can see the water fluctuations upstream and taste it in the food. It is more than a port, it plays a role in everything.

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