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 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.
With formal gardens that tumble down to the beach edge at Ondarreta, the Miramar Palace was once the retreat of Queen Marie Christine Habsburg, the wealthy widow of King Alphonse XII of the Spanish ruling royal family; she was responsible for putting San Sebastian on the map as a popular seaside vacation resort in the late 19th century.
The palace was the work of Basque architect José Goicoa, and was completed in 1893 in the English style. The influence of his design partner, English architect Seldon Wornum, can be seen in the mock-Tudor detailing in the patterned brickwork, gables, tall thin chimneys, and rounded towers. The gardens of Marie Christine’s summer palace are so extensive that a road runs underneath them, connecting San Sebastian’s beaches with the elegant suburb of El Antiguo. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the Spanish royal family and local government officials, the gardens now form an elegant public park.
Backed by a promenade and stretching almost 0.5 km (0.3 miles), the beach is only slight less busy than La Concha in the summer, when it fills up with families huddled in the shade of blue-and-white striped beach tents and kids playing beach tennis or volleyball. It shares the same views of Isla de Santa Clara floating out in the bay, which is a lovely spot for a summer picnic lunch. Less protected from the whims and winds of the Bay of Biscay than La Concha, Ondarreta is the place of choice for surfers when the waves pick up. At the end of the beach, at the foot of Monte Igueldo in the residential district of El Antiguo, there’s a spectacular piece of sculpture by Eduardo Chillida entitled Peine del Viento.
Lying between El Muelle harbor and the River Urumea, San Sebastian’s Old Town has its origins in medieval times although it was largely rebuilt following the large-scale destruction of the city by fire in 1813.
By day the Old Town is a maze of charismatic alleys and clusters of townhouses hosting the city’s chaotic daily Pescadería (fish market). The Municipal Museum San Telmo, the fine Gothic church of St Vincente and the Baroque basilica of Santa María del Coro are also found here, and much of the incessant action centers around the dynamic Plaza de la Constitución. This arcaded and balconied square was once a bullring and by night it buzzes with laughter and chatter from the numerous crowded bars and restaurants; this is the best place to sample pintxos, the famous Basque-country tapas of bite-size snacks on bread with typical toppings including peppers, tortilla, garlic prawns or cod.
Constitution Square sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.
Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square (or Plaza de la Constitución in Spanish) still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th. Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar.
One of the two headlands that bookend the sweep of San Sebastian’s sandy La Concha Bay, Monte Igueldo stands to the west of the town and is the perfect vantage point for panoramic views over the rocky islet of Santa Clara toward the hump of Monte Urgull at the east end of the beach.
Rearing up at the end of La Concha Bay, steep Monte Igueldo can be ascended by car or on foot along the winding Paseo del Faro; alternatively a funicular runs up the hill from Plaza del Funicular, 4. Once up there, there are viewing terraces and a small theme park but most people just visit for the panoramas, which are especially wonderful at sunset as the lights of the town twinkle below. Although the amusement park won’t impress hardened Disney veterans, it has a certain passé charm and enough to entertain families with toddlers for a couple of hours, from bumper cars to carousels and gentle roller coasters as well as themed rides in the Pirate Park.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastian was flourishing as an aristocratic seaside resort; it was promoted to cathedral in 1953. Buen Pastor is the largest religious construction in the city, made of sandstone harvested from Monte Igueldo and with a tapering spire that serves as a local landmark.
The vast church was designed by Basque architect Manuel de Echave along elegant, slender Gothic lines; its needle-like spire is the tallest in the Basque country at 246 feet (75 meters). Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida created the ‘Cross of Peace’ that adorns the main façade. Based on the Latin cross, the cathedral has three naves and the interior is awash with light flooding in through the stained-glass windows by Juan Bautista Lázaro; vast chandeliers hang down from the vaulted roof and rose windows illuminate both ends of the transept.
