The Ultimate Guide to San Sebastián

Are you heading to San Sebastián and the Basque Country? Do you want all the best tips and advice to make your trip as incredible as possible?

Well, you’re in the right place! Welcome to Basque Bites’ Ultimate Guide to San Sebastián.

San Sebastián is the heart and soul of the Basque Country, the perfect place to stage your exploration of great food, great landscapes, and great people. You’re going to love it here!

Our San Sebastián and Basque Country Day Tours allow you to sample the very best of Basque cuisine while soaking up this unique region’s history, culture, and heritage.

Scroll down to dive into the good stuff! And if you have any questions for us about our

San Sebastián food and drink tours, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Is It San Sebastián, Donostia, or Both?

One town, many names! Nearly all Basque cities have both a Spanish and a Basque name.  

Bilbao in Basque is ‘Bilbo’, Vitoria is ‘Gasteiz’ and Pamplona is ‘Iruña’. The citizens of San Sebastián followed suit and named the town Donostia which loosely translates to San Sebastián.

The city itself is formally known as Donostia-San Sebastián which is frequently abbreviated to DSS. Locals are also known as ‘Donostiaras’ or people from San Sebastián in Basque. 

Donostiaras affectionately call their town SanSe or SanSeb for short.

What is San Sebastián Known For?

We’ve got some good news for you: San Sebastián is a city famous for all the best things in life!

Beautiful Beaches

San Sebastián is renowned for its beautiful beaches. There are three in total, but Playa La Concha, widely regarded as one of the most stunning urban beaches in Europe, is the crown jewel.

The crescent-shaped shoreline of golden sand, the azure ocean water, the boats bobbing in the bay, the scenic promenade — this is picture postcard stuff!

And La Concha is just the start. Keep reading to find our recommendations for the best beaches in San Sebastián.

World-Class Gastronomy

San Sebastián is widely recognized as one of the world’s culinary capitals. 

Despite being a small city, this amazing place has numerous Michelin-starred restaurants. This includes the world-famous Arzak, which has held three Michelin stars since 1989. 

The cuisine in San Sebastián showcases Basque traditions and includes pintxos (Basque-style tapas) and an array of seafood and meat dishes.

Our own chef-led walking pintxo dinner of San Sebastián is the perfect introduction to the wonderful world of pintxos!

An International Film Festival

As the name suggests, San Sebastián hosts the annual San Sebastián International Film Festival, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world and the oldest in Spain.

Established in 1953, the festival screens a wide range of films and attracts renowned filmmakers, actors, and industry professionals. 

Considered to be an “A-List” film festival on the same level as Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and Sundance, many films use it for world and European debuts. For example, Alfred Hitchcock attended the international premiere of Vertigo and Star Wars had its European debut here as well.

A Stunning Old Town (Parte Vieja)

The historic Old Town of San Sebastián is a charming area characterized by narrow streets, lively squares, and gorgeous architecture. For over 800 years this small area was the entire city of San Sebastián. 

It’s a joy to just stroll around while taking in the sights and enjoying the atmosphere. Look up, while you walk around, most of those balconies are attached to the apartments of local families–over 5,000 people still reside in this lively neighborhood.

But the area is also home to the city’s largest market and is a hub for dozens upon dozens of pintxos bars, so it’s the perfect spot for our chef-led market tour and pintxo lunch in San Sebastián.

Belle Époque Architecture

San Sebastián features beautiful architecture from the Belle Époque period. 

As the royal family of Spain began summering in San Sebastián in the 1860’s a plan to expand the city southward was drafted. The banks of the Urumea River were walled in to prevent flooding and tierra firma was laid in the Barrio Centro. The architect Cortazar modeled the zoning after Barcelon’s city streets and no expense was spared as aristocratic and royal money flooded the city. 

This entire neighborhood is characterized by stunning Neo-Classical architecture to give it a regal, French look.  The town’s city hall, formerly the Gran Casino is a great example, as are the gorgeous Victoria Eugenia Theatre adjacent to the five-starred Hotel Maria Cristina.

