Motto: Earnt by fidelity, nobility and loyalty
While travelling to Bilbao this weekend was not only for revisiting the city itself, the main reason was to come to San Sebastian, 100 kilometres east of Bilbao right by the coast. Considered as the most beautiful and elegant city in Spain, it is indeed hard to argue that fact. From the very far away memories I have of the only time I’ve come here many many years ago, I always kept in my mind the grand buildings and fine architectural taste and perfect urbanism. Back then I was not even so much into architecture as I am now, nor I did ever think I would ended up studying architecture in the university; but after this weekend’s visit I can finally say I’ve really explored this jewel of Spain in full.
If if almost any city in Spain you can find ancient constructions, churches and cathedrals over 1000 years old, medieval old towns and 15th century palaces to give some examples, here in San Sebastian it is the opposite. For many centuries it survived in one or other form until 1813 when British and Portuguese troops besieged San Sebastian assaulting the town and burning it completely down. That event opened the view to rebuilding from the ashes, this time following a proper urban plan. From this era comes the current “old town”, with the Constitution Square built in 1817 and neoclassical austere buildings. Later one, with the selection of this city as the summer residence of the Royal Family of Spain, it quickly gained fame among the bourgeoisie and rich who built their mansions and palaces, most of which which you can still admire today.
It was, however, almost 100 years later until the masterpiece extension urban plan took over. With the rapidly growing population, it was needed to torn down the old city walls and build farther away from the river. This plan followed greatly the orthogonal Parisian Haussmannian style, where not only the avenues and tree-lined streets were copied, but also in the architectural style of the buildings, very Parisian influenced with a blend of traditional Spanish elements.
With such a development boom and wealthiness of its inhabitants, and no further disasters, attacks or wars ever since bearing little damage during the Spanish Civil War, it is no surprise why it is named as the most beautiful city in Spain in that sense. Wherever you go, it is simply beautiful and perfect. From the delicate bridges over the river, to the palaces and mansions, and the incredible Concha Promenade and beach.
A good side is that the city is not too big making it perfect for a day trip. You can visit everything without any rush, and majority of tourists are day trippers from either Bilbao or Biarritz in France. San Sebastian is also synonym of expensive hence staying overnight is definitely more expensive than in Bilbao, plus back in Bilbao you have a much larger choice. In San Sebastian you can get, however, many 5* properties should you wish to treat yourself.
When coming to food, there is nothing that can beat “pintxos” (Basque for tapas). But in fact, wherever in the Basque Country city or village you might be, it is almost guaranteed to be the best. They are really unique, so elaborate and such a vast choice! Your stomach is too small for that many you would wish to eat. It is very easy to find a place anywhere around the old town. There are rarely tourist traps in this city, and all places are having more or less the same prices. Ask for a local wine to the likes of txacoli to accompany, you won’t regret Just to add a note about the great gastronomy and quality, San Sebastian is the second city with the most Michelin stars restaurants per-capita in the world only behind Kyoto in Japan. .
For more information about San Sebastian check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency in Spain is the Euro. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in San Sebastian
- Zurriola Beach/El Gros Area One of the newest areas in the city developed towards the end of the 20th century.
-Zurriola Beach One of the three beaches in the city, mostly a surfers paradise.
-Kursaal Palace Designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and built in 1999 houses a concert hall and congress centre, home to the biggest film festival in Spain, the San Sebastian International Film Festival. The striking architecture has made it to become a major icon and landmark in the city.
-Kursaal Bridge Links Zurriola directly with the Old Town.
-Santa Catalina Bridge Links Zurriola with the northern area of the 20th century extension of the city.
- Old Town/Mount Urgull Just across the Urumea River opposite the Kursaal Palace. This is the oldest area of the city built from 1817 after the city was destroyed by fire.
-Bretxa Market Converted into a great gourmet food hall.
-Constitution Square The main square in the Old Town, one of the first places to be built after the fire and destruction of the city in 1813.
-San Vicente Church The oldest building in the city, dating from the 16th century in Basque Gothic style.
-Zuloaga Square The second largest square in the Old Town, delimits the northern edge at the foothills of Mount Urgull.
-Basilica of Saint Mary of Coro Built in 1774 in baroque style, at the foothills of Mount Urgull and near the fisherman’s harbour.
-La Mota Castle Atop Mount Urgull, this defensive castle has a long history over the centuries. Part of the defensive walls have been restored and all can be visited now as part of the museum. The views from the top of the Old Town are the best.
- Ensanche Immediately south form the Old Town is the 20th century extension of the city following a Parisian Hausmannian plan with orthogonal streets and elegant buildings. The Boulevard de Donostia divides it from the Old Town that sits north.
-Victoria Eugenia Theatre Designed by architect Francisco de Urcola in 1912 is one of the most prestigious in Spain.
