San Sebastian Donostia, Spain

San Sebastián-Donostia beaches high view, North Spain

San Sebastian Donostia best feature, La Concha Bay and its two terrific beaches, Playa de La Concha and Playa de Ondarreta, along with the wide and beautiful promenade spanning the whole length.

Why holiday in San Sebastian Donostia?

San Sebastián – known as Donostia in Basque language and founded in the 10thC – is the Spanish Basque Country’s best resort city and one of the top summer destinations in Spain.

San Sebastián and the coastal area enjoys a  relaxed ambience, a brilliant walking environment, three superb beaches, possibly the world’s tastiest tapas and a climate that allows tourists out in shorts and T shirt in the summer without breaking a sweat.
Donostia is simple to get to for Spanish and French visitors via excellent autoroutes/autopistas and not bad for international flights too with three international airports within an hour’s drive of the city.
Bugbog had the pleasure of a week there in early September and here’s our report.

Heroic sculpture in San Sebastian, North Spain

Construccion Vacia (Empty Construction), a mighty piece by Oteiza, a Basque sculptor (they favour brutalist heavy metal art in this part of the world). Above the meditating lady is part of the Monte Urgull castle rampart.

Main summer attractions:  San Sebastian’s three beaches

San Sebastian, La Concha beach, North Spain.

Playa de la Concha in August, looking across to Monte Igeldo in the centre.

Playa de La Concha is the best known and biggest beach when the tide is out (i. e. low), but shrinks dramatically at high tide. There are all facilities you might need under the promenade except parking, which is an absolute no-no.

Playa de Ondarreta is a smaller but elevated beach so retains more dry sand at high tide. It also offers more pay facilities like sun beds, parasols, canoes, kayaks and paddle board rentals but does have some stony patches. Again, good facilities on offer along with a jungle gym area for kids.

Playa de Zurriola is a large stretch of sand on an open-sea crescent on the other side of the old town, where surfing, both pro and amateur, is frequently brilliant. But regular swimmers may sometimes have a battle on their hands. The sand there is spacious and soft and the promenade just as pleasant as La Concha. Zurriola facilities are equally all-encompassing. Zurriola appears to be enjoyed more by younger folk.
Surf schools are based there and clearly have plenty of experience in gently introducing newbies to pretty good Atlantic surf.

San Sebastian Old Town, Parte Vieja

San Sebastian old town tapas bar, spain

Donostia Old Town, aka Parte Vieja.

Eating tapas in Parte Vieja in the evening is a right of passage and quite intimidating initially but staff are helpful and friendly, if busy. Cheapest eats are standing at the bar and ordering what they offer.
We enjoyed Mejillones where the few dishes on offer were exceptional and cheap. Wine is generally good and relatively cheap. You may need to shout your orders in Spanish! Apparently bar hopping and eating one tapas at a time is a custom. We didn’t try this as the whole area was quite hectic enough as it was, with surging bodies, a lot of shouting and rushing barkeeps.

• Visit the extensive Museo de San Telmo in Plaza Zuolaga, Parte Vieja, an unexpectedly huge celebration of Basque culture. This  encompasses the entire San Telmo church swathed in vast, heroic murals, and an almost endless series of rooms and spaces displaying interesting stuff. These range from gigantic processional puppets, strange gravestones (steles), strange berets, Jai Alai exhibitions, Basque art and history and so on. Closed Mondays, free to enter on Tuesdays.

• Visit the extensive Museo de San Telmo in Plaza Zuolaga, Parte Vieja, an unexpectedly huge celebration of Basque culture. This  encompasses the entire San Telmo church swathed in vast, heroic murals, and an almost endless series of rooms and spaces displaying interesting stuff. These range from gigantic processional puppets, strange gravestones (steles), strange berets, Jai Alai exhibitions, Basque art and history and so on. Closed Mondays, free to enter on Tuesdays.

• Check out both churches in the Parte Vieja, Iglesia Santa Maria (photo below) and Iglesia San Vicente. They both have interesting interiors, unlike the Catedral del Buen Pastor which failed to impress the Bugcrew, in spite of its prominent position.

Other San Sebastian  attractions

A dramatic mis-en-scene in a church in San Sebastian old town, Spain

A dramatic tableau inside the Old Town’s Santa Maria church.

San Sebastian is very beach focused in the summer, whether it’s about lazing on La Concha sand, strolling the promenades, people-watching, sharing a bottle of Albariño white with a lover from a viewpoint. Or making sand castles with the kids on Ondarreta, learning to surf on Zurriola or paddle-board on Ondarreta. But when you’ve had enough of that, try this:

• Take the funicular up Monte Igeldo for the little amusement park, the spectacular view, the romantic drinking spot, or all three. Follow the funicular signs from the far end of Playa Ondarreta. We liked late afternoon there.

