The coastal city of San Sebastián (Donostia) in the Basque region of northern Spain has plenty to offer the visitor. From its quaint Spanish old town to its lively bars and gastronomy scene, elegant Spanish streets and beautiful countryside surroundings, not to mention some of Europe’s best beaches. The city is also a great size, not overwhelmingly big but with plenty to keep you busy, and if that’s not what you feel like doing then you can lounge on the beach enjoying the warm Spanish sun. If you are looking to get to know this beautiful place, however, here are some recommendation of places to visit.
1. Old Town
The Old Town of San Sebastián is the city’s second oldest neighbourhood and the real social centre. With narrow weaving streets, there are bustling bars at every turn and several impressive buildings dotted around, such as the Basilica of St Mary of the Chorus and St Vincent’s Church. The Plaza de la Constitutión lies at the centre of the Old Town, housing San Sebastián’s old City Hall which was used until the 1940s. The balconies of the colourful buildings that line the square still display numbers from back when it was used as a bullring, although nowadays it is more of a social space, hosting several major local festivities. The Old Town was surrounded by a city wall until 1863, when it was demolished to make way for the new town.
2. San Telmo Museum
Also in the Old Town is the Museo San Telmo. Housed in an ancient 16th century Dominican convent once used as military barracks, San Telmo Museum was inaugurated in 1902 making it the oldest museum in the Basque Country. As the the Museum of Basque Society and Citizenship it showcases the cultural and historic past of Basque society, as well as offering various high-quality temporary exhibitions and a cloister and ancient church which are well worth the visit.
Old Town has a plentiful supply of restaurants to choose from, offering both light snacks and multi-course meals, and of course the local must-try, pintxos. These are a traditional dish enjoyed throughout the Basque region, especially Bilbao, and are a bite-size snack made up of a piece of bread topped with various delicacies and a spike stuck through to keep everything together. Additionally, Just over the River Urumea towards Zurriola, the surfing beach, there are also more restaurants and bars to choose from, although the Old Town is a foodie hotspot.
4. La Concha beach
La Concha beach is a highlight of San Sebastián and has been named the best beach in both Spain and Europe. Thousands of people visit to enjoy both the beautiful beach and the view from the famous railings of its seaside promenade. Stroll down to the incredibly clear and inviting waters to take a paddle, or wander along the promenade with the gorgeous Alderdi Eder Gardens and impressive City Hall. The latter, previously a casino, was constructed in the 1880s and home of one of the many fights between nationalists and republicans in the Spanish Civil War. You can even still see bullet holes in the majestic facade, standing looking out towards the sea. Further inland from here you’ll find elegant wide streets full of cafés and great sopping opportunities.
5. Antigua neighbourhood
At low tide you can walk from La Concha beach to another special beach, Ondarreta, and on to Antigua. Antigua means ancient or old in Spanish, and is of course San Sebastián’s oldest neighbourhood. An area of unique character and lively streets packed with small shops and bars with terraces, this is a must visit. The neighbourhood is also home to Miramar Palace, a former royal residence, where you can stroll through Queen Maria’s gardens or sit and relax on the lawn overlooking the sea. If you are coming back at high tide, there is an impressive tunnel, the MiramArt underwater tunnel, which is a fun experience in itself.
6. Monte Igueldo
Monte Igueldo offers some of the best views in the city, and can be reached by bus, a century-old 1912 funicular railway or by bike if you’re willing to tackle the steep uphill climb. Located at one end of La Concha Bay, it marks the limit between the city and the sea. At the summit there is a vintage fairground, and from her you can see the whole of the city, as well as part of the Gipuzkoan coastline and the immense Cantabrian Sea.
7. Monte Urgull
Another impressive view and a beautiful walk in itself is Monte Urgull. Located at the other end of La Concha Bay to Monte Igueldo, Monte Urgull watches over the city’s Old Town. Follow the clearly marked walkways through an oasis of nature, although be warned it is fairly steep so be sure to take plenty of water with you if it’s a hot day. The paths are lined with exotic vegetation and lead to several lookout spots along the way with picture-perfect panoramic views of San Sebastián. The final viewpoint is truly spectacular, making it more than worth the sweat to get there.
Both Antigua and Old Town are a lovely place for dinner and drinks or to spend the evening. If you want to embrace the Spanish way, take a light dinner of various pintxos. They go perfectly with a beer or txikito, a small glass of local Txakolí wine, and a warm Spanish evening, with the added bonus that you’re not too stuffed to take an evening stroll.
9. Evening stroll
The evening atmosphere of San Sebastián is beautiful, and the promenade along La Concha is the perfect place to soak it up. The darkness of the sea at dusk contrasts the glowing lights of the city, and walking in either direction along the coast is the perfect end to the day.