Kick back on La Concha beach, pig out on Michelin-starred pintxos and revel in the local fiestas like La Tamborrada. Sam Howe gives us his expert take on what to do in San Sebastian during a long weekend break…
San Sebastian, or Donostia as it’s known to locals, was a favourite of the Spanish royal family and it’s easy to see why. The country’s elite would flock to the city, attracted to its stunning coastline, cooler climate and all of the delights associated with Basque culture. It only takes a few minutes walking through the city to realise what this special city is all about: elegant architecture, gentle strolls on the beach, coffee and pastries in the plaza, chatting in Euskara with friends in a pintxo bar, and packing as much flavour as humanly possible into a single bite.
San Sebastian is one of those ‘I can imagine myself living here’ cities. It simply has something for everyone. Whether you’re a food fanatic, wannabe surf dude, language enthusiast, nature stomper, bar-hopping night owl, wine connoisseur, or culture vulture, the city is full of opportunity. With a packed events calendar and simply too much to fit into one weekend, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be back for a second visit.
Best of the Beaten Track
Nuzzled between two hills and encircling Santa Klara Island, La Concha and Ondarreta are very picturesque. Photographers, prepare your lenses for golden hour. Couples, prepare for romantic strolls, because the curved coast looks stunning in the twilight hours. La Concha is the busiest beach due to its proximity with the city centre. Ondarreta usually offers a more spacious environment when the tide is low. Zurriola is typically where all the cool kids hang out. Remodelled in 1994, right in front of hipster district Gros, this is where you’ll find surfers (paddle boarders if the waves are having a day-off), as well as students and backpackers.
The aforementioned hills give you a stunning view of the coastline. You can see all three beaches from Monte Urgull which is a short hike (about an hour at a leisurely pace) from the Old Town. There’s a 12th Century castle and a Rio de Janeiro-style Christ statue at the top. A beer pit-stop is also available in the form of a quirky little bar hidden about half way up.
To the east lies Monte Igeldo which hosts a castle tower, hotel, restaurant and one of the more oddly placed fun fairs you’re likely to find. Walking up is a little more time-consuming so taking the ‘funicular railway’ is recommended. Even if dodgems and merry-go-rounds aren’t your thing, the views alone make it worth a visit.
Santa Klara Island has an air of mystery about it (apparently they used it as a quarantine zone in the 16th Century for victims of the plague). There isn’t a huge amount to do there (a bar, some look-out spots and a small beach at low-tide) but it’s a fun challenge for anyone who fancies swimming or kayaking across the short stretch of water. Tour boats also operate from the main port every 30 minutes.
Looking at the coastline you can easily forget that you’re in Spain. The rolling green hills would be equally at home in somewhere like Wales or Ireland. For proof, get off the beaten track by spending a day hiking from Deba to Zumaya (a short train journey from Amara Donostia station), from Lezo to Pasai Donibane, Zarauz to Guetaria (wine region), or to the beautiful pueblo of Pasajes.
That’s not to say that natural beauty is the only attraction on offer. Its mixture of neo-classical, neo-gothic and modern architecture, alongside its wide, open spaces, give San Sebastian both an air of elegance and sophistication, as well as a reminder of its gritty, turbulent history. A free walking tour with Go Local will cover the key points of interest which include: Plaza de la Constitución (a former bullring and heart of the old town); San Telmo (a modern museum dedicated to Basque culture and history); San Vicente church; and 31 de Agosto street (steeped in history as one of the few streets the British decided not to burn down on the 31st August 1813).
The award for most hipster district in San Sebastian goes to Gros. Cafes such as Belgrado and Loaf supply vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free delights and are great places to unwind. Every Thursday, the streets of the surfing district are packed with people participating in what’s known as pintxo-pote (which loosely translates as ‘a bit of food and drink’). You can read more in the ‘Fork Out’ section, but San Francisco street is a great place to start your pintxo bar-crawl. Honourable mention also goes to Egia. The district, full of street art and late night live music, has a tangible counter-culture vibe.
Cerebral hipsters will appreciate the Zentroa district. Grab a book from one of several excellent multi-lingual book shops before heading over to the Plaza del Buen Pastor. Here you can read, sip coffee and nibble pastries with the locals, all in the shadow of the stunning Buen Pastor neo-gothic cathedral.
