San Sebastian – the undeniable pearl of the North of Spain
San Sebastian is located on the northern coastline of the Basque Country and is one of Spain's most attractive, charming and popular Atlantic resorts, the city is a sophisticated coastal gem with lots to offer visitors.
Lying on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, surrounded by green hills, a lively beach and a range of cultural and historic attractions. Fabulous charming architecture and many plazas and parks dotted throughout the city adds to its well-deserved label as the “pearl” of the North of Spain.
Dinning out is high on the agenda in San Sebastian boasts the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in one city as well as amazing tapas bars that will both entertain and quench your appetite for those tasty little food plates.
We have compiled a comprehensive Spain travel resources page to help you plan and book a trip or holiday to San Sebastian including a money saving hotel search comparison platform, travel insurance, flights, discount car hire, tours, excursions as well money saving travel and holiday deals.
5 Interesting 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.
- 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.
- The gastronomy of San Sebastian is unequaled and one of the best reasons to visit the city.
- San Sebastian has a near perfect urban design and is often compared to being like Rio de Janeiro.
Exploring the city of San Sebastian
If you plan to visit San Sebastian then it will help to get acquainted with each of the main sub district. Each area offers a unique charm and distinct personality offering visitors different aspects off the city.
The city centre is situated around the middle of the Playa La Concha, the Old Quarter and the start of the Amara district.
Here are the top attractions in the city centre district:
- Palacio Real de Miramar – Just by the Playa La Concha and the Royal Miramar Park
- Cathedral of the Buen Pastor – The Romantic Area
- The Basilica Church of Santa Maria – In the Old Quarter of Donostia
- The Municipal museum of San Telmo – In the Old Quarter
- The Church of San Vicente – In the Old Quarter
Staring from the north end of the City at the Alameda del Boulevard head south along the Calle Legazpi to the Plaza de Guipuzcoa close to the Calle Camino, along the route you will see some fascinating architecture.
Heading south again and enjoy the buzz of the city as you walk down to the Avenida de la Libertad, this is the financial district of the city where you will find most of the major Spanish banks along with the top brand named stores.
Crossing over down the Bergara and Prim streets, this will then lead you to the Plaza Bilbao, home of some of the most striking buildings such as the Cathedral del Buen Pastor, and the home of the current post office - Edifico de Correos.
If you go east of the Plaza Bilbao you can also reach the Estacion del Norte ( the North Railway Station ) which was designed by a rather well known architect, Monsieur Eiffel, famous for another well known landmark in Paris.
Just off the Plaza Bilbao heading east I would recommend a visit to the Marie Cristina bridge ( Puente de Marie Cristina ). This unique ornate bridge was built at the turn of the 20th Century out of iron and concrete and has some very interesting features such as sculptured dragons, navel scenes and coats of arms.
The Romantic Area
This charming part of San Sebastian got its name for a good reason, this is the romantic area of the city based around the Calle Reyes Catolicos which leads up to the Cathedral of the Buen Pastor in the southern area of the city centre.
Not only is it romantic with its fine Parisian style architecture and ornate street lamps it is where some of the finest food in the city is served. After fulfilling your gastronomic dreams a stroll around the area absorbing it's distinctive atmosphere is a must.
The Old Quarter
As the name suggests this is the old part of the city of San Sebastian, it stands sandwiched between the foot of Mount Urgull and the city centre and opens out to the sea on both sides from the Plaza de Salamanca to the old Harbour area. The area was completely rebuilt after a devastating fire therefore only a very few building predate 1813.
Soak up the atmosphere whilst walking around the cobbled streets and narrow alleys discovering some of the best pintxo bars, restaurants and speciality shops that San Sebastian has to offer. To the north of the old quarter is Mount Urgull, a demanding climb to the top is well worth the effort as you will be treated to an exhilarating view over the city and the Mota Castle.
On the west side of the mount is the English Cemetery, the Military Museum and the fascinating Aquarium which has a glass tunnel walkway where you enjoy a 360 degree view of the marine life, and the Navel Museum which is located slightly north of the Royal Nautical Club.
If you enjoy walking around local indoor food markets as we do then try a trip to the Bretxa Market - Mercado de la Bretxa - situated just off the Avenida del Boulevard there you will find many colourful stalls full of all the fine produce the area has to offer.
At the centre of the old quarter is the beautiful Plaza de la Constitucion where the main cities festivities take place and is fondly known as ”La Consti ” by the locals. The plaza used to be the bull ring in the middle ages and is surrounded by buildings with large white painted balconies , which are numbered and where the spectators could easily view the fight.
Roaming around the old part is a great way to soak up the charm whilst enjoying the unmistakable atmosphere of an area steeped in history yet still manages to continue with its traditional local life.
The Barrio Gros ( Gros District is located to the east of the city and the river Urumea, it provides a picturesque view of San Sebastian and has the lovely beach of La Zurriola, a large beach of fine golden sand.
The Gros district can be both laid back and tranquil and then again bustling with commerce, depending on the time of day and week you spend visiting the area. The Kursall convention hall is situated in this district and attracts swarms of conventioneers, it also houses exhibitions and cultural events.
There are also a good number of tapas bars and Restaurants to cater for the large numbers of tourists, locals and conventioneer along with a good selection of Hotels and Hostels. Eating out in the Gros District is as good a place as any in San Sebastian with some of the finest restaurants being located here along with a good selection of Tapa ( Pintxo ) bars where you can arguably find the best hot tapas in Donostia.
