Although Bilbao’s inner city districts of Casco Viejo, Indautxu, Abando and Iralabarri are overwhelmingly respectable in character, San Francisco and La Vieja, just to the south-east of the railway stations, are more edgy. San Francisco and La Vieja are more edgy because this is where some alcoholics, drug dealers, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals hang around in shadowy bars, cafes and night clubs or on street corners. But San Francisco and La Vieja are also vibrantly multiethnic areas where people from South America, Central America, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe live because housing is cheaper than in other parts of the city. Shops, small supermarkets, cafes and restaurants, some of the latter alcohol-free with halal food for Muslims, meet the needs of people from about fifty different countries. There are even barbers for men and hair salons for women so people can look just like they do “back home”. Some social and private sector housing is in a poor state, but the streets are full of vitality. Moreover, interesting buildings exist wherever you look. Calle San Francisco, the main thoroughfare through both districts, is a must-see, but streets to the north and the south also repay careful examination. Streets leading from Calle San Francisco to the river have some trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and businesses, the latter run by artists, musicians and photographers, as well as an excellent marisqueria (a bar-restaurant specialising in seafood) and one of Bilbao’s best wine shops. A few shops sell secondhand clothes and bric-a-brac, and it is not unusual to see men, usually African in origin, pushing old prams full of scrap metal and broken electrical items. Because San Francisco and La Vieja are two of Bilbao’s most interesting districts, I often returned to walk and take photos.
La Vieja more or less peters out once you arrive in the area immediately south of Puerta de San Anton, but the interesting architecture continues for quite a while along the river’s west bank. Moreover, excellent views exist into the district of Atxuri on the far side of the river. I walked south for over a kilometre until a large concrete bridge carries a wide road over what is now a deep valley, and entered another suburb of predominantly working class housing, in this case housing in modern apartment blocks notable only for their size and location beside the river itself. But what San Francisco, La Vieja and this more distant suburb confirm is that Bilbao off the beaten track is endlessly fascinating. Moreover, it is in these more marginal areas of the city where you encounter some very dramatic murals.
Are areas of Bilbao such as San Francisco, La Vieja and the rundown riverside suburbs safe in which to walk? The biggest problem I had was with a heavy dog, pit bull in appearance, which charged up to me near the river, but it merely wanted to say hello. If careful about where you point your camera (concentrate on the buildings, not some of the people), you will be fine, I assure you.