Complete guide to San Sebastian, Basque Country: what to do and where to go there

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San Sebastian is a Spanish gem hidden in a region with the mysterious name of the Basque Country. The ocean waves here break into pieces on the rocky shores, just like the theories of ethnographers trying to solve the mystery of the origin of the Basque people and their unique language. People come to San Sebastian to discover the mysterious Basque soul, as well as admire the blue ocean, the bizarre shapes of the mountains, and the emerald greenery of the valleys, try the original Basque cuisine, and watch contemporary art in one of the best museums in the world.

Tourist season in San Sebastian

Basque seasons

Author: Sokolnikova

Summer in San Sebastian is a high season. The beach season begins in mid-June when the air warms up to 25C/77F and the sea is about 20C/68F and ends in September when the air temperature reaches 30C/86F and the water reaches 22C/72F.

The hottest month of the year is August, the coldest is January. The rainy season in San Sebastian usually begins at the end of November and ends in February.

In winter in San Sebastian it rarely gets colder than 10C/50F, the average winter temperature is 10-12C/50-54F.

If you go to the Basque Country to sunbathe and swim in the sea, the summer months will be the ideal time. And if you want to walk around the cities and mountains, and the beach is just one of the points for you, come in March-April-May, as well as in September and October, when there are not so many people, the air is not so hot, the waiters in the cafes are not so tired, and hotel prices are pleasantly low.

How to get to San Sebastian

You can come to San Sebastian by plane, by bus, or by train. Please note that the second name of the city is Donostia. There will be two names of the city, San Sebastian and Donostia, written on all the tickets or information boards.

Plane. You can fly to San Sebastian from Madrid or Barcelona.

Plane+bus or train. You can also find a suitable plane ticket to Bordeaux or Biarritz in France and then arrive in San Sebastian in a few hours by bus or train. The journey from Bordeaux to San Sebastian takes 3,5 hours by Flixbus. The trip from Biarritz to San Sebastian takes 1,5 hours on the same bus. You can buy tickets on their app.

Bus or train. If you are traveling from Madrid, Barcelona, or Bilbao, you can get to San Sebastian by Renfe train in 4-6 hours. The ticket will cost at least twice as much as by bus, but the trip will be somewhat more comfortable. Buy train directly on the Renfe website. If you decide to take the bus, the easiest way to buy tickets is from Flixbus or Alsa.

Transfer. You may order a transfer or a taxi from the airport, hotel, or any city. 

Car rental in San Sebastian

basque car rent

Author: Alberto Frías on Unsplash

A road trip around Spain is an excellent way to travel around the country for those who want not only to get from point A to point B but also to see all the most beautiful spots along the way, want to freely control the route, like to stop at roadside cafes and walk through picturesque villages, standing on your way to the destination point.

You can rent a car in any big city in Spain, such as Barcelona or Malaga, and in all airports. Opel Corsa will cost you 40 euros for three days, a Mini Cooper Cabrio can be rented for 200 euros for three days, and a luxurious Mercedes C-Class for three days will cost 280 euros.

Where to stay in San Sebastian

San Sebastian hotels

Author: Johannes W on Unsplash

The city has a long and beautiful coastline, so you will probably want to live overlooking the ocean.

The budget Hotel Palacio de Aiete is located a 20-minute walk from the beach and city center. It offers spacious rooms with comfortable beds, a rooftop sun terrace, a Basque cuisine restaurant, and friendly staff.

Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra is located right by the ocean in the center of San Sebastian. The hotel occupies a historic building from the early 20th century, which stands right on the waterfront. Here you will find stylish rooms with large windows, you can rent a room with a balcony and a gorgeous view of the ocean, the restaurant which serves Basque and Mediterranean cuisine, and the bar where you will try the best cocktails.

Mercure Monte Igueldo is perhaps one of the most unique hotels in San Sebastian and, by the way, very budget-friendly. The hotel is located on a hill above the city. From its classic-style rooms, you will enjoy that very postcard view of the Biscay coastline. Just imagine - every morning you will see the best views of this city. You won't see this from any other hotels. But there is one “but” - the city and the beach can only be reached by cable car or taxi.

If you are looking for apartments with a kitchen, pay attention to such options as the spacious Apartamentos Pillotegi, where there is absolutely everything for a comfortable stay, or Hotel Distrito Oeste, where you can rent a two-level suite with a kitchen.

Public transport in San Sebastian

Public transport in San Sebastian is represented by buses that travel frequently, quickly, and connect all important spots of the city. Check the online schedule.

City buses: tickets, passes and prices

A one-time QR ticket for 30 minutes costs €1.85. An overnight trip costs 2.50 euros.

