Known as the gastronomic capital of Spain – some would say the world – San Sebastian has long been a favourite of visiting royalty and movie stars, with its picture-perfect sweep of golden sand, La Concha beach, bookended by mountains. The genteel, elegant city is also famous for its film festival, which is in the same top European league as Cannes, Venice and Berlin. San Sebastian was voted 5th best city in the world to visit by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Royals started coming here in 1845, with Queen Isabel II of Spain setting the trend; many stayed at the venerable Hotel Maria Cristina overlooking the river. If your budget doesn’t stretch to this landmark establishment, you can still enjoy a stroll along the riverfront Paseo, with its gardens and funfair, which runs along on the other side of the spit to the famous La Concha beach, and soak up the Belle Epoque atmosphere of the wide boulevards.
Things to Do in San Sebastian
Perfect for a pintxo crawl (the Basque country’s tapas – skewers of octopus, prawn, meat or other tasty morsels you help yourself to from the bar), or just a relaxed wander, the Parte Vieja (old town) lies at the eastern end of the bay, between the harbour and Monte Urgull, one of the headlands which enclose the city, offering protection and shelter. Walk up the mountain to get a fantastic view of the bay spread out before you, with the tiny island of Isla de Santa Clara guarding its mouth. You can also visit the 12th-century Castillo de la Mota, once home to the King of Navarra, and the prison. The mountain is known locally as “the Castle”.
A less strenuous means of enjoying the vista from on high, is to take the funicular up Monte Igueldo, the other headland, above Ondarreta beach, the western half of the curve, adjoining La Concha. If you fancy, at the top there’s a cheesy theme park with rollercoasters and carousels.
Walk along the seafront path past the end of Ondarreta, and you come to the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb), the favourite work of Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. These three iron loops, attached to rocks on the shore, are designed so that the wind and water pass through them, making strange, haunting sounds.
Across the river Urumea from San Sebastian old town is the neighbourhood of Gros, where the Kursaal convention centre plays host to conventions, concerts and the film festival, which takes place in the second half of September. A contemporary building made of glass, it looks stunning with the river as a backdrop, and is worth seeing at dusk. Inside there’s a café and Ni-Neu restaurant, both a cut above your average convention-centre eating spots. The beach at Gros is good for surfing.
One of San Sebastian’s most famous sons is portrait painter Ignacio Zuloaga, and you can see his work at the Museo de San Telmo, a converted 16th-century convent with cloister set around a lawn. This museum also has temporary exhibitions and contemporary Basque artworks too.
San Sebastian Food
Many visitors come to San Sebastian solely to experience its world-class gastronomy and restaurants in San Sebastian don’t disappoint. Six-Michelin-starred chef Martin Berasategui, and father-and-daughter team Juan Mari and Elena Arzak (three stars), have eponymous restaurants in the city. The food is nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cuisine), with superb fresh ingredients shaped into palate-wowing new concoctions and textures, as unusual to taste as they are extraordinary to behold. Be aware that these restaurants, as the heirs to El Bulli, are a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with a price-tag to match. For the casual option, pintxos, try La Cuchara de San Telmo and Bar Goiz Argi.
San Sebastian with Children
Children will enjoy the Aquarium, with huge sharks and fluorescent jelly fish – walk along the glass tunnel as sea creatures swim over your head. The Eureka! Zientzia Museoa (Science Museum) has exhibits of the human body and racing car, plane and rocket ship simulators, which dads will enjoy as much as little ones. Four to seven-year-olds have their own area, complete with discovery forest and mini-planetarium.
Within easy reach of the city by car, yet in countryside, is the Museu Chillida-Leku Eduardo Chillida museum. A perfect place to take in the art, as well as the beauty of the Basque Country, it has 40 outdoor sculptures among the trees, as well as more inside the restored 16th-century farmhouse.
San Sebastian Festivals
Apart from the film festival, major annual events include the Jazz Festival in July, which takes place in and around the medieval Plaza de la Trinidad, and Semana Grande in August, from one Saturday to the following Saturday around 15 August. This fiesta takes over the entire city with noisy celebrations day and night, so be prepared to join in the party if you choose that week to visit!
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