Located in the heart of the Basque Country in Spain, Donostia-San Sebastián is a cool, quirky and open minded city where Atlantic waves meet golden beaches, sea salt fills the air and delectable food smells pour out of award winning pintxo bars and into the streets. The city’s name reflects its unique culture, with “Donostia” being the city’s name in Basque, the notoriously tricky local language which, thanks to legal protection and language policy, has seen a recent revival in schools and education.
The Basque Country is a region located in the northern part of Spain and southwestern part of France that has its own strong identity, traditions and culture, some of the best amongst which are its rich culinary traditions. Some absolute must-trys whilst you are visiting include Basque cheesecake, bacalao al pil pil (salted cod with chilli, garlic and parsley sauce) and the region’s famous pintxos. As well as an incredible foodie scene, San Sebastián is a haven for surfers and is home to some of the best urban beaches in Europe, which contributes to the city’s youthful atmosphere. Whilst San Sebastián might be one of Spain’s smallest cities, it certainly does not lack in things to see, do and eat! So, pack your wetsuit and let’s get started!
Know Before You Go
San Sebastián is a very well connected city, making it perfect for a short break. If you’re flying here, the city has its own airport but it does not receive many international flights so the best options are to fly to either Bilbao or Biarritz and then take the corresponding shuttle bus to San Sebastián’s central bus station.
In terms of getting around the city itself, San Sebastián is extremely easy to navigate on foot but there is also a regular bus service which connects different parts of the city.
If you’re driving, parking should not be a problem as the city has over 6,000 parking spots and many underground car parks which allow you to buy a ticket for several days.
Due to its northern location in Spain, San Sebastián experiences mild, rainy winters and quite cool summers, which see an average temperature of aroun 20 degrees celsius. Its position on the coast of the Atlantic ocean means that it can get pretty windy, with the city experiencing “galernas”, stormy gales which can occur very suddenly and affect coastal areas facing the Cantabrian Sea. It’s wise to be prepared for a mixture of rain, sun and wind, even during the summer months.
Spain uses the Euro. Whilst most places will accept card payment, it’s a good idea to carry some cash, just in case.
Day 1: Old Town & La Concha Beach
To get a real sense of the city’s history, we recommend that on your first day you pay a visit to the spectacular Old Town before heading to the iconic La Concha Beach to take in the magnificent views into the Concha Bay and out to the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s layout is pretty easy to get a hold of, so by staying relatively central you should have a good sense of direction by the end of the day.
A must-visit on your trip, San Sebastián’s iconic Old Town is a step back in time. Known for its narrow, winding streets and colourful façades, wander through the historic Basque and Gothic buildings to discover independent boutiques, cafés and bars. Check out the Church of San Vicente, the oldest in the city, and grab a drink in the grand Plaza de la Constitución.
Whilst you’re in the Old Town, you absolutely have to try Pintxos, an iconic element of Basque cuisine, which are small finger foods that typically consist of a small slice of bread with delicious toppings and a toothpick piercing them through the middle (pinchar in Spanish means to prick or poke), but the evolution of Basque cuisine means that today you will find . Why not go “tapeando” and jump from bar to bar trying a couple of plates and a drink from each one? Walking through the streets you will find a tantalising offer of pintxo bars whose counters are lined with irresistible offerings, ranging from traditional to modern and more eclectic takes on the traditional cuisine. Some of our favourites are La Cuchara de San Telmo (the pork is out of this world!), Jose Mari Taberna and Casa Alcalde. Why not book a spot on this Ultimate Pintxos and Wine Tour, where you can learn about local history as you tuck into the mouth-watering local cuisine?
Mercado La Bretxa
Get a flavour of the city’s famous culinary scene and visit the impressive market of La Bretxa, which is located in the Old Town in an impressive market hall dating back to the 19th century. La Bretxa is a bustling market split into sections offering locally sourced fresh produce, including fish, cheese and meats, as well as delicious pastries and bakery products. The market plays an essential role in the everyday life of the city and many of the stalls have been run by generations of local families, meaning that La Bretxa is closely intertwined with the city’s heritage.
The symbol of San Sebastián’s beauty and charm, La Concha is the most iconic beach in the city. Its instantly recognisable curved shape hugs the Concha Bay and looks out onto Santa Clara Island, and its stretch of fine golden sand is ideal for sunbathing and relaxing. If you’re looking to swim, La Concha is your place! Conversely to Ondarreta and Zurriola beaches, the calm waters and gentle slope into the sea make it the perfect place to have a dip or go paddle boarding. Take an evening stroll along the wide, greenery lined promenade which runs behind the beach and enjoy the lively yet relaxed ambiance that fills the city centre once the sun sets.
Santa Clara Island
Santa Clara Island offers nature lovers and beachgoers a peaceful retreat from the busy city centre. Located right in the middle of the Concha Bay and providing stunning views of the surrounding area and into the city, the island is covered in lush vegetation, including native plants and trees and also has a couple of small beaches which are monitored by a lifeguard during the summer months. If you’re feeling adventurous you can swim the 500 metre distance to the island, but if not the island is also accessible by kayak, or on this Boat Tour to Santa Clara which includes an audio guide. Once there, you can take the winding path up to the lighthouse, which also happens to be a great spot for birdwatching, or head straight to the restaurant to enjoy a drink and some of that incredible Basque cuisine.
