An extraordinary cuisine. Beautiful beaches. A mellow surfer culture. Picturesque architecture. San Sebastian, once a secluded 19th-century coastal resort for the Spanish aristocrats, has now become the shining star of Northern Spain. This charming small city, known as Donostia in Basque, established a well-deserved international fame for all its unique assets.
Why should I go to San Sebastian?
– Extraordinary cuisine: Among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, San Sebastian has two that ranks in the top 10: Mugaritz and Etxcebarri. Moreover, there are 15 Michelin stars awarded to this town’s 7 different restaurants. However if you ask us, pinchos (pintxos) bars in the city’s old quarter, Parte Vieja, offer as much culinary excitement as Michelin stars. Also, the city hosts an important gastronomy festival, Gastronomika, in October.
– Fun nightlife: The food is so great in San Sebastian that sometimes people forget to mention about the drinks that accompany each bite! Parte Vieja is full of small and authentic bars and we can guarantee that every evening of pinchos hopping will end in one of these cool joints.
– Beautiful beaches: San Sebastian has three beautiful city beaches to choose from: (1) La Concha is the most picturesque one and it is a must-visit as it is one of the most majestic city beaches in the world. However, beware that it gets very crowded during summer times. (2) Zurriola is the surfers’ paradise. Even if you are not a surfer, you will enjoy yourself just watching these very talented young men and women perform their best moves. (3) Ondarreta is the farthest; therefore the least crowded beach. It also has a small fun bar, situated right on the beach. If you wish to have a more secluded experience, you can rent a boat and sail to the small coves of Isla de Santa Clara, the tiny idyllic island just across the city.
– Spotting celebrities: San Sebastian Film Festival, or Zinemaldia Donostia as it is known in Basque, is one of the most important film festivals in Europe, taking place in September. Alongside the great selection of movies that you can watch in historical theaters, Zinemaldia is also great for spotting international celebrities around town. It is not uncommon to bump into likes of Ethan Hawke or Gael Garcia Bernal at a pinchos bar during this time of the year.
– Listening to some great vibes: San Sebastian Jazz Festival, or Heineken Jazzaldia as it is known in Basque, takes place during the third week of June and brings together an impressive line up of international and local artists. The city becomes super vibrant during these five days, as you can also find all sorts of events alongside the concerts.
– Exploring scenic coastal route and the nearby mountains: San Sebastian is a great hub to discover the rest of the Basque Coast, which is full of picturesque coastal towns and colorful fishermen villages such as Getaria, Zumaia, Lekeitio, Hondarribia and Biarritz. If you want a more detailed overview of this scenic coast, make sure to check out our Basque Coast destination entry. Apart from the beaches, nearby mountains also offer unique experiences for adventure seekers.
What is more to see in San Sebastian?
If spending time in best restaurants and strolling around this beautiful city are not enough for you, here is a quick list of what not to miss in San Sebastian:
– El Museo de San Telmo (San Telmo Museoa, Donostia), where you can find the works of best Basque artists, both old and contemporary. Please note that the museum is placed in a striking 16th century structure that was formerly used as a Dominican convent.
– San Sebastian Cathedral (Catedral del Buen Pastor de San Sebastián, also known as the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd), dating back to 1897.
– Mount Igeldo (Monte Igueldo), for its stunning views of the la Concha bay and an afternoon of fun at the amusement park located on the hills.
– San Sebastian Aquarium (Oceanographic Museum of San Sebastian). You can walk through its 360 degree transparent tunnels and become surrounded by all kinds of sea creatures including famous sharks. And yes, they even have Nemo, the same species of fish from the famous children’s movie.
– Mercado de la Bretxa, the fish market of San Sebastian. You will have a visual feast strolling through all kinds of seafood specialties laid out on marble stands with top lighting that adds extra drama to this already overly vibrant environment.
– Tabakalera, a former cigarette factory turned into International Center for Contemporary Culture Center. Inside you can find worthy exhibitions and trendy cafes.
– The Comb of the Wind sculptures (the Peine del Viento) situated at the end of Ondaretta beach. Local artists Eduardo Chillida and Luis Peña Ganchegui created this collection of three sculptures, which have recently become Instagram favorites.
When to go to San Sebastian?
San Sebastian has a different charm in every season. Summers, between June to September, would be the best time to go if you want to enjoy the beaches. Also the Jazz Festival takes place in June and Aste Nagusia, the annual festival of traditional Basque music and dance is in August. However, these months will also be the most crowded. Fall is great for all things related to gastronomy and culture: There are less tourists, so more space in bars to enjoy your pinchos, or a better chance to reserve a table at a Michelin star restaurant. Note that San Sebastian Film Festival is in September and Gastronomika is in October. Winters are cold and rainy but if you ask us the city becomes even more picturesque under this gloomy sky. During these months, alongside the great food and Spanish reds, you can find the ultimate peace of mind.
How to get to San Sebastian?
By plane you have three options:
1- For international flights your best choice is to fly to Bilbao Airport. It is 105 kilometers to San Sebastian city center. (London – Bilbao: 1 hr. 55 min / Paris – Bilbao: 1 hr. 30 min /New York – Bilbao: 9 hr. 45 min)
2- Some low-cost airline companies and French airlines also fly to Biarritz Airport, which is 47 kilometers to San Sebastian.
3- San Sebastian has a local airport with connections to major Spanish cities.
You can also drive or take a train to San Sebastian from all major Spanish cities. However, beware that you can only park in designated public parks, which cost around 25 Euros per day.