Rebuilt during the 19th century drawing on French inspiration, in the early 20th century beautiful San Sebastián became one of the main tourist destinations for European royalty and aristocrats. Today the city is home to some of the most famous restaurants and pinchos bars in Spain and hosts some popular festivals.
Planning Your Trip to San Sebastián (Donostia)
There are plenty of things to do in San Sebastián, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Among its charms are its rich architecture, long avenues and monuments such as the Peine del Mar. In addition, La Concha, Zurriola and Ondarreta make up a list of first-class beaches. On the other hand, the city is the end of a key stage of the Northern Way to Santiago: the first one.
Among the trips, heading east are the bay of Pasajes, Hondarribia and the neighbouring cider capital, Astigarraga. Towards the west, Orio and Zarauz stand out. The city is a great gastronomic capital, with the Basque Culinary Center at its head. Do not miss the pages with the best places to eat and sleep in San Sebastián.
The history of San Sebastián began in the year 1014, when the city was home to its namesake: San Sebastián el Antiguo Monastery, affiliated with the Leyre Abbey. Years later, in 1180, King Sancho the Wise of Navarre granted a fuero to the small settlement which preceded San Sebastián. The town was located at the foot of Urgull Hill, surrounded by the mouth of the Urumea River and Concha Bay, and connected to the rest of the territory only by a narrow strip of land which experienced periodic flooding.
Fishing and the Way to Santiago
In 1200, San Sebastián was incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile alongside the rest of Gipuzkoa. It was also one of the four towns which took turns serving as the residence of the corregidor(appointed by the king) and the general deputy (elected by the Juntas of the province’s local governments). Due to its distance from the overland routes leading to Deba and Hondarribia, fishing became the town’s main economic activity. Its secondary source of income came from being a resting place for pilgrims on the branch of the Way to Santiago which runs along the Cantabrian coast.
In 1282, San Sebastián was one of the port towns that founded the Brotherhood of the Marshlands of Castile, a mutual defense organization against foreign naval attacks. In 1522, the city received the title of “noble y leal” (“noble and loyal”) and in 1728, it was granted the privilege of trading with Venezuela through the Royal Gipuzkoa Company of Caracas, which revived San Sebastián’s port. This marked an important milestone in the history of San Sebastián.
San Sebastián suffered through 12 devastating fires, facilitated by its wooden architecture. These catastrophes, alongside repeated attacks by the French, British, and Dutch, contributed to its transformation into an important military stronghold. The city withstood numerous sieges until finally, in August 1719, the mighty French army commanded by the Duke of Berwick conquered it, occupying it for two years.
As opposed to San Sebastián’s resilience in previous centuries, in 1794 and 1808 the city surrendered without a fight to French invaders. The city’s merchants benefited greatly from supplying Napoleon’s troops, which contributed to the plunder and burning of the city by Portuguese and English troops in August 1813.
The city of the aristocracy
During the first half of the 19th century, the people of San Sebastián embraced the liberal cause. At that time it began to develop as a cosmopolitan city, and in 1854 it became the capital of the province. In 1863, it ceased to be a military stronghold and its defensive wall was demolished. Antonio Cortázar’s Expansion Plan (1864) transformed the layout of San Sebastián, expanding the city to the south and creating modernist areas in the style of Paris and Vienna.
In 1885, the queen Maria Christina began to spend her summers in San Sebastián, making it a fashionable destination among the European aristocracy who came to swim in the sea and gamble in the city’s luxurious casino, built in 1887. The resulting economic prosperity allowed for a frenzy of construction, giving rise to new suburbs on the right bank of the Urumea River, in El Antiguo, and on the Paseo Nuevo, as well as the construction of a new quarter on the Amara marshes. A canal was created in the river and Maria Christina Bridge and Kursaal Bridge were built over it. The Maria Christina Hotel, Victoria Eugenia Theatre, the courthouse, La Perla Spa, and Igueldo Hill Amusement Park were also built from the ground up, among others.
Gros Quarter in San Sebastián
The Belle Époque
The so-called Belle Époqueof San Sebastián reached its peak during World War I, when it became the most chic place in Europe as several foreign public figures took refuge there. This golden age began to draw to an end in 1925 when gambling was criminalized, which meant that the city lost its income from the casino and horse racecourse. However, the sophisticated ambiance that came about in the glory days can still be experienced in San Sebastián today. In the 21st century, it is a modern, dynamic, and cosmopolitan city.
San Sebastián is a beautiful, elegant city on the sea. Its La Concha Beach is one of the most beautiful bays in Spain, earning the city the nickname “Pearl of the Cantabrian.” Its quality of life, active cultural life, and famous gastronomy made it the best Quality Tourist Destination in Spain in 2011.
We suggest beginning your tour of San Sebastián in Plaza Easo. As the tour is quite extensive, it can be divided into two parts according to the traveler’s needs. You can reach Plaza Easo by car (there are several parking lots in the area), train, trolley, or bus. It is in the city’s downtown area, a product of the 19th-century expansion of the city, so it is home to a large number of 19th-century buildings, many of them in the modernist style, which are a vestige of San Sebastián’s golden age when it was known as “Little Paris” and “the Paris of the South”.