You can also buy a 24-hour or 48-hour ticket. This is beneficial if you plan to travel around the city a lot. You can buy a QR ticket in the DBus App, which you need to download to your phone.

A Mugi Card is a travel card that can be used for a year from the date of purchase. The card can be purchased at newspaper or tobacco stores, which are usually located near the bus stop. The card costs 5 euros and you can deposit funds on it through special machines or in the same press stores or tobacco shops. Travel with such a card costs 1.26 euros during the day and 2.50 euros at night.

San Sebastian Tourist Card is a tourist card for 10 days, which can be purchased at the tourist office at Alameda del Boulevard, 8. A card for 6 trips costs 9 euros, and for 12 trips - 16 euros. The card also allows you to have discounts in museums and ordering city tours, as well as in some restaurants.

Funicular Monte Igueldo

The funicular takes guests and residents of the city to Monte Igueldo, offering postcard views of the city and the Bay of Biscay.

A round trip costs 4.50, one-way trip costs 3.05, there are discounts for children. You can buy a ticket at the box office. The funicular operates every day from 11.00 to 18.00.

Best beaches in San Sebastian

San Sebastian beaches

Author: Sokolnikova

Playa de la Concha

San Sebastian's most popular beach is situated a 5-minute walk from the city center. A wide beach several kilometers long attracts with fine yellow sand, turquoise waves rolling onto the shore, wonderful views of the city, mountains, and islands, excellent facilities, and a beautiful promenade that runs along the entire beach.

On the beach you can rent a sun lounger and an umbrella, there are showers, restrooms, and changing cabins. There are cafes and kiosks along the beach where you can buy drinks and snacks.

This beach is the closest to the city center and most of the city's hotels and is the most popular. If you want more space, head a little further to Playa de Ondaretta.

Near La Concha beach there are budget-friendly hotels such as Hotel Zaragoza Plaza and luxury hotels such as Hotel de Londres de Inglaterra, located in a historic building from the 19th century.

Playa de Ondaretta

The beach is located at the foot of Monte Igueldo. There are usually less people there than at La Concha Beach. Most people simply don’t get this beach, although it only takes half an hour to walk here from the center of San Sebastian.

The beach is equipped with sun loungers and umbrellas, there are restrooms, showers, changing cabins and kiosks with refreshing drinks and food. Here you will find everything is the same as on neighboring beaches, only the atmosphere is more peaceful and there is more free space.

If you want to live in this part of the city, you can easily find a nice hotel. One of the most popular hotels in this part of the city is the Sercotel Codina, which offers reasonable prices. It is located a 5-minute walk from the beach. You may also like the stylish NH Collection San Sebastian, which is also just a few minutes walk from the ocean, and the city center is a 20-minute walk away. 

Playa de la Isla Santa Clara

Santa Clara island

Author: Sokolnikova

Santa Clara Island is very close to the city beaches of San Sebastian. On the island, you will find a small beach, a beautiful lighthouse with a cafe and bar, picturesque walking trails, and a gorgeous view of the coast and San Sebastian. Locals love to escape to this secluded island to take a break from tourists, worries, and heat. Guests of the city come here for the amazing views from the observation deck, the aroma of hot pine needles, and the sound of ocean waves crashing on the rocky shore. You can get here by boat for 5 euros. The boat runs between the island and the city center from morning to evening. The boat runs every half hour and the journey takes only five minutes.

Playa de la Zurriola

A relatively wild beach with few tourists, but many locals who want to enjoy the sea without too much noise and surfers who want to conquer the waves. Playa de la Zuriola is located 5-10 minutes from the center of San Sebastian. The beach is not equipped with sun loungers and umbrellas, but you have clean sand, blue ocean waves, bright sun, showers, and plenty of cafes and bars nearby. The beach offers a perfect view of the coast, Monte Igueldo, and Santa Clara Island, and in the coastal rocks a lot of cats hide from the heat, so prepare a treat for them. Near the beach, there is a good inexpensive hotel, Hotel Arrizul Beach, from which you can walk to the ocean in a couple of minutes.

Best attractions and things to do in San Sebastian

Start your walk around the city with a walk along the ocean. The central La Concha beach, along which a picturesque promenade runs, is the ideal place to breathe in the spirit of San Sebastian. After you've thoroughly enjoyed it, you can move on to exploring the city's attractions. San Sebastian is a small city, so all interesting places are within walking distance.

Attractions in San Sebastian

Author: Sokolnikova

2-day itinerary in San Sebastian

Kursaal. Typically, a walk through the Old Town begins with a visit to the Congress Palace called Kursaal, where the annual film festival is held and the prestigious Golden Shell Award is presented. If you're a fan of the festival, you're probably planning a trip in September to watch movies with famous directors and actors. If not, you can skip this point of the walk and go straight to the next one.

