A BACKPACKER’S GUIDE TO SAN SEBASTIAN
San Sebastian, or Donostia in the local tongue, is the jewel of the Basque Country, a beautiful, mountain fringed, double-beached resort town in the deep northwest corner of Spain. Famed for its culinary delights, from Michelin starred restaurants to the ubiquitous pintxo-topped bars that occupy every second building and entice you to come in and have a taste, just a nibble, on near anything your tastebuds desire.
San Sebastian is one of the world’s great combinations of surfable waves, great nightlife, cosmopolitan city life and food, glorious food. That’s why it’s long been a favourite of Stoke Travel, and why we’ve for a long time had a surf camp in the city’s hills. This is the land of an ancient people, with an indecipherable language to match, not really a part of Spain, but completely within its borders. San Sebastian is intriguing, attractive, addictive and delicious, it’s a must stop on any European itinerary.
Facts About San Sebastian
Population of San Sebastian: 186,000, up to almost 450,000 in the metropolitan area
Tourists to San Sebastian in a year: more than 2,000,000 overnight stays
Languages spoken in San Sebastian: Spanish, Basque (Euskera). Basque is one of the most fascinating languages in the world, an isolate, meaning that it has no relation to any other language in existence, and while it’s origins are unknown, most scholars believe that it’s the last remaining pre-invasion language in Europe. Literally spoken prehistory. We dare you to try and learn it.
Price of things in San Sebastian: one pintxo €3, glass of txakoli white wine €2, more pintxos until you pop about €20, some kalimotxos €5 each
Times things happen in San Sebastian: the same times as the rest of Spain.
Average summer temperatures in San Sebastian: high 25°C, low 16°C
Average winter temperatures in San Sebastian: high 12°C, low 5°C
Getting Around San Sebastian
Walking around San Sebastian: San Sebastian is a pretty broad city. Around the food and drink hub of the Old Town the only way to get around is on foot. You can also easily walk to Zurriola, the surf beach, or to La Concha, the non-surfing beach, but maybe going from La Concha to Zurriola is more of a job for a bike.
Biking around San Sebastian: there are bike paths linking up most zones, making bike a solid way to get around San Sebastian, particularly if you’re staying outside of the Old Town. Sanse Bikes on the boulevard that runs past the Old Town, has some decent hires with locks and baskets included.
Public transport in San Sebastian: very handy if you’re staying out the back of town, near Anoeta Stadium, for example, and want to get down to the Old Town without working up a sweat. Keep an eye out for the Dbus, and you can either get tickets onboard, or find a store with a Dbus sticker in the window and get a reusable, retoppable travel card. There’s also a local train system called Euskotren that services the suburbs around San Sebastian and the greater Basque Country.
Taxis in San Sebastian: oh they’re the saviour of many a drunkard, a way to whip you home when walking’s too tough, you’re too drunk to ride your bike and there’s no way you can get your head around the public transport. Way more expensive than the other modes of getting around, but the town’s not really big enough to blow your budget on any given trip.
Driving around San Sebastian: not the easiest city to drive around, and free parking is almost expensive to find. If you do have a car you can find a reasonably priced park either at the northern end of the surf beach, or around the backside of Jesus. Yep, you’ll know what we mean when you’re there.
San Sebastian Accommodation Options
Where to stay in San Sebastian: the most central place to stay is in the Old Town, but it can be very crowded at night. The surf beach of Zurriola, and Gros, the suburb behind it, is up-and-coming in the bar scene, so it’s worth keeping an eye on that part of town. Heading inland from the Old Town you’ll find Centro, which is a nicer part of town and has some nice hostels. Anywhere outside of these areas is a little far to be walking distance from San Sebastian.
Where to sleep in your car in San Sebastian: you could try behind Jesus, or in the northern corner near the surf beach, but you might get moved on and/or fined. Otherwise you’ll be parking outside the city.
Camping in San Sebastian: there’s one campsite at the top of Igueldo mountain, which is a pretty long way from Old Town San Sebastian, down the rather steep hill. On the upside, the views are spectacular. There’s also a new campsite in that area called Camping Igara that is 9kms from town, so that might be closer, but it’s still pretty dang far away. The next nearest campsite is at the surf beach of Zarautz, which is a 30 minute bus ride from San Sebastian, but has a much nicer beach with better waves.
