San Sebastian Travel Guide
San Sebastian – the pearl of the North of Spain
San Sebastian is one of Spain’s most attractive, charming and popular cities, and this sophisticated coastal gem, situated in the north of Spain, certainly has a lot to offer its visitors.
Lying on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, being surrounded by hills, and offering a lively beach front means San Sebastian is a city that boasts a range of natural beauty, but the fabulous architecture, plazas and parks dotted throughout the city adds to its well-deserved label as the “pearl” of the North of Spain.
Not only is picturesque San Sebastian visually stunning, it offers a wide variety of activities to its visitors to keep everyone entertained during the day and night.
The city has long been a perfect romantic retreat for couples wishing to spend time alone in such a beautiful city. There are some memorable romantic hotels in San Sebastian, try a weekend break at the stunning Hotel Marie Cristina, or a romantic getaway at the beautiful Hotel Villa Soro.
5 curious facts about San Sebastian
» San Sebastian was given to the King of Navarre in 1265 as part of a wedding dowry. This provided the kingdom with a perfect seaport to trade and export goods. The main products where whaling related items and cod caught by local fisherman.
» San Sebastian was almost totally destroyed in 1808 when Napoleons troops laid siege to the city. Only one street survived, the 31st August Street as it is know today. When they rebuilt San Sebastian stone was used instead of timber as it was before.
» The modern tourism love affair with San Sebastian began in the early part of the 19th Century when it was frequently visited by Royalty escaping the heat of central Spain. Neo classical constructions where erected throughout the city and the shipyards where moved away from the seafront are to make it more a place of leisure than commerce. This love affair continues today with visitors from all over the world regularly enjoying the unique atmosphere of San Sebastian.
» The gastronomy available in San Sebastian is unequalled and one of the best reasons to visit the city. Amazing friendly tapas and pintxo bars are to be found everywhere as well as a choice of Michelin starred restaurants
» San Sebastian has a near perfect urban design and is often compared to being like Rio de Janeiro.
The best Beaches around San Sebastian
La Concha and Ondaretta Beaches
Unsurprisingly, one of the city’s main attractions is its beach front, which offers sandy beaches and gentle turquoise waters ideal for either a lazy day of sunbathing or a fun-filled day of beach games, paddling or building sand castles.
La Concha – the city’s most popular beach – and Ondaretta lie in the crescent of San Sebastian, and both will satisfy any beach-goer’s desires.
Zurriola is renowned for its popularity with young people looking for some sun, sea sand and waves, and this lively beach offers fabulous surfing opportunities, including courses and workshops for the yet-uninitiated.
The city is surrounded by accessible mountains, and a trip up either Monte Urgull to explore its ruins, or Monte Igueldo, perhaps to experience the amusement park sitting on its peak, will provide glorious views of San Sebastian.
While Monte Urgull is easily explored by foot, a recommended route to the top of Igueldo involves taking advantage of its funicular railway – an unforgettable experience in itself!
A lot of San Sebastian’s charm lies in the beautiful examples of architecture dotted around the city, and a leisurely visit to these monuments will allow you to truly experience the heart of San Sebastian.
Buen Pastor Cathedral is one of the city’s most popular attractions, and with one glimpse of the building, it’s easy to see why.
Heading into the Old Town you’ll find the Basilica of Santa Maria and the San Vicente Church, as well as the Plaza de la Constitucion, an old bullring converted into the perfect place to relax and absorb the city’s atmosphere.
Bars and Restaurants
The plethora of food and drink options San Sebastian offers is one of the main reasons the city has achieved and maintained its popularity as a tourist destination.
The city offers fine dining experiences for the most sophisticated palates, and you would be seriously remiss not to visit one of San Sebastian’s pintxos restaurants and experience the city’s quirky spin on traditional Spanish tapas.
You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to bars if you head to San Sebastian’s Old Town. Day or night, this part of the city boasts a lively bar scene, yet retains the city’s air of elegance and sophistication.
As an alternative, head to the Calle Reyes Catolicos area of the city for an evening of true style and class. See our San Sebastian restaurant guide for full details.
Culture in San Sebastian, Spain, which the Basque speakers call Donostia, is a coastal beauty best experienced in summer with its music, film festivals and pintxos (bar snacks).
There is always some form of culture that visitors can immerse themselves in, no matter the time of their visit.
