San Sebastian is the favorite resort of Spaniards, a real gem of the Basque Country and one of the gastronomic capitals of Europe. People come here for the ocean, surfing, Michelin restaurants, numerous pintxos bars and spectacular views.
Remember, the second name of the city is Donostia (that’s the correct name in the Basque language), and you usually see both variants on signposts.
The city is located on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean’s Bay of Biscay, and that immediately solves it. Two or three days spent in San Sebastian are enough to fall in love with the city and even decide to move here in your old age – walk your dog along the waterfront, keep fit with jogging, and in the evenings, pass the time in local bars, sipping wine and satisfying your hunger with pintxos.
In 2016, San Sebastian was named the European Capital of Culture (along with Wroclaw, Poland). However, without this the city has enough status events – every September there is a film festival, which is considered the most important in Spanish cinema, and in July – one of the world’s largest jazz festivals Jazzaldia.
TRANSPORTATION AND LODGING
Most likely you’ll have to fly to Madrid (Ryanair from Vilnius) or Barcelona (Ryanair or Wizz Air from there) first and then take a bus ticket. The largest route network is with Alsa, but the prices are not so low. If you get the ticket in advance, you can buy it for € 30 round trip, if you get it the day before your trip – the tickets may cost € 70-90. So check airfare, it might be even cheaper.
The nearest large airport is in Bilbao (San Sebastian also has an airport, but it is very expensive to fly there), you can fly to and from Madrid for € 56 by Iberia, from Barcelona round trip for € 60 will take Vueling. From Bilbao airport you can get a bus to San Sebastian almost every hour (a little over an hour) operated by Lurraldebus. In Bilbao it absolutely makes sense to stay for a couple of days, but that’s a topic for a separate discussion.
During the season (May to September) accommodation in San Sebastian can be expensive, at other times a little more affordable. We recommend a location near the old town (Parte Vieja), as it can be too noisy inside. If you want to have a real beauty, look for accommodations overlooking the ocean.
You can stay at guest houses or pensions – everything you need is the same as in the hotel, but a little more economical. You can hardly find anything cheaper than €40-50 per night for two people.
Guesthouse Itxasoa (San Juan, 14) offers neat rooms with all amenities, small but cozy balconies, and most importantly – ocean views. Prices per night range from € 50 in low season to € 77 in summer.
Check out hotel Parma (Paseo de Salamanca, 10), which also has rooms overlooking the raging waves. If you are travelling by car the underground parking is a big plus.
But probably the best solution is to rent an apartment with its own kitchen. That way you don’t just get to sample the food, but also get to cook your own crab, grill your own flounder, or try some oysters you bought at the pescaderia (fish stall) next door. Welcome to Airbnb!
How do you get around town?
Walking. San Sebastian is not a big city, only 185 thousand inhabitants. All the main places of the city are within walking distance. Also in San Sebastian, as the locals sometimes call the city, there is a convenient network of bus routes. Most of them drop off and pick up passengers at the Boulevard stop, which is the very center. The fare is €1.65 and you can pay directly to the driver.
We have no doubts what to do in San Sebastian first. No, not to rush to a pintxos bar, but to go and say hello to the ocean.
There are three beaches in the city – the central one and the most famous one is called La Concha after the bay of the same name. It is best suited for swimming, and if you Google “San Sebastian,” most pictures will show it. La Concha crosses into Ondaretta beach . But we found the most charming beach called La Suriolla – it looks like a live set for a surf movie or – depending on the height of the waves – a drama about a lonely writer walking along the coast with his shaggy dogs. The ocean here is more like the ocean and the place itself is more inland, though one of the city’s main attractions, Courzaal Auditorium (Avenida de Zurriola, 1), is a stone’s throw away. Cursaal or Palacio de Congresos is a new building from 1999 that houses several art spaces and concert halls – this is where the San Sebastian Film Festival is based.