Airbnb in San Sebastian: you could make a pretty good argument that Airbnb has ruined short-term renting in San Sebastian. Not that long ago surfers and foodies could use notice boards to find rooms for a few weeks or months, but now all those rooms are being Airbnb’d, and at top dollar too. Some Airbnbs in San Sebastian are semi-legal, but we haven’t heard about places being raided and tourists being kicked into the streets, so it’s worth a look.
Best Hostels in San Sebastian: San Sebastian has a bit of a deficit of hostel beds, particularly in high summer and other busy times. When searching for your beds online, using our guide to finding cheap accommodation, bear in mind that in San Sebastian pensiones are small one-star hotels, often run by little old ladies, that might be a little less tolerant of your partying lifestyle. Also bear in mind that you’re going to be spending most of your time in the Old Town or at the beach, so anywhere away from that zone will need to have transport options to get you there.
Best Hotels in San Sebastian: well there’s the Maria Christina, haunt of the rich and famous, particularly during the San Sebastian film festival. You could always stay there… but to be completely honest, outside of winter, hotels here are expensive and in short supply. Unless you really feel like balling, you can skip this option.
San Sebastian Food And Drink
What to eat in San Sebastian: everything! Eat everything, try strange things, get well and truly out of your comfort zone. San Sebastian is a world-renowned foodies paradise, but getting immersed in the culture can be a little daunting. Basically there are three levels of eating here. The first level is to eat the pintxos (Basque for tapas) that you see adorning the bar tops. These are meant to be quick snacks had on the run, with a drink. If you have a little bit of time forget these enticing treats and enter level two, which is eating from the menu, often written on a board and positioned behind the bar. This stuff is similar to the pintxos on the bar, but it will be prepared by the chefs in the kitchen. Again, these are small plates, absolutely intended for sharing, the idea being that you and your party try multiple plates in each sitting. The fourth level is to find a restaurant to sit down in and eat a full meal, but bear in mind that even in this situation sharing is the order of the day, so get over the plate possessiveness. For a full guide to San Sebastian’s best pintxos bars, check out our guide.
Best places to eat in San Sebastian: everywhere! There are pintxos bars in all parts of town, on every street, every block. Some of the busiest bars are in the Old Town, but some of the best are in other parts of town, like the up and coming barrio of Gros. Our guide to the best pintxos bars will point you in the right direction, but in reality the best way to explore the gastronomical delights in the city is just to spend some time trying any damn bar you want to.
What to drink in San Sebastian: obviously along with great food always comes even better drinks. While San Sebastian has all the usual suspects, there are some local delights that you just have to try while you’re here, like txakoli, a very dry, tart, lightly bubbled white wine that is a favourite with seafood pintxos, or kalimotxo, a real party starter that consists of Coca Cola mixed with red wine and is much tastier than it sounds, the local sidra, apple cider that is made without preservatives or added sugar, comes without bubbles, and will mess you up in the most delicious way, or patxaran, a liquor made from local berries that goes down sweet and smooth after a big meal.
San Sebastian Tips
Scams and crime in San Sebastian: not much to note here, apart from some pickpockets and other unsavouries who haunt the Old Town at night. Like always, just employ your best anti-pickpocketing practices to avoid becoming a target or victim.
Terrorism and public danger in San Sebastian: for a long while San Sebastian was under the threat of homegrown terror attacks from the hands of ETA, an organisation with the aim of separating the Basque Country from Spain by means of violence. During the time of ETA small bombings and shootings weren’t uncommon in San Sebastian and throughout the Basque Country, although tourists were never targeted. ETA has now disbanded and disarmed and are pursuing their aims through political means. There are regular protests in San Sebastian relating to the Basque struggle, and more recently against tourism in the city, but these very rarely, if ever, turn violent and never towards anybody but the police charged with opposing them. This is an overwhelmingly safe city, with a sometimes exciting underbelly.
