San Sebastián, also known as Donostia in the local language, is one of those places that you've had right next to home for years, but have never had the chance to visit. Everyone kept telling me how wonderful this place is, so during my last visit to Spain, I couldn't help spending a couple of days in this city of the Spanish Basque Country. But is San Sebastián as special as everybody said?
What to see in San Sebastian: Day 1
San Sebastián is very well connected to every major city in Spain. As the city is located right at the border with France, most routes between Spain and France will stop there, no matter what side of the border you're travelling from.
I arrived in San Sebastián by train after my one day visit to Burgos. I booked an apartment just a few minutes away from the train station, and after leaving my bags, I started discovering the city with a visit to the cathedral, located literally around the corner.
The Buen Pastor Cathedral is a building from the 19th century, built following the style of the medieval churches of France and Germany.
As in most medieval churches, the interior is quite simple but impressive, with tall columns that give the building a special grandeur and served as a reminder of the highness of God.
Compared to Burgos Cathedral that I had visited just the day before, this cathedral was much simpler, but it still had its charm. I especially liked the rose window, filling the cathedral with colour.
The exterior is definitely more impressive than the inside, especially the sharp needle that crowns the building and that can be seen from all over the city and makes the cathedral the tallest religious building in San Sebastián.
The street located just in front of the cathedral, called Loiola Kalea in the local Basque language, would take me to the promenade of the city. The street was filled with shops from all major fashion brands, so this area is the perfect place to do some shopping!
I would walk along the promenade of Beach of La Concha during my second day, but I couldn't help myself from taking a quick peek. I was very lucky with the weather considering that my visit was in January, and to my surprise, there were quite a few brave people taking a bath in the cold Cantabrian Sea.
During my first day, I decided to focus on the area of the Old Town and Mount Urgull instead, a very small area that contains all the main historical buildings of the city as well as one of the hills where you can enjoy beautiful views of the city.
On my way, I stopped at Plaza Guipuzkoa, headquarters of the regional council of Gipuzkoa, the region where San Sebastián is located. There was a protest right in front of the building, which is not an uncommon to see in the Basque Country. All the signs were written in Basque, so I couldn´t really understand what was going on.
One of the biggest symbols of Basque identity is the Basque language, also known as Euskara. This language is a very unique case, as it isn't related to any other language in the world. Unlike Catalan or Galician, the other two co-official languages of Spain, which are easy enough to understand if you already speak some Spanish, Basque is a totally isolated language with no similarity to Spanish (or any other language for that matter). Interesting, right?
The Basque Country is also well known all over the world by its resistance and struggle to gain independence from Spain, which in many cases brings to mind the horrific effects that terrorism has brought to this region.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a considerable part of the Basque society has fought to gain independence from Spain, the main reason being that this region has a very strong local identity, very different to the rest of the country.
This movement brought about the creation of the terrorist group E.T.A., which caused countless terrorist attacks and killings, being politicians and the Spanish police their main objective, although many civilians were also affected. Fortunately, these troubled times are long over, and the organisation was officially dissolved in 2011. Today, all attempts to obtain independence from Spain are through democratic means.
Politics aside, I continued my walk towards Plaza de Okendo, where the Hotel María Cristina is located.
Hotel María Cristina a very prestigious 5 star hotel designed by the French architect Charles Mewes, who also designed the Ritz hotels in Paris or Madrid.
The hotel is one of the biggest symbols of the Belle Époque, and today it is one of the main choices for actors and artists coming to the San Sebastián International Film Festival.
Just on the other side of the river, located next to the Zurriola Beach, is the Kursaal Palace, host of the yearly San Sebastián International Film Festival.
In my opinion, the building is a bit out of place surrounded by all those beautiful buildings with a French style, but the façade is filled with little lights that allow to create some very interesting game of lights as well as light up the building for different occasions.
Surrounding Mount Urgull is a nice promenade, known as the New Promenade, that has great views of the sea and La Concha Bay, really recommended! It will take about an extra half an hour, but the views are worth it and the waves hitting the promenade are quite heavy, so you'll get a good chance for great photography. The walk will finish at the north end of the port, just next to the Aquarium.
After walking along the New Promenade, I reached the port, which is the perfect place to begin exploring the Old Town. This is the area where the city of San Sebastián originated, and it used to be fortified for a long time.
The Old Town has two of the main churches of San Sebastián: the Basilica of Santa María and San Vicente Church, both of them with a very impressive interior.
This area is also the perfect place to try some tapas, known as pintxos in the Basque Country. San Sebastián has a big number of Michelin-starred restaurants, but if you're not willing to pay well over €100 euro for a simple meal, pintxos are a great alternative. I stopped by a couple of them that I highly recommend:
A very interesting place to visit is Plaza de la Constitución, or Constitution Square, the heart of the Old Town. This is one of the main squares of the city, where the big celebration of Saint Thomas' Day takes place on December 21th, and where the Tamborrada drum parade starts on January 20th to celebrate San Sebastián's patron saint.
