Things to Do in San Sebastian
Wrapped around three glorious beaches - the perfect bays of La Concha and Ondarreta, as well as less visited Playa la Zurriola across the Urumea River - San Sebastián is already a privileged local. Add exquisite Isla Santa Clara, with its own pretty coves at low tide (swim across, or take a small boat), and epic mountains all around, and you have the finest setting for a city imaginable.
San Sebastián lives up to its surroundings with absolute pleasure. The colorful nightlife districts, lining the sea, attract the majority of revelers with fine wine and the Basque Country's best cuisine. Architecture and history buffs will enjoy the Old City, with neighborhoods dating to the Renaissance, and newer but no less lovely churches and municipal buildings.
The atmosphere is festive, the setting absolutely stunning, and the scene a mix of the modern and traditional. This is definitely the Basques' top spot for a classic beach vacation.
San Sebastian’s medieval Old Town is a maze of bar-packed alleys serving the city’s world-famous pintxos and wine. The neighborhood is also home to the wonderfully chaotic Pescadería (fish market), the San Telmo Municipal Museum, Church of San Vicente, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of Coro.
Constitution Square (Plaza de la Constitución) sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.
Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th.
Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar. These drinking-and-eating establishments typically pile high their counters with gourmet-style tapas-topped slices of bread, and are usually enjoyed by visiting one bar after the next.
San Sebastian’s main crescent-shaped beach is of softest sand and punctuated at both ends by craggy hills: Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. Translating into English as ‘the shell’, La Concha was fundamental in the incarnation of San Sebastian as an elegant seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty back in the 19th century.
The beach fills to bursting in the summer, when the bumpy waters of the Bay of Biscay are calm and pleasantly warm to swim in. Lifeguards are always on duty and there are showers and other facilities on the beach, making it safe and easy for families to enjoy a day on the sand. Two floating pontoons out in the bay are just the spot for sunbathing; beyond them the small, rocky islet of Santa Clara has a tiny beach that is a prime picnic spot and can be reached by motorboat or hired canoe.
Now backed by formal gardens, a brightly painted carousel, and a row of charming hotels, seafood restaurants and bars, the Paseo Nuevo promenade that runs the length of La Concha comes alive during the nightly paseo, when San Sebastian residents and tourists alike dress up and go out on the town.
One of two headlands that guard the entrance of San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay, Monte Igueldo stands to the west of town and offers the ideal vantage point for views of the bay, La Concha Beach, Santa Clara Island, Monte Urgull, and the surrounding hills. With natural beauty and historical significance, Monte Igueldo is one of the city’s top attractions.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastian was flourishing as an aristocratic seaside resort; it was promoted to cathedral in 1953. Buen Pastor is the largest religious construction in the city, made of sandstone harvested from Monte Igueldo and with a tapering spire that serves as a local landmark.
The vast church was designed by Basque architect Manuel de Echave along elegant, slender Gothic lines; its needle-like spire is the tallest in the Basque country at 246 feet (75 meters). Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida created the ‘Cross of Peace’ that adorns the main façade.
Based on the Latin cross, the cathedral has three naves and the interior is awash with light flooding in through the stained-glass windows by Juan Bautista Lázaro; vast chandeliers hang down from the vaulted roof and rose windows illuminate both ends of the transept. The organ was installed in 1954 and has more than 9,000 pipes, making it one of the largest in Europe.
With formal gardens that tumble down to the beach edge at Ondarreta, the Miramar Palace (Palacio de Miramar) was once the retreat of Queen Marie Christine Habsburg, the wealthy widow of King Alphonse XII of the Spanish ruling royal family; she was responsible for putting San Sebastian on the map as a popular seaside vacation resort in the late 19th century.
The palace was the work of Basque architect José Goicoa, and was completed in 1893 in the English style. The influence of his design partner, English architect Seldon Wornum, can be seen in the mock-Tudor detailing in the patterned brickwork, gables, tall thin chimneys, and rounded towers.
The gardens of Marie Christine’s summer palace are so extensive that a road runs underneath them, connecting San Sebastian’s beaches with the elegant suburb of El Antiguo. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the Spanish royal family and local government officials, the gardens now form an elegant public park, stretching from the former palace to the seafront. It’s a well-loved spot for a picnic on summer days, overlooking the sandy strip of Ondarreta Beach.
Of the two headlands that bookend San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay, Monte Urgull to the east was an especially important defensive site, starting in the 12th century. Today, Monte Urgull draws visitors for its views of the city and bay, La Concha and Ondarreta beaches, Santa Clara Island, and Monte Igueldo, the western headland.
Extensively revamped in 2008, the San Sebastián Aquarium has an enviable waterside position at the foot of Monte Urgull, is one of the most up-to-date in Europe, despite its location in a 1928 building. With 31 aquaria featuring marine eco-scapes from Cantabria and the tropics, the premier attraction here is the 360-degree perspex tunnel that dives through the Oceanarium while more than 40 species of fish, including bull sharks, turtles, sinister stingrays and jellyfish, swim merrily past.