Top San Sebastian attractions
1. dFeria, March
dFeria is a popular San Sebastian festival of theatre and dance, held in order to present performing arts creations with particular attention given to Basque theatre groups. This festival, which runs for 5 days, brings the global theatre world down to Donostia with a festive ambience. dFeria is not to be missed by dance and theatre enthusiasts.
2. The San Sebastian Heineken Jazz Festival, July
The Heineken Jazz Festival is held every year, usually in the third week of July, a tradition that has been going on since 1966. The festival usually hosts a hundred concerts across 12 indoor and open air venues. The shows at Kursaal Auditorium and Zurriola Beach are particularly popular.
3. San Sebastian International Film Festival, September
The San Sebastian International Film Festival is an annual Donostia festival that is considered just as important as the Cannes festival. It is held in late September, showcases about 200-250 international films and awards the Golden Shell.
4. San Telmo Museo
The San Telmo Musuem is is the oldest in the Basque country. It was created in 1902 and is dedicated to the interpretation and showcase of Basque prehistoric to modern society. The museum is situated below Mount Urgull and houses over 26,000 art pieces across 11,000 square meters of display space.
The Tabakalera museum houses avant-garde and contemporary displays across the media of sound, science, films and television, design, contemporary art, technical observatory, gastronomical showcases, etc. This is a must-visit for the enthusiasts of innovative art.
6. Arteko Gallery
Established in 1996, the Arteko Gallery aims to promote the contemporary artwork of young foreign and national artists, with spaces showcasing drawing, sculpture, photography, painting, artist books, and more. Artists that have exhibited here include Andres Nagel, Nori Ushijima, Dora Salazar, and others.
7. Victoria Eugenia Theatre
This iconic building first opened in 1912 as an important cultural stage in San Sebastian. Recently renovated, the Victoria Eugenia Theatre today is one of the most beautiful buildings in town and is a host to musicals, plays and other cultural events throughout the year.
8. The Kursaal
The Kursaal exhibition centre is an icon of San Sebastian with a large auditorium, chamber music hall and exhibition rooms. It hosts the Film Festival and other concerts ranging from classical to contemporary pop and rock. The unusual design of the building with its translucent crystal structure also makes it an admirable attraction in itself.
9. Basilica of Santa Maria
The Basilica of Santa Maria is emblematic of the city and is an important element of Donostia history. Its construction was completed in 1764, and today it is considered important by both atheists and believers.
10. Urgull Mount
Urgull Mount towers over the center of Donostia, offers magnificent views over the city and houses a public park with remnants of 18th century cannons and fortifications. It played an important role in the conflict between the French and the local population.
Where to stay?
Being a Historical Heritage Building set in peaceful gardens and surrounded by trees and natural beauty, Hotel Villa Soro provides a real sense of seclusion and escape, which is why it is one of San Sebastian’s most popular luxury romantic retreats.
The hotel’s exterior is stunning, and its interior boasts a historic charm with its hardwood floors, antiquated décor and oak wood panelled bar.
Just down the road you can delight in dining in some of the best restaurants in Spain including the stunning Michelin starred Restaurant Arzak.
The magnificence and grandeur of this luxurious hotel is nothing short of breath-taking.
The Hotel Maria Cristina simply oozes class and elegance in every aspect; from its high ceilings and columns to its fancy brocades and sparkling chandeliers.
The hotel, overlooking the Cantabrian Sea and the River Urumea, offers great views, and an exceptionally comfortable stay in one of the hotel’s exquisite suites will ensure your break in San Sebastian is one of true luxury and romance.
Hotel Astoria 7 is another superb luxury hotel located in central San Sebastian ideally positioned for guests wishing to discover the area’s attractions.
Set in a modern building the hotel is located in the heart of San Sebastian’s entertainment district with restaurants, cafés and nightlife on the doorstep.
It is also within walking distance of Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Anoeta football Stadium and the Maria Cristina Bridge.
The single word that describes this hotel is spectacular, the Hotel Mercure Monte Igueldo is one of the many romantic hotels San Sebastian boasts of.
The rooms are spacious, clean and contain the most comfortable beds. Chill out in one of the sun terraces and enjoy the spectacular views over the bay.
The hotel’s restaurant, El Torreon Restaurant, serves local seafood and meat dishes and you are never far away from a large selection of dining options from the smallest tapas bar to a number of Michelin starred restaurants, for foodies San Sebastian really if the mecca of fine dining.
⇒ more hotels in San Sebastian