San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) is a Spanish city in the Basque Country located just 20 km from the French border, in the bay of Biscay. It isn’t the Capital of the Basque country (that’s Vitoria or Gasteiz in Basque) nor the biggest city (that’s Bilbao or Bilbo in Basque)… But, is San Sebastian worth visiting? YES! San Sebastian is one of our favorite Spanish cities! It features one of the most beautiful city beaches in Europe, an incredible unique culture and well… the best pintxos in the world! These are our favorite things to do in San Sebastian!
Best Things to do in San Sebastian
1. Walk around the old town
San Sebastian’s old town, known as Parte Vieja, is the traditional core of the city and its city center. The Parte Vieja is full of elegant, art nouveau buildings, ornate bridges, parks, and plazas creating a captivating and lively seaside city! All this grand architecture is an integral part of San Sebastian and makes any stroll a fascinating experience. While walking around, you will notice that these old buildings lining in the cobblestone streets of the Parte Vieja have been given a new life with charming guesthouses, colorful boutiques and buzzing pintxos bars!! All of this contributes to the vibrant mix that is San Sebastian!
In the old town, or very close to it we recommend you to have a look at the:
- The Constitution Square – This the main square of San Sebastian. Almost every Spanish city has a big rectangular square, where people meet to have a late drink. In San Sebastian besides the drinks, one can also have pintxos!
- The Maria Cristina bridge – Despite being outside the old town, it’s very close and in walking distance so you’ll want to check it out. It’s easily the most elegant of all the bridges in San Sebastian and the four 18-meter obelisks (one in each corner) crowned with sculptures give it a special touch.
- City Hall – The city hall is a beautiful building perfectly located on the edge of the Parte Vieja and next to the bay of La Concha. This elegant and monumental building used to be a casino but since 1947 holds the city hall of San Sebastian.
- Good Sheppard Cathedral – Built in 1897 in Neo-Gothic style, this impressive sandstone building is one of the icons of the San Sebastian. It’s located in the city center but, outside the old town. The huge organ inside is one of its main features.
- Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus – This is located inside the old town on the base of Mount Urgull. It was built in the 18th century in a Baroque style. The details on the facade are very beautiful. Interestingly, the main entrance of this Church is in a straight line to the entrance of Cathedral. It creates an interesting view.
- Saint Vincent Church – This 16th-century Gothic church is the oldest in San Sebastian and it’s the home to an interesting altarpiece and impressive stain glass windows. On the facade, you can see a famous sculpture of the Pietà.
2. Eat the best pintxos in the world
First of all, do you know what pintxos are? In an easy way, pintxos are Northern Spain’s version of tapas… But only better! At least if we are talking about the ones you eat in San Sebastian. So, like tapas, pintxos are served as small portions of different dishes served in bars. Traditionally, they were served on bread with a toothpick or a skewer through it (a pincho in Spanish, thus the name), although now we can find them in any imaginable way. These usually cost between 2 and 3 Euros.
The old town of San Sebastian is full of pintxos Bars, from the more gourmet ones to the more traditional! Going to a pintxos Bar has a strong social component and it’s a cornerstone of the Basque way. A Basque loves having small snacks while hanging out with friends or family! Well, who doesn’t??
In San Sebastian, pintxos are an institution and going to one is an experience you shouldn’t miss! Mostly because they are seriously good. In some of these bars, you’ll feel like a culinary jury trying out the different plates! Pintxos quickly become our new food obsession! But They aren’t only tasty, they are also really fun to eat… Why? Pintxos are usually displayed on the counter and depending on the bar you should either just take them to your plate and eat or ask the waiter for what you want. It’s a really cool concept!
3. Explore La Concha bay
San Sebastian features some of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe. La Concha is the obvious star and a world-class beach, but Zurriola beach, in Gros, is also worth a visit. La Concha Bay is delimited by the two iconic mounts, Mount Urgull, and Mount Igeldo.
