San Sebastian may be small by European city standards, but it packs a punch with its things to do, see and eat. Located in the north of Spain in the autonomous Basque region,it is a favourite on the travellers route for its unique culture, exciting cuisine, and stunning vistas. If you’re visiting for the first time, read on to better understand how to enjoy this magical city.
Sunbathe on the famous beaches
San Sebastian’s beaches are agreed to be some of the most beautiful in all of Europe, which is quite a statement. Visitors from all around the world flock to La Concha; a beautiful calm bay surrounded by Belle Époque architecture, to swim, sun and maybe do a spot of SUP out to Santa Clara island.
If the crowds at La Concha wear you down, cross the Urumea River and head over to Zurriola Beach. The first thing you’ll notice is the Kursaal Centre, a hugely contrasting modern building compared to the classical shop fronts and apartments behind it. Zurriola Beach fronts the neighbourhood of Gros, and is considered the surf beach of San Sebastian.
If you want to learn to surf here, Pukas Surf School is a great place to start, with excellent, English-proficient staff. If relaxing is more your thing, then make sure you grab yourself an helado from the best gelato store in town; Boulevard Gelataria. Don’t be too modest either, like most beaches in Europe, this can definitely be clothing optional!
Get the best views of San Sebastian
It is a difficult thing to visit San Sebastian, because once you see it, no city will ever look quite as beautiful. The best way to view the city is from the top of one of the mountains that surrounds San Sebastian. Mount Igeldo overlooks La Concha and can be accessed by the old-time funicular for a couple of Euros, or by walking up to the summit with relative ease. At the top is a small, and rather old-fashioned theme park that is active in the summer. It also gives you sweeping views of the whole city and surrounding mountainous land, and rumour has it that you can even see France on a clear day.
Additionally, you can also head up Mount Urgall. Not only does this have a 12ft high statue of Jesus atop, but it also boasts remnants of the town’s military fortification and a free museum. A quick hike to the top of this mountain will give you great views of Zurriola beach and the areas further to the east.
Get lost in the Old Town
Parte Vieja is the true heart of San Sebastian, brimming with the best pinto bars in town, tiny little clubs with a pulsing beat, and shops selling everything from cliché souvenirs right up to traditional Basque farmer clothing. It has alleys and back streets, streets that go over and under others, and hidden corners behind old churches. Spend a day here, or even better, a night of bar hopping, pinxto tasting and sidra drinking. This part of town stay awake until late and there’s always something going on here. Use Constitution Square as your base point, it is here that the big town festivals are centred around.
Understand the unique Basque culture
The Basque people suffered terribly under the Franco dictatorship and were forced to practice their culture and language in secret. As a result, they are now an extremely proud group of people and their culture and language is unlike anywhere else in Europe. To call a Basque person Spanish is a grave insult and the belief in Basque independence is strong here. There are a few great places to learn about this fascinating culture in San Sebastian. Start with the Aquarium, where you learn about the fishing and whaling history of the Basque people and see the skeleton of the last whale ever caught in Basque country.
San Telmo museum is another great place to visit, filled with Basque stories and art, and has free entry on Tuesdays. If you make it to the top of Mount Urgell, you will need to pass through the Casa de la Historia in order to reach the feet of Jesus. This house of history provides a succinct glimpse into the recent and not-so-recent history of the town, an often bloodied and gripping tale.
With San Sebastian being the food capital of the world, this is what your whole visit should revolve around. Eating out here ranges from the extravagant Arzak restaurant, a thrice-hatted restaurant that will set you back a couple of hundred Euros, right down to the intricate and imaginative pinxtos that line the hundreds of bars throughout the city. The densest cluster of pinxto bars are found in Old Town, with favourites including Borda Berri and La Cuchara de San Telmo. A local and student favourite is the weekly pinxto pote every Thursday, which sees the streets of the Gros neighbourhood crowded with people as they enjoy their 2 Euro pinxto and beverage.
If you’re after something a little different, you can also try a cooking school in San Sebastian, where they teach you the basics of the famous Basque cuisine. San Sebastian Food runs highly recommended cooking classes and takes you from selecting ingredients, preparing the food, and how Basque people like to enjoy their food. Or try the Basque Culinary Centre Cafeteria, where budding young chefs-in-training practice their masterpieces out on you for a fraction of the cost of the big, hatted restaurants.
The sidreria house is a tradition of the Basque people, and something that visitors can partake in as well (unlike the secretive gastronomic societies). San Sebastian Tourism offers some examples of sidra houses that offer a full traditional Basque meal – think ribs, salted fish and cheese – plus all the Basque cider you can drink. Basque sidra is markedly different to the taste of regular cider, but it is the perfect accompaniment to your unique Basque food.
San Sebastian is the perfect place to use a platform for exploring the rest of Basque country, which has many hidden treasure unknown to many travellers. When you’ve had your fill of the city, make sure you head out and see the rest of the Basque country!
Have you ever been to San Sebastian? What was your favourite thing about the city?