The first notion of Bilbao as a tourist destination came with the inauguration of the railway between Bilbao and the coastal neighbourhood of Las Arenas, in the municipality of Getxo in 1872. The connection made Bilbao a minor beach destination.
The real tourist surge though would come much later with the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997. Thereafter tourist arrivals registered a continued upward trend, reaching over 615,000 visitors in 2009. The trend was exponential considering that in 1995, Bilbao only counted 25,000 tourists. Bilbao also hosts 31% of the total Basque Country visitors, being the top destination of this autonomous community, outranking San Sebastián. The majority of tourists are domestic visitors, coming from Madrid and Catalonia. International travellers are predominantly French, crossing the border just to the east. The others arrive from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. Tourism generates about 300 million euros yearly for the Biscayan.
Bilbao also draws business tourism, having been equipped with facilities like the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall, and the Bilbao Exhibition Centre, in nearby Barakaldo.
Bilbao is situated in the north-central part of Spain, some 16 kilometres (10 mi) south of the Bay of Biscay, where the economic social development is located, where the estuary of Bilbao is formed. Its main urban core is surrounded by two small mountain ranges with an average elevation of 400 metres (1,300 ft).
At the same time an extraordinary population explosion prompted the annexation of several adjacent municipalities. Nowadays, Bilbao is a vigorous service city that is experiencing an ongoing social, economic, and aesthetic revitalisation process, started by the iconic Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, and continued by infrastructure investments, such as the airport terminal, the rapid transit system, the tram line, the Alhóndiga, and the currently under development Abandoibarra and Zorrozaurre renewal projects.
Bilbao is also home to football club Athletic Club de Bilbao, a significant symbol for Basque nationalism due to its promotion of Basque players and one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football history.
The official name of the town is Bilbao, as known in most languages of the world. Euskaltzaindia, the official regulatory institution of the Basque language, has agreed that between the two possible names existing in Basque, Bilbao and Bilbo, the historical name is Bilbo, while Bilbao is the official name. Although the term Bilbo does not appear in old documents, in the play The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, there is a reference to swords presumably made of Biscayan iron which he calls "bilboes", suggesting that it is a word used since at least the sixteenth century.
The historian José Tussel Gómez argues that it is just a natural evolution of the Spanish words bello vado, beautiful river crossing. On the other hand, according to the writer Esteban Calle Iturrino, the name derives from the two settlements that existed on both banks of the estuary, rather than from the estuary itself. The first, where the present Casco Viejo is located, would be called billa, which means stacking in Basque, after the configuration of the buildings. The second, on the left bank, where now Bilbao La Vieja is located, would be called vaho, Spanish for mist or steam. From the union of these two derives the name Bilbao, which was also written as Bilvao and Biluao, as documented in its municipal charter. An -ao ending is also present in nearby Sestao and Ugao, that could be explained from Basque aho, "mouth".