La Concha Beach
La Concha beach is right in the city center and goes from the town hall to pico del loro, a short rocky section that divides La Concha Bay. This is a 1.5-km beach of yellow sand, where you can rest in the sun or dive in the sea (in Summer). You should also notice the two major iconic features of San Sebastian’s boardwalk, La Concha railings (with its unique design) and the incredible lamp posts at the beach entrance.
Santa Clara Island
The other major feature of the bay is Santa Clara Island. Not many other cities have an iconic island in the center of its bay. The island has a small beach, walks to its lighthouse, paths with picnic tables and even a bar. Unfortunately, we have never gone there as we only traveled to San Sebastian during winter.
Miramar Palace is located in the middle of the Bay of La Concha. The palace is interesting, but nothing really extraordinary compared with others in Spain. However, the main reason to visit it isn’t the Miramar Palace itself, but the amazing view you get from its gardens. In our opinion, this is the best panoramic view of San Sebastian, particularly at sunset. Well, just have a look at the pictures…
4. Climb to Mount Urgull
Mount Urgull is the hill located at the edge of the parte vieja and easily accessible by foot from it. The way up is quite steep but perfectly doable by almost anyone. During the hike, you enjoy the panoramic views to the various sides of the city. This is where we can see both La Concha and Zurriola beach. On top of Mount Urgull there’s the old 12th-century castillo de la mota, which used to be the last shelter of San Sebastian through the many attacks and sieges it suffered during 800 years. In 1950 it was also built there the sacred heart statue which blends surprisingly well in the landscape and it reminds us of the Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Around the bottom of Mount Urgull it was built a new promenade, the Paseo Nuevo. This is quite famous for huge waves hitting the rocks (particularly in winter).
5. Visit Mount Igueldo and Piene Del Viento
On the other side of the La Concha Bay there’s another iconic mount, Mount Igueldo, where you can get an amazing, view of La Concha, Santa Clara Island, and the old town. On top of Mount Igueldo there’s a park, on the bottom, there’s a nice artwork called Peine del Viento.
Piene del Viento (The comb of the wind)
If you have enough time, you can walk from the old town to Piene del Viento, enjoy the artwork and this wind-battered spot… If you have a car you can easily do a 5-minute drive to it. It’s a great place to experience nature’s raw power, in a dialogue of between art and landscape.
From Piene del Viento to the top of Mount Igueldo, it’s a long steep hike, so you should consider taking the funicular to the top! On the other hand, if you are driving, it’s a 5-minute trip, however, you still have to pay a toll (2.20 Euros) to get to the top of Mount Igueldo. We only drove up to the toll, took a few pictures, enjoyed the view and the lighthouse and returned.
Amazing day trips from San Sebastian
San Sebastian is a stunning travel destination on its own, with amazing things to do and see, however, there’s one other great thing about it. San Sebastian is a great starting point for road trips and day trips. We have chosen two-day trips in the Basque country, one through the Basque Coast another to the interior.
#1 Day trip through the Basque Coast
La Concha is astonishing but it’s far from being the only incredible beach in the Basque Country. During this day trip, you will visit these beautiful beaches but also interesting villages, dramatic landscapes, and the unique Basque Geopark.
We suggest you visit the beach towns of Zumaia and Zarautz, both have beautiful long beaches, but Zaraurz is particularly famous for its great surf. In Zumaia you can Flysch Cliffs in the Basque Geopark, which are a very interesting rock formation. It’s also a great spot to do trekking. There are several trails, from 2/3h to full day or even multi-day treks. Between these towns, there’s the interesting village of Geteria, which is also very worthy of a stop.
Finally, a little more distant from San Sebastian you can find San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Though it’s actually closer to Bilbao, this is really worth a visit. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has become world famous for being one of Game of Throne’s filming locations. The glorious footbridge and stairs up to the mountain create an unforgettable view!
#2 Day trip to Laguardia and “Marques de Riscal” winery and hotel
For something completely different we are suggesting you visit the village of Laguardia, considered one of the most beautiful villages in Spain and the vineyard and hotel of “Masques de Riscal”. These are only 2 hours from San Sebastian and very close to each other thus perfect for a day trip.