Monte Urgull. The picturesque and not very high Mount Urgull rises in the center of the city. There is a 12-meter statue of Jesus Christ on its top, to which you can climb along a forest path, and along the way, you can explore the ruined medieval castle Castillo de la Mota and an ancient cemetery. And all this is accompanied by gorgeous views of the fabulous city and endless ocean. Plan a few hours for this walk and do not forget to bring water and a cap because the sun is bright in Spain all year round. 

The City Aquarium is the perfect place to cool off in hot weather. More than 40 species of fish live in huge aquariums with a total volume of 1,500,000 liters, and the main attraction is the tunnel where  sharks, graceful and dangerous, swim above your head.

Avenida de la Libertad is the longest and widest street in San Sebastian, where all the most important stores, banks, offices of large companies, and other important institutions are concentrated. By the way, Cristobal Balenciaga’s first atelier was opened on this very avenue, at Avenida de la Libertad 2.

The five-star Hotel Maria Christina was built in 1912 under the guidance of the architect who built several Ritz hotels, distinguished by their particular sophistication and luxury. Traditionally, movie stars stay at this hotel during the film festival, so in September, during the event, it is difficult to find available rooms here, but it is possible if you book in advance. But whenever you arrive, Hotel Maria Christina will greet you with perfect service, elegant rooms, and stunning views of the Bay of Biscay.

The Catedral del Buen Pastor or Cathedral of the Good Pastor was built in 1897 in a chic and dramatic neo-Gothic style. Soaring spires, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and, not less importantly, year-round coolness make this place a must-visit.

Palacio de Miramar - this is the melodious name of the Royal Palace located in San Sebastian. The palace was built in 1893 in the English style. It was used mainly as a summer royal residence and this is one of the reasons that made the city attractive from a tourist point of view. Palacio de Miramar stands on a low emerald-green hill, which offers magical views of the endless ocean. You can look inside and walk around the main halls, or you can just sit on a bench in a flowering garden and feel how beautiful the world in which we live is.

On the second day, we invite you to take the funicular, which is located at the very end of the La Concha promenade, to climb Monte Igueldo. This mountain is an opportunity to enjoy fantastic views of San Sebastian, the bay, and the islands, and it is advisable to do this at different times of the day because this place is amazing in the morning, in the sunset rays, and at night, when the stars light up in the sky and the city illuminates the lights. In addition, there are several nice hotels, such as the Mercure Monte Igueldo, a small amusement park where the whole family will have fun, as well as a cafe where you can combine stunning views with a cup of aromatic coffee and a Biscay-style dessert.

Best day trips from San Sebastian

Biarritz

Biarritz

Author: Sokolnikova

Biarritz. The resort town of Biarritz is located in the French part of the Basque Country. People come here for gorgeous beaches with fine sand, picturesque wave-cut cliffs, leisurely walks around the city, French wine and oysters, and fine service. A trip from San Sebastian to Biarritz is a unique opportunity to see how different life can be in neighboring cities, even if they are in the same Basque Country. In Biarritz, you can spend several unforgettable days full of pampering and beauty.

Complete guide to Biarritz will help you organize your trip.

Pamplona. Every July, thousands of people go to Pamplona to see Las Fiestas de San Fermin, the grand running of the bulls through the narrow streets of the old town. Also people visit Pamplona to enter the city with the pilgrims walking along the Camino de Santiago, admire the magnificent medieval palaces and cathedrals, drink coffee at Cafe Iruna, where Hemingway wrote his novel The Sun Also Rises, and enjoy the unforgettable mountain landscapes. You can get from San Sebastian to Pamplona in an hour and a half by the Alsa bus.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. A small chapel with the complicated name San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is located on a picturesque cape of volcanic origin in the middle of the ocean and is connected to the shore by a narrow isthmus. This place is so unusual that even an episode from Game of Thrones was filmed here - as the dragons were flying over this very isthmus, the viewers were getting goosebumps watching them. The easiest and fastest way to get to Gaztelugatxe from San Sebastian is to join a tour to Bilbao and Gaztelugatxe. And if you are on vacation in Bilbao, you can plan a trip by bus through the city of Bakio, and from there you can walk to the cape in an hour or take a taxi which will take you there in 15 minutes.

Bilbao

Bilbao

Author: Sokolnikova

Bilbao. Most tourists come to the largest city in the Basque Country to visit the Guggenheim Museum and get acquainted with the chic collection of modern art. The exhibition begins with the magnificent museum building, built by the outstanding architect Frank Gehry, continues with the fabulous sculptures by Jeff Koons and Louise Bourgeois, and then goes the paintings by Rothko, Warhol, Basquiat, and chic temporary exhibitions, installations, and performances. But Bilbao is not only a museum but also original architecture, a beautiful promenade, an old funicular that takes you to a wonderful observation deck, walks along the river, cocktails and pintxos at sunset, dancing until the morning, and delicious pastries for breakfast.