Seen the ocean? Breathed in the scent of the salty wind? Marveled at the courage of local bathers and bathers (if you’ve come to town in cold weather)? Watched the Urumea River drain into the waters of the Atlantic? It’s time to do the honors. Let’s get to know the unique gastronomic culture of the local pintxos bars.
These establishments have, in general, the same and slightly intricate arrangement, which we’ll help you figure out. The snacks on the bar are the famous pinchos, the base and superstructure of Basque cuisine, if not the entire Basque Country. It usually looks like a sandwich with jamon, anchovy, various spreads, or something more elaborate.
You ask the bartender for a plate (or take it yourself), fill it with whatever you want (pinchos are usually € 1.5-2), go to the cashier, order a beer or wine – and pay. It is customary to eat and drink leaning on the counter. In addition to the snacks on display, there are pinchos that can be prepared for you fairly promptly – the menu is usually written in chalk on the board. Mini steaks for two bites for €3.5 or the perennial Spanish “patatas bravas” (baked bulbos with sauce) for €2.
In addition to wine and beer (the popular local lager is called Keler 18), local ciders are on tap. They pour them beautifully – from a hollow bottle in a big glass with a meter height (the main thing that foamed and bubbled), however, pour 150 grams, so that you can immediately ask for a “double” dose.
The third option is actually the restaurant part of the place, which is usually open at lunchtime and in the evening after 8 p.m. Sometimes it’s visually separated from the bar, sometimes the rapidly shifting pintxos lovers barely overhang the table where you solemnly decided to celebrate your first night on the town.
Here are a couple of hints at which places you should definitely start your acquaintance with the unforgettable Basque gastronomy. Gastroteka Atari (Calle Mayor, 18). The place is trendy, even has its own website. Lots of people at any time of day. In the evening it is hard to find a free table. The octopus with baked potatoes is worth a try.
Next door is Gandarias tavern (31 de Agosto, 31), which is adored by locals – very friendly bartenders (which is not always the case), really tasty pintxos and probably the lowest prices in town. But exactly for the pintxos – because in the restaurant the bill for two people will be about 60-70 €, which is a bit expensive for Sansse.
There’s no point in recommending anything else: you’ll find it! Most pintxos places are concentrated in the old town – walk along Portu, San Jeronimo, Nagusia, Pescaderia and other streets framing Constitution Square. It’s easy to tell when a place is worth checking out: there’s likely to be a lot of people inside. Prices are about the same everywhere: for a plate of pintxos for two and a drink you will pay on average €15.
Also pay attention to the lunch offers of restaurants. Usually they will cost €30-40 for two and include first, second, dessert and a bottle of wine for two. We absolutely loved the simple but exquisite Morgan (Narrika, 7) and Ubarrechena (Calle Mayor, 16) – great paella and desserts. Don’t forget to try the local fish soup, it’s amazing.
The Basques – and San Sebastians in particular – are very honest about their gastronomic mission with few exceptions. There are practically no tourist places with “divorce” that would be different from the places “for their own”. If you just ask for “your local wine,” they will bring you a really low-budget, run-of-the-mill option. Lunch menus often include some sort of unlimited wine – they’ll bring you a bottle, drink as much as you want.
We’ll assume you’re full and satisfied. It’s time to check out the main (besides the ocean) local attractions. Walking around the old town, you probably noticed the Basilica of Santa Maria (31 de Agosto, 46), the most beautiful church in the city. Just a hundred meters away is the church of San Vicente (San Juan, 15). The main temple of the city is the Gothic Cathedral (Urdaneta, 12) , built in the late XIX century (also called the Cathedral of Buen Pastor).
If Darwin’s theory excites you more than your divine origins, go to the Aquarium (Plaza de Carlos Blasco Imaz, 1). The institution proudly calls itself “the best oceanographic museum in Europe,” which, of course, can be argued. In addition to various artifacts of San Sebastian life associated with the ocean, there is actually an oceanarium, where you can stare at sharks, morays, and a few dozen species of the most different sea creatures. The ticket costs €13, and there are discounts for students.