Situated just in front of La Concha beach and separating it from Ondarreta Beach, the Miramar Jauregia is a charming palace built in an English cottage style, which, being the former summer residence of the Spanish monarchy, represents San Sebastián’s legacy as a popular seaside resort. Although the palace no longer boats regal residents, today it is used for various other purposes; in summer it hosts the summer courses of the University of the Basque Country and also rents out its rooms for meetings and congresses. Whilst it’s not possible to enter the building, the impeccably pruned gardens are well worth a visit, not to mention the incredible view of La Concha Bay!
Marking the limit between the city and the sea, a trip to the top of Monte Igueldo amusement park provides one of the best views over the city. If you don’t fancy walking all the way up, you can take the eccentric hundred year old igueldo funicular railway from the lower slopes of the mountain and enjoy a scenic journey to the vintage fairground at the summit.
Monte Igueldo is also a popular destination amongst hikers, given the numerous wooded trails up to the peak and around the park and its proximity to the city centre. If you’re wanting something a little more strenuous, though, there are plenty of trails leading from the park along the coast to the west offering breathtaking views of the coastline.
Peine del Viento
Translated as the “Windcomb”, the Peine del Viento consists of three steel sculptures, weighing in at a hefty nine tonnes, which are positioned right in front of the slopes of Monte Igueldo, where the tempestuous waves crash against the rocks. As the wind whistles through the sculptures and the sea relentlessly whips the land, this impressive blend of art and nature stands strong and marks the place where the city ends and the sea begins. Given that the Peine del Viento stands in such a harsh environment, be prepared to get splashed if you’re not paying attention! If the weather is particularly stormy, the police will cordon off the area so it’s a good idea to visit when it’s not too windy.
Where to Stay
Budget: Beach Break Guesthouse
Modern rooms in a guesthouse located 300 metres from La Concha beach.
Mid-Range: Sercotel Hotel Europa
Rooms with classic decor and antique-style furnishings in a centrally located 20th century building.
Luxury: Lasala Plaza Hotel
Spacious and bright rooms in a modern hotel located right on the port of San Sebastián.
Day 2: San Telmo & Gros neighbourhood
Start off your day with a visit to the popular San Telmo Museum before crossing the Urumea River to reach the eastern side of the city, where the Gros neighbourhood backs onto the vibrant Zurriola beach. Enjoy some dinner and a drink in this quirky area then get your walking on.
Museo de San Telmo
Housed in one of the few buildings that survived the city fire of 1813, the San Telmo Museum is the oldest museum in the Basque Country. The 16th century former monastery turned cultural centre is a hub dedicated to Basque history, culture and society, making it the perfect place to learn about the area’s unique heritage. For 6 euros entry, or 3 euro discounted entry, you will be able to visit the museum’s permanent collection of artwork, artefacts, photographs, documents and interactive exhibits, all relating to Basque identity, rural and urban life and industry. Additionally, the museum holds temporary exhibitions relating to the same topic as well as an art collection which holds pieces dating from the 15th to the 19th century.
Visiting the Museo de San Telmo is a great way to spend a few hours, and you’re sure to learn something new about the Basque region!
A total surfer’s paradise and location of various surfing championships, Zurriola beach is undoubtedly the coolest in the city. Located on the eastern side of the Urmea river, it is extremely easily accessible from the centre and has a young and energetic vibe, in part due to its proximity to the lively Gros neighbourhood. Along this 800 metres wide golden beach volleyball, football and beach tennis games take place in front local surf schools where you can book lessons and enjoy one of the best surfing spots in Europe!
Trails leading to Monte Ulía lie to the right hand side of the beach, so if you’re feeling super sporty and are hungry for more stunning views, definitely check these trails out. The buzzy atmosphere continues into the night, when you’ll find tourists and locals alike having beach drinks and picnics and admiring the reflection of the sun on the glistening water as it sets beside the imposing Monte Urgull.
Adjacent to the city centre and fronted by Zurriola beach, the vibrant Gros neighbourhood is renowned for its surfing, which gives the area a chilled and youthful vibe. If you’re headed to the beach, why not take a walk along the charming promenade before heading deeper into the art gallery and café-lined streets and grabbing a drink or snack at one of the area’s wide variety of bars and restaurants?
Buen Pastor Cathedral
Found in the city centre, slightly further back from La Concha stands the Buen Pastor Cathedral, a prominent Catholic cathedral and the biggest religious building in San Sebastián. Like many of the buildings in the city, the cathedral is built with sandstone from the quarries of Monte Igueldo and boasts impressive stained glass windows, gargoyles and a 75 metre high spire which is visible from many points in the city. This important landmark is situated right next to the main shopping streets, so if you’re in the area it’s worth dropping by and having a look!
