San Sebastian is a stylish city located on the Basque coast of northern Spain just 20km from the French border. It has long been an attractive resort for the wealthy who escape the overpowering heat of the interior during the summer months and as a result property prices in San Sebastian remain amongst the highest in the country.
The climate in San Sebastian involves many rainy days and even when it is not raining it is often dull and cloudy. The summer weather tends to be drier than in winter and when the sun does come out there are some spectacular beaches to enjoy. During the summer temperatures can reach as high as 25ºC. Winters get chilly but temperatures rarely fall below 5ºC and there is almost never any snow.
Getting to San Sebastian
By Plane: San Sebastian Airport is not actually in the city of San Sebastian, it lies 22km northeast next to the town of Hondarribia on the border between Spain and France. There are no international flights to San Sebastian where the only arrivals are domestic ones. As an alternative, visitors can fly to Bilbao or Santander then travel overland to San Sebastian or take a flight to Madrid or Barcelona then take a domestic flight to San Sebastian. There is also the option of flying to Bordeaux or Biarritz in France then driving to San Sebastian. There’s a regular bus service operating from the airport to Plaza Gipuzkoa in the centre of San Sebastian as well as plenty taxis. The journey time is around 30 minutes.
By Train: San Sebastian can be reached by train from Paris via Hendaye and from Barcelona. For timetables and prices check the RENFE website. This is available in English.
The RENFE train station at ‘Estación del Norte’ is where long-distance and international train services arrive. You can just walk across Puente de Maria Cristina into the city’s commercial centre and continue on to the heart of the Parte Vieja in about 15 minutes. Buses and taxis are available if you’re carrying too much luggage.
The EuskoTren station at ‘Estación de Amara’ next to Plaza Easo is where narrow gauge services arrive from Bilbao and Hendaye on the French border. It lies on the city side of the River Urumea but is marginally further out of town than the RENFE station so may take you 20 minutes to walk. Again public transport options are available.
By Bus: The national bus network links San Sebastian with most of Spain’s major cities. Try the www.alsa.es website for details. The bus station lies a further 200 metres out of town at Plaza de Pio XII. This is a 25 minute hike into the Old Quarter so just jump on a city bus or grab a taxi to your accommodation.
Where to Stay in San Sebastian
As a resort San Sebastian has been particularly fashionable since 1912 when the Queen opened a grand hotel here in her name. Today the Hotel Maria Cristina is a member of the leading hotels of the world group. There is a small selection of other fine San Sebastian hotels but not sufficient to cater for the summer influx of visitors so be sure to make advance reservations.
Budget Accommodation in San Sebastian
When searching for a hostal in San Sebastian be aware that there are three distinct areas to choose from which are all adjacent to one another. The commercial Centro area tends to have more availability than the Parte Vieja whilst across the river to the east in Gros you find a less hectic area within easy distance of the Old Quarter. From the hostals in Gros it’s only a short walk from the RENFE station and if you happen to arrive by car you have more parking options at Parkings Kursaal, Cataluña and Txofre than there than in the other two areas. No prizes for guessing where my preference lies! Of course if you’re a young backpacker without a vehicle you may well prefer to be right in the middle of the Parte Vieja. To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t make a lot of difference once you’re in this general area as everywhere you’ll be wanting to see is within walking distance.
The hostals listed below are my personal favourite. They are housed in established city apartment blocks and have been tastefully refurbished. Their central locations are ideal for visitors and lifts are available to the hostel level. The owners and staff are extremely friendly and helpful. All rooms have en suite bathroom and TV, breakfast is available as well as wifi internet access.
Pension Kursaal (C/ Peña y Goñi, 2-1º dcha)
I shouldn’t be listing this place as it’s my chosen one whenever I’m in San Sebastian so I don’t want to find that it’s full next time I’m in town. It is located near the Kursaal Conference Hall and Auditorium. It has lovely, clean rooms and is particularly welcoming, the girls on the reception deserve a special mention as they are so friendly and helpful. I generally park in the public Parking Kursal then walk to the pension. The Zurriola Beach is only a couple of minutes away and it’s a pleasant 5 minute stroll to all the pintxo bars of the Old Quarter.