A nice walk through the main monuments
From the plaza, head down Calle de Easo towards La Concha Beach and make your first stop at the Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea, a cultural center run by the provincial government of Gipuzkoa which regularly organizes exhibits and other activities. Near this institution you can find Buen Pastor Cathedral, a Germanic-inspired Neogothic building built in 1897 which obtained the title of cathedral in 1953. The church’s tower, over the entrance portico, is especially noteworthy. It is steeple-shaped at the top, and at 75 meters tall, it is visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Another point of interest is the Cruz de la Paz (Cross of Peace) which presides over the cathedral’s central façade, a work by the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
From the cathedral, take Calle de San Martín to head towards the Urumea River and take a nice walk on the path along the riverbank, stretching from Paseo de los Fueros to Paseo de la República Argentina. Along the way you will see several turn-of-the-century buildings, including the Maria Christina Hotel, next to Okendo Park, which hosts movie stars attending the annual San Sebastián Film Festival, and the Victoria Eugenia Theatre, a building in the neo-Plateresque style which has held some of the most important events in the city’s cultural life, including the film festival, when its seats were filled by celebrities such as Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Meryl Streep, and Richard Gere.
Buen Pastor Cathedral
Beautiful bridges, rivers and beaches
The bridges that cross over the river, all dating from various time periods, are also emblematic of San Sebastián. The most important ones are Maria Christina Bridge (1903-1904), the most beautiful of them all, in the eclectic style and adorned with sculptures by Mariano Benlliure; Santa Catalina Bridge (rebuilt in 1872); and finally, at the mouth of the river, the modernist Zurriola Bridge (1921), with its street lights influenced by Austrian modernism. Crossing over Zurriola Bridge, you’ll pass through the Gros neighborhood; Zurriola Beach, which of the city’s three beaches is the most popular one for surfing and the only one that allows nudity; and of course, the iconic modern Kursaal Congress Center (1999), designed by Rafael Moneo, which with over 10,000 glass panels and a double-cube structure has become the symbol of modern-day San Sebastián.
Western San Sebastián
Retracing your steps to once again cross over Zurriola Bridge, head down Alameda del Boulevard towards the historical quarter, located where the old wall once stood. The historical quarter has the most ambiance of any area of the city, with its narrow streets and excellent tapas bars. Keep in mind that San Sebastián has more Michelin Star restaurants per square meter than any other city. Walking through the historical quarter you’ll see Plaza de la Constitución, with a portico and balconies on three sides, which once served as a bullring; San Vicente Parish Church (early 16th century), the oldest monument in the city, in the Gothic style but with modern sculptures such as La Piedad (1999) by Jorge Oteiza; and Santa María del Coro Basilica, from the 18th century, with an ornate rococo façade which presides over Calle Mayor.
Another obligatory stop is San Telmo Museum, next to the basilica. It is located in an old 16th-century Dominican convent. The museum illustrates the history and evolution of Basque society through an excellent audiovisual exhibit, as well as an art exhibit featuring works by important artists like Jorge Oteiza and Ignacio Zuloaga. The convent’s church is especially impressive, covered by 17 enormous paintings by the artist José María Sert which depict episodes in the history of Gipuzkoa. For a very fair price, this is the best cultural tour in the city and can last up to four hours.
Santa María del Coro Basilica
Nearby the historical quarter you’ll find the port, where old fishing boats coexist with newer recreational boats while fishing nets are woven by hand in the street. End your stroll around the port at the Aquarium and the Naval Museum, located in the former Consulate building (18th century).
Before continuing your tour, you can climb Urgull Hill from Santa María del Coro or from the port. The walk up to the hilltop is pleasant, and at the peak you’ll find a sculpture of the Sacred Heart and a spectacular panoramic view of San Sebastián. From this vantage point you can see La Mota Castle, a medieval fortress which is today the House of History; the English Cemetery, one of the most romantic spots in the town, a testament to the role of the English troops in the various attacks on the city; and the Ladies’ Battery as well as the Governor’s Battery. On your way down, regain your energy by enjoying a delectable pincho at any of the locales in the historical quarter.
The most popular place in San Sebastián
After taking a moment to recover, you can begin the second stage of your tour of San Sebastián by taking a nice walk on La Concha Beach or Ondarreta Beach, long considered the city’s most aristocratic beach. In addition to the three beaches we’ve mentioned so far, which make San Sebastián a Cantabrian tourist destination par excellence, there is also a small beach on Santa Clara Island, in the middle of the bay.
La Concha is one of Spain’s most famous urban beaches, an enduring symbol of San Sebastián. On the boardwalk you can find classic lampposts, two 19th-century clocks, and the Pearl of the Ocean Spa, an old wooden bathhouse built during the golden age of San Sebastián which has been converted into a thalassotherapy center, with restaurants and a popular nightclub. At one end of the beach alongside the boulevard you will find the Town Hall (built in 1887, functional until 1947); the old casino in the modernist style, next to Alberdi Eder Gardens; and the Royal Nautical Club (1930), an example of rationalist architecture whose structure looks like a boat. A little farther down you’ll find the London Hotel, another vestige of the city’s golden age, whose elegant façade has French and English touches.
La Concha beach and Town Hall
Good views of the city
La Concha Beach ends with Pico del Loro, a cliff which is the site of Miramar Mansion, an English-style building commissioned by Queen Maria Christina. The mansion, which now holds summer classes for the University of the Basque Country, is surrounded by a beautiful public park designed by Pierre Duchase. After Pico del Loro you will reach Ondarreta Beach and the El Antiguo quarter, full of magnificent houses which reflect the wealth of the people who used to spend summers in the town. On the other side is Igueldo Hill, on whose peak you can find an old-fashioned amusement park from the early 20th century, which can be reached by foot or funicular. From the hilltop you can see a striking panoramic view of the city, especially around sunset, when the street lights on Paseo de la Concha and Paseo de Miraconcha are illuminated.
Finally, our tour of San Sebastián ends at the foot of Igueldo Hill with one of the city’s most iconic sights: the famous group of sculptures by Eduardo Chillida known as Peine del Viento (1977), three iron structures protruding from the cliffs, twisting in their constant struggle against air and sea.