Mount Urgull

Rising above the city at the northern end of La Concha Bay, Mount Urgull offers breathtaking panoramic views of San Sebastián and its surroundings. 

Towering over the city you’ll find a statue of Jesus with a large number of fortifications, a historic cemetery, old canons, and hidden sites to discover. You could spend 20 minutes or 2 hours up there enjoying sweeping views of the city and coastlines. Numerous paths and forested walks make this a great destination to explore and get a unique perspective of San Sebastián.

Basque Culture

San Sebastián celebrates and embraces Basque culture. 

The Basque language, Euskera, is widely spoken, and the city hosts many traditional Basque festivals, such as San Juan the summer solstice, Santo Tomas, the winter solstice, and La Tamborrada AKA Saint Sebastián Day.

Best of San Sebastián, Spain – Top Things to Do

What are the best things to see and do in San Sebastián? The list is grande! Read on for some of our top recommendations but if you are looking for something specific or have a special request reach out to us. 

We love organizing custom experiences for clients and helping people plan their visits.

  • San Telmo Museum: Immerse yourself in Basque culture and history at the San Telmo Museum. Wander the wide range of exhibits that explore Basque heritage, art, and traditions — and marvel at the fascinating architecture too. This museum also features the abandoned church of Saint Elmo with gorgeous murals by renowned Catalan artist Josep M. Sert.
  • Kursaal Congress Centre: Admire the modern architecture of the Kursaal, which hosts various cultural events and exhibitions throughout the year. A free art museum is located on the East side beyond the shops. And don’t forget to explore the funky terraces on the backend facing the beach. Pop down onto the sand to catch the surf or just go for a stroll along Zurriola Beach for a different coastal experience.
  • Miramar Palace: Visit the 19th-century Miramar Palace, a beautiful royal palace located on a hill overlooking La Concha Bay. The palace’s gardens provide a tranquil escape with delightful views.
  • San Sebastián Cathedral: Discover the ornate beauty and striking architecture of the San Sebastián Cathedral, also known as the Buen Pastor Cathedral.  Families enjoy strolling around the church and it’s a great spot for kids to play a little fútbol. Just behind is the pedestrian-friendly street Calle Reyes Catolicos where you’ll find shops, bars, and indoor-outdoor eateries packed with locals enjoying the good life.
  • Santa Clara Island: Sitting in the middle of Concha Bay, Santa Clara Island is impossible to miss! The island provides amazing views back across the bay toward the city and is a truly idyllic spot and great for picnics. During the summer a cafe serves simple food and if you don’t think you can make the swim, rent a kayak, SUP or catch the local ferry from the port.

And no trip to San Sebastián and the Basque Country is complete without a pintxo tour!

Check out our San Sebastián food and drink tours and find out which experience suits you best.

We cover the city’s exceptional gastronomy in more detail below, so keep scrolling down to find out more.

Travel Guide San Sebastián, Spain – Tourist Facts

If you’re traveling to San Sebastián and the Basque Country for the first time, you should probably go ahead and forget any lingering clichés and stereotypes you might have about Spain.

Looking for flamenco and paella? You won’t find them here. 

And ordering tapas will only signpost that you’re a tourist — not that there’s anything wrong with that!

San Sebastián is in the Basque Country, and this region has a unique culture that sets it apart from the typical image many people have of Spain.

And that’s all part of the charm and wonder in this one-of-a-kind city.

Many People in San Sebastián Speak Basque (Euskera)

If you’re planning to show off your dazzling Spanish language skills in San Sebastián, don’t be put off if you can’t understand what the locals are saying to each other.

Many people in the city and across the region speak Euskera (Basque) in their daily lives, including our company’s founder, Gregory.

You can get to know him a little better over on the About Us page.

