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.
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.
The pulsating heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter, Constitution Square is the ideal meeting point for relaxing with an assortment of pintxos and drinks while soaking up the city’s festive atmosphere and before entering into the historic barrio’s maze of narrow medieval streets. Stay and people watch from a café terrace or seek shelter from the rains under the porticos.
Sheltered by Monte Urgull and looking out to La Concha Bay, the Aquarium San Sebastián has over 30 tanks, each one a unique habitat suited to myriad and amazing sea creatures. Work your way through to the hypnotic 360-degree clear tunnel where some 40 species of fish, bull sharks, turtles, stingrays, giant eels, and jellyfish swim through.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastián was a flourishing, aristocratic seaside resort. Made of sandstone and slate harvested from Monte Igueldo west of town, the church with its towering needle-like spire (the tallest in Basque Country) is one of the icons of the city.
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.
At the base of Mount Urgull, San Sebastián’s must-see San Telmo Museum dives into the heritage of the Basque people, from Neolithic times to the present. Housed in a 16th-century Renaissance monastery, collection highlights include archaeological artifacts, 11 murals by José María Sert, oil paintings by El Greco and Joaquín Sorolla, and rare photographs.
Once the summer retreat of Spanish royal family, the 19th-century Miramar Palace in San Sebastián’s old town has extensive English gardens and grassy lawns that tumble down to Ondarreta Beach. The palace buildings now host a music conservatory and an annex of the University of Basque Country, while the gardens form a public park where locals come to picnic.
Off the coast ofxa0San Sebastián’s La Concha Beach, Santa Clara Island is a lovely spot to take a break from the crowded beaches of the city. About 435 yards (400 meters) in length, the quiet island has paths that lead to the uninhabited lighthouse near the peak, offering wonderful views of Old Town.
On the banks of the Bidasoa river, sheltered by Mount Rhune’s austere peak, Hondarribia is one of the most picturesque towns on the Basque coast. Close to the French border, just east of San Sebastián, this lovely walled fishing village is enjoying a gastronomical moment, with an explosion of noteworthy restaurants.
More Things to Do in San Sebastian
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.
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.
One of Spain’s most prestigious theaters, Victoria Eugenia Theater is also one of the most beautiful buildings in San Sebastián. This gorgeous Belle Époque sandstone venue overlooking the Urumea River boasts a dazzling interior with golden balconies, ceiling frescoes, luminous chandeliers, and sumptuous red velvet chairs. Expect a varied program of cinema, dance, theatre, and musical performances.
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