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San Sebastian sits on a circular bay that has historically attracted wealthy people in search of sun and sophistication. Furthermore, its gastronomic tourism linked to a privileged cultural and natural environment has made it a very attractive destination. All of this contributes to it being known as the “Pearl of the Cantabrian Sea”.
The elegant modern promenade that runs along the Concha beach is probably the most famous sight in the city. Alternately, the Old Town of the city is full of charming cobblestone streets. This is the best area to try the famous pintxos, a local appetizer.
Things to do in San Sebastian
In San Sebastian, nature, architecture and sea come together to create a lively city that enchants everyone who discovers it. Read on to discover the best things to do in San Sebastian, Spain and start planning your visit.
The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd of San Sebastian was built at the end of the 19th century. Not very old by European standards.
However, it represents a neo-Gothic style that was popular a couple of hundred years ago. The architect, Manuel Echeve, was inspired by German Gothic cathedrals, in particular the one in the city of Cologne.
Its 75-meter-high bell tower tops the entrance portico and the exterior impresses with an infinity of details.
However, its interior also hides some surprises. Inside are found priceless works of art and exhibitions dedicated to the history of the city. The beautiful stained glass windows adorn the place and give it luminosity and spirituality.
Both Playa de la Concha and the bay owe their name to their shape which resembles a shell when seen from above. Protected on one side by Mount Urgull and on the other by Mount Igueldo, the waters are calm and perfect for swimming or practicing paddle boarding.
La Concha is the jewel of Donostia, a unique beach of fine white sand just over a kilometer long. Its beauty is in total harmony with the city, one cannot be understood without the other.
In addition to its beauty, it is a beach full of history. Elizabeth II made it fashionable in 1845 when the doctor recommended she bathe in the sea for her skin problems. Following the queen came the rest of the court and aristocrats who gave rise to the elegant San Sebastian of today.
It still attracts people from all over, both tourists and locals, and has been recognized as one of the most beautiful urban beaches in the world.
Along the promenade, there are plenty of cafes and tapas bars. Plus, its iconic 100-year-old white railing. It also highlights the Belle Epoque style spa of La Perla that reigns on the promenade.
The last stretch of the Concha has few buildings. But the English-style Miramar Palace stands out among the landscape with its characteristic red brick. This peculiar construction of the late nineteenth century was the summer residence of Queen Maria Cristina, Alfonso XIII and Juan Carlos de Borbon.
In 1972 the Town Hall bought the palace and its gardens. Today you can visit the garden area which is perfect for relaxing, chatting, reading or having a picnic while enjoying the spectacular views of the bay.
Wandering Around Old Town
Continuing along the promenade to the north of the beach you will reach the Old Part of the city, known as Parte Vieja. Located at the foot of Mount Urgull, this is one of the most visited areas of the city and is completely pedestrian.
Visiting the old town of the city is to know the most authentic side of Donostia, with cobbled streets full of bars and iconic buildings.
At the heart of this old area is Constitution Square, one of the most famous and largest squares in the city. Its central building was formerly the town hall of San Sebastian. The colorful balconies around the square are still numbered as they were in the past when it was a bullring.
Today, it is a lively place where many of the most important local festivals are held.
Also, here are the two oldest churches in the city. The Church of San Vicente was built during the first half of the sixteenth century in the Gothic style. And the Basilica of Santa Maria which is considered one of the most important religious temples of San Sebastian.
This corner of the city is the best area to enjoy the famous pintxos. In fact, it is said to have the highest concentration of bars in the world. Pintxos are a local appetizer, known in the rest of Spain as tapas.
The dish is usually a piece of bread topped with a variety of ingredients. Strolling from bar to bar trying these pintxos has become an art in itself.
Mount Urgull is located at one end of the Bay of La Concha, guarding the Old Town. It is a place full of history that saw the birth of San Sebastian. Walking around it transports you to a bygone era. On the way, you can discover fortifications and part of the wall that once surrounded the city.
This hill offers paths with a multitude of viewpoints that allow you to observe the city from a different perspective. However, it is at the top where you can really see the whole city, from the old town to the bay of La Concha or Mount Igueldo.
This work is a set of three steel sculptures of more than 9 tons each It is the work of the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chilllida. The Comb of the Wind is located at the extreme end of Concha Bay and Ondarreta beach, where the city ends and the sea begins.
The environment of the work is very important, in a place where the sea and the wind are constantly fighting against the rocks. The three sculptures face the waves that break against the cliffs of Monte Igueldo. They seem to emerge from the rock itself as if they were part of it.
Built in 1887, this building is one of the most beautiful examples of historical architecture in the city. It is a former palace that housed the Grand Casino until 1924.
The structure reflects the splendor of the city during the Belle Epoque, a period during which most of San Sebastian’s most outstanding buildings were built. Later it became the seat of the City Hall, which was previously located in Constitution Square.
In front of the building is the Alderdi Eder Park with beautiful gardens where you can stroll or relax. It also highlights the famous carousel of the city and the sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Finally, next to the City Hall, is the Alameda de Boulevard which connects the Old Town with the new area of the city.
This mountain rises 180 meters high at the end of the Bay of La Concha and is one of the most recognized symbols of San Sebastian. The mountain can be climbed on foot or by the oldest funicular railway in the Basque Country. It was inaugurated in 1912 and has wooden carriages.
At the top, there is an amusement park from the early twentieth century where the Swiss Mountain and the trampolines will take you back to your childhood. But the best attraction of all is the view that rises over the bay. From here you get one of the most incredible views of the city.
Protected by Mount Igueldo and Urgull, in the heart of La Concha Bay, is the small island of Santa Clara. It has been shaped for centuries by the sea and wind and provides a view of the whole city.
This small paradise is home to a lighthouse, several picnic areas, a natural swimming pool. Also, when the tide is low, a small beach appears for swimming.
It can be reached quickly by boat from the port of San Sebastian. Alternately, its proximity to the beaches of the bay also allows swimming access.
This beach is in the neighborhood of Gros, the most modern part of San Sebastian, next to the Conference Center and the Kursaal Auditorium. Zurriola Beach is one of the most popular for surfers. In fact, European surfing events such as the ASP Projunior, are held here.
Whether you want to take a swim, sunbathe and watch the surfers or try surfing yourself, this beach is worth a visit.
Book This Trip
Ready to plan your coastal vacation to San Sebastian? Start preparing with insider tips on the best beaches, hotel and VRBO reservations, local restaurant favorites and more through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.
Plan even more fun by booking some unique San Sebastian activities, expert-led tours, beach adventures and skip-the-line tickets to major attractions through GetYourGuide. Find more information and book your tours here.
For exclusive flight discounts and car rental options, check out CheapOair.
Get a taste of Spain’s best flavors before you go. Chat with a personal sommelier, pick out wines based on your taste and region preference and get the bottles delivered to your door through Wine.com.
More helpful links:
- Going for pintxos: miniature culinary art – San Sebastian Tourism (sansebastianturismoa.eus)
- Events • Donostia – San Sebastián • Tourist Guide (sansebastian.com)
- Where to sleep? – San Sebastian Tourism (sansebastianturismoa.eus)
- Funicular | Monte Igueldo Amusement Park
Author Bio: Based in France, Lucia Otero Medraño is Spanish with a master’s degree in travel journalism. She has worked in the tourism sector but her true passion is to live enriching experiences and discover amazing places around the world and write about them. In her spare time, she likes to enjoy her second passion, music.