Pension Aida (C/Iztueta, 9-1º)
Pension Aida is the sister accommodation to Kursaal. It is highly recommended if you’re arriving by train at the RENFE station as it’s only a few minutes walk away. Light sleepers might prefer to look elsewhere as you can hear the trains from some rooms. Parking is generally available if you’re driving. Ideal location for getting around on foot with easy access to the Parte Vieja and beaches. Lovely people on the reception just can’t seem to do enough to make sure you enjoy your stay.
Top Attractions in San Sebastian
San Sebastian isn’t renowned for ‘must do’ attractions. It lies on Bahía de la Concha, one of the finest city beaches anywhere which attracts many visitors and locals alike during the summer months. Playa de Ondarreta to the west and Playa de la Zurriola to the east are also popular for swimming and surfing. The city’s old town (parte vieja) is a labyrinth of small streets which criss cross one another and are packed with tiny bars where you’ll discover some of Spain’s best tapas.
San Sebastian Beaches
The city spreads around the famous La Concha beach which is packed in July and August with a huge number of visitors. The other beaches of Playa de Ondarreta to the west and Playa de la Zurriola to the east are also popular and attract a lot of surfers looking to ride the Atlantic waves. Inland are the beautiful green mountain landscapes of Guipúzcoa of which San Sebastian is the provincial capital. The city is a great base from which to discover the whole of País Vasco (the Basque Country).
Address: Paseo del Muelle, 34
The city’s aquarium displays a range of sea creatures which you can watch from a 360º walkway. Shark feedings take place at 11am and 4pm.
Address: Paseo del Muelle, 24
Interesting look at the history of Basque seafaring tradition including many photos and displays of naval artifacts.
Museo de San Telmo
Address: Plaza Zuloaga 1
This museum in the old town is housed in a 16th-century monastery at the foot of Monte Urgull. It displays a wide range of works through the ages including ones by El Greco and Ribera with a strong emphasis on Basque painters.
Dominating the centre of San Sebastian high above the old quarter with the statue of Christ is Monte Urgull. You can walk up a path that starts behind the aquarium to the top from where there are great views across Bahía de la Concha and out to sea.
Funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo
On the opposite side of Bahía de la Concha from Monte Urgull is Monte Igueldo from where you get the best views of San Sebastian city and its coastline as well as the green Basque countryside. To get there take the old funicular up to the attraction park which lies on Monte Igueldo. The funcicular operates throughout the day for most of the year.
The city’s main Tourist Information Office is at Calle Reina Regente, 3 (Tel: 94-348-11-66). Summer opening hours are Monday to Saturday from 8am to 8pm and Sunday from 10am to 2pm.
San Sebastian Restaurants
You’ll find more Michelin star restaurants in San Sebastian than in any other city in Spain. You can also sample some excellent tapas in the many bars of the old quarter (La Parte Vieja) where you simply take a plate from the barman and select whatever you fancy from the vast selection of freshly prepared dishes which are laid out on the bar. If you fancy a drink with the locals just wander around the tiny streets of the old quarter and you’ll find the biggest concentration of bars in the whole country.
If you’re looking for real gastronomic quality then you’re in the right place as San Sebastian has some of the finest restaurants in Spain. But Michelin star restaurants don’t come cheap. Here are some of the top recommendations.
Address: Alto de Miracruz 21
Juan Mari Arzak has turned this place into a restaurant of world renown which has three Michelin stars. It is reputedly the finest restaurant in Spain which specialises in Basque cuisine with the chef’s personal touch. Some of the favourite dishes of previous customers are listed on the back of the menu just in case you’re having a problem making your mind up. It is essential to reserve in advance.