Buildings converted from boring things to cool things are also on trend here. Convent Garden (as the name suggests) is a former convent which now operates as a hostel with a restaurant, basement regularly used for live music, and a rooftop bar. Tabakalera is a former tobacco factory which is now used as an international centre for contemporary culture. Its audio-visual exhibitions are constantly evolving and are well worth a visit.
Experience & Events
Get your diary at the ready because San Sebastian has a packed events calendar.
The most significant fiesta is La Tamborrada (the drum) which takes place on the 20th of January. At midnight more than 15,000 people gather in Konstituzio Plaza to begin a 24 hour medley of dancing, singing, partying and, you guessed it, drumming. It’s a tradition that has defiance as well as celebration at its core. San Sebastian has a long history of military conflict and while the city was occupied by Napoleonic troops, locals were forced to put up with French soldiers marching around the city, banging their drums on a daily basis. Basque women supposedly grew tired of the charade and decided to mock the French by drumming their barrels in response. This evolved into an act of defiance as well as an important declaration of donostian identity. The festival has been kept alive by culinary clubs (hence the people parading around in chef outfits with giant spoons) who use the day as an excuse to showcase their signature dish or “pintxo estrella”.
Other events that have helped put San Sebastian on the map include:
- San Sebastian Jazz Festival (third week of July) – It’s one of the oldest jazz festivals in Europe and holds over 100 concerts across 17 stages. Many are free of charge and some, such as the Green Heineken stage, take place in front of a stunning open-air backdrop.
- La Semana Grande (the week of August 15th) – one week summer festival of fireworks competitions, live music and traditional sport.
- Regatas de Traineras (first two Sundays of September) – a traditional boat race in which up to 24 crafts compete.
- San Sebastian International Film Festival (mid-September) – a prestigious event in which the iconic Kursaal Palace hosts a number of screenings.
San Sebastian is a desirable place to live and attracts wealthy cliental. Generally speaking this means it’s not a cheap city to visit. There are however a wide range of hotels available so it is worth shopping around. Accommodation costs will as always vary considerably depending on time of year, but if you book early then some budget hotel rooms are available for £60-£70 per night.
The city has an active presence on AirBnB which can offer some cheaper alternatives in some great locations, but a central location during high season can easily set you back £50-60 per night. There are a number of backpacker hostels, such as Koisi, A Room in the City, Koba, Downtown River, Usturre and San Fermin, where shared dorms are available for around £20-£30 per night.
San Sebastian takes its food and drink very seriously. The city boasts a cumulative 17 Michelin stars, meaning its Michelin star per square meter rate is one of the best in the world. The culinary scene is competitive, proud and, well, just delicious, making it an undisputed gastronomical hotspot.
The city is famous for pintxos. Like tapas, pintxos are served in small portions and are for sharing and socialising. Traditionally each individual pintxo is served atop a piece of bread skewered by a cocktail stick (or a ‘pintxo’ in Basque) and takes no more than two bites to finish. There are a huge variety of pintxos to try and chefs are constantly pushing the creative boundaries, but make sure you try La Gilda. For many it’s the original pintxo, consisting of anchovy, pickled pepper and green olives.
The trick is to work out which ones are authentic and which have been designed to accommodate the tastes of tourists. The best way to do this is by asking at the bar (Que me recomiendas? becomes a very useful phrase!). The bars in Parte Vieja (Old Town) are very picturesque, especially down Portu Kalea street, but generally speaking expect to pay tourist prices. An exception is La Mejillonera which, whilst not perhaps as aesthetically pleasing, is a bustling bar packed with locals attracted to the great value and excellent seafood pintxos. The best tactic is to wander the old town, get lost, and see what you can find – especially if you happen to be out on a Thursday night.
On Thursdays a number of bars participate in what’s known as pintxo-pote. After people began to stay at home following the 2008 economic crisis, pintxo-pote was designed to re-stimulate the nightlife. Think of it as a city-wide happy hour. Prices vary by district but most bars offer a pintxo and drink (usually beer or wine) for just two euros. Plan your ‘pintxo crawl’ now with this 2018 list of participating establishments. You can also check out the awesome documentary in the ‘Watch This’ section to learn more.
