Of all the places to go in Spain, San Sebastian is possibly one of the most beautiful seaside destinations. Comb the jewel of Spain’s Basque country for hidden alleyways, cute bars, movie stars, jazz musicians and haute-couture fashion designers. Here are 10 things to do in San Sebastian.
1- Admire the view from Mount Igueldo
Catch the funicular cable car at Ondarreta beach to the top of Mount Igueldo, where you will find sweeping harbour views of this Riviera town and the Bay of Biscay.
Only 20 kilometres from the French border, San Sebastian has been a popular holiday spot for European nobles since the 19th century.
The kids will love the Mount Igueldo amusement park with its roller coaster, water rides and bumper cars.
There is also a hotel and café where you can sip on a café solo and soak in the view in that relaxed Spanish fashion.
2- Basque on San Sebastian’s La Concha beach
San Sebastian’s main beach, La Concha, curves gently along a sheltered waterfront.
Have lunch at one of the many waterfront restaurants along Paseo de la Concha where you’ll enjoy gorgeous ocean views and delicious four-course meals that, surprisingly, won’t break the bank.
La Perla restaurant (Paseo de la Concha, San Sebastian, tel: 943 46 24 84) has both indoor and outdoor dining where the average price for a four-course meal is around €20.
After lunch, enjoy the walk along the beachfront where rows of sun-kissed bodies lap up the last rays of summer.
Watch the kids riding on the French-style carousel at the Alderdi Eder gardens, which is situated in a quaint setting in front of the historic City Hall building.
At the end of the bay is the picturesque Monte Urgull area with its myriad of colourful boats. There’s also San Sebastian’s Naval Museum and Aquarium.
Past the Aquarium, there is an ocean-front cliff walk with stunning rugged views.
3- Go surfing at La Zurriola
Set next to the gleaming space-aged glass structure of the Kursaal Conference Centre and Auditorium, La Zurriola is a convenient surf beach right in the heart of San Sebastian.
If you travel along the coastline, you’ll find that this region has some of the world’s best places to go in Spain for surf beaches.
Zarautz is the area’s longest surf beach while Mundaka holds international surfing competitions that attract surfers from the far corners of the world.
4- Explore the San Sebastian Old Town
During medieval times San Sebastian was a walled city limited to the old town – which is now known as Parte Vieja – with Plaza de la Constitucion as its historical heart.
Plaza de la Constitucion’s colourful facade still has numbers painted onto every balcony as a curious tourist attraction and a reminder of the bullfighting ring it once was.
There are also a couple of ornate cathedrals that are worth a visit.
Erected over the top of Roman ruins, Santa Maria Basilica is one of the best places to go in Spain for Baroque architecture.
You could spend hours wandering around the narrow cobblestone alleys into the many restaurants, pintxos bars and shops.
Most bars in San Sebastian will have plates of pintxo, the local version of tapas, laid out on the counter.
Order a small glass of wine (the local wine is called txakoli) or beer and help yourself to the food.
When you’re ready to move on to the next bar, just let the bar tender know what you ate. Payment works on an honesty system.
The people of San Sebastian are a social lot and you’ll find the pintxo bars in the old town thriving with activity.
5- Get inspired at Chillida Leku
The Basque region’s most successful international sculptor, Eduardo Chillida, set up an outdoor museum to display his contemporary iron and granite sculptures.
The artworks at Chillida Leku are displayed among the greenery, harmonising iron and earth, stone and forest.
Set among lush green fields, oak and birch trees, is a restored 16th-century farmhouse with a collection of smaller works, sketches and early sculptures.
This San Sebastian-born sculptor displays works in over 20 museums around the world from Houston to Berlin.
His pieces are often placed in a nature setting such as the sea front in San Sebastian and in the mountains in Japan.
6- Comb the streets for someone famous
Hollywood comes to San Sebastian each September in the form of the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Theatres overflow with film buffs, cameras flash and fans jostle for autographs as San Sebastian turns on the glamour.
Made famous by Gregory Peck and officially known as Donostia San Sebastian Nazioarteko Zinemaldia Festival Internacional De Cine, San Sebastian features a diet of top Spanish-language films as well as an obscure roster of hard-to-categorise international films.
The last festival attracted the attendance of some big names like Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Costner, William Dafoe and Anjelica Houston.
7- Attend the San Sebastian Jazz Festival
The city bops each July when one of Europe’s oldest Jazz Festival’s attracts a global list of jazz musicians like Roberta Flack, Keith Jarrett and Van Morrison.
There are open-air concerts everywhere; Plaza de la Trinidad is usually jam-packed with jazz fans and cool sounds float through the Old Quarter.
At the end of each day, artists and jazz lovers rub shoulders at the pintxo bars till the wee hours of the morning.
8- Climb La Rhune Mountain
As San Sebastian is surrounded by nature reserves and is only two hours’ drive from the Pyrenees, hiking and paragliding are popular activities.
At 905 metres high, the La Rhune Mountain – which lies half in France and half in Spain – has spectacular views.
You can join a guided hiking tour or catch the six-kilometre per hour train ride (Le Petit Train de la Rhune) to the top. The train takes 30 minutes and the hike three hours.
9- Live like Queen Maria Cristina
At the beginning of the 20th century, Queen Maria Cristina from Austria installed her summer court at the Miramar Palace causing a flood of casinos, hotels and theatres which transformed San Sebastian into a getaway for the nobles.
This period was known as San Sebastian’s La Belle Epoch when French architecture became prominent in the town.
There are French-style palaces which have been converted into apartment buildings and over 100 different types of street lamps, many of which are reminiscent of Paris.
There’s even a bridge designed along the lines of Paris’ Pont Alexander II, of course, it’s called the Maria Cristina Bridge.
The most luxurious hotel in town, the Hotel Maria Cristina, is located in a historical building with elaborate chandeliers and plush antique furniture. Of course, over the years, the hotel has had an impressive list of celebrity guests from Mata Hari to John Malkovich.
Surrounded by promenades and gardens, many of the rooms offer views of the ocean. Unless you’re a Hollywood star or famous director, forget about booking in during the International Film Festival, you’d be hard-pressed to get a room.
10- Take a day trip to Getaria
Take a day trip to the tiny fishing village of Getaria the hometown of, Spain’s most famous haute-courtier fashion designer, Cristobal Balenciaga.
The Balenciaga Foundation has a collection of 800 of his creations and is building a brand new contemporary facility to honour Getaria’s favourite son.
In 1936 he moved to Paris and rocketed to fame with equally famous disciples such as Ungaro and Oscar de la Renta hanging on to his coat tails.