-Maria Cristina Hotel Right across the Victoria Eugenia Theatre and the small Okendo Gardens sits the most luxurious hotel in the city, and one of the very top hotels in Spain.
-Guipuzkoa Square Nice square where the palace of the local government of Guipuzkoa is located.
-City Hall At the beginning of La Concha Beach on the eastern side, housed in the former Grand Casino built in 1887 and in use until 1924 after the gambling ban, becoming the City Council since 1945 after it moved from Constitution Square.
-Alderdi Park At the front of the City Hall and beginning of La Concha Beach.
-Maria Cristina Bridge From 1905, the four monumental obelisks located at its ends copies those of the Alexander III bridge in Paris.
-Train Station Right across the Maria Cristina Bridge, was built in 1864 with the opening of the first rail line in the city.
-Cathedral Built at the end of the 19th century in neo-Gothic style by architect Manuel de Echave who based his design on Cologne Cathedral. Located at the south end of the Ensanche.
- La Concha/Ondarreta Area The world renown beach of the city where the elite, bourgeois and royalty made their summer resort in the late 19th century. Now major tourist attraction.
-La Concha Promenade and Beach Icon of the city for its natural bay beauty, with the small island of Santa Clara in the middle as if it would be a pearl, hence the name “concha”, meaning the shell. The fence all along the beach, lamp posts and both clock and barometer towers have become unique symbols.
-La Perla Spa Built in 1912 was considered back then one of the most luxurious spa resorts in the world.
-Miramar Palace Commissioned in 1893 by the Spanish Royal Family as their summer residence, stands on top of a hill named Pico del Loro overlooking both La Concha and Ondarreta Beaches. It’s design is clearly of English influenced.
-Ondarreta Beach It can be said to be the same as La Concha since it’s the continuation of this.
-El Peine de los Vientos Literally “The Comb of the Winds” are the famous sculptures made in iron by Spanish Eduardo Chillida and architect Peña Ganchegui built in 1977. On the foothills of Mount Igeldo, are a must see in the city.
-Mount Igeldo and Lighthouse At the west end of Ondarreta Beach, you can find the funicular to the top where sits an old amusement park. The views are the best you will get of the entire city with the beach and pearl (Santa Clara Island), and the ocean at the other side with the lighthouse.
San Sebastian has a small airport 20 kilometres from the city centre, but it is only serving national routes across Spain. The nearest international airport is Biarritz in France, just across the border from Hendaye, 50 kilometres from San Sebastian. Low cost carrier airlines use this airport, and the trip to the city is around hour and half either by bus or by train (changing at Hendaye).
Bilbao International Airport, in the other hand, at 100 kilometres, is probably your best best to come to San Sebastian. It is the largest in the Basque Country, and also the busiest along the entire north coast of Spain. More and more routes and airlines keep adding to the choice of destinations, meaning connections across the main European cities is possible, with several frequencies between the main cities in Spain, and at some international destinations like London thrice or more daily. It is located few kilometres to the north of the city and it’s easy to commute to/from downtown by bus, and by direct buses to San Sebastian without needing to go first to Bilbao and change bus there, hourly buses depart form the airport to San Sebastian.
From within Spain, frequent trains (high speed and conventional) covers the distance to the main cities Bilbao, Vitoria, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Alicante and smaller cities in between the line. Trains to France and Portugal usually depart nightly. Long distance buses from anywhere in Spain are more frequent than trains, and likely to be faster since they use the motorway and cross the mountain range.
Within the city there is no need to take any public transportation (only buses by the way). Everything is very compact and easy to reach on foot. Of course walking towards the Mount Igeldo is a larger walk and you might consider taking a bus on your way back. If that’s the case, it is easy to get any bus running along the coast, for 1.65 Euros the ticket.
Also, at the base of Mount Igeldo, I strongly recommend you to take the funicular to the top. While walking is possible, it is a very steep hike. And considering the weather conditions in the city are not the best, you would appreciate not making such great effort and take the funicular instead.
While I cannot recommend any hotel in San Sebastian as we did not stay overnight here but in Bilbao instead, I can only comment about our experience in Bilbao.
Being a city of such importance in ever field; business, finance, education and tourism; the hotel choice is really large comparing to the size of the city. Furthermore you can easily find any kind of level and comfort, from the very top luxurious properties to more modest. The availability is guaranteed to anyone, and finding a good deal was not hard at all but of course bearing in mind this was during low season. During high season months and festivities expect for a deal to be hard to be found and for paying way higher at any property.
As usual, a good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at one of the most famous and historic hotel, the Carlton, right by Moyua Square in the very heart of the Ensanche. While marketed as a 5* hotel, do not expect the level of a real 5*. This is to be honest, a 4* property. Very beautiful in and out, typical architecture of La Belle Epoch of the hotels, but already a bit dated on the inside; still, great for anyone to stay and enjoy, specially for the great location, nice and friendly stuff and larger than average bedroom, very clean, quiet and with comfortable bed.