Parque de Urgull & Monte Urgull
If you have seen pictures of San Sebastián, you’re sure to have seen Monte Urgull standing imposingly at the western edge of La Concha Bay. This prominent natural landmark is a must-see whilst visiting the city and a climb to the top will reward you with panoramic views over the old town and the beaches. At the top of the hill you will find San Telmo Castle, a historic fortress which played an important role in the city’s defence over the centuries, as well as a spectacular statue of Jesus Christ, similar to the Christ The Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, which proudly observes the city. Top tip: climb to the top in the late afternoon to catch the sunset over the sprawling waves of the Atlantic ocean. We promise you, it’s absolutely worth the climb.
Where to Stay
Budget: Koba Hostel
Shared rooms with air conditioning, a private bathroom and a free continental breakfast.
Mid-Range: Abba San Sebastián Hotel
Air conditioned rooms in a hotel with a fitness centre, garden and terrace.
Luxury: Hotel Arrizul Congress
Modern rooms with a free minibar located 300 metres away from Zurriola beach.
Day 3: Day Trip from the City
San Sebastián is in the perfect location for day trips to nearby Basque towns and cities with equally stunning architecture and coastlines. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about the Basque Country and its rich heritage, a day trip to one of the following places will allow you to uncover even more of this fascinating multi-faceted region.
Situated to the northeast of San Sebastián, on the French border lies the gorgeous Basque fishing village of Hondarribia. You can feel the coastal town’s prominent fishing heritage as you look out at the stunning view of the boats in Hondarribiko Bay and inhale the salty air. When you arrive, make your way to the Marina area for a bite to eat, as you will find the gorgeous buildings which line the port filled with pintxo bars, before heading to the large sandy beach to soak up some sun and majestic mountain views. Getting here from San Sebastián consists of either a half an hour drive or just under an hour on the bus from the Old Town. As the town is so easily accessible from San Sebastián, a shorter visit to Hondarribia is also perfect if you don’t have the whole day to wander leisurely and chill on the beach. This Hondarribia, San Pedro and San Juan Tour is the perfect way to discover some charming villages surrounding San Sebastián, which also includes a local guide.
Located just across the border in France, Biarritz is a chic summer holiday destination, and definitely won’t disappoint if you’re searching for sun, sand and delicious cuisine! In terms of getting here, it is possible to drive in 50 minutes or get the bus from San Sebastián bus station which takes about an hour. Once you’ve arrived, we recommend heading straight to the beaches - depending on what vibe you’re looking for, Biarritz has a great selection of beaches along its golden coastline. La Grande Plage is the perfect spot for sunbathing, while the Plage de la Côte des Basques is ideal for surfing, if you fancy riding some waves. A stroll through the cute little streets will provide a look at the town’s beautiful French and Basque architecture, which house a plethora of boutique shops and art galleries. Stop off at a cosy café or restaurant for a relaxed lunch and sit back and bask in the glamour of this alluring coastal town.
San Sebastiáns famous Basque neighbour makes for a great day trip if you want to experience a big port city. At almost twice the size of San Sebastián, Bilbao will definitely keep you on your feet the whole day with its many attractions. Of course, we think you should visit the famous Guggenheim Museum and its collection of world class modern art whilst you’re here, but even if you’re not an art fanatic you can admire this central fixture of Bilbao and the building’s phenomenal architecture. Take a stroll through the enchanting Casco Viejo, the city’s medieval old quarter which is hugged by the Nervión River, and grab some of those delicious pintxos from the waterside bars before heading to the impressive Plaza Nueva for a drink and to take in the social atmosphere.
Vitoria Gasteiz is the underrated capital city of the Basque Country. Being easily accessible by bus in 1 hour and 20 minutes from San Sebastián’s bus station, a visit to this charming town is a perfect day trip for those who want to uncover more about the unique heritage of the Basque Country. At the heart of the well preserved historic centre is the impressive Santa Maria Cathedral, which is surrounded by a maze of inviting streets and squares. For art fanatics, a trip to the Museo de Bellas Artes will provide an insight into Spanish art from various periods, as well as into pieces created by Basque artists. The great thing about Vitoria Gasteiz is that it's just a lovely city to meander through. Its reputation as a “green capital” is owed to its commitment to maintaining its many parks and gardens, including the Parque de la Florida and the Parque de Salburua, and once you experience the city you’ll undoubtedly understand why Vitoria Gasteiz is consistently voted as one of the best places to live in Spain.
Aiako Harria Natural Park
Just 15 miles away from the city lies Aiako Harria Natural Park, a gorgeous green landscape characterised by rocky mountains, dense forests and deep valleys. There are plenty of trails through the rugged landscape which are perfect for hiking, biking and bird watching, so if San Sebastián’s coastal landscapes haven’t completely satisfied you, definitely pay a visit to Aiako Harria. Driving here takes about 40 minutes but it is also possible to catch the E02 bus line from San Sebastián or catch the train from the city’s train station and get off at the Oiartzun stop, making it easy to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the Basque Country’s lush natural beauty.
Where to Stay
Budget: Sercotel Jauregui
Air conditioned rooms in Hondarribia town centre with a nautical themed restaurant.
Mid-Range: Pension Ama Bilbao
Modern accommodation in a guesthouse in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo.
Rooms with ocean views a 5 minute walk from the centre of Biarritz.