Another museum worthy of attention is San Telmo Museoa (Plaza Zuloaga, 1). In our country it would be called “local history” – devoted, first of all, to the history of San Sebastian and its surroundings. It has a collection of archaeological artifacts, but it also has a collection of paintings, mostly by local artists. One of the buildings of the museum is located in a 16th century monastery. The ticket is €6.
If you still have energy, you can climb Mount Urgul, where the medieval fortress of La Mota (part of the San Telmo Museum) and the statue of Christ stand at the top. Climb here, however, can only be on foot. If your feet hurt, let’s just say that a funicular offers no less picturesque views from Mount Igueldo on the opposite side of the bay – and there, thank all the gods, is a funicular.
We suggest that you start the second day by jogging along the waterfront. We hope you brought sneakers? Everyone runs in San Sebastian, regardless of age, and you’ll want to go jogging at least once.
If that didn’t work out, grab breakfast at Caravanserai Café (Del Buen Pastor Plaza 14) near the Cathedral. Be sure to try the potato and egg pie, which all the bars offer only in the morning. It’s not bad here either.
After refreshing, you can move on to shopping. In Surf City you can go shopping in surf shops. There are a lot of them in town, but check out Pukas (Calle Mayor, 5) to see how merciful Mercury is to you. This shop is as cool as its name – if you don’t need a board, just rummage through the branded stuff. Surfers don’t just lug around the stuff!
Six Store (Avenida de Zurriola, 1) . A small and trendy store with clothes, shoes and accessories located in the Cursaal Auditorium building. Check out the San Sebastian Prudey line. You can also buy a stylish arafat for your Whippet (a wildly popular dog breed in San Sebastian).
For a gift for your music-loving friends, check out Beltza Records (San Juan, 9). You’ll find colorful mustachioed salespeople and piles of records in shabby vinyl covers. We’ve even found compilations of Soviet pop songs here.
If you think all you have to do in Spain is shop at Zara, we’re not going to argue with you. The biggest Zara store in town is located in the Mercado San Martín (Calle Urbieta, 9). But the main thing worth going here for is the big fish market on the “minus one” floor. The freshest shrimp, oysters, crabs, and all kinds of fish – we recommend getting here before noon, since most vendors close up in the afternoon. If it’s after lunch, don’t despair. There are fish stalls in different parts of the city (look for the nearest one on Google maps using the word Pescaderia).
San Sebastian is the right place to finally try oysters. They cost €1 each in fish stores and from €3 each in restaurants. Considering that you don’t have to cook them (you just have to open the sink and splash them with lemon juice) – the choice is obvious. Just take care of your fingers when you open them!
San Sebastian has three restaurants that proudly have three Michelin stars, and one with two “zorkas” (for a city with a population of 185 thousand, it seems to be even too much). If your must-do list for 2016 includes an item about tasting haute cuisine, perhaps Sansse is the perfect place for it. However, be prepared to pay 150-200 € for dinner. For a full list of Michelin establishments in the city, see here, and here’s a hint: restaurants with one Michelin star – and there are five of them in the city – will be much cheaper to dine in.
18 San Sebastian sights not to miss
San Sebastian is rightly considered the culinary capital of Basque Country. If you are a foodie, then this city will be a real paradise for you. Did you know that the Spanish Basque Country has the largest concentration of restaurants that have been awarded Michelin stars? Eating here is probably one of the main things to do in San Sebastian.
But this city attracts not only delicious food but also a variety of attractions, chief among which is the bay of La Concha, and the city itself is located in a very picturesque place among the mountains on the northern coast of Spain.
La Concha Quay
La Concha Quay.
If you want to get to know the city better and enjoy the views of the sea, the best place to do it is on the beautiful La Concha (Basque name: Kontxa Pasealekua). Immediately after arriving in town, be sure to walk this beautiful 2km stretch along the coastline, where you can see all the beauty of San Sebastian’s landscape.
It’s only a 20-minute walk. Don’t forget to stop by one of the beach bars or restaurants – here you can have a drink and relax on one of the benches and enjoy the sea views.
