San Sebastian, or Donsotia in the Basque language, has become one of the most elegized cities in Europe in recent times. Evoking old-time glamour with its promenades along soft, sandy beaches, a harbor peppered with sailboats, and elegant architecture, San Sebastian has a long history of delighting visitors from around the world. Extolled by writers such as Victor Hugo and Ernest Hemingway, there are manifold reasons to spend some time here, not least of which is the extraordinary and unique gastronomy. As one of the rising stars of haute-cuisine, San Sebastian and the surrounding area boasts the greatest concentration of Michelin recommended and starred restaurants in the world. Throughout the year people come here for the jazz festival, the Tamborrada drumming and food festival, the celebrity-studded film festival, or simply to surf and enjoy the lively nightlife. With so much to offer, it is truly one of the world’s greatest small cities.
San Sebastian Donostia sits, splendidly, on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Urumea River. Just an hour south of the French border, it is well-placed between Biarritz, and Bilbao further to the west along the coast. Pamplona is just over an hour away inland by bus or car over some lush and steep green hills. The Pyrenees rise upwards in the north, and the Rioja wine region is not too far, inland and to the south. San Sebastian is the bigger and more famous of a string of gorgeous fishing villages along the Basque coast, sitting on wide sandy beaches and windswept cliffsides.
San Sebastian is breathtaking. It has not one but three sandy beaches, one of which is the famous La Concha beach. This beach is a gentle sickle shape looking out on emerald water and a pretty island. The Old Town or Parte Vieja is an elegant twist of small streets filled with pintxo bars and restaurants. This area lies between La Concha and the river, and on the other side of the river another beach more famous for its robust surfing culture. There is a steep hill jutting out on that side with a rather unappealing Jesus Christ statue perched on top, but the overall effect is one of sparkling seaside beauty. Sometimes bright, hot and sunny and sometimes brooding with high waves and a sharp wind, San Sebastian has an invigorating ocean climate.
While the area around San Sebastian has been inhabited by seafaring people for probably millennia, the modern town is not quite as old. It was first the site of a monastery, then grew into a fishing village, and was finally founded as a proper city in 1180 by the king of Navarra, Sancho ‘the Great’. It became an important seaport by the 13th century and is renowned for producing hardened fishermen who sailed the rough and icy Atlantic Ocean in small boats in search of cod and whales.
Because of its strategic location, San Sebastian was highly sought after as a military and naval stronghold throughout the centuries and saw many battles and sieges. During the Peninsular War with Napoleonic France, it was held by French troops. Even though the French were finally defeated by Wellington’s British, Portuguese and Spanish alliance, the city was burned to the ground in the process.
It’s revival came in the 19th century as it became a favored summer retreat for Spanish royalty, making it quite the fashionable destination and beginning its draw for tourism and leisure. Perhaps trying to rival Biarritz to the north in France, the Paris-style neo-classical buildings and wide promenades sang out its resort status. The glittering European class came to enjoy its therapeutic beach waves and created a spa and bath oasis right on La Concha. A series of glamorous hotels were built, and a massive casino, and San Sebastian became the luxurious, painted lady of towns it is today.
While San Sebastian is more of a town to be experienced in rather than seen, there are a few unmissable museums and points of interest. The Museo San Telmo is houses in a 16th century convent and is one of the best in San Sebastian. It contains the archeological, historical and artistic objects dedicated to Basque society and culture, showcasing thousands of displays.
The aquarium right in the center of the city attracts massive crowds each year. It has massive tanks full of local sea creatures from the Bay of Biscay, as well as a tropical fish display. It is a very informative exhibition of the local marine ecology and maritime heritage all inside a delightfully historic two-story building right on the ocean.
There is also a naval museum and a science museum that has a surprisingly thorough collection. Just outside of town, about 6 km, is the much-raved about Sagardoetxea cider museum, where visitors visit the orchards, and can make their own pressed juice as they learn all about this quintessential Basque product. There is of course a tasting after as well, something you will always enjoy by the hand of Northern Spain Travel.
For more of a taste of Basque culture, the trainera is a type of traditional rowing boat originally used for fishing in rough seas, but now it has become a popular racing sport with annual competitions called estropadak in Basque (trainera regatta) where 13 oarsmen and women fight it out through waves and choppy seas to be number one. This competitive tradition can be traced back to the fact that the first fishermen arriving from a day at sea would usually get the best prices at the market for their catch.
It is also exciting to go and see a pelaton game, an incredibly fast and athletic ball game where the players throw a rubber ball at the wall with enormous force.