• Walk up and around Monte Urgull, it’s easier than it looks and the trees keep you from overheating. Urgull has no café or theme park but the perspectives onto magnificent Bahia de la Concha differ and the castle is atmospheric. However, the Christ figure at the top disappointing, but the English cemetery on the Atlantic side of the hill is verdant and quite spooky, while the massive orange sculpture by Oteiza (photo above) is lumpen magic.
Then, depending on your constitution, it could be a visit to the Aquarium a few metres away, into the Parte Vieja (Old Town) for lunchtime pinxtos or hit Playa de la Concha for a cooling dip.

• Window shopping in Centro. North of Buen Pastor cathedral is a network of pedestrian streets with a good variety of shops and the only supermarket in the centre (that we found). It’s underground, beside a huge FNAC store.

Best Seasons in San Sebastian

The best time to visit San Sebastian are the three driest, sunniest months of June, July and August, and maybe even squeeze in September when there are various international events. A little rain can still be expected during summer months and high temperatures will hover between 22C – 25C and lows around 15C.
The city has a typically Atlantic climate that’s breezy and a little humid with neither too much heat in the summer nor too much cold in the winter. The bad news is there’s little sun to be seen over the long winter months but the good news is that temperatures won’t go much below 5C at their worst, with winter highs around 14C.

Where is San Sebastian?

San Sebastian is in the far north and centre of Spain, occupying the land next to France (20kms from the border and 50kms from Biarritz). It’s the capital city of a Basque province called Gipuzoka (Guipúzcoa in Spanish), Spain’s smallest province.
Out to sea is the Bay of Biscay, or Mar Cantabria depending on who you talk to, a part of the Atlantic Ocean.

San Sebastian Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) and the delightful Parque Alderdi Eder, Donostia, Basque Country, North Spain

Defining the border between Parte Vieja (Old Town, behind the building) and Centro (behind the camera) is San Sebastian’s Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) and the delightful Parque Alderdi Eder. Monte Urgull lurks in the background.

Calle Mayor and the cathedral of Buen Pastor, Centro, San Sebastian - Donostia, Basque Country, North Spain

Calle Mayor again looking south to the rather dull cathedral of Buen Pastor in Centro.

Centro has a mass of pedestrian-only streets crisscrossing the district that added to the car-free Parte Vieja, the car-free Concha promenade, the wide Zurriola beach promenade, Monte Urgull trails and the two walks beside the river makes Donostia just about the most comfortable walking experience of any city we have visited in the world (and in all modesty that’s a lot).
We imagine there must be a rush of small, white vans in early mornings to supply restaurants, bars and shops, but we rarely saw any as we don’t do early mornings.

Car Parking

Of course the downside of this easy-walking is difficult parking.
We stayed in Centro for a week but the only free parking we found was near the stadium in Amara Nuevo district a 40 minute walk south at the far end of the city.

All underground car parks were charging over 25 euros a day in 2014 so that was out of the question, until we found one underground parking garage only that charged just 10 euros a day and was within 15 minutes walk of Centro. It’s called Txofre (pron. Chofre) and it’s in the Gros district across the river from Centro and backing onto Zurriola beach. To get there drive alongside the river towards the old town and turn right onto the last bridge (Zurriola). Follow that road until you see the many Txofre signs.

Warning: when we fed our ticket into the parking machine at the end of our stay we were unpleasantly surprised by the charge of 120e for 5 days. However, on taking this up with the dude in the parking office nearby he said the machines were not properly programmed for long stays (SNAFU! ). It was an error and charged us 50e. Moral of story: ensure that you leave during office hours and be prepared to whinge (in Spanish)!

Local Activities

Dancing in in Parque Alderdi Eder, San Sebastian, Basque Country, North Spain

And time for a little early evening cha-cha-cha, also in Parque Alderdi Eder, Centro.

San Sebastian seems to be a city that caters well to all age groups. School kids love the beaches, paddle-boarding/kayaking off La Concha or surfing off Zurriola while the old folk dress up daily for walks on the promenades in late afternoon (there’s even a Spanish phrase for it: dar un paseo) and a coffee/sherry with their chums or maybe a spot of dancing.  Meanwhile young families find the car-free environment push-chair friendly and the nearby sands or playgrounds an easy kid-entertainment centre. Nice.

San Sebastian Downsides

• This city is a bit pricier than other north Spain destinations, though much cheaper than, for example, France’s Côte d’Azur. We didn’t visit the other Spanish costas on this trip so can’t make a fair price comparison but we suspect the popular tourist costas may be more expensive.

• Parking is a nightmare. Don’t ever plan on street parking.

• Respect to the Basques for bringing their historic culture alive, but the Euskara language is horrifically difficult, incomprehensible to all except around 750, 000 Basques and impossible to remember. It’s probably the oldest language in Europe, bearing no relationship with any others and favouring the letters k, x and z. For example, Playa de la Concha translates as Kontxako Hondarza.
Of course most Basques actually converse in Spanish but it’s the signs that drive the casual tourist to distraction. e. g. main streets have the Basque name on one side and the Spanish name on the other. Some maps write names only in Basque, others only in Spanish. . .