Sitting elegantly on the edge of the Bay of Biscay, in the province of Guipuzkoa, near France, the city of San Sebastián or Donostia, as it is called in Euskadi (the region’s language along with Spanish), is a treasure chest waiting to be opened to reveal its splendor of both natural and man-built attractions. The city is so incredibly beautiful and placed in such an equally astonishing surrounding that it has - for decades now - been the focal point of many artistic manifestations and a favorite among nature lovers and foodies!
There’s something of the Old World in San Sebastián, but only on the surface, as the city is known for its futuristic approach to art and food, and is technologically way more advanced than others in the country. The city and the region around it are a real treat for everyone and all reasons are good to get to know them.
Come with us to San Sebastián and let us take you on a beautifully balanced trip between old and new, historic and novel, all in one place. Here are the best 10 experiences to unveil the secrets of San Sebastián!
Pintxos are what the people from the Basque Country in Spain call their tapas or finger food. The concept is quite simple yet quite ingenious too! Instead of going for a formal meal at a restaurant, you go to a pintxos bar and will be presented a vast assortment of miniature meals, perfectly cooked and seasoned, in finger sized portions. For each drink you order, you will get a pintxo, but you can go for as many as your heart desires: just collect the skewers that are usually stuck in them. The word pintxo actually refers to the skewer! At the end, you will pay for the number of skewers (pintxos) you have on your plate!
The success of the Basque Country’s cuisine, and the reputable cooking schools located in San Sebastián, have contributed to many chefs, some of them trained in these schools, to work and pass on their knowledge in the kitchens of bars, coming up with creations of high quality that coexist with the most traditional skewers. So, make sure you go along with the locals who sit down eating their pintxos and having a drink in bars, terraces and small cafes across town and enjoy this delicious introduction to the city!
Walk along Paseo de la Concha
This magnificent sea walk promenade is the perfect visiting card to San Sebastián. The Paseo de La Concha (The Seashell Promenade) goes from the end of Avenida de la Libertad to the Antiguo tunnel. It borders the beach of the same name and can be the ideal location for a relaxing stroll along the seashore or even for a liberating bicycle ride, as it has a bicycle lane. Sided by a beautiful art déco railing from the beginning of the 20th century, the promenade has become one of the landmarks of the city.
Besides the views of Concha Bay and of the island of Santa Clara, the lively promenade is neighbored by numerous mansions and palace-like buildings, such as the emblematic building of the Hotel Londres. If you feel like relaxing after a day of exploring the region, you might want to book a spa treatment here! Yes, within the promenade you will find the thermal water facilities of La Perla, the only thalassotherapy center in the city located at the promenade, reminding us of past times, when San Sebastián was a spa town. You can hardly find a better combo of adventure and relaxation anywhere else, that is for sure!
Take the funicular to Monte Igueldo
Opened since 1912, the cable car of Monte Igueldo promises and indeed delivers the most amazing view over the city and the surrounding areas of San Sebastián. This is a fantastic ride that was presented as part of an amusement park at the beginning of last century, and that is still open to the public. The site, which has a Belle Époque feel to it, ended up becoming a landmark of San Sebastián. The funicular is still the original one, looking very art déco with its wooden framework, and it provides for the best views over San Sebastián. At the top, enjoy the stunning views over the Gipuzkoan coastline and the immense Cantabrian Sea. This is the perfect photo stop halfway through the day exploring the area!
Have a Michelin Star dining experience
If there is a place where you are spoiled for choice as far as high-quality restaurants are concerned, San Sebastián is it! One of Spain’s most famous culinary hubs, the city has been collecting prizes and distinctions with the famous Michelin guide for a long time now. There are no less than 33 restaurants in town with some recognition or other from Michelin, and counting! Actually, of the 8 restaurants that got the maximum score of 3 Michelin stars in the whole of Spain, 3 of them are located precisely in San Sebastián!
The local cuisine is, just like the city, a fantastic mix between old and new. A fusion between ancient traditions using the best ingredients and the most modern culinary techniques. The top quality of its seafood, its naturally fed cattle providing for the most tender of meats and the ideal climate conditions to produce the freshest vegetables are combined with the skill and technology used by the chefs to come up with meals that are more than just food on a plate. They represent the best of the region’s heritage and culture and are probably the best way to get to know it and its people.
Michelin-star restaurants are extremely sought-after, so we do recommend booking them well in advance in case you want to experience what will probably be the best culinary experience of your trip to Spain!
Explore the old town of San Sebastián
As part of a former fisherman’s town, the old streets of San Sebastián still preserve beautifully its historical roots and are a delight to walk on at any time of the year. The quaint port area sided by its colorful houses with wrought iron balconies is a perfect starting point to discover the oldest quarters of the city center.
