Abstract The influence of freshwater flow on bacterial communities in the estuarine system Ria de Aveiro (Portugal) was investigated at two sites differently impacted by river inputs, representative of the marine and brackish water zones of the estuary. Sampling events were clustered based on hydrological features. The hydrodynamic was simulated with a Lagrangian model and related to microbiological parameters. Estuarine bacteria responded to different freshwater regimes developing distinct patterns of abundance and activity at the marine and brackish water zones. A circulation pattern induced by high river inflow produced vertical stratification in the marine zone, promoting a seaward flux of bacterioplankton, and stimulating the import of riverine phytoplankton and particle-attached bacteria to the brackish water zone. Advective transport and resuspension processes contributed to a 3-times increase in abundance of particle-attached bacteria during intense freshwater inputs. Additionally, bacterial activity in the estuary was controlled by inorganic nitrogen, responding to different freshwater inputs, which, in association with different prevailing sources of organic substrates induced significant changes in bacterial production. The dynamic and main controlling factors of bacterial communities are clearly impacted by freshwater inputs. Therefore, significant changes in the recycling of nutrients by microbial activities can be expected from alterations in freshwater inputs either related to global climate change or regional hydrological regimes.