12 things to do in San Sebastian and its surroundings that you should not miss
The coastal city of San Sebastian is currently an essential stop for tourists looking for stylish destinations, away from touristic beach stereotypes. This is one of the reasons why the city became a hotspot for the aristocracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks to the health and wellness tourism, the Spanish monarchy began to visit the town every summer season, but it was not until 1863 when the old walls were demolished and the most important period of splendor in this city began. Queen María Cristina played a key role in the development, because she fell in love with the city and during her reign, buildings inspired by a mostly Parisian and Belle Époque style were designed. The city was then known as “little Paris“.
The continuous growth, the expansion of the city and the innovation in different areas, have meant that, after more than 100 years, San Sebastian continues to attract the gaze of those tourists who want to enjoy its architecture, gastronomy and sports. Today, we show you 12 things you should do while visiting this historic city and its surroundings.
Walk along La Concha and Ondarreta beaches
La Concha is Donostia’s jewel par excellence. For 2 years, its 1,300 meter long urban beach is recognized as one of the best in Spain and Europe. In addition to its landscape, La Concha stands out for its famous lampposts and white railings along the promenade. Without any doubt, it is the best option for a good dip, whilst enjoying the views of the island of Santa Clara or stroll along the shore until you reach Ondarreta beach. Sheltered by Mount Igueldo, Ondarreta’s calm waters and the width of the sandy area make it ideal if you are looking for a quiet day in the sun.
Listen to the wind at Peine del viento
Continuing along the promenade and leaving Ondarreta beach, you will find another of the most emblematic places in San Sebastián: the Peine del Viento. These are 3 steel sculptures form one of the most famous works of the sculptor Eduardo Chillida. In addition to being able to observe the peculiarity of its shapes, a system of tubes and holes under the promenade allow to hear a very haunting sound generated by the onslaught of the sea. A magical space to visit during the sunset.
Enjoy the views from Mount Igueldo amusement park
Another of the favorite attractions in San Sebastián is climbing Mount Igueldo. You can access it by car, although taking the trip up by funicular makes it more special, the oldest in the Basque Country. Once at the top you will enjoy the best views of the city and its bay, with sundown being the perfect time to see the city light up. Along with the funicular, the charming amusement park is also part of the Igueldo Monumental Complex since 2014, where attractions originating from 1911 coexist with modern ones, creating a space where you can have fun while savoring the historical essence of San Sebastian.
Visit the Miramar Palace
The Miramar Palace rises between the beaches of Ondarreta and La Concha. Built by order of Queen María Cristina at the end of the 19th century, it served as a summer residence for the Spanish royal family. Currently, this English-style building is not open to the public, but, as the official venue for the Summer Courses of the University of the Basque Country, it offers a wide variety of activities and conferences on different topics. Likewise, its gardens continue to be its main attraction due to the incredible views they offer of the bay.
Taste some pintxos at the Old Town of San Sebastián
You cannot visit San Sebastian and not enjoy a route through the best pintxos bars in its Old Town. These little snacks have become such a popular attraction that many places offer tasting menus, allowing you to try from the most traditional to the most avant-garde ones. If you are thinking about where to eat in San Sebastián, keep in mind that you are in a city with a high concentration of award winning eateries so every little bar or restaurant makes a competitive effort. Some of the most popular bars are La Espiga, La Viña or the Zeruko, where you can try the pintxo-pote tradition (combining a snack with a drink). A recommended walk through the streets of the Old Town and a visit to the Plaza de la Constitución, the Bretxa Market or the San Telmo Museum is a great way to end an afternoon.
Climb up Mount Urgull and visit the Sacred Heart
Known as one of the green spaces of the city, Mount Urgull is perfect for a half-day walk. Starting from the port, on Mari street, the route will transport you to bygone eras ranging from the reign of Sancho VI of Navarre to the Napoleonic wars. The fortifications and walls cut their way through one of the most picturesque natural landscapes in town. From the viewpoints you can enjoy one of the most photographed views of the city. At the top, approach the famous monument of the Sacred Heart, the defensive Castle of La Mota or discover the mysteries and legends hidden at the cemetery of the Englishmen.
Stroll through the Romantic district and the Cathedral of Buen Pastor
Going down from Mount Urgull and after crossing the boulevard, you enter the romantic San Sebastian where the main landmark is the Buen Pastor Cathedral. Built at the end of the 19th century, this neo-Gothic temple is inspired by the cathedral of Cologne, Germany, and today is the largest and most important religious structure in town. After visiting the cathedral, you can stroll through its romantic surroundings, known for its Parisian style, and go to Plaza Gipuzkoa, another iconic place. It hosts numerous events every year and its gardens are a rest and meeting point for visitors.
Enjoy the beauty of the bridges over the Urumea River
The walk along the Urumea river is another essential. You can start from the María Cristina bridge next to the hotel of the same name which plays host to many well-known figures during the San Sebastian International Film Festival. A few meters away you will find the Santa Catalina and the Zurriola bridges. Decorated in an Art Deco style, it joins the Old Town with the eastern district and its third beach, Zurriola. Here is where the Kursaal Auditorium and Exhibition Centre are located, home to numerous events and the aforementioned Film Festival.
Relax at Aiete and Cristina Enea Parks
There are many areas of San Sebastian where concrete disappears to be replaced by vegetation and the tranquility of its parks. Among the most emblematic is the Aiete park. The entrance from Morlans gate allows you to cross several green paths and discover a great variety of trees until you reach the upper area, where the Monumental Complex formed by the Palace of Aiete and the surrounding gardens await your arrival.
Another option is to visit the Cristina Enea park, on the other side of the Urumea river. This is the most important green space in San Sebastian, where you can get away from the pace of the city and visit the old Mandas Palace. Currently it houses the San Sebastian Environmental Resource Center and boasts a great display of biodiversity.
Enjoy contemporary art exhibitions at Tabakalera
Tabakalera is the International Centre for Contemporary Culture. Located next to the Cristina Enea park, the centre has different spaces for exhibitions, performances, workshops and cinemas. Activities are ongoing at Tabakalera and, in addition to the guided tours throughout the week, the extensive billboard and premieres, they also include experiential workshops focused on families and the young ones.
Surf at the Zurriola Beach
Under the watchful eye of the Kursaal Auditorium, in the Gros neighborhood, Zurriola is the third beach of San Sebastian. The strong waves make it a gem for surfers and water sports lovers. Don’t be surprised if a surfer or two pass you bay board in hand ready to hit the breakers.
Visit the coastal towns of Hondarribia, Zarautz and Getaria
If you visit San Sebastian by car, travel to the towns that make up this part of the Atlantic coast. Start on the border with France visiting the famous colorful houses of La Marina and the medieval quarter in Hondarribia. On the other side of San Sebastian, we recommend you make a stop in Zarautz and enjoy a good dip in what is considered one of the best beaches in the Basque Country for surfers and bathers. Perhaps you are looking for a gastronomic destination? You cannot miss Getaria. In addition to its charm, this fishing village is famous for the grills that are found in every corner, cooking the best seafood in the area. And, of course, for the local wine, txakoli.