Laguardia is listed as one the most beautiful villages in Spain and it really deserves the title. It’s located on a hilltop and the houses are all united forming a huge impenetrable wall. This medieval town has a charm of its own and it’s really well preserved. We suggest you wander around the town and discover its small streets. Though you should have a look at the town’s church and the main tower. The other thing you can’t miss is the lookout to the valley around the city. It’s quite a view! Finally, if you are looking for a place to have lunch or dinner we suggest Café Tertulia.
Only 7 km from Laguardia you can find the Marques de Riscal Winery and Hotel in the village of Elciego. This is where the famous Marques de Riscal red wines are made. In 2006 it was built a Hotel designed by Frank Ghery using the same methods as in Bilbao’s Guggenheim. It is a beautiful building. There are organized guided tours to visit the wineries, the vineyards and have a panoramic view of the hotel. At the end of the guided visit, there’s a wine tasting where you can try 2 of the wines produced by Marques de Riscal.
if you can afford it, we certainly suggest you spend the night here! Have a look at the prices here and how amazing the hotel is.
The worst of San Sebastian
The worst thing about San Sebastian is parking. It’s very difficult to find parking spots and those we can are expensive. The best option is to negotiate a daily rate in one of the underground parks and accept that cost. You should be able to find something between 20 and 25 Euros, depending on the season. Traffic is also very complicated in the center if you can avoid going there by car altogether. Our top tip is to just find a nicely located underground park and walk around town. It’s much more fun and much less stressful!
Where to stay in San Sebastian
By now, with all these amazing things to do in San Sebastian, you should be convinced that San Sebastian is worth visiting! Thus, you need to know where to stay in San Sebastian and our suggestion is simple, stay in the old town in the Part Vieja! It shouldn’t be difficult, as this part of San Sebastian is full of guest houses and hotels.
Budget-friendly hotels in San Sebastian
We already stayed in this guest house two times and we really like it. Why? It’s very comfortable, reasonably priced and perfectly located. It can’t be more central than this. You are within walking distance from everything in this post, particularly the pintxos bar. There are dozens of Pintxos bars up to 100 meters from the hostel, some of them are the best in San Sebastian.
Pension Joakina is also very well located in the old town of San Sebastian and it’s very comfortable and modern. It’s also reasonably priced though usually slightly more expensive than Pension Larrea.
Mid-range hotels in San Sebastian
Pensión Old City House
This is an excellent mid-range Hotel, located in the city center with a modern and very comfortable room. All rooms include a flat-screen TV. For your comfort, you will find free toiletries and a hairdryer. The biggest downside of this is that it may be difficult to book your stay as it’s usually sold out! So, If you like it, book it now.
Another great hotel right in the old town, close to the pinxos bars and everything else in San Sebastian. Each attractive room offers air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi and has décor based on a different city creating a very interesting atmosphere. This is a great option for couples looking for romantic escapades in San Sebastian. Like most of the good hostels/hotels in part vieja this one sells out quickly, so book it as early as possible.
Luxury hotels in San Sebastian
Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Sebastian
Are you looking for the best? In San Sebastian, this is the Maria Cristina Hotel. It’s very expensive but it’s the definition of luxury. Unlike the other hotels on this list, Maria Cristina hotel isn’t inside the old town but 300 meters away in the shopping district turned to the river and close to Maria Cristina bridge. This is where the movie stars stay and where you’ll want to be if the budget isn’t a concern.
Villa Soro is perfect for a romantic escapade with comfortable, spacious rooms and very good breakfasts. It is a good place to relax, eat delicious food and visit San Sebastian. It is 20 min from the city center and 20 min from the airport, so it is in a strategic place.
In conclusion, San Sebastian has a lot to offer to multiple kinds of travelers. It’s an elegant city, with beautiful and stylish buildings. Furthermore, the natural setting of La Concha bay creates an almost unique urban beach. San Sebastian is also home to a vibrant culture that any traveler will enjoy to dive in!