San Telmo Museum is in the heart of the Old Town, housed in a 16th-century Renaissance convent structured around a lovely cloister. For the second half of the 19th century, the convent was used as a barracks and slowly fell into disrepair. It was rescued from dereliction and in 1932 became the city’s municipal museum. The year 2011 saw the addition of a new gallery coated in aluminum, creating a seamless blend of Renaissance and contemporary design.
The museum examines the development of Basque culture from Neolithic times to present, helped along by the 11 murals in the chapel painted; these were painted by José María Sert in the 1930s and highlight the main events over the centuries. The fine-art collection contains lots of gloomy oil paintings, with a couple of standout masterpieces by El Greco as well as fine portraits by Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla.
Site of many battles from the 12th century onwards, Monte Urgull is San Sebastian’s eastern headland and was an important defensive and lookout position until the town’s defensive walls were destroyed by the French and Portuguese in 1863. It is traversed with a tangle of hiking paths and topped by the small, fortified tower of Castillo de la Mota, built around 1150 and once used as a prison.
Today the castle provides glorious views west over La Concha Bay plus its little rocky outcrop Isla de Santa Clara. It also houses a small museum, the Casa de la Historia, which is chiefly memorable as it displays the sword of Boabdil, the ill-fated last Moorish king who saw his kingdom collapse at the hands of Isabella and Ferdinand in the 16th century. Above the castle looms the Monumento al Sagrado Corazón, a statue of Jesus that was erected in 1950 and looks beadily down over its verdant surroundings toward San Sebastian’s photogenic Parte Vieja (Old Town).
Extensively revamped in 2008, San Sebastian’s aquarium has an enviable waterside position at the foot of Monte Urgull, is one of the most up-to-date in Europe, despite its location in a 1928 building. With 31 aquaria featuring marine eco-scapes from Cantabria and the tropics, the premier attraction here is the 360-degree perspex tunnel that dives through the Oceanarium while more than 40 species of fish, including bull sharks, turtles, sinister stingrays and jellyfish, swim merrily past.
A small museum of marine history displays the bleached skeleton of a whale caught off the Atlantic coast in 1878, and a smattering of fascinating whaling and fishing boats that showcase San Sebastian’s enduring relationship with the sea.
More Things to Do in San Sebastian
Victoria Eugenia Theater (Teatro Victoria Eugenia) Just steps away from San Sebastián’s old quarter sits the Victoria Eugenia Theater. There, the commanding Belle Époque-style building stands watch over Okendo Plaza, as well as the River Urumea, which flows out to the Bay of Biscay.
Francisco de Urcola designed the early 20th-century property in response to the Basque city’s growth as a destination for Spanish and European aristocrats. Now, it’s considered one of the most beautiful buildings in San Sebastián and also as one of the most prestigious theaters in all of Spain. And upon seeing it, there’s really no surprise as to why. It boasts an attractive sandstone exterior, whose columned front façade is adorned by four prominent sculptures, each of which represents opera, tragedy, comedy and drama. Meanwhile, the interior dazzles with golden balconies filled with red velvet chairs, and a ceiling of frescoes illuminated by an elaborate chandelier.
The attractive walled Basque town of Hondarribia (Fuenterrabia in Spanish) sits on the banks of the River Bidasoa on Spain’s Atlantic coast 20 km (12.5 miles) east of San Sebastian. Considered one of the prettiest Basque coastal towns, Hondarribia is almost on the Atlantic border with France and is backed by the austere peak of Mount Rhune.
This historic town is blessed with a lively marina; a sandy beach and a waterfront esplanade; a gaggle of wooden-balconied fishermen’s dwellings; and through an ancient stone archway, an ancient heart of labyrinthine cobbled lanes in Parte Vieja (Old Town), lined with stone palaces and traditional medieval townhouses.
Currently enjoying something of a moment in the sun for its explosion of gourmet restaurants, Hondarribia has a number of tasty pintxos bars along tree-lined San Pedro Kale, where these Spanish mini-kebabs can be enjoyed along with a glass of local cider.
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