A small museum of marine history displays the bleached skeleton of a whale caught off the Atlantic coast in 1878, and a smattering of fascinating whaling and fishing boats that showcase San Sebastian’s enduring relationship with the sea.
San Telmo Museum (STM) is in the heart of the Old Town, housed in a 16th-century Renaissance convent structured around a lovely cloister. For the second half of the 19th century, the convent was used as a barracks and slowly fell into disrepair. It was rescued from dereliction and in 1932 became the city’s municipal museum. The year 2011 saw the addition of a new gallery coated in aluminum, creating a seamless blend of Renaissance and contemporary design.
The museum—San Telmo Museoa in the Basque language, or Museo San Telmo in Spanish—examines the development of Basque culture from Neolithic times to present, helped along by the 11 murals in the chapel painted; these were painted by José María Sert in the 1930s and highlight the main events over the centuries. The fine-art collection contains lots of gloomy oil paintings, with a couple of standout masterpieces by El Greco as well as fine portraits by Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla. There’s special interest taken in the industrialization of the region—and its subsequent financial flowering—in the 19th century, illustrated with a rare collection of black-and-white images. Temporary art exhibitions are held on the ground floor.
Picking up where San Sebastian’s main La Concha Beach ends at a rocky outcrop called Pico del Loro, Ondarreta Beach (Playa de Ondarreta) is a shorter stretch of sand that’s nonetheless just as lovely. It offers the same postcard-perfect views of La Concha Bay, Santa Clara Island, and Monte Igueldo and Monte Urgull, the two hills that bookend the bay.
More Things to Do in San Sebastian
One of San Sebastián’s most-seen sights is in fact probably one of its least accessible: that’s because it’s an island. Santa Clara Island (Isla de Santa Clara in Spanish or Santa Klara Uhartea in the Basque language) is situated in the middle of La Concha Bay, and stretches 400 meters across and 48 meters up into the sky, where it’s topped by uninhabited lighthouse.
The island isn’t just for looking at from afar, though, as ferries make regular journeys there during the summer (and those with more physical prowess can get there by rented kayak). What waits for you on the other side? Santa Clara Island is noted as being home to San Sebastián’s fourth beach, a miniature, 30-meters-in-length stretch of land that only reveals itself for a few hours during low tide. It may be small, but given its popularity, a lifeguard watches over the shore.
If you miss the beach, there are other things to do here, too. You can trek up to the top of the island to – if you’ve planned accordingly – enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the tables. Or you can just take in unique views of the coastline and San Sebastián’s old quarter, which sit right across the water. The island is also home to a small bar, where you can restock on refreshments and snacks during your visit or before taking the short journey back to the city’s port.
Just steps away from San Sebastián’s old quarter sits the Victoria Eugenia Theatre (Teatro Victoria Eugenia in Spanish or Victoria Eugenia Antzokia in Basque). The commanding Belle Époque-style building stands watch over Okendo Plaza, as well as the River Urumea, which flows out to the Bay of Biscay.
Francisco de Urcola designed the early 20th-century property in response to the Basque city’s growth as a destination for Spanish and European aristocrats. Now, it’s considered one of the most beautiful buildings in San Sebastián and also as one of the most prestigious theaters in all of Spain.
And upon seeing it, there’s really no surprise as to why. It boasts an attractive sandstone exterior, whose columned front façade is adorned by four prominent sculptures, each of which represents opera, tragedy, comedy and drama. Meanwhile, the interior dazzles with golden balconies filled with red velvet chairs, and a ceiling of frescoes illuminated by an elaborate chandelier.
Apart from shows ranging from opera to dance and musicals, Victoria Eugenia Theatre has also played host to the San Sebastian International Film Festival, as well as various movie premieres.
The attractive walled Basque town of Hondarribia (Fuenterrabia in Spanish) sits on the banks of the River Bidasoa on Spain’s Atlantic coast 20 km (12.5 miles) east of San Sebastian. Considered one of the prettiest Basque coastal towns, Hondarribia is almost on the Atlantic border with France and is backed by the austere peak of Mount Rhune.
This historic town is blessed with a lively marina; a sandy beach and a waterfront esplanade; a gaggle of wooden-balconied fishermen’s dwellings; and through an ancient stone archway, an ancient heart of labyrinthine cobbled lanes in Parte Vieja (Old Town), lined with stone palaces and traditional medieval townhouses.
Currently enjoying something of a moment in the sun for its explosion of gourmet restaurants, Hondarribia has a number of tasty pintxos bars along tree-lined San Pedro Kale, where these Spanish mini-kebabs can be enjoyed along with a glass of local cider. In fact you’ll find restaurants to suit every pocket, from downhome and casual through sleek wine bars to the Michelin-starred Alameda.
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