Euskera is the most isolated language in the world, having no relation to any other language. It is also the oldest indigenous language in Europe that is still commonly spoken and it’s mandatory for students, K through 12, to do ALL of their studies in Basque.

But fear not! When visiting the larger Basque cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao, you’ll be able to communicate just fine in Castilian Spanish and all the barmen and women understand English…más o menos.

Be Aware Of and Respect the Tumultuous Recent Past

The Basque Country has had a troubled history, especially in the last 30 or 40 years when a struggle for independence was afoot. It was kind of similar to the Northern Irish conflict.

You’ll soon realize that many locals identify as Basque, not Spanish. Occasionally you’ll see graffiti reminding you that “you are not in Spain or France, you are in THE BASQUE COUNTRY”

Put very simply, the Basque Country has a great deal of political, social and cultural autonomy separating it from the rest of Spain.

Naturally, this isn’t the time or place to cover such a polarizing topic but we’d love to break it down for you on one of our tours to help you understand what it’s all about.

If you’re looking to explore the Basque Country outside of San Sebastián, we think you’ll love our Basque Coast Experience.

Gastronomy and Best Places To Eat In San Sebastián

Food is king in San Sebastián — long live the king!

The culinary scene in this city is exceptional, and if you didn’t already know, pintxos are the star of the show.

Similar to, yet not the same as, tapas, pintxos are the backbone of Basque cuisine.

There are basically two kinds of pintxos, COLD PINTXOS on the bar and HOT PINTXOS off a secret menu. Pintxos were traditionally always served on skewers, indeed the word pintxo means thorn, piercing, stick, or skewer. Many pintxos are also served on toast–a little plate you can eat.

The pintxos on the bar are like Basque fast food or grand-no-go. They’re small bites, meant to be enjoyed with a small pour of beer, wine, or cider. But there’s a whole ‘nother world of pintxos waiting for you on one of our tours.

These “hot” pintxos are the seasonal specialties cooked ‘a la minute’ and typically ordered off chalkboards. The chalkboards can be hard to navigate, they’re frequently scribbled in a playful mixture of Basque and Spanish, or simply not at all.  That’s right, there’s almost always something OFF MENU that only we know about! 

You’re not really supposed to make a full meal at each bar, but just have a couple of pintxos and a drink and bounce. And since pintxos are usually eaten whilst standing at the bar, it’s the ideal way to hop from place to place on a pintxo hunt–a glorified pub crawl if you will. 

Recommending the best places to eat in San Sebastián is both easy and impossible. There’s just such an overabundance of great bars, great restaurants, and great dishes. Remember, this is one of the world’s culinary capitals!

So, we’ve closed our eyes and stuck some pins in a map to come up with the following delectable tips:

Outstanding Restaurants in San Sebastián

  • Narru
  • Arenales
  • El Bistro Ondarreta
  • CASA 887
  • Gerald’s Bar
  • Galerna
  • Bodegón Alejandro
  • Artean
  • Astelena 1880

San Sebastián’s Great Grillhouses

  • Asador Portuetxe
  • Zelai Txiki
  • Zapiain
  • Petritegi
  • Bar Nestor
  • Casa Nicolás(in Tolosa)
  • Casa Julián (in Tolosa)

Amazing Spots for Breakfast & Sweet Treats

  • Pastelería Oiartzun
  • Old Town Coffee
  • The Loaf
  • Simona Specialty Coffee Club
  • Maiatza
  • Agitan

Michelin-Star Restaurants in and Around San Sebastián

There are many incredible facts about San Sebastián. But one of our favorites is that no place on the planet, except for Kyoto in Japan, has a greater concentration of Michelin stars per square kilometer.

If you stuck a compass in City Hall and drew a 25-km radius around it, that circle would have 16 Michelin stars in it.