At the Western end of the beach and Gros District you will find the Puente de Zurriola ( The Zurriola bridge ) which is also known as the Kursaal bridge, it majestically straddles the River Urumea and has some quite spectacular fixtures such as the lighting which are six light-house shaped towers.
Santa Clara Cristina
The little Santa Clara Island is situated just offshore in the beautiful bay of La Concha, and although it is quite small in dimensions, it does in fact have a clean sandy beach. It can be reached by boat, however the beach area gets completely covered during the day due to the high tides , so best to make sure you know the tide times before planning your trip to the island.
Getting around San Sebastian
The two main airports for people flying into the region is Bilbao located at Loiu and the smaller San Sebastian/Donostia airport at Hondarribi/Fuenterrabía.
A one way bus ticket from Bilbao airport costs around €17 and a one way ticket from San Sebastian airport is around €1.75 per person.
San Sebastian runs a comprehensive internal bus service with modern buses running constantly between 7am and 11pm every day. If You plan to stay for a few days in the city then it is best to buy a D-Bus travel card.
You would then be charged the following for each trip.
One-way ticket: 1.65€
3 days – 9€ for 6 trips
5 days – 16€ for 12 trips
Taxis are everywhere in the city, you can expect to pay around €8 for a 4 to 5 km trip.
Guided Tours of San Sebastian
Guided tours of San Sebastian are a great way to learn about the area as well as seeing some of the top sites.
Some of the most popular guided tours include the San Sebastian Hop-On Hop Off bus tour, the Loyola, Getaria, Zarauz & San Sebastian Day Tour from Bilbao and the 2-Hour Walking Tour with Pintxo and Drink.
Top San Sebastian attractions
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.
The San Sebastian Heineken Jazz Festival
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.
San Sebastian International Film Festival
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.
San Telmo Museum
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.
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.
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.
Kursaal Exhibition Centre
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.
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.
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.
Eating out in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is home to more Michelin starred restaurants in one city than anywhere else in Spain. Top chefs who have helped drive this gastronomic explosion include Juan Mari Arzak, Ruben Trincado, Pedro Subijana, Martin Berasetgui and Pablo Airudo.
You are also spoilt for choice when it comes to tapas 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.
One of the finest restaurants in San Sebastian is undoubtedly Restaurant Arzak and if your budget will allow then it is crucial to try at least once. Chef Arzak and his daughter are masters at the best nueva cocina vasca.
Easily scoring 3 Michelin stars, Arzak can be quite exclusive though and you will need to make a reservation. Clients can choose from a very large assembly of foods and tastes with traditional San Sebastian dishes as prepared by one of the best chefs in the area.
Location: Av Alcalde Elósegui, 273, 20015 San Sebastián-Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain. Wesbsite: https://www.arzak.info/
Restaurant La Cepa
La Cepa is a fine local culinary institution famous for serving up the finest Spanish cured Jabugo, known for its unique taste and quality. Other typical dishes on offer include, octopus, meat balls, home made sausages. They also offer a fine wine collection from the best wineries in the Rioja and Ribera del Duero. They’ve been operating for more than 70 years and are highly recommended by the locals.
Location: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7, 20003 San Sebastián-Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain. Website: http://www.barlacepa.com/es/index.php
Bar Goiz Argi
A small bar located at Calle de Fermin Calbeton 4, Goiz Argi also specializes in seafood, try the shrimp skewers or brocheta de gambas. They also offer octopus and what is known locally as breakfast wine! It’s a fairly small bar though so get there early as it is starts to fill up quite early as it well favoured by the locals.
Location: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain . On Facebook:
Txepetxa Tapas Bar
The first tapas bar on our list Txepetxa which is located in the old part of the city in Calle Pescaderia num.5. This is one of the most popular tapas bars in San Sebastian opened its doors in 1973 and has been on the receiving end of many gastronomic awards over the years. They serve some of the best home made pintxos prepared with love and dedication. You can enjoy a large variety of local ingredients including crabs, octopus, anchovies , mussels and shrimp. All of these are served with a flair that wets the appetite the minute you enter the bar whilst enjoying the artistic display of its famous patrons from the past.
Location: C/ Pescadería, 5, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain. Website: http://www.bartxepetxa.com/
Recommended accommodation San Sebastian
For a luxury stay the Maria Cristina a Luxury Collection Hotel is a must place to stay. The hotel enjoys an ideal location in the cities centre surrounded by local bars and restaurants. There are 136 luxury rooms at the Maria Cristina, each providing all the essentials to ensure a comfortable stay. Honeymoon suites are also available. Reviewer Rating: 9.2
The superb 4 star Hotel Villa Soro offers outstanding 4 star accommodation in a tranquil setting just a few minutes drive or a 20 minute walk to the city center. Villa Soro offers first class amenities such as a nearby golf course, limousine service, free bicycle rental and a variety of breakfast options. The hotel is a short walk from one the cities top restaurants, Arzak. Reviewer Rating: 9.4
The popular 1 star Pension Del Mar is located in the city centre within the Gros District. The guest house offers 6 modern and bright rooms, filled with a variety of amenities to ensure a comfortable stay. It is situated n the heart of San Sebastian’s entertainment district with restaurants, cafés and nightlife on the doorstep. Reviewer Rating: 10.0