Address: La Concha, Spain.
Peine del Viento Sculpture
Sculpture of Peine del Viento.| Photo: Joan / Flickr.
The name of this sculpture translates as “crest of the wind,” and it is located at the far end of Ondarreta Beach at the foot of Mount Igueldo. It is one of the most famous sculptures by local Basque artist Eduardo Chillida.
It was completed in 1976, and consists of three curved steel sculptures anchored in granite rocks washed by the sea.
Huge waves of the sea crash down on this sculpture, which are ripped back out as tall pillars through a system of holes in the ground. On stormy days this spectacle looks even more impressive. Peine del Viento gets its name from the special curved shape of the metal elements (peine) in which the wind (viento) plays.
Address: Peine Del Viento, Eduardo Chillida Pasealekua, San Sebastian, Spain.
Old Town .
The heart of San Sebastian is rightly considered its atmospheric Old Town (Parte Vieja). It’s a labyrinth of intricately paved streets lined with pintxos bars and restaurants. Be sure to explore the neighborhood’s pedestrian streets, boutiques, and historic buildings.
The Old City is where you get a real sense of this culturally rich, vibrant city. The old city was formed during the Middle Ages, but after a fire that devastated the city in 1813, most of it had to be reconstructed.
In the old town you can see buildings such as the Municipal Museum of San Telmo, the Gothic Church of St. Vincent and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, which is made in Baroque style. There is also the majestic Plaza de la Constitución with its ancient arcades and balconies.
To learn more about San Sebastian’s history, join a guided walking tour. Pinchos tours are also available here. At lunchtime and lunchtime, the Old Town takes on a completely different atmosphere, with an endless variety of tantalizing pintxos.
Pinchos are the Basque country’s answer to Spanish tapas. Here you can taste such local specialties as deep-fried cod, marinated anchovies, croquettes, and, of course, tortilla de patatas (potato omelette).
Address: Old Town, San Sebastian, Spain.
San Sebastian City Hall
San Sebastian City Hall.
Before becoming the City Hall of San Sebastian (name in Basque: Donostiako Udala, in Spanish: Ayuntamiento de San Sebastián), this building was occupied by the Gran Casino, where parties were held for the European bourgeoisie and aristocracy. It was here that they spent their summers during the Belle Epoque.
The casino opened on July 1, 1887, and closed after the ban on gambling in 1924. If you look closely at the facade of the building, you can see bullet holes there. These marks are the result of the battle that took place here during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) between the Nationalists and the Republicans.
This building became the City Hall only in 1947, when the City Council, which previously occupied the building on Constitution Square, moved here. Today, the town hall overlooks the Alderdi-Eder Gardens. In these gardens you can relax and unwind after a strenuous stroll along the La Concha promenade.
Address: San Sebastian City Hall, Ijentea Kalea, San Sebastian, Spain.
Plaza de la Constitución.
Constitution Square is the largest square in the city, which was once a bullring. The balconies that now face the square are still numbered from the days when they were used as places to watch the bullfight going on below.
This new neoclassical square is surrounded by arcades, bustling bars and restaurants, so it is the best place to taste the national Spanish dish, pinchos.
Address: Plaza de la Constitución, Constitución Plaza, San Sebastian, Spain.
Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro
Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro.
What else is there to see in San Sebastian? Head to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, as this place is one of the most visited attractions in the city. This majestic 18th-century church, with its Baroque facade, boasts a combination of Gothic, neoclassical and Churrigueresque elements. The portico of the church is in the Plateresque style. Step inside and you will see the neo-Gothic vault and altar.
Address: Basílica de Santa María del Coro, 31 de Agosto Kalea, San Sebastian, Spain.
La Concha Beach
La Concha Beach. | Photo: Joan / Flickr.
There are as many as three beaches in San Sebastian. La Concha Beach, or Shell Beach, is a beach that faces the aforementioned promenade of the same name. Here you can swim, sunbathe, or just stroll along the white sandy beach and admire the bay or the stone arches surrounding the beach.