So, if it’s Michelin-starred restaurants you’re after, these are the places for you:

  • Arzak (***)
  • Akelarre (***)
  • Martin Berasategui (***)
  • Mugaritz (**)
  • Amelia (**)
  • Kokotxa (*)
  • Alameda (*)
  • Elkano (*)

And there’s more! Zelai Txiki also holds a prestigious Michelin Green Star for sustainability and Txulotxo holds a Bib Gourmand for rewards ‘value for money’. In addition, there are scores of restaurants in San Sebastián which are Michelin recognized though they do not hold any stars. Being written up and recommended in the guide is an award in and of itself.

And Don’t Forget the Delicious Drinks!

It’s not just the food that will tantalize your tastebuds in San Sebastián — the bar program is just as impressive.

Basque cider is an experience in itself. Naturally fermented hard Basque cider is a bit of an acquired taste in that it is not sweet and just barely carbonated. Sagardoa, or sidra, is a bit like kombucha and very good for the tummy, loaded with probiotics. It’s the traditional drink of the Basques and still made within the city limits.

The wine here is also a scene-stealer. Txakoli is a style unique to the Basque Country and mostly produced along the coast. It’s a crisp and minerally white that pairs great with seafood.

Both the local Txakoli and Cider share an unusual pour. In order to release the C02 trapped inside the liquid, one must use a wide-mouth tumbler and pour at arm’s length, something we call “breaking” the cider or wine. Grab your phone, watch your feet, and get ready to splish-splash!

And then there’s the Rioja which is just 90 minutes away. The appellation with the highest elevation and best quality wines, La Rioja Alavés, is housed within the Baque Country’s geographic border. Tempranillo is the dominant grape though you can also find some great Grenache, field blends, and whites like Viura AKA Macabeo.

Our La Rioja Wine Country Experience is the perfect gateway into this paradise for wine lovers.

What are the Best Beaches in San Sebastián?

Whether you want to take a stroll on soft golden sand, relax with a good book, or cool off with a dip in the ocean, you’ve got a pick of fantastic beaches in San Sebastián.

La Concha Beach

Let’s get reacquainted with one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe.

La Concha Beach sweeps along San Sebastián’s coastline, creating a picturesque crescent shape.

It’s truly rare to find such a stunning beach in the heart of a city.

And La Concha offers excellent facilities too, including lockers and changing rooms under the paved boardwalk, showers. 

Rentals for kayaks and paddle boards are available most of the year and during summer lifeguards are on patrol, along with simple cafes run by the city.

Zurriola Beach

Located on the opposite side of the city from La Concha, across Urumea Ibaia (the River Urumea), Playa de Zurriola is popular with younger crowds. 

It has a more energetic and lively atmosphere, and the larger waves attract surfers of all levels. There are some great surf festivals held here including a single-fin longboard competition. 

At the far end of the beach are volleyball courts in the sand and a kid-friendly skate park, playground, and basketball courts. A local surf bar built in a shipping container opens during the summer months as well. 

That side of the beach is its own neighborhood, named Sagües, which features unique shops, bike rentals, great bars for more bites, and the best sunsets in the city. Locals bring guitars and beers and park it along the wall each night to take in the magnificent views of the Old Town, the Kursaal, and the beach.

Ondarreta Beach

Situated at the western end of La Concha Bay, adjacent to the residential Barrio Antiguo, Ondarreta Beach is spacious and family-friendly. 

Ondarreta is the smallest of San Sebastián’s three beaches and is popular with locals and families.

One thing we love about this side of town is the txiringuitos, or simple beach bars, built in the sand and run by the city. Rentals for kayaks, paddle boards, parasols, and beach chairs are also available.

This is an ideal spot to relax and get off your feet away from it all.

Treat Your Tastebuds to Our San Sebastián Food and Drink Tours

We hope this Ultimate Guide to San Sebastián has inspired you to start planning your visit! We can’t wait to meet you!

Browse our Day Tours in San Sebastián and the Basque Country to find out more about the delights waiting for you here.

And for more information about any of our adventures in this incredible city, the Basque Country, and beyond, please feel free to get in touch.

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