As you step on the square, the first thing you'll notice is that each window is marked with a different number. This square used to be the bullring of the city, and each number marks one of the bullring boxes from where you could watch the bullfights.
Constitution Square is no longer used as a bullring, but the numbers have been kept to remember this interesting part of its history.
After a long walk along the winding streets of the Old Town, I left the climb to Mount Urgull for the end of the day so that I could enjoy the sunset. The best way to start the hike is from the end right next to the port, from where you can walk up a promenade with great views of the coastline. The hike takes about half an hour, but there are so many amazing viewpoints on the way that I'm sure you'll stop every few minutes.
At the top of the mountain is located La Mota Castle, that still preserves some of the original fortifications and cannons. La Mota Castle dates to the 12th, and it was located in a strategic point offering panoramic views of San Sebastián. During the centuries that it protected the city, the fortress was occupied by the French and the English in multiple occasions.
One of the best places to enjoy the views is the Battery of St. James. This battery sits on the west flank of the upper part of Urgull, and served as a large artillery bank until the beginning of the 18th century, when it was turned into a battery to defend the land front. The views of the Beach of La Concha and Mount Igueldo on the other site were just incredible.
After taking in the views and learning about the history of San Sebastián, I started descending back to the port and the Beach of La Concha. I was incredibly fortunate that day and had the chance to enjoy what has to be the most incredible sunset that I've seen in my life. The sky and the reflection on the water, coloured in incredible shades of orange and red, were definitely one of the most breathtaking spectacles of nature that I've ever seen!
What to visit in San Sebastian: Day 2
I started my second day in San Sebastián going straight to the Beach of La Concha to walk along the promenade and reach the top of Mount Igueldo.
The beach has a length of 1350 meters, and I'd dare to say that it is one of the most beautiful urban beaches that you'll find in Europe, in my opinion, at the level of Ipanema or Copacabana in Rio.
Right in the middle of the bay, in between Mount Igueldo and Mount Urgull, is Santa Clara Island. San Sebastián is one of the few cities in the world that have an island right in the centre of the bay, which gives it a very unique skyline.
During the summer months, it is possible to get a ferry to the island, which as a small beach and a lighthouse that you can visit, as well as multiple hiking paths and picnic tables to enjoy a day outside the busy Beach of La Concha.
One of the historical buildings that deserve a visit is the Miramar Palace. For a long time, San Sebastián was where the Spanish monarchs would spend the summer. One of the most famous residents was Queen María Cristina, especially after she became a widow of King Alfonso XII.
As the Royal Family didn't have a permanent residence in San Sebastián, she bought one of the many palaces of the city with incredible views of the bay, and made it her residence.
Shortly after the death of Queen María Cristina, the palace was confiscated by the local government, and it started to be used as the residence of the president of the Spanish Republic when he visited the city. The palace was returned to the Royal Family once again during Franco's dictatorship, and today it houses the summer courses organised by the University of the Basque County.
The interior is not open to the public, but the very beautifully designed gardens and wonderful views of the beach are worth a quick visit.
Miramar Palace marks the end of the Beach of La Concha and the start of Ondarreta Beach. Here is where you can find the Peine del Viento, or the Comb of the Wind, one of the most famous sculptures by Eduardo Chillida and a symbol of San Sebastián.
The structure was installed in 1976, and it was a bit of a controversy at the time. The sculptures went unnoticed for a long time until the local government decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ensemble back in 2007. Since then, the structure has been greatly celebrated all over the world and has become one of the biggest symbols of not only San Sebastián, but the entire Basque Country.
The ensemble is formed by three sculptures of steel that have been embedded in the rocks. The shape of the sculptures, looking like a comb, as well as the hard wind and waves in this area is what gave name to his structure.
The sculptures have an underground tunnel so that whenever the tide is high, the water comes in and expels the water towards the sky, creating an incredible visual effect.
Just next to the Peine del Viento leaves the funicular that will bring you to the top of Mount Igueldo. First established over 100 years ago, it travels a distance of 320 meters from Ondarreta Beach up to Mount Igueldo Amusement Park.
The funicular was inaugurated in 1912, and it has the honour of being the third oldest funicular in Spain. The way up is quite picturesque, definitely more interesting (and less tiring!) than going by foot or taking a bus.
Return tickets have a price of €3.15 per person, and also include the entrance to the enclosure and viewpoint.
Mount Igueldo is one of the main mountains of the city, and along Mount Urgull, it offers one of the most incredible views of San Sebastián.
The Amusement Park wasn't very interesting, so all I did was sit down at the terrace bar overlooking the bay, enjoying the view and the sun. There couldn't be a better way to finish a visit to this incredible city, known for a good reason as the pearl of the Cantabrian Sea!
All opinions are my own.