San Sebastián, the epitome of art de vivre
It is impossible not to experience love at first sight in San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) whether you’re visiting for a day, a weekend, or a longer holiday. San Sebastián is both a city with a Belle Epoque urban chic and a resort boasting a stunning beach of fine sand, the famous La Concha, which fronts a scallop-shaped bay that has earned the city its worldwide appeal. Visitors flock here for the city’s natural setting, a bay framed by rocky peaks, its aristocratic style, its cool yet elegant atmosphere, its heritage and its pintxos, the Basque version of tapas which are a gastronomic art form in their own right. Today, San Sebastián attracts visitors from around the world, ranging from tourists and serious foodies to surfers and party-animals!
The excitement of visitors enjoying the invigorating air of Spain’s Basque Coast and San Sebastián’s regal setting is palpable!
San Sebastián, a city best discovered on foot
The beach, a swim, a stroll, a cultural visit and an aperitif with some pintxos - what more could you need for the perfect day in San Sebastián? If you’re arriving by car, head to one of the city’s many underground car parks – our preference is the one at the Kursaal, a modern building on the right bank of the Urumea river which dissects the city in two. The cost will be around €15. You can then explore the city on foot, grabbing a bite to eat at almost any time of the day, although some of the best pintxos bars close at 3.30pm. I highly recommend that you take your swimming things with you as you’ll have lots of opportunities to cool off in the Cantabrian Sea during the course of the day.
San Sebastián, a resort with a choice of beaches in the heart of the city
First and foremost, the city is home to La Concha, the most famous of all the beaches in San Sebastián, and one of the most beautiful in Europe. But it is also home to the Playa de Ondaretta, an extension of La Concha and only separated from it by a rocky outcrop.
Behind the Kursaal you’ll find the Playa de la Zurriola, fronting the Gros district. If I’m staying elsewhere I always like to catch a glimpse of this beach, popular with youngsters, sports enthusiasts and surfers, before heading out of the city. If you’ve forgotten your bathing costume or anything else for that matter, the Avenida de Zuriola, running parallel to the beach, is home to several surf equipment and clothing stores
Go for a swim in the port of San Sebastián!
For the parents of teenagers, the port is a trendy and exciting alternative to the chic beaches of the city centre (head towards the maritime museum and aquarium).
The seafront here, lined by the city’s remaining fishermen’s houses where you can still see wives mending nets, acts as a diving board for a crowd of excited youngsters, with girls and boys alike showing off their acrobatic skills, although adults may prefer to lay out their towel on the pier opposite the entrance to the Aquarium. This permanent and youthful summer spectacle is both relaxed and noisy, and teeming with an infectious energy. Be aware, however, that dogs are allowed along this stretch of waterfront.
The icing on the cake here in the evening was the opportunity to witness the launch of a trainera, a traditional 14-oar fishing vessel converted into a racing boat for a team of female rowers.
Heading out for a stroll in San Sebastián
You can choose between several classic walks in the most beautiful resort along the Basque coast. First up, there is the not-to-be-missed stroll along La Concha, best experienced first thing in the morning, when the sun filters through the spray to create a stunning sight, or in the evening, at sunset.
Another option is the shopping itinerary through the modern 19C section of the city (parte moderna), affectionately known as the Barrio Romantico. Located behind La Concha, this district is home to some very fine Art Nouveau buildings endowed with bow windows, stained glass and majolica, an impressive cathedral (the Buen Pastor or Good Shepherd), with its 75m-high bell tower dominating the city’s skyline, as well as all the shopping brand names you could wish to see.
The old town of San Sebastián
Another popular stroll is through the old town (casco viejo) of San Sebastián which mostly dates from 1813, the year of the last fire to ravage the city. This maze of narrow pedestrian streets, home to the best pintxos bars in the city, is a feast for the senses, where the aroma of pata negra cured ham and grilled peppers fills the streets. From seven in the evening, crowds flock to its outdoor cafés, the steps of the Santa Maria del Coro basilica and the arcades of the city’s most stunning square, the Plaza de la Constitución, which was the setting for bullfights in the 19C.
An excursion to the top of Mont Urgull
A favourite spot for locals and visitors alike thanks to its shaded, wooded slopes, Mont Urgull is home to vestiges of its military past, an English cemetery, a small history museum and lots of cats! Access to it is either from behind the Aquarium or behind the San Telmo museum. Mont Urgull boasts stunning views of every part of the city from the Gros district and the Playa de Zurriola to the La Concha bay and the port. I head up to the top every time I visit as the view is so incredible. This walk is best enjoyed in the morning or after 7pm, when it isn’t as hot (the sunset views are also breathtaking), finishing up with a stroll along the Paseo Nuevo, the corniche which skirts the hill to build up an appetite for the ritual tapas tour.
Two not-to-be-missed sights in the city: the San Telmo museum...
Partly occupying a former Dominican convent, the outstanding Museo de San Telmo boasts an exceptional and eclectic collection which retraces every aspect of Basque history and culture. The modern section of the museum, located at the foot of Mont Urgull, is one of the focal points of Donostia 2016 European Capital of Culture, with its superb exhibition (Peace Treaties - 1516-2016) dedicated to representations of peace in the history of art, culture and the law, a theme that has strong resonance in a region marked by decades of terrorism.
...and the Aquarium de San Sebastián
Located at one end of the port, the Aquarium de San Sebastián will delight kids and their parents alike, and I enjoy visiting it every time I visit the city. The first section describes with great emotion the history of fishing and trade in San Sebastián, followed by a succession of aquariums. One of the last ones you visit is home to a fascinating colony of spotted garden eels (see photo library).
Semana Grande in San Sebastián (13 to 20 August 2016)
Chaque été à la mi-août, la Semana Grande (ou Aste Nagusia) transforme la ville entière de Saint-Sébastien en une immense fête inaugurée par un coup de canon tiré depuis le jardin public situé devant la mairie. Une semaine durant autour du 15 août et de la Fête de la Vierge vont se succéder animations, spectacles (y compris sur l’eau), concerts et surtout un festival mondial de feux d’artifices tirés depuis la Concha. Toute la ville est en fête, et de nombreuses associations, comme les bars de la vieille ville, rivalisent d’inventivité pour mettre le feu !
San Sebastián Tourist Office:
San Sebastián/Donostia, European Capital of Culture:
To find a hotel, consult the Atlantic Spain Green Guide p. 194-195.