The thing TO DO in San Sebastian is eat. That is this town’s raison d’être. San Sebastian is one the finest cities in Europe, boasting a spectacular cuisine. The lively nightlife and hundreds of pintxo (Basque tapas) bars give an endless selection to the most voracious of foodies. In the winding, narrow pedestrian streets of the old town, there are rows upon rows of pintxo bars serving up piles of extraordinary culinary delights of all shapes and sizes. Choose from what you see in front of you, or learn to order from the kitchen, which is how the locals do it. Either way, the quality is always superb. With selections of fresh fish, grilled foie or steak, and many savory vegetable dishes, it is impossible to go wrong. Pair all this with a selection of top local wines, and you will feel like you have eaten a meal fit for royalty, all while standing at a bar. Don’t forget to try txakoli, the local sweet sparkling white wine, poured with flair from high above the glass, and served still fizzing and bubbling.
But besides eating and drinking there is still so much more to San Sebastian. The area lends itself to outdoor activity. Zurriola Beach in San Sebastian attracts surfers from all over the world who can take surf lessons and then enjoy the fun nightlife there. And further, there are opportunities to kite surf and wind surf all over that area with schools providing private or group lessons. For the truly adventurous, there are numerous diving shops which take people out to scuba dive and visit rock caves or to look for blue sharks. Sailing is another popular and accessible activity with a fishing and mariner culture that is still thriving. Sailing along the coast into the harbor of San Sebastian at sunset while sipping on sparkling wine and eating fresh sardines on bread is unbeatable.
But best of all is luxuriating on the beach in the sun all day and going for relaxing swims in the blue sea. La Concha beach in the heart of San Sebastian’s Old Town is the perfect spot for this, with a pontoon to swim out to that has water slides. In the summer there is a great beachy atmosphere and in the winter it makes for a gorgeous seaside walk. The aforementioned spa and bath house La Perla sits right on La Concha, so patrons can even run out to the sea and back into the baths at their leisure. Relaxation is a product of San Sebastian.
San Sebastian boasts several huge festivals a year. It hosts a star-studded film festival, a summertime jazz festival on the beach, and in January a drumming festival called La Tamborrada where hundreds of people drum together in the large square, creating an effect that is hard to imagine unless you have witnessed it yourself. In August it has its own fiesta honoring its patron saint, with concerts, activities for children, bullfights, fireworks and the usual endless parties all night.
Where to Eat in San Sebastian
As one of the rising stars of haute-cuisine, San Sebastian and the surrounding area boasts the greatest concentration of Michelin recommended and starred restaurants in the world. For a Michelin restaurant right in the center of the Parte Vieja Kokotxo, located near the seaport, is the perfect spot. Featuring interesting dishes of pigeon, stingray and shellfish, it’s main menu consists of fourteen courses.
The world-famous Akelarre Restaurant is in San Sebastian. The restaurant needs little introduction to serious foodies, but safe to say, it is simply phenomenal. Additionally it sits on the Bay of Biscay and provides gorgeous seaside views for an unforgettable experience.
Bar Txepetxa on Calle Pescaderia, produces an array of stunning anchovy pintxos. In fact, this place is so well-known that it has a wall of photos of all the famous people who have visited, including Glen Close, Ian McKellen and Ethan Hawke. But the real stars are, of course, the anchovies. Arranged in every manner possible, each more mouth-watering than the next, their creations are at once magically simple and yet surprisingly diverse. Pintxo tours in San Sebastian are always on the menu with Northern Spain Travel.
San Sebastian is one of the finest cities in Europe: elegant, sophisticated and boasting a spectacular cuisine. Appetizing any time of the year, this city is a haven for food lovers. Its Playa de la Concha is a seaside treat that evokes nostalgia for the town’s aristocratic glory days.
The Hotel de Londres is a pretty boutique hotel in San Sebastián with a La Belle Epoque feel. It has views to the Concha Bay and the city center. Luxury, modern facilities and a high level service make this historic building one of the best hotels in San Sebastián.
Designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, this 5-star hotel is truly an adventure of a lifetime. Prepare to savor a one-of-a-kind experience including a Vinothérapie spa session and Michelin-starred meal overseen by Chef Francis Paniego. The hotel has exceptional designer touches and enviable views of the countryside, medieval town of Elciego or the striking architecture.
With views to the Bay of Biscay coast, this hotel is a 10th century castle fortress. Also known as the Castle of Charles V, you will feel as if you are in an authentic medieval fortress. The imposing entrance and its thick damages stone walls by cannon fire set the tone. The inner patio crowned by adorned arches, wrought iron and coffered ceilings make this hotel unique.