San Sebastián surprised us with it’s beautiful location and laid back vibe. When you think of Spain, the first thing that probably comes to mind are Madrid, Barcelona and the Costa’s. Basque Country is not really regarded as a top tourist destination. Sure, it’s not as hot as the east coast and it’s turbulent past still roars in the back of peoples minds. Truth is though, it’s beautiful! San Sebastián (‘Donostia’ in Basque) is our favorite place in Basque Country and this article will take you on a tour to the best places to see in San Sebastián.
#1 The best thing to do in San Sebastián: Eat Pintxos!
Let’s start with some food before going through the list of best things to do in San Sebastián. The city is seen as the gastronomical capital of Spain. One of the reasons for this title is because San Sebastián has no less than nine restaurants with at least one Michelin star. Even though a lot smaller, the city is compared to Tokya and London when on comes to fancy food. If you don’t have Michelin star money and/or don’t like static restaurants, like us, there are also a lot of options.
The north of Spain is well known for its pintxos; the tapas of Basque Country. They can be best described as tapas on a slice of baguette. The region borders France, so that probably has something to do with it. Pintxos have become a trend all over Spain. Everywhere you go these cozy restaurants can be found, but make no mistake, pintxos originated in Basque Country. Besides slices of baguette, they have mini hamburgers, mini paninis, mini croissants, you name it. Each of them made into small pieces of castronomical art.
The pintxo restaurants can be found all over the city. During lunch time they are packed with locals grabbing a bite to eat and drink some wine. Join them and try a bunch of them. When you’re done, your bill depends on the amount of skewers that are on you plate. It’s customary to take one or two pintxos instead of cramming your plate.
Our favorite place to eat pintxos in San Sebastián is Sirimiri Gastroleku. You can find it marked with number 1 on the map.
#2. Must see in San Sebastián: Overlook the city from the Monte Igueldo
San Sebastián is situated on the Gulf of Biscay. It’s beautiful bay makes the city look awesome from every angle. Especially from the two hills on both sides of the entrance of the bay. The hill on west side is called Monte Igueldo. It has a stunning view over the city. No hour long hikes and countless blisters, but a cable car. It’s old, in fact, it’s one of the oldest still working cable cars of Europe, but it does the job. It’s wooden benches make your mind wander back in time, and that’s exactly what they want. A return ticket costs €3.75. A single ride takes only a few minutes.
So, what can’t miss on a hill with a stunning view? Exactly, a theme park. Didn’t expect that, did you?:) The theme park is pretty old and actually has more of a fair vibe; bumper cars, a carousel and a small roller coaster are the main attractions. It’s cool how they’ve kept it going all these years. When we were there they were preparing for high season, so it’s probably more exiting during summer. Entrance is free and attractions have to be paid for separately.
#3. Stroll through the historical center
The old center of San Sebastiàn is littered with cozy pintxo restaurants and bars. The entire area is one architectural highlight with the Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilika as it’s crown jewel.
#4. Visit all three of San Sebastián’s beaches
San Sebastián’s has three great beaches: Playa de Ondaretta on the west, Playa la Concha in the middle and Playa Zurriola on the east. Playa la Concha is the beach that gives San Sebastián its relaxed vibe as it’s the most prominent place in the center. If you like surfing, go to Playa Zurriola which has the best waves in the area. The suburb Gros, where Zurriola is, houses a lot of surf shops and schools.
#5. San Sebastián’s history in Torreón del Monte Igueldo
Also situated in the theme park is San Sebastián’s old lighthouse. It didn’t function as a lighthouse very long, since fog in the hills would often obstruct the light from reaching ships. You can image things went terribly wrong. After being abandoned for many years, the lighthouse got renovated to the state it is in now. From the roof you have a stunning view plus, since the view was already pretty great. As you walk up the stairs, you are taken on a tour back in time with photo’s of San Sebastiàn from the beginning of photography until present day. A ticket costs €2.50.
#6. Climb to the viewpoint on Monte Urgull
Besides Monte Igueldo, there’s another viewpoint in San Sebasián: Monte Urgull. This viewpoint lies on the other side of the bay’s entrance, on the east side. No cable cart here, so you’ll have to do some walking to see city’s panorama from the other side. On top of Monte Urgull you’ll find a Christ statue, which gave the city the nickname: Spanish Rio de Janeiro
#7. One of the best places of interest: Good Shepherd Cathedral of San Sebastián
The most beautiful church, the Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilika, can be found in the historical center. The Good Shepeherd Cathedral, however, was built a short walk from the historical center. It’s open for public, so you’re welcome to take a look. When we strolled in we forgot it was Sunday, so a mass was in progress. Oh well, there’s a first time for everything:)
#8. Go and see Plaza de la Constitución
Plaza de la Constitución used to be the arena were bull fights took place. Other than in Pamplona, were the tradition is still very much alive, bull fighting belongs to the past in San Sebastiàn. Nowadays the square is the center of the old town with a few restaurants and bars.
#9. Go on a Basque Country roadtrip and visit Bilbao
Chances are you are dependent on air transportation, so it’s a good idea to combine your San Sebastián city break with a visit to Bilbao. San Sebastián doesn’t have an airport, so you’ll have to book your ticket to Bilbao instead.
From Bilbao the drive takes about an hour if you rent a car in Bilbao, but it’s also possible to go by bus or train to San Sebastián. The scenery is breathtaking between the two cities, so don’t worry about being bored during your trip.
#10. Explore San Sebastián by bicycle
We did everything on foot, which was fine, but it does take a long time. Don’t want to spend hours walking? Rent a bicycle! The city has proper bicycle paths. Rent your own bike or book a bicycle tour to see all of San Sebastián’s highlights.
Where to stay in San Sebastián?
Accommodations in San Sebastián are pretty pricey. The entire region is more expensive than the rest of Spain. We stayed in Pensión Easo, a small pension a short walk to the old city center for €60 per night. Rather stay in the old center? Check out all accommodations in the old center of San Sebastián.
If you ask us, San Sebastián is definitely one of the best cities for a city trip in Spain.