One of Northern Spain’s most captivating cities, San Sebastian, clings to the rugged coastline of the Cantabrian Sea, at the mouth of the River Urumea.
Exuding style and a lively sophistication, San Sebastian is as celebrated for its Michelin-starred restaurants Mugaritz and Arzak as its annual film festival, all of which firmly place the city on the international map. San Sebastian is also famous for its bite-sized pintxos, which can be sampled in the Parte Vieja around The Plaza de la Constitución and Calle 31 de Agosto.
The best area to stay in San Sebastian is the city centre encompassing the Parte Vieja (or historic quarter), Centro Romantico and La Concha Beach. This exuberant area is the hub of local life in San Sebastian and features many of San Sebastian’s main sights, as well as numerous bars, restaurants and boutiques. While staying in the city centre you will be able to walk to Calle 31 de Agosto, the main thoroughfare of the old town, where you can try local dishes at some of the city’s best tapas bars, or visit the Catedral del Buen Pastor and La Concha Beach, a shimmering scallop-shaped bay that looks incredible at sunset.
City Centre, the best area to stay in San Sebastian
The best place to stay in San Sebastian is the city centre thanks to its vibrant atmosphere, historical buildings, food and beachside location. The area is straightforward to navigate, walkable almost everywhere on foot. It also has excellent transport links to other parts of the city via buses and taxis, meaning you can get around easily, and is densely populated with hotels. In the morning you can venture up the hill to Mount Urgull, a steep climb up to San Sebastian’s most historical sight, the remains of a 12th century fortress and the Casa de la Historia. From the top you can enjoy panoramic views over the Bay of Biscay.
After you have worked up an appetite from climbing the hill, descend down into the Parte Vieja where you can team up with the endless vista of enthusiastic locals and visitors sauntering between different bars that pay homage to the revered Basque specialty, the pintxo. Essentially a piece of tapas skewered by a stick and usually served on top of bread, ingredients can range from something simple to all manner of elaborate creations. This is the city’s signature dish and has been elevated beyond its simplistic concept. The pintxo bars are crammed cheek by jowl along the narrow streets of the Parte Vieja and are well accompanied by some local tangy cider. You might even catch a glimpse of underground food societies where local food-lovers gather to show off their culinary skills.
Other notable sights include the San Telmo Museum dedicated to Basque culture and history, the 18th century Santa María del Coro Basilica and San Vicente Church, which is the city’s oldest church. Over in the Centro Romantico neighbourhood you can go shopping along tree-lined pedestrianized boulevards flanked by 19th century Belle Époque facades and glass fronted boutiques. As evening falls take a stroll along the pristine curve of La Concha Beach, considered to be one of the most attractive urban beaches in the world, before heading to the harbour to taste some freshly caught seafood. Back in the Parte Vieja, those looking to party can rest assured that the bars around the old town keep going well into the early hours of the morning.
Other neighbourhoods to stay in San Sebastian
West of La Concha and separated by a stony outcrop lies the Ondarreta neighbourhood, nestled between Mount Igueldo and the Miramar Palace Gardens. The beach area boasts some stunning scenery and is a favourite place among families and sunbathers of all ages. It is within walking distance from the city centre. Although it is shorter, it is much wider than La Concha, and therefore provides more space to kick back and soak up some sun. The beach area is backed by the pretty sun-dappled gardens of the Miramar Palace Gardens, part of the former royal summer palace. The gardens are worth visiting and in addition offer some shade from the sun when temperatures rise during summer. Between June and September you can catch a glass bottomed boat to the Isla de Santa Clara, about 700m from the beach.
You can take the funicular railway that dates back over 100 years up the hill to the top of Mount Igueldo. The emblematic views from the top over the city are spectacular and are a major draw for visitors. To the west of Ondarreta Beach, lies the impressive Wind Comb sculpture by sculptor Eduardo Chillida and architect Luis Peña Ganchegui and is a popular meeting spot for locals. There is a fine selection of pintxo bars, restaurants and grill bars local to this area meaning is a great place to stay, as you won’t have to travel to the centre each time if you want to sample an assortment of good local cuisine.
Gros (and Zurriola Beach)
Gros is located to the east of the city centre and includes the Gros area and the hip surfer hangout Zurriola Beach. Unlike the English word “gross”, Gros has no negative connotation and its beach, thanks to its unsheltered position, is a surfer’s paradise – although less safe for swimmers. If you are interested in trying out surfing, this is a great place to stay, as there are several surf schools in the area. Lesser-known to outsiders, Gros also has more of the city’s arty cafes and a hodgepodge of late night options. The area is within walking distance of the city centre and sights.