Discover the best things to do in San Sebastián while you stroll along La Concha, enjoy the views from its viewpoints and sample its exquisite pintxos. Let’s get to it!
A visit to San Sebastian or Donostia (its name in Basque) is a must on any road trip in the Basque Country.
San Sebastian stretches, above all, along the bay of La Concha and is home to one of the most famous beaches in Spain, which since the mid-19th century has given it a certain notoriety as a seaside resort for the Spanish and European aristocracy. With the construction of some elegant buildings and the subsequent hosting of international festivals, such as jazz and film festivals, San Sebastian has attracted celebrities from all over the world who come to admire its beauty.
San Sebastian is a small city and is easy to get around on foot, but the best thing to do is to dedicate at least 2 or 3 days to enjoy it at a leisurely pace, walk at a leisurely pace, contemplate the views from each of its viewpoints and obviously, try one of their pintxos o level gastronomy.
It is one of the most expensive cities in Spain to live in and, of course, to visit. Especially when it comes to accommodation and meals, so spend a good daily budget on these two items, for the rest you won’t need to spend much.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a friend living there, so I’ve visited him several times, plus the times we’ve been there on a driving route. So let’s take a look at all there is to do in San Sebastian.
📜 TABLE OF CONTENTS
Map – things to do in San Sebastian
These are the places not to be missed if you visit San Sebastian:
🔝 Our visit to San Sebastian was part of several car trips we made on long weekends. You can see a summary here: Route by Car in the Basque Country.
Beaches of San Sebastian
San Sebastian has one of the most beautiful urban beaches in northern Spain.
- La Concha Beach: One of the most famous beaches in San Sebastian, very busy in summer. It stretches from Mount Urgull to the so-called Pico de Loro. Although it can be enjoyed at low tide, at high tide there is almost no room for anyone.
- Ondarreta Beach: This is the continuation of La Concha Beach from Pico del Loro to Mount Igueldo. It is smaller in length than its sister, but it is wider and therefore not as affected at high tide.
- Zurriola Beach: is located to the east of the Old Town, on the other side of the mouth of the Urumea River and is also one of the places to see in San Sebastian. The construction of the stone breakwater at one end of the beach has made it possible to enjoy the beach (previously, the force of the waves did not allow it to be used). Since then, it has become popular with youngsters and surfers.
🔝 Check out these free tours to do in San Sebastian and get to know the city better..
Old Part of San Sebastian and Mount Urgull
The Old Part of San Sebastian is located in what used to be the walled city, which includes Mount Urgull and the Mota Castle on its summit.
Not much remains of the city walls, destroyed in 1863, except for a few remnants near the harbour. Nor is it the same as it was when the town was founded in the 12th century, since it suffered attacks during the Spanish War of Independence at the beginning of the 19th century.
The layout of the streets is therefore “recent” compared to all the old quarters of other cities in Spain. However, it retains a special charm in its narrow stone streets and in some old buildings that have not been damaged, such as the basilica of Santa María del Coro (pay attention to the details of its façade), the church of San Vicente and the convent-museum of San Telmo.
Another of the things to do in San Sebastian is to climb Mount Urgull to get a closer look at the monument of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, also known as the Christ of La Mota because it is on top of one of the chapels of the castle. In addition to the panoramic view of the city, you can see the old defensive cannons and the museum.
⚠️ You can get to Mount Urgull by bus (line 39), so that it is not too much of an effort, and walk down to stop at the batteries.
📷 Check here for a guided tour of San Sebastian and make a reservation.
One of the things to do in San Sebastian is to take a walk along the seafront promenade, at least from Mount Urgull to Mount Igueldo, passing along the promenades of La Concha and Ondarreta (and bordering the beaches of the same name).
Along the Paseo de la Concha, which starts at the Alderdi Eder park, you will be accompanied by the famous white railing that contrasts beautifully with the dark blue of the sea and is one of the main things to see in San Sebastian. Its centuries-old weaving is one of the city’s distinctive signs. The highlight of this first part of the walk is the Balcón del Bicentenario, a spectacular place to take pictures.