Best Places To Visit In San Sebastian
Best San Sebastian beaches: there are three main beaches in San Sebastian. Zurriola is the haunt of San Sebastian’s surfers and youth, the only beach that really gets waves. In the southern corner it’s usually protected and in the north it’s at its biggest and wildest and the domain of the shit hot shred lords. La Concha is the main bay, with the island of Santa Clarita taking pride of place in the centre, a picturesque bay with so few waves that it is used as a harbour. This is a beach for families and old people, the well heeled and bad swimmers. At the furthest extreme of La Concha is Ondarreta, which is the beach that services the communities on that side of San Sebastian. It’s a nice option and a good place to swim to Santa Clarita. A short drive from San Sebastian is Zarautz, a huge beach with great waves, and authentic Basque bars.
San Sebastian sights: we guess that at some point you should get out of the bars and off the beach, so why not hit up Mount Urgull, which stands behind the Old Town with a huge statue of Jesus on its top. All around Jesus are the walls and buildings of San Sebastian’s first habitation, including a cemetary from one of the city’s many walls, and some super cool cannons aimed over the bay. There are great spots to see the sunset from up here. Throughout the streets of the Old Town there are historic buildings, but most burnt down on the 31st of August, 1813. There’s still one building from before that fire standing, that is on the street 31st Agosto, that shows what the city might have looked like before the fire. Crossing the river from the Old Town towards Zurriola you’ll find the Kursaal building, and the bridge that leads to it, and at the end of that beach you’ll come across Monte Ulia, another mountain worth a climb for comprehensive views of the city and surrounding mountains and sea.
San Sebastian districts: Parte Vieja is the Old Town, the historic centre of the city and where you’ll find the most bars, museums and general action. It’s a grid of narrow pedestrian streets and apartment buildings, located conveniently between the two main beaches.
Gros is the residential area behind Zurriola beach. This neighbourhood is growing in popularity, particularly with the younger crowd, with plenty of fun, new pintxos bars, old favourites, supermarkets and some hostels. Goes off on a Thursday night for pintxo pote, where about two bucks will get you a snack and a beer or wine.
Centro this is the fancy part of town running inland along the river from the Old Town. Nice apartments, a good selection of bars and plenty of fancy stores to shop in.
Ondarreta is the area below Monte Igueldo (yeah, that castle on the mountain is actually a hotel, and there’s a pretty old and rather creepy theme park attached to it. Ondarreta is where the university is, as well as a bit of a family zone.
Amara is the area towards the back of the city, running up to the foothills. It’s where the local football team, Real Sociedad, have their stadium and is a family zone a little way away from the action. La Erreal, as the team is known, compete in the top division in Spain (against Madrid and Barcelona) and are either red hot, or utterly terrible.
San Sebastian Festivals And Parties
San Sebastian music festivals: every year the Jazz festival, Jazzaldia, goes off with lives acts all over the city, many for free, including on the giant beach stage set up at Zurriola beach. There’s also the Kutxa Kultur Festibala up on Monte Igueldo every September, with more contemporary acts and freaking wonderful views.
San Sebastian clubs: after 3am the bars shut down and it’s time to find somewhere to rage after hours. There are a few clubbing options. The most famous is Bataplan, on the sand along La Concha, but dress up and expect to pay a cover. Further back towards the Old Town, overlooking the bay and port, is Gu, lower key, still fun, and one of our favourites. There’s also the Victoria Cafe, on the river there, next to the Maria Cristina, that really rocks when it’s open.
San Sebastian cultural festivals: San Sebastian is famous for its film festivals, the San Sebastian International Film Festival, San Sebastian Surf Film Festival and the San Sebastian Horror Film Festival. More traditional festivals include Santo Tomas, the December 21st celebration of all things Basque, washed down with plenty of cider, La Tamborrada, on the 20th of January and filled with drumming from midnight to midnight, and Semana Grande, the big week of August that sees fireworks displays and streets filled with revellers.
San Sebastian food and wine fairs: the whole city is a constant food and wine fair, but keep your eyes out for the marketplace set up next to McDonalds most days, though it’s in the mornings so good luck being awake. The tomatoes are particularly impressive and delicious.
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