Zumaya and Zarautz. The cozy oceanside towns of Zumaia and Zarautz are located half an hour's drive from San Sebastian. Surfers from all over Europe come here to catch the perfect wave, and neighboring city residents escape here in search of solitude and peace in nature. Local beaches are considered the longest in the Basque Country. In addition to soft sand and azure waves, you will find beautiful promenades, a picturesque coastline, Gothic architecture of the 15th and 16th centuries, and excellent seaside hotels. You can get to Zarautz and Zumaya in 20 minutes by bus from the San Sebastian bus station at Federico Garcia Lorca 2.

Basque cuisine: what and where to try

Basque cheesecake

Author: Sokolnikova

Basque cuisine consists of seafood and fish such as shrimp, squid, shellfish, anchovies, and cod. Next comes beef, vegetables, and then pork and chicken.

Breakfast usually includes coffee and pastries. A cappuccino and a puff pastry, such as a pantxineta, will cost 3-5 euros.

Choosing your dessert, pay attention to the following options:

  • pantxineta - a bun made of thin puff pastry filled with custard, sprinkled with powdered sugar and almond chips;
  • pastel vasco - crispy pie with jam or custard as filling;
  • goxua - a dessert consisting of sponge cake, custard, cream, and caramel, which is usually served in clay bowls, but variations are possible;
  • Basque cheesecake is probably the most famous Basque dish, invented by a chef from San Sebastian not so long ago. This is a cheesecake quite familiar to us, but very tender inside and maximally burnt on top.

If you want something more substantial, order piperrada - an omelet with paprika, tomatoes, and onions for 5 euros.

For lunch, you can be served the following dishes:

  • pisto - stewed vegetables with paprika and tomatoes;
  • porrusalda - vegetable soup based on leeks;
  • bacalao a la vizkaina - cod in a thick sauce of pepper, onion, and garlic;
  • bacalao a la pil-pil - another version of cod, this time in garlic sauce;
  • kokotxas - tender cheeks or necks of cod in a sauce of wine, garlic, and olive oil;
  • sukalki - delicious meat stew with vegetables and spicy pepper;
  • chuleta - tender young beef cooked on the grill.

Pintxos

Author: Sokolnikova

Looking for dinner in the Basque Country is a thankless task. Remember your substantial lunch and go in search of pintxos and cocktails. Locals love to meet in large and small gastro bars or even large gastro markets with many smaller bars, order small pintxos sandwiches, and add cocktails. Around 8 pm, the kitchen usually opens and you will be offered French fries and sometimes something more serious. But we suggest not to waste time waiting, and try all the pintxos that you like.

  • Pintxos is a small sandwich that can consist of literally anything, but most often seafood, anchovies, olives, sausages, and vegetables. One pintxo costs 1,5-3 euros. You can order a whole set of pintxos in one bar, you can wander around the city, collecting the best tastes, or you can join a pintxos&wine tour with a local guide, who will take you to the best bars in the city and tell you all the most interesting things about the local culture.

The Basque Country is famous for its Michelin-starred restaurants. And all because local chefs like to look at familiar dishes from an unusual angle. As a result, more than 40 Michelin-starred restaurants await you in San Sebastian alone, and about 40 more restaurants await you in Bilbao.

Best gifts from Basque Country

Basque souvenirs

Author: Sokolnikova

Espadrilles. Cotton, jute or leather espadrille sandals have been in fashion since the 14th century. They exist in all sorts of styles and colors, are very inexpensive, and are sold in cute street stores.

Wine and cider. Go to any liquor store and ask for wines from brands such as Rioja, Rioja Alavesa, and Txakoli and cider brands from Eula, Petritegi, and Larraldea.

Anchovies. Or, as they are called here, anchoas. You may buy them in regular supermarkets or in fashionable grocery stores. Anchovies can be packaged in beautiful glass jars, tins, or elegant carton boxes. When you arrive home, you can have a Basque-style evening and prepare classical pintxos from anchovies, shrimp, and olives.

Pepper. The Basque Country is known as one of the producers of aromatic peppers of the Piment d’Espellet and Guindillas varieties. These peppers are bought in bunches and are added to any food - from sandwiches and sauces to soups and side dishes.

Clothing from local brands. The most prominent Basque designers are, of course, Cristobal Balenciaga and Paco Rabanne. The first was born in the Basque city of Getaria, and the second in Pasaia. As a souvenir, you can bring outfits from more affordable brands, for example, Mercedes de Miguel, SKFK, Ion Fiz, and Ailanto.


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