When you reach the small stretch of land called Pico del Loro you can climb up to take a closer look at the Miramar Palace, which is now in municipal use but was once the summer residence of royalty. Commissioned by Queen Maria Christina at the end of the 19th century to an English architect whose style it inherited, the palace can be visited inside, as some of its rooms are still intact.
📷 Check here for a tour of San Sebastian’s parks and palaces and make a reservation.
The promenade continues along the Ondarreta promenade, where on one side is the beach and on the other the María Cristina Gardens, where there is a monument in her honour.
At the end of the beach and at the foot of Mount Igueldo, Eduardo Chillida’s promenade begins, which leads to a platform that juts out into the sea. There the waves break loudly and we can see the Peine del Viento, three contemporary iron sculptures standing on rocks in the sea.
Of the two ends of La Concha Bay, it is the mountain that lies furthest west. At the top of this mountain, as well as incredible views of San Sebastian, we find the Hotel Mercure Mount Igueldo, the Amusement Park and the lighthouse on the hillside.
Of the activities available at the Amusement Park we recommend Mysterious River, as it can be done with young children (from 2 years old) and has beautiful views of the bay.
Another attraction to see in San Sebastian is the funicular railway that is used to climb to the top of Mount Igueldo. It is the oldest in the Basque Country and the third oldest in Spain, and rises to a height of 151 metres while enjoying the views.
📌 Return ticket for adults on the funicular: €3.75. Consult other rates and discounts on the Mount Igueldo website.
Santa Clara Island
The island of Santa Clara is the pearl in the shell of San Sebastian and although it may seem merely decorative of such a landscape, this island can be visited in summer thanks to a regular boat service that leaves from the port of the Old Part.
On the island you can wander through the vegetation to the lighthouse and, if you are lucky, encounter an endemic subspecies of lizard. It also has a small beach, although it only comes into view at low tide. You can also take a dip from the pier.
📷 Check here for a boat trip to Santa Clara Island and book your place. Includes transfer to and from San Sebastian.
Places to see in San Sebastian related to the San Sebastian Film Festival
In September each year, San Sebastian prepares to welcome world-renowned stars to its famed San Sebastian International Film Festival. Although the whole city has different screening venues, the most representative venues of the festival are:
- Victoria Eugenia Theatre: in neo-Renaissance style, this is where the festival was held from 1953 to 1999. In the following years, the theatre has undergone several years of renovations and today it hosts various performances of theatre, opera, dance and more.
- Hotel María Cristina: this building is located next to the Victoria Eugenia Theatre and is the luxury hotel where the international film stars who come to the festival traditionally stay.
📷 Complement the tour with this Free Tour of the Belle Époque in San Sebastian and book your place.
- Kursaal Elkargunea Centre: this modern building on the opposite bank to the Victoria Theatre is where the San Sebastian Film Festival has been held since 1999, but the rest of the year it is a conference centre and auditorium.
Pintxos route through San Sebastian
If you are travel to Andalusia, you will know that the tapas that accompany the drink you order are usually free. If you are going to travel to the Basque Country, then don’t. Pintxos are a work of art in themselves and, as such, they have to be paid for. The good news is that most pintxos cost between 2 and 4 euros depending on the place, the bad news is that you’ll want to try so many (plus drinks) that you’ll end up spending a good part of your budget on them. Either way, I’m pretty sure you won’t regret the delicacies you’ll taste.
A pintxos route is an inevitable thing to do in San Sebastian and many will fall in love with it. Old Part where there are many of Donostia’s favourite bars and restaurants, but also in neighbourhoods such as Gros (where the Zurriola beach is) you can find places where you can find exquisite pintxos.
I’ll leave a list of bars for the pintxo route for another occasion, I just want to mention one place that we particularly liked which is “La Cuchara de San Telmo” in the Old Town. Then we wandered around, entering one and entering another, letting ourselves be seduced by the shop window full of tasty pintxos.
Surroundings of San Sebastian
Some of the places we have visited from San Sebastian are:
- Zarauz: is a coastal town to the west of San Sebastian with wide sandy beaches.