Address: Playa de la Concha, Spain.
View from the funicular.
This ancient funicular takes you up to 184 meters above sea level and lands on top of Mount Igueldo. From this place you have a delightful panoramic view of the coast and the mountains of San Sebastian.
However, the beautiful view is not the only reason to come up here. You can also have a fun day at the Parque de Atracciones de Monte Igueldo. Especially children will be interested, who will appreciate the charming merry-go-rounds and the traditional wooden roller coaster.
Prices for entertainment here, by the way, are quite democratic. There is a restaurant with a balcony, where you can enjoy your meal and a beautiful view of the city.
If you are looking for something more refined, then you can go to the Mercure Monte Igueldo Hotel. Here you can have a glass of wine on the outdoor terrace or dine in the elegant restaurant. You can also stay overnight here by booking a room at their hotel. Also, be sure to check out the 16th century El Torreon Tower, which offers a wonderful view of the lighthouse and the rolling hills of the Basque countryside.
The address is Funicular Monte Igueldo, Funicular Plaza, San Sebastian, Spain.
Royal Miramar Palace
Royal Miramar Palace | Photo: wikimedia.
Historically, Spanish monks often visited San Sebastian during the summer. For many years, the Spanish royal family chose this city for their summer vacation.
Their summer home was the royal Miramar Palace, which was built for them on their behalf by the English architect Selden Wornum in 1889. The building is in the English Tudor style, adorned with an octagonal tower.
From here you have a beautiful view of the bay. Many Spanish queens chose this house as their favorite summer residence. The house itself is closed to tourists, but you can explore the well-maintained colorful gardens that surround the building. This is a great place to go for a picnic and enjoy nature.
Address: Miramar Palace, San Sebastian, Spain.
Paseo Nuevo Promenade
Paseo Nuevo Promenade | Photo: Joan / Flickr.
Paseo Nuevo (or New Promenade) is located at the foot of Mount Urgull, and is a scenic path that surrounds the mountain. It begins at the oceanarium and passes under the Castillo de la Mota, which was built in the 12th century.
The new promenade is famous for the huge sea waves that crash against the causeway, rising into the air to incredible heights. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the city and a must-see. The picturesque New Promenade leads back to the city center and ends at the mouth of the Urumea River at the Puente la Zurriola Bridge.
Address: Paseo Nuevo balcón, Donostia, San Sebastián, Pasealeku Berria, San Sebastian, Spain.
Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.
The huge Catedral del Buen Pastor of San Sebastian (Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) is both a symbol of the city and its largest church, which covers an area of over 1,915 square meters (2,290 square yards).
The main feature of this building is its impressive tower, 75 meters high, which is built from local sandstone taken from Mount Igueldo. This neo-Gothic cathedral is located in the New Town.
The building was designed by the Basque architect Manuel de Echave Echave. The project was created in 1880 and the construction itself was completed in 1897. The exterior is richly decorated with beautiful stained glass windows and an organ consisting of more than 10,000 pipes. The organ is considered one of the largest in Europe.
Address: Catedral del Buen Pastor, Urdaneta Kalea, San Sebastian, Spain.
Historical Museum of San Telmo
Historic museum of San Telmo.
Learn about the cultural heritage of the Basque Country at the Historic Museum of San Telmo. It is the largest museum of Basque history, which allows you to trace its development from prehistoric times to the present day.
The museum occupies several buildings – the Dominican monastery from the 16th century and the Renaissance buildings. There are more than 26,000 historical specimens on display, shedding light on this country’s past.
The entire collection is divided into four main zones: fine art, history, archaeology and ethnology. The fine art zone contains paintings, drawings and sculptures by famous artists such as El Greco, Rubens, Moran and Ribera.
There are also works of art by Basque artists such as Arteta, Echagüe, Salaberria, Ugarte and Zuloaga. The historical zone displays weapons from the 15th century to the present day, while the archaeological zone allows you to look at the collection of ceramics, coins and artifacts from the pre-Columbian era.