Visit the Basilica of Santa María del Coro from 1750, built on the site of an old Roman temple, considered the oldest religious site in the city. Very close to it, you will find the Church of San Vicente, a fantastic Basque Gothic style building from the beginning of the 16th century. Just a short distance away, you will come across the Church dedicated to the Buen Pastor (or Good Shepherd), a precious Neo-Gothic style cathedral from the late 19th century displaying an impressive collection of glass windows, gargoyles and pinnacles. Make sure you stop occasionally at different bars and cafes scattered along the many plazas, to sample the best pintxos and wines while thinking how lucky you are to be there at that precise moment!
Have a glimpse of Basque art at Museo San Telmo
Still within the historic center, yet almost at the verge of it, on the Mount Urgull and built in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature, is the Museum of San Telmo, a Basque art museum. The museum is composed of two buildings, one based on a 16th-century Dominican convent and the other one more recent, from the beginning of the 20th century. Both buildings are perfectly blended with their environment, and inside the collections include archaeology, fine arts, ethnography, photography and history exhibitions that we can safely say are the perfect gateway to the Basque culture. The place feels very peaceful and is very rarely crowded, so this may be the perfect afternoon escape on a hot day before continuing exploring.
Marvel at the Miramar Palace and gardens
With a privileged location in the Antiguo neighborhood, very close to the Ondarretako and to the Concha beaches, the former summer house of Queen María Cristina of Austria, who used to spend the summers in San Sebastián in the 1890’s, is a perfect example of the city’s noble past and architecture. With a grandeur that is hardly translated into words, the palace resembles an English manor house with a touch of a fairy-tale castle, and has a spectacular view from above the cliffs, over to the ocean. The building is surrounded by wide gardens with flower beds, trees bending towards the deep blue sea and decorative statues here and there. You can walk along the garden’s many paths, breathing in the ocean breeze and marveling at the incredible brick-colored palace. You will certainly feel like royalty and maybe like you have just stepped into a different era.
Take a ferry to Isla de Santa Clara
The island of Santa Clara is a symbol of San Sebastián. Anyone who has walked along the famous Concha beach feels its imposing presence that, like a sentinel, protects the stately Donostia from the rough sea. The island is basically a rock of just over 5 hectares (12 acres), that rises ahead of the main beach of the city, and is flanked by the Igueldo and Urgull mountains.
Provided you have time, it is worth approaching the islet that rises mysteriously in front of the city. Whether by boat, kayak, paddle surf or even swimming, there are many ways to access Santa Clara, as it is located just 500 meters (0.310 mi) from the coast.
Take a leisurely stroll along the winding and ascending path that leads to the island's lighthouse and enjoy its generous vegetation and the possibility it offers for bird watching. From the top of the cliff, you can see both the Bay of Biscay, which imposes itself on the north side, and the magnificence of La Concha and the rest of the city from another point of view. Certainly, a day trip to remember!
Admire the views of the Kursaal from the La Zurriola bridge
San Sebastián is, as we have said many times, a perfect balance between its history and modernity. The best proof of this is the Congress Center and Auditorium of Kursaal. This is a modern building by architect Rafael Moneo, who in 1999 designed two cubes made of translucent glass that were placed by the shore to give the idea of two rocks rising above the ocean. And it works! The Kursaal has become part of the city’s landscape and cultural life. So much so that it is nowadays the venue for the city’s famous Film Festival! And it really does look like it has come right out of a futuristic movie with a special art déco backdrop! The perfect place to better observe this imposing artwork in the shape of a building is the La Zurriola bridge nearby. Give it a go at night time when the building shines over the bay like a million stars reflecting their sparkle on the frothy ocean waters!
Take a dip in the sea at La Concha beach
We swear you will feel like doing it, even if it is winter time! Although the pretty sandy La Concha beach, crowned by a beautiful cityscape, seems to have been drawn by a human hand, it fits perfectly into one’s usual idea of a perfect summer day. Waves breaking gently against the shore, the sound of seagulls above your head, a deep, refreshing scent of salt water and the goosebumps on your skin when in contact with the first drops of cold but incredibly clear, sea water - the scenario is to-die-for and is the promise for a great few days lying ahead. The Basque Country and San Sebastián (Donostia) start here, with a voyage across the ocean and with arms wide open into the culture, the art and the food.
Come and see!
We have to confess that it is hard to find just 10 experiences that you absolutely must try when in San Sebastián. The richness of its cultural panorama, the variety in architectural and decoration styles and the rare quality of its food make it a challenge when it comes to define a list of the best things do in the city. However, we have provided you with a few ideas that even if you lack the time for more, will certainly make you feel like you really got into the Basque culture and lifestyle. Like only San Sebastián can present it! Start planning your trip to Spain and make sure you see for yourself what we are talking about. Then let us know how many items you have of your own to add to this list!