- Pasaia San Juan: is a port city made up of 3 small villages, ideal for a day trip.
📷 Check here the excursion to Hondarribia, San Juan and San Pedro and make a reservation.
- Biarritz: already on the French side of the Basque Country, meeting point of the French and English aristocracy in the mid-19th century.
- Bayonne: also on the French side and close to Biarritz, with stone streets and houses with beautiful architecture.
📷 Check here the tour of San Sebastian and Biarritz along the French coast and make a reservation.
- Bilbao: and of course you can’t miss all there is to visit in Bilbao, this avant-garde medieval town.
Practical information for travel to San Sebastian
Where to stay in San Sebastian
There are many accommodation options in San Sebastian for all types of travellers. Fortunately, thanks to the relatively small size of the city, it is difficult to go wrong with the location and you can walk to most of the sights in San Sebastian in just a few minutes.
These are our 3 recommendations for young people, couples and families:
- Surfing Etxea: is an ideal hostel for young people looking for a good atmosphere in San Sebastian. It is located in the Gros district, almost opposite Zurriola beach. The décor is modern and the beds in the shared rooms have some privacy.
- Hotel Niza: perfect for a romantic getaway given its location right in front of La Concha beach. As soon as you open the window in the morning you will be delighted by the deep blue of the sea.
- Hotel SANSEbay: a nice accommodation option in the Old Town and very good for families thanks to its rooms for 3 and 4 people and flats for 5 and 6 people with kitchen and dining room.
🏨 Do you want to look for other options? Find here the best hotels in San Sebastian.
If you are touring the Basque Country, you may want to stay in a more rural setting to visit all the places to see in San Sebastian that we have mentioned, as well as the surrounding villages.
🔝 Have a look at these recommendations of rural houses in the Basque Country.
How to get to San Sebastian
– By plane:
San Sebastian has an international airport 20 km away, right on the border between Spain and France, although you can also fly into Bilbao airport, which is served by many more frequent flights.
✈️ Search here for cheap flights to San Sebastián.
– By train:
The city has the North Station to which trains arrive from Madrid, Barcelona and other national and international destinations (Paris or Lisbon for example). The connection with Bilbao and other cities and towns in the Basque Country is with the EUSKO Tren from Amara station.
🚊 Buy your Interrail and Eurail pass! This pass is a train ticket with which you can travel on almost all trains in Europe. With it you have access to 40 rail and ferry companies in 33 countries. Absolute freedom to discover Europe at your own rhythm. See our Interrail and Eurail Guide here.
- Buy Interrail Pass here (for those with residence in Europe)
- Buy Eurail Pass here (for those NOT residing in Europe)
– By bus:
There used to be no bus station as such, but buses dropped you off at Pio XII square, a little further south of the train station. Now, at last, a new underground bus station has been built near the Maria Cristina bridge, modern and with facilities. It is located next to the North Station.
– By car:
And of course, if you want to get to San Sebastian by car, it is also possible thanks to the many roads from different parts of Spain. However, it is not necessary to use a car in the city, so one recommended option (if you are not going to sleep there) is to leave it in the car park of the Irún Exhibition Centre, which is free of charge, and take the EUSKO Train (35 minutes).
But if you don’t want to leave it so far away, you have to know that as San Sebastian is a small city, most of the parking places are blue zone (TAO or OTA zone) for a limited time and there are private car parks that are expensive.
Another possibility provided by the municipality is the so-called park-and-ride car parks where you can leave your car free of charge and take a bus or train to the city centre. There are 6 of them in the city in the suburbs of Zona Universitaria, Igara, Zuatzu, Miramon, Illunbe and Garbera. You can find more information about them on the San Sebastian Tourism website.
Discounts and useful resources to save on your trip
- Cheap flights with Skyscanner
- Rent a car with Auto Europe
- Interrail Pass
- Eurail Pass
- Train Tickets with OMIO
- Bus tickets with OMIO
- Ferry tickets with OMIO
- Asia tickets with 12Go
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