Address: San Telmo Museum, Plaza Zuloaga, San Sebastian, Spain.
This is the second beach of San Sebastian, which is located west of the Royal Miramar Palace. Ondarreta Beach boasts a huge 100 meter wide shoreline that stretches for a kilometer up to Mount Igueldo.
In winter you can see bodyboarders and surfers here, and from June to August the beach is overflowing with classic changing booths, lounge chairs and sun umbrellas. There is a lovely garden with a sculpture of Queen Maria Cristina on the promenade.
Address: Playa de Ondarreta, Spain.
Santa Clara Island
View of Santa Clara Island.
Santa Clara is a small 32-meter island, which is located near the coast of San Sebastian in the Gulf of La Concha. You can get to Isla de Santa Clara (Santa Clara Island) by ferry.
Here you can swim in the warm water, visit a cafe, a restaurant, or go on a picnic. If you look well, you can find natural pools in secluded corners of the island. Here you can also take a leisurely stroll to the enchanting lighthouse and enjoy the wonderful views. For 6.50 € you can take a boat trip around the bay and return to the island.
Address: Santa Clara, Spain.
Surriola Beach attracts surfers from all over the world, and all because this place has just perfect waves. This is the third beach in San Sebastian, and it is the most popular among sports enthusiasts. Here you can play beach volleyball, soccer, and beach tennis, and there are also bodyboarding, surfing, and skateboarding competitions.
Address: Platja de Zurriola, Zurriola Ibilbidea, San Sebastian, Spain.
The Castle of Mota
A view of the Mota Castle.
If you are interested in the military history of San Sebastian, then be sure to visit the Castillo de la Mota (Castle of Mota). This castle was built back in the 12th century and is located on the highest point of Mount Urgull.
The castle itself and its fortresses were built by King Sancho the Wise of Navarre, and it was this castle that defended the city from the 12th to the 19th century, when San Sebastian was still walled. The top of the castle is adorned by a 12-meter statue of a heart (Cristo de la Mota), which was completed in 1950 by Frederico Cullo.
Today the castle is home to the Museum of History, which introduces tourists to the 800-year history of the city. The museum offers guided tours with audio-visual effects. The walk to the top of the mountain is also worth seeing.
You can start at Kaiko Pasealekua, where the boats are moored, or from the streets behind the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro. On a hot day in Polboriña you can refresh yourself with a glass of beer or an ice cream (there is a small café next to the castle). There is an outdoor seating area with a great view of Santa Clara Island.
Address: Castillo de La Mota, San Jeronimo Kalea, San Sebastian, Spain.
Church of Sant Vincent
Church of Saint Vincent.
The church of St. Vincent, built in the Gothic style, is one of those “lucky” buildings that survived the fire of 1813. This makes it one of the oldest churches in the city. There used to be a late 7th century Romanesque church on the site of this building.
The church you see now was built in the first half of the 16th century, with Gothic style architecture. Before you go inside, notice the sculpture “La Piedad” by George Oteiz that adorns the front of the building.
The church of San Vicente has one of the best altars, which is in Romanesque style, and the decoration of the church itself was done by Ambrosio Bengoechea and Juan Iriarte. An interesting fact: all those baptized in this church are called “koxkeros”, in honor of the stones that protrude from the walls of the church (“koxka” from Basque means stone).
Address: Iglesia San Vicente, San Juan Kalea, San Sebastian, Spain.
San Sebastian Aquarium is located in the Old City. It stretches along the harbor at the end of La Concha Bay. It is a very popular place among tourists, its 31 habitats are filled with a variety of fish species, from tropical species and sharks to representatives from the Atlantic and Cantabria.
There is also an oceanographic museum with models of ships, instruments of navigation and documents. The most interesting place in the museum is the oceanarium, which is a kind of underwater exhibition space.
Here you can walk through a transparent tunnel with a 360-degree view, which allows you to fully enjoy the beauty of fish, sharks and sea turtles living in the oceanarium.