San Sebastián

San Sebastián, or Donostia in the Basque language, is a playground for the senses: Framed by the aquamarine Bay of Biscay and a ring of green mountains, the European beach town is as lovely as it is rich in culture. Part of Spain’s autonomous Basque Country, the region is home to a proud and independent people, and the city’s unique language and culture bear little relation to the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Many of the world’s top chefs list San Sebastián as their favorite destination, and the city has more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any other city in the world.

La Concha beach in autumn day at San Sebastian.  Spain

Photo By Bear Fotos/Shutterstock


When’s the best time to go to San Sebastián?

Winters are cloudy and wet (though still warm), making summer the ideal time to visit. The population of the city increases considerably from June through August, but unlike other European cities, the crowds aren’t large enough to make a trip unpleasant. San Sebastián’s food scene is delicious all year round, though restaurant hours can be limited in the winter. To really live like a local, plan a trip around one of San Sebastián’s many festivals, when the city comes alive with, say, film buffs (September’s San Sebastián Film Festival), drummers (January’s Tamborrada festival), farmers (December’s Santo Tomas), and summer revelers (August’s Great Week).

How to get around San Sebastián

San Sebastián has a tiny and pleasantly dated airport (EAS) located in the nearby village of Hondarribia. From there, you can take a city bus or a taxi, which will run you about 30 euros. Flying into Bilbao (BIO) is another easy option. A bus leaves from the airport exit to the center of San Sebastián every 45 minutes past the hour and costs about 16 euros.

Once you arrive, San Sebastián is best experienced on foot. The city can be walked end to end in about an hour (this is a favorite local pastime). City buses are plentiful, punctual, and straightforward. Taxis (+34 943 46 46 46) begin at 6 euros for a journey within city limits. San Sebastián is well-connected to other cities by bus and train, though buses are usually more efficient (if you have the option). The Renfe train connects to the rest of Spain, while the Euskotren connects San Sebastián to France and Bilbao.

Can’t miss things to do in San Sebastián

There’s not much that beats watching the sun set behind Monte Urgull from a bar in the Old Quarter. Order a mojito and see if, from a distance, you can spot the tiny bar built into the side of the mountain.

Food and drink to try in San Sebastián

Follow the locals to any pintxo bar. Order one pintxo and one drink, and then move on. Pintxos on the bar are up for grabs, and you pay when you are finished. Lunch hours usually run from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Kitchens typically open for dinner at 8 p.m. and allow seating up to 10:30 or 11 p.m. It can be difficult to find substantial food outside of these hours. Expect wine and beer pours to be smaller than in your home country, but also expect them to be cheaper. If you want an even smaller serving (all those pintxos, all those wines...) you can ask for a zurito (small beer) or txikito (small wine).

Culture in San Sebastián

San Sebastián is home to Basque people who are culturally and genetically distinct from other Europeans. They speak Euskara, a language isolate that is unrelated to the Romance languages of the region. Learn a few words, if you’re aiming to please: kaixo means “hello,” and agur is “good-bye.” Basques know how to celebrate their uniqueness—whether with a day dedicated to Euskara, or by partying on Calle San Juan de Bilbao in the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter).

Basques love a good party. The Tamborrada (held on January 20) celebrates the city’s patron saint with a 24-hour festival in which participants walk through the city, drumming. Saint Thomas’s Day (December 21) commemorates the day that farmers used to travel to the city to pay their yearly rent; festivities include traditional dress, generous quantities of cider, and the eating of txistorra (a Basque pork sausage). For a more modern cultural event, check out the September film festival, Zinemaldi, which is one of Europe’s most important.

Local travel tips for San Sebastián

At a restaurant or bar, don’t pay for your food or drink until you’re on the way out. Tip only if you’re feeling too lazy to pick up the change. When walking avoid the red paths, which are for cyclists only. Do not forget your umbrella as the city sees many rainy days, even in summer.

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
Resources to help plan your trip
Everyone knows the Old Town of culinary capital San Sebastián is full of tasty tapas, or pintxos. But the rest of the city has some hidden gems, too.
It’s easy to eat cheaply in San Sebastián, when gourmet bites of food cost around $3. But when you’re looking for more bang for your euro and something a bit more filling, try these favorite spots.
San Sebastián may be a small town at heart, but it is rich with must-do experiences for all types of traveler. From pintxos to art museums to the Bay of La Concha, San Sebastián has plenty to keep visitors busy. Experience the local culture through stellar surf, unique drinks, killer views, and Michelin star cuisine in this Basque town.
One day is not enough for a visit to San Sebastián, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it your best effort. Start your perfect day with breakfast on the Boulevard. Condense the city’s views into a stroll, visiting each corner by foot. After working up your appetite, grab a hard day’s meal in San Sebastián’s most famous pintxo bars, with curated tours by San Sebastián Food. Twenty-four hours is just enough time to create some unforgettable memories.
Catch a concert at Kursaal. Join locals in Basque festivals. Enjoy roasted chestnuts and wintry sips—cider, vermouth, and a coffee cocktail called carajillo.
Three days in San Sebastián leaves just enough time for the city’s essentials. Visit the hallowed bars of the town’s old part, eating, drinking, and repeating until you find your favorite pintxo, those small bites for which San Sebastián is known. Drink in the city’s views from the surrounding mountains, beaches, and islands. Whether hiking or splurging at the seaside spa, a visit to San Sebastián is a lesson in luxurious living.
Spain is the country whose inhabitants get the least sleep in Europe—even with the siesta. So what are they doing? Read on to see what San Sebastiánites get up to during the evening. (It’s more than just pintxo bars.)
The properties that make up San Sebastian’s small but solid hotel scene, such as the 19th-century Hotel Villa Soro and the belle époque–style Hotel Maria Cristina, A Luxury Collection Hotel, tend to be located in and around the city’s historic center. Make sure to reserve ahead for summer’s high season, as rooms in July and August fill up months in advance.
Life can’t be all tapas, all the time. It’s a taller order to find the great sit-down restaurants in the pintxo paradise of San Sebastián, but here’s an insider’s guide.
Shopping is a serious pastime in San Sebastián, and the lack of big-box department stores is both something to celebrate and slightly confusing for non-locals. Here, a rundown of the best boutiques in this posh coastal city.
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