The well-known “Bella Easo” still has hidden within it some places that are not very popular. We have searched for some of the best secret places in San Sebastián (also known as Donostia) so that the lovers of this city can enjoy it to the fullest. Some are next to emblematic places or passages that many people pass through, but go unjustly unnoticed because of their theme; others are a little farther from the tourist areas. In all cases they are destinations for authentic travellers, for those who want to get closer to the soul of the city through its history, art, nature and gastronomy.
Market of La Bretxa
Visitors should know that one of the most iconic places in Donostia is the Bretxa Market. From the first level of the Boulevard car park you can already see the reason for its name. On the left side, as you enter with your car, you can see the remains of the old wall of San Sebastián, demolished in 1863. The Bretxa market was built seven years later on the site of the breach caused by the bombing of the wall by the French Duke of Berwick in 1719 and by Portuguese, English and Spanish troops commanded by Wellington in 1813. This weak point in the fortification has become the strong point of San Sebastián’s gastronomy, as it is common to find many of the city’s most famous chefs in front of its stalls.
The House of History and the English Cemetery
Many of those who climb to the top of Mount Urgull focus on the panoramic views and the hike, paying little attention to the castle of La Mota, where we find the House of History. It is a collection of audiovisuals, models, pieces and scenes that showcase the 800 years of the city’s history. There, we can learn enough about the 19th century in San Sebastián to contextualize another hidden place, located very close by. On the northern slope of the mountain, facing the sea, is the English Cemetery, named after the remains of the British Auxiliary Legion (1836-7). This was a unit of volunteers sent to help the Spanish Government in its fight against the Carlist insurgents; their base was in San Sebastián, being that the main area of operations was in Gipuzkoa.
Diocesan Museum of Gipuzkoa
Another one of the secret places of San Sebastián is the Diocesan Museum of Gipuzkoa. It is located inside the Basilica of Santa María del Coro, in the Santa Marta nave (a space restored and curated by the world-famous architect Rafael Moneo). It is an exquisite collection of sacred works of art including goldsmithery, painting, sculpture and jewellery from the Romanesque period to the present day. See the schedule for access.
About two hundred metres from the basilica, on the north pier of the port, is the Naval Museum. People often pass by it on their way to the more-popular aquarium nearby. This old building of the Fisherman’s Association has a room dedicated to experiential activities and two temporary exhibitions; it currently has a very interesting one on the support the Basques gave to the United States during their fight for independence.
The location of the city, between a bay and the mouth of a river, allows one to admire it from different viewpoints. The most common for tourists are the aforementioned Mount Urgull, the island of Santa Clara and Mount Igueldo. However, both the Donostians and enemy troops of the past used two other strategic locations, now public parks. On a hill to the south of the bay is the Palace of Aiete and its gardens. This place served as the headquarters for the Duke of Berwick during his famous siege and was also a summer residence and meeting place for General Franco’s councils of ministers during his dictatorship. Built in 1878 by the Dukes of Bailén, it housed royalty and aristocracy for more than a century and is now publicly owned and dedicated to the House of Peace and Human Rights.
At the eastern end of the city, overlooking the beach of Zurriola, is Mount Ulía. This is the point of access for pilgrims on the Northern Way to Santiago; its strategic position has led to fortifications being built there. It is also an excellent place to stroll and bird-watch, with signposted paths and interesting cliffs.
Once you have enjoyed these views, it may be a good idea to go down to the taverns in the Gros neighbourhood to eat a la carte or get a “pintxo-pote”– ask about the tapas and drinks specials and at certain times (see here for a sample of restaurants from all over the city). The popularity of the restaurants of the Old Town during the festive season has motivated many of the people of San Sebastián to become accustomed to this area of drinks and gastronomy; remembering the old saying: “wherever you go, do what you see.”
Written by Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga