San Sebastián became a tourist hotspot in the 1930s when French and Spanish holidaymakers began flocking to the beautiful beach town. And the city retains this old world charm with its grand European buildings and broad boardwalks, making it the perfect seaside stop for a few days.
Like many holiday places, San Sebastián was on the verge of coming alive when we visited in Spring, with more shops, cafes and attractions opening their doors as the sun strengthened during our stay. An easy place to wander, we took in the sights of the city on foot and by bike, riding or walking along the coast and absorbing San Sebastián’s charms with a drink here, lunch there, or simply just sitting, observing and relaxing.
Its a relatively small city, with most of the attractions that appeal to visitors located in a few choices areas, Centro, Parte Vieja (Old Town) in particular. We stayed in Gros, just outside the action which was a nice way to see both the bustling tourist centre and get a glimpse of local life in San Sebastián.
On the recommendation of our lovely hotel owner, Paulo, we stopped off at Bodega Donostiarra on one of our first nights for a quick bite to eat before we carried on with our explorations. A local institution, the Bodega seemed to be constantly packed, tables heaving with food and merry patrons, while locals stood at the bar for a few pintos and beer before carrying on. We had the best intentions to try lots of different places in San Sebastián but once we’d eaten at Bodega Donostiarra, we found ourselves regularly returning for delicious plates of grilled vegetables, cured meats and moorish morsels of tapas that kept us coming back to the menu over and over again.
One of our afternoons was spent climbing Monte Urgull Mendia – a park that separates the main beach area, La Bahía de La Concha from the quieter Playa Zurriola. Nestled atop the hillside parklands sits an imposing statue of Jesus, looking out over the town (no doubt to keep some of the merrier holidaymakers in check). The park itself was beautiful, winding around corners, through old arches and alongside ancient ramparts that were no doubt used long ago to protect the city of San Sebastián from its foes. The park itself closes in the evenings but leads to the boardwalk which provides excellent sunset views over the city and the park.
Eager to go beyond the grandeur of San Sebastian’s central area, we hired bikes that would take us alongside the shoreline and into the suburbs for another perspective on the city. Stopping for a breather at the funicular – one of San Sebastián’s ‘must-see’ attractions provided us with spectacular sweeping views of the whole city while cafes and an amusement park filled with rides stood empty, as if waiting for the Summer sun to come along and bring them to life. With plenty of bike paths, its an easy area to navigate, and small enough to get around in a few hours.
San Sebastián is very much a beach town. Here, joggers run along the boardwalk while dogs and their owners stroll along the sand. Surfers throw themselves into the water, despite the still-freezing early Spring water temperatures and its easy to imagine lounging on the beach for hours in the warmer months. Sadly, with an average of 15 degree weather, we weren’t game enough but that didn’t stop us from enjoying all that San Sebastián had to offer, including €1 wines, deliciously decadent long lunches and some of the best gelato I’ve tasted outside of Italy.