Address: Paseo del Padre Orkolaga 56
This restaurant offers similar dishes as Arzak and many visitors suggest that the quality is of the same excellence as Arzak but in a better location lying a few kilometres west of the city beyond the village of Igueldo which offers superb views out to sea. The chef, Pedro Subijana, was selected as the best chef in Spain in 1983 and his influence has shaped the development of modern Basque cuisine ever since. The restaurant has two Michelin stars and prices are marginally less than Arzak.
Address: Loidi Kalea 4
Another establishment run by a starred chef is Martín Berasategui who has gained quite a reputation in gastronomic circles. He learned his trade from his mother who used to cook for local fishermen. His ingeneous preparation of local fish produce is particularly outstanding.
Address: Paseo de Salamanca 3
Urepel is run by Tero Almandoz who is acclaimed as one of the finest chefs in the area. The restaurant may not appear as fancy as those listed above but the food is sensational particularly the local seafood dishes which are served with delicious sauces accompanied by exquisitely prepared vegetables. The dessert menu is to die for.
Address: Reyes Católicos 10
A long established local haunt located in the historical heart of the city near the cathedral. You can eat tapas at street level rubbing shoulders with the many locals who are regulars here or go to the upstairs dining room where you’ll be offered an extensive menu which includes some excellent fresh fish dishes.
Address: Calle Fermín Calbetón 4
Traditional restaurant offering a fixed daily menu which relies extensively on fresh produce from the local market. First class Basque food on offer which changes according to season.
Address: Puerto 14
To savour local fish dishes in a no nonsense traditional eatery this popular little seafood restaurant in the Old Town is the place to go. A great selection of locally caught dishes are on offer daily.
Festivals in San Sebastian
There are some important festivals in San Sebastian during the summer months such as the annual International Jazz Festival which takes place in mid-July. The biggest annual event is Aste Nagusia which is a full week of partying in mid-August which includes traditional Basque music and dance as well as gastronomic and sporting events (plus drinking and fireworks of course). Dates vary so check plans for this year at the San Sebastian Tourist Information Website. September is another popular time for tourists when the San Sebastián International Film Festival takes place.
Here are the most important annual events in the city’s calendar:
San Sebastian Jazz Festival
This is Spain’s top Jazz Festival which attracts performers from all around the globe. It attracts a lot of visitors including many people on their way home from the Pamplona bullrunning. Some top bands arrange rock concerts to coincide with the festival. It takes place the the 3rd week of July. See the San Sebastian Jazz Festival website for the latest news and ticket information.
San Sebastian Film Festival
The San Sebastian’s Film Festival has been attracting well known personalities from the film world since its inauguration in 1952. The city is packed out over this period so book hotel rooms well in advance. It takes place during the 3rd week of September. Check the San Sebastian Film Festival website for up to date information.
San Sebastian Theatre Festival
The San Sebastian International Theatre Festival is justifiably earning an international reputation that should soon see it considered as important to the city as the the jazz and film festivals. It takes place in mid-July.
Aste Nagusia (Semana Grande)
This is San Sebastian’s biggest annual festival with open air concerts, Basque sports events, fabulous daily fireworks and raucous partying. It takes place around 15th August.
This is the feast of San Sebastian when the people of San Sebastian hit the streets to a crescendo of drum and barrel playing. The action starts in the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter) at midnight on 19th January when the city’s mayor raises the city’s flag in Plaza Konstituzioa. Then the marching starts as adults dressed as cooks and soldiers follow drum playing bands around throughout the night. Most marchers represent one of San Sebastian’s gastronomic societies, many of which only allow male members.
The origin of the festival is unclear. One theory is that it is a reference to the mocking, by local people (particularly chefs), of the French soldiers that occupied the city during the Napoleonic wars. An alternative suggestion is that back in the early 18th century a baker was singing whilst filling his water barrels when some young girls started banging on the barrels to accompany him. A crowd gathered to watch them and La Tamborrada was born. Who knows and who cares? It’s a great day/night to be in the city.
The following morning (20th) the children of San Sebastian wake up to their own version of the festival in which they too dress as soldiers and march around the city (but without the wine consumption of their parents!).