Gros and the Old Town are usually the busiest hotspots for bar hoppers. Gros caters more for students and backpackers so head there if you’re saving the pennies. Hop across the river from Gros and you’ll find a bar called Altxerri Bar & Jazz. Whilst drinks can be on the more expensive side, entrance is free and the eclectic range of live jazz, blues and bossa nova on offer more than make up for it.
As is typical in Spain, people don’t move to the clubs until well after midnight. You’ll find a lot of people migrate to La Concha beach as the wee hours approach. Gu and Bataplan both keep their dance floors open late and offer great views of the bay.
Live music is also in abundance in the district of Egia. Even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, La Farandula Microteatro is worth checking out. It has three intimate performance spaces with each show lasting 15 minutes. You can then mingle with the performers in the bar afterwards. Also popular are Café-theatre El Anden, Le Bukowski, Dabadaba, Gazteszena and Cactus. Unlike other districts, Egia’s pintxo-pote runs on a Friday night.
If you’re coming from abroad, the cheapest way is to fly to neighbouring Bilbao. You can then get a coach transfer directly from the airport to San Sebastian. The coach company’s name is PESA and you can buy one-way tickets on the day for €17.10. It’s an hourly service (check the times as they don’t run through the night) and the journey takes around 75 minutes. Bilbao is also well connected to Europe by sea so if you’re booking well in advance it’s worth checking the ferry prices (especially if you’re looking to bring a car over).
If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Spain, San Sebastian and Bilbao are both well connected by train although the fares can get pricy. For budget travellers, try the lift sharing app ‘Bla Bla Car’. It’s used and trusted widely in Spain by young and old and if you’re lucky you can cover a lot of distance on very little.
There has been heated discussion around the building of metro stations in the city (look out for the banners of protest hanging from the balconies). Some feel it’s a necessary step as the city continues to grow. Some feel it’s an entirely unnecessary waste of resources. In truth, the city is already an easy and pleasant city to navigate. The wide cycle lanes make it one of the most bike-friendly cities I’ve visited and you can comfortably walk between adjacent districts in around 15-20 minutes.
The official San Sebastian tourism website is one of the best I’ve seen in Spain. It’s user friendly and contains tons of up to date information on events and recommendations. Whilst tweets are mainly in Spanish, their Twitter account (@SSTurismo) regularly posts about upcoming events. The same can be said of the Lonely Planet guide which also helps you to budget your trip.
The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky is a great introduction into Basque culture. It covers the idiosyncrasies of the language, their mastery of the sea (including its infamous whaling industry), sport, and the long and still emotionally raw struggles for independence.
If you’re feeling particularly literary, French author Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, was a famous tourist to the area and described his travels in the book The Alps and Pyrenees. You can also visit the house in the quaint town of Pasaia where he lodged.
For fiction, the most well-known Basque author is Bernardo Atxaga who was born in a small village just outside of San Sebastian. His work Obabakoak is a series of 27 interlinked stories which he uses to paint a picture of rural Basque life. If you’re a fan of psychological thrillers then All That Followed by Gabriel Urza might be a better option.
‘Munchies’, a YouTube channel produced by Vice, have made a five part series called ‘Munchies Guide to the Basque Country’. In Episode 5 the presenter goes on a pintxos crawl around San Sebastian with Michelin star chefs.
Julio Medem’s The Basque Ball is a controversial film which reflects on the activity of ETA, a group who were connected to a series of bombings in their avocation for Basque independence. You can watch it on Vimeo here. Mendem also directed a film called Vacas, a cross-generation family drama which explores historic conflict in the region.
Soundtrack to the City
La Oreja de Van Gogh – La Playa
La Oreja de Van Gogh – El Primer Dia del Resto de Mi Vida
DeVotchKa – The Man from San Sebastian
Duncan Dhu – En Algun Lugar
Alex Ubaga – Entre tu boca y la mía
Skalariak – Skalari Rude Klub
Oskorri – Ikusi Mendizaleak
Over the last couple of years we’ve become pretty familiar with North Spain… so check out our coverage of its four provinces: The Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. Sensational beaches, lively cities, world-beating cuisine: there’s so much to discover!
If you want to cover all four on one trip then check out our guide to the Northern Route of El Camino de Santiago. You don’t have to walk it like the pilgrims, but if you’re looking for enlightenment it might be a good place to start…