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All the things to do in San Sebastian – the city swapping past conflict for European Capital of Culture status, while retaining Basque heritage.
The northern Spanish city by the sea in the autonomous Basque region, San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) 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.
In more recent times it became a destination dominated by ETA headlines and the Basque conflict for independence – healing its wounds as it draws in many people eager to sample the array of activities and sights that proudly display its diverse cultural mix and its move towards peaceful new beginnings.
Yet, its history is preserved in its unique and somewhat independent micro-culture that it has strived for centuries to keep intact. San Sebastian, one of three regional capitals, has the longest history in the Basque Country – dubbed a ‘small country with a big identity’ – whose language and traditions are some of the oldest in Europe, and still thriving today.
- Visiting San Sebastian Today
- What to Do in San Sebastian: Nature
- What to See in San Sebastian: Tradition
- What to Eat in San Sebastian: The Gastronomically Acclaimed City
- Drinking the Basque Culture: Fruit Harvest Culture
- Things to See in San Sebastian: The Romantic Area
- Modern Day San Sebastian: Young and Bohemian
- Health, Well-being & Indulgence
- Explore the 250km Coastline of the Basque Country
- Things To Know About San Sebastian
Visiting San Sebastian 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 was 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.
What to Do in San Sebastian: Nature
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 at 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, with 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.
San Sebastian Bike Tours
San Sebastian appears small, but its streets are big on activity. From strollers to shoppers, Baroque basilicas to Belle Époque buildings, manicured gardens and open squares to old towns and modern neighbourhoods, this is a city with many faces.
There’s no better way to glide through San Sebastian’s highlights than by bike, which I did with a local who was able to get off-track out into local parks, side streets and quiet pockets of outer neighbourhoods. It’s a city filled with dedicated cycle paths to encourage explorers to seek out its many cultural corners. As a huge city cycle advocate, I had to try it out in San Sebastian – a space where you can cover a lot of ground in just two peddling hours including the banks of the Urumea River and into the ‘new’ neighbourhood of Gros, the Paseo Nuevo promenade and the city’s classically pretty bridges.
Stand Up Paddle Board on San Sebastian Seas
A city surrounded by sea, the water is very tempting for those wanting to actively explore. One of the three main beaches, Zurriola is filled with the sound of crashing tides, attracting surfers in search of more powerful waves. The beach Promenade is a popular local hangout, attracting strollers eager to watch them.
Club Deportivo Fortuna on La Concha beach offers a variety of equipment hire and lessons, including stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and canoes. The weather was a little too chilly and choppy for me to take a surf lesson, but it is high on my list for when I return.
An alternative means of taking to the seas should sport not be your style, is to simply jump on board the 25-minute boat trip from La Concha to the 400m long St. Clara island that sits in the middle of the bay of Donosti.
What to See in San Sebastian: Tradition
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.
What to Eat in San Sebastian: The Gastronomically Acclaimed City
Pintxos Tour and Cooking Class
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. The Basque country is known for its specific flavours and combinations that come from the fresh produce of short harvest periods, alongside the traditions of pickling and preserving.
Pintxos bar hopping is a favourite pastime of locals, and soon became mine, so why not join one and be shown some of the famed Fermin Calbeton Street’s tasty favourites? Go Local San Sebastian offer tours of some of the top hangouts during a 2.5-hour mini-feast, which you will wash down with samples of fruity Txakoli white wine and the local apple cider.
Tucked away in a cosy apartment on the same street, Tenedor offers a variety of pintxos and general Basque cooking classes suited to any and all levels of culinary expertise. A private chef guided us through the delicate process of pintxos making – including the favourites of peppers to anchovies – where we left with a better understanding of the unique and long-standing gastronomic culture of San Sebastian.
Visit La Bretxa Market
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.
Drinking the Basque Culture: Fruit Harvest Culture
Visit a Traditional Cider House
As a cider enthusiast, I’m used to ordering from the bar or drinking from a ceramic jug, as is the old tradition in countries like Germany. In San Sebastian however, you taste it straight from the barrel.
San Sebastian’s traditional cider houses, found in the north-east province of Gipuzkoa, are another staple of the Basque culture that comes from the countryside and the seasonal sourcing of fresh fruit produce. In San Sebastian, you fill your glass from the curving liquid run of the kupela (barrel) tap, before returning to your seat and feasting on all manner of hearty meat dishes, mingling with friends and locals. This retains the old custom of bringing food, so as not to drink on an empty stomach!
You can return to the barrel as many times as you like – there’s always someone guarding the tap ready for your next visit down to the cellar.
Things to See in San Sebastian: The Romantic Area
19th Century Preservation
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.
Modern Day San Sebastian: Young and Bohemian
Two main bridges cross the Urumea River and lead into the part of town known as Gros. It’s filled with walking and cycle paths along riverbeds and boulevards and into the more youthful neighbourhoods of this old city. Several of the best pintxos bars are also here.
Tabakalera International Centre for Contemporary Culture
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.
Health, Well-being & Indulgence
Visit a Heritage Spa in San Sebastian
No trip to San Sebastian would be complete with a trip to La Perla Spa, whose long heritage is steeped in over 100 years of history since first opening its doors in 1912.
The first uses of the spa in San Sebastian came about when aristocrats, knowing of the healing powers of saltwater when sea bathing, wanted the water brought to them. Hence the La Concha beach spa was born. While visitors today still bathe the same way as those who indulged during the Belle Époque Era, it has since expanded to include modern hydrotherapy pools, water jets and an underwater gym.
Explore the 250km Coastline of the Basque Country
Visit the Basque Coast, for Getaria and Balenciaga Museum
The feel of San Sebastian’s romantic ‘Old Town’ reverberates along the 250km coastline that makes up the Basque Country, with neighbouring small town Geteria easily accessible for a day visit. The coastal route from San Sebastian to Getaria is also a part of the famed Camino de Santiago journey in Spain.
While similar in appearance, with narrow streets and cobbled walkways, its major draw is the Balenciaga Museum – an ultra-contemporary exhibition dedicated to the Geteria-born fashion designer’s young life and early beginnings in San Sebastian, where he opened a fashion house. Its modern black annexe structure is built next to the 19th Century summer house known as Palacio Aldamar – the former residence of the Marquises of Casa Torre (grandparents to Queen Fabiola of Belgium) and mentors to Balenciaga in the early years of his career.
Known for his perfectionism and expert sewing techniques, this annexe is filled with many rooms that house his timeless designs including evening dresses, suits and capes, all presented immaculately in huge glass cabinets within beautifully lit rooms. His 20 years working as a couturier in San Sebastian, before his rise to fame in Paris in 1937, is not forgotten and remains a key part of the city’s 20th Century cultural legacy.
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 lives up to its capital of culture acclaim. The question is – how will you see San Sebastian?
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 in 2016.