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The northern Spanish city by the sea, San Sebastian (Donostia) is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful. It first carved its name as scenic territory during the “Belle Époque” (the French named “Beautiful Era” of the late 1800s before the outbreak of World War I in 1914) where many a royal and aristocrat chose to spend their summer.
Yet, its beginnings are preserved in its unique and somewhat independent micro-culture that it has strived for centuries to keep intact. San Sebastian has the longest history in the Basque Country, and proudly reigns as its capital – a ‘small country with a big identity’, whose language and traditions are some of the oldest in Europe, and still thriving today.
If you take the rich cultural traditions from San Sebastian’s days as a fishing town to the revived central city of classical architecture that attracted the European upper classes, and mix it with the mountain panoramas, coastal-lined promenades of today’s cosmopolitan city and world-renowned gastronomy, (including Michelin Star restaurants and the famous ‘Pintxos Bars’), you have yourself a city of cultural diversity.
It is no wonder then that San Sebastian has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2016, with the theme of coexistence. Mixing gastronomy, festivals, architecture, music, nature, the arts, Basque language and culture in celebration of an open and connected society, it shines a light on the preservation of a culture that hasn’t always been peaceful, but to this day is still independent and alive.
Natural San Sebastian – The Panoramic Mountain Vistas
San Sebastian is at the very heart of the 250km of coastline that makes up the Basque Country, alongside fisherman villages and small towns, as well as steep cliffs and small mountains. It’s an ideal introduction to a very distinct region of Spain.
I began my journey here at the central mount of San Sebastian, marvelling the focal point of the city – the sea. The mountain of Igueldo is the ideal spot to become acquainted with the city and its layout, boasting panoramic views of Concha the bay, the adjacent golden coastlines, and the sandy-coloured architecture. The funicular car carries you up and down the cliff face in a steep but very scenic drop, giving you a sense of the city that resides above the sea.
Traditional San Sebastian – The Old Town (La Parte Vieja)
Find the pink, yellow and white candy-striped, numbered doors, and you have found Constitution Square – the very centre of the Old Town. It has kept its former bullring features, and now just creates smiles in its stripes of colour and the festive events that take place here.
For me, any city with an Old Town is immediately appealing in the sense of having a living history. Bygone thoroughfares transport you to a different era, like Agostro Street – the only street left standing after the fire of 1813, which is tied together with the exquisite Santa Maria Basilica at one end and the oldest church of the city, San Vicente, at the other.
Picturesque facades in narrow streets spilling with pedestrians invite you into a new culture and space in which to step back centuries. Pintxos bars – the very pinnacle of culinary excellence here – line Fermin Calbeton Street and we were all too eager to visit a few and try. Tiny morsels of delicately prepared food, held together with cocktail sticks, are not only traditional but one of the greatest forms of social gatherings. Hoping from one Pintxos bar to the next was my highlight of Old Town exploration, with food always an ideal way to culturally immerse yourself.
The Old Town is the beating heart of everything that represents San Sebastian, from gastronomy and fine confectionery, including the most fresh of produce to be found at La Bretxa Market, to history and tradition (of which you can learn all about in the San Telmo Museum of the Basque Society that details the past events and today’s preservation of the culture) and fashionable European classicism that remains etched in the architecture and boutique stores.
Romantic San Sebastian – The 19th Century
Any modern renovations of the city still tightly hold on to the notion of preserving a traditional feel, and the area below the Old Town – known as the ‘Romantic Area’ – is no exception. In the second half of the 19th century, when the old walls of the former fortified San Sebastian were demolished, a newly designed area of the city emerged. Once with French influence of grand boulevards, sandstone buildings, elaborate lampposts and manicured, inner-city gardens like Gipuzkoa Square.
The main street, aptly called Boulevard, essentially splits the Old Town, which is dotted with grand structures like the City Hall and nearby Buen Pastor Cathedral. This newer district leads down to the port area and the darling beach of the city that is Concha Bay.
It is said that you can stroll the 6km coastal promenade in just one hour, but it is impossible not to stop and find yourself back within the city confines. Except when the day is coming to an end, and the mesmerising sunset lures you back out, as it did us.
Young and Bohemian San Sebastian
Two main bridges cross the Urumea River and lead into the part of town known as Gros. It is easy to walk, although I was able to cover more ground by bike, cycling along riverbeds and boulevards and into the more youthful neighbourhoods of this old city. Several of the best pintxos bars are also here.
Bohemian and more expressive, this is the area to visit art galleries and in particular, Tabakalera, which is a former tobacco factory turned into the International Centre for Contemporary Culture, which is mainly used to showcase visual arts. As a huge advocate of repurposed buildings, it was good to see an old industrial landmark brought back to life in line with San Sebastian’s heavy modern-day focus on artistry.
Also home to one of the three main beaches, Zurriola, the Promenade is a favourite hangout. With bigger, crashing waves, this coastline attracts the surfers in search of more powerful waves, and strollers eager to watch those catch them… or take on some lessons.
San Sebastian may be a compact city, delicately surrounded by mountains and the sea, but with a centuries-old tradition, world-renowned gastronomy, architecture and artistry on every street and tucked away corner, it really is a big capital of culture.
Things To Know About San Sebastian
- The San Sebastian card for €25 for public transport us and discounts in museums, stores and restaurants
- For further information and trip planning visit sansebastianturismo.com
- Pick up the “Gastronomic Guide Map” from the tourism office which details on a map the 70 key bars and restaurants, 3 pintxos routes and food shops
This trip was organised in conjunction with iAmbassador and the Spanish National Tourism Office to highlight San Sebastian’s offering in light of it being the European Capital of Culture for 2016.