You may have heard that the food scene is one of the best things to do in San Sebastian, Spain’s foodie paradise. What you may not know is that the city has a very distinctive vibe from the rest of the country. Don’t expect to hear flamenco or see Moorish architecture. Make sure you order pintxos, not tapas. This is the Basque Country, one of Europe’s oldest cultures. And it’s stunning! Nestled between the Pyrenees mountains and the Cantabrian Sea at the Bay of Biscay, less than 40 minutes by car from the French border, San Sebastian is a delight to nature lovers, surfers, architectural fans and history buffs.
My top things to do in San Sebastian include only places and adventures I was lucky enough to experience during my career break.
- Two names, two languages: San Sebastian and Donostia
- Extraordinary cuisine is at the heart of Basque culture
- Rich culture, folklore and a tumultuous political past
- Anthony Bourdain loved San Sebastian
- 11 best things to do in San Sebastian
- 1. Explore Parte Vieja (Old Town)
- 2. Learn about Basque history at the Museo de San Telmo
- 3. Walk along the seaside at La Concha Promenade
- 4. Relax at Ondarreta Beach
- 5. Check out the Peine del Viento sculpture
- 6. Take the funicular to Monte Igueldo and marvel at the panoramic view
- 7. Climb to the 12th-century Castillo de la Mota at Mount Urgull
- 8. Grab food or drinks at Plaza de la Constitución, a former bullring
- 9. Eat delicious pintxos and drink txakoli, the traditional Basque wine
- 10. Spend a day (or several) in Hondarribia
- Best things to do in San Sebastian at night
- Frequently Asked Questions
Two names, two languages: San Sebastian and Donostia
The Basque Country consists of three provinces in northern Spain and three in southwest France. Donostia is the Basque name for San Sebastián (spelled with an accent in Spanish).
Euskera or Basque, still widely spoken, is one of the world’s oldest languages and unrelated to any other languages. But don’t worry: Spanish is also an official language and you can still practice your holas and adiós. Being so close to the border with France, French is also common. English speakers, don’t sweat: people around here speak or understand English, too.
Extraordinary cuisine is at the heart of Basque culture
Food is a lifestyle, grounded in freshness, tradition and creativity. San Sebastian boasts the highest number of Michelin rated restaurants in Spain and ranks top 3 in the world. We’re talking about a city of less than 190,000 people! You don’t have to eat in a fancy place to experience extraordinary cuisine either. Basque people take great pride in what they cook and eat, and casual taverns offer delicious pintxos (tapas) and meals. Gourmands will have out of body experiences (I did). Gastronomic societies, called txokos, are a local phenomenon where people meet to enjoy a conversation over freshly cooked meals and wine. These private clubs are now starting to open up to visitors (I have to return to try one!).
Keep scrolling for recommendations of places to eat in San Sebastian.
Rich culture, folklore and a tumultuous political past
The Basque have been around since Neolithic times and their connection to the sea created a strong maritime culture. Throughout history they’ve been known for their outstanding ship-building skills. The Basque’s native sport is called pelota. Witch hunts were common in the region in medieval times (unfortunately) and left a big imprint in folklore and tales. Watch Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil, based on local folklore.
Separatist movements, led by ETA, flourished in the 20th century and the region saw many assassinations, kidnappings, bombings and terrorist attacks. A cease-fire occurred in the 1990s and though the violence is gone, signs of this tumultuous recent past are still visible. During my stay in 2022, I saw many banners in Basque publicizing amnesty for ETA political prisoners.
Anthony Bourdain loved San Sebastian
I owe a huge amount of my spectacular stay in San Sebastian to my friend Mariana, who planned most of our adventures, and to the late and beloved Anthony Bourdain. I strongly recommend you watch his CNN’s Parts Unknown San Sebastian episode. It used to be available for free on YouTube, but it appears that now you have to pay to stream it.
11 best things to do in San Sebastian
1. Explore Parte Vieja (Old Town)
Stroll along the charming cobblestone streets filled with medieval charm, taverns, pintxo bars and restaurants. Stop by the beautiful Church of San Vicente, erected between the 15th and 16th centuries. Learn about Basque history at the San Telmo Museum. Relax overlooking the boats in the marina. Excellent for people watching during lunch and dinner time. Also a great place to go out at night.
2. Learn about Basque history at the Museo de San Telmo
The 2-3 hour self-guided tour of Museo de San Telmo, a former 16th century monastery, is a great way to start your excursion into Basque history and culture.
3. Walk along the seaside at La Concha Promenade
This local landmark has 1.2 miles (2km) of beautiful sea views and displays the unique lamp posts which became a symbol of San Sebastian. Historical places, such as La Perla Spa (famous for sea water therapies) and the Royal Palace of Miramar are located here.
If you’re lucky like me, the tides will rise and kiss you on the pavement (it was bitterly cold in late March/early April, but I couldn’t lose my sense of humor after getting an unsolicited sea splash!).
4. Relax at Ondarreta Beach
I was in town when the weather was miserably cold, but still loved my stroll along the charming cafes. I was mesmerized at the brave men who venture out surfing or swimming. That’s the definition of both macho AND crazy in my dictionary.
5. Check out the Peine del Viento sculpture
As you continue your walk alongside Ondarreta Beach, you’ll end up at Peine de Vento (“Comb of the Wind”), a modern iron sculpture by celebrated Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. It was special to see the waves dramatically crashing in the surroundings.
6. Take the funicular to Monte Igueldo and marvel at the panoramic view
Don’t miss this! The funicular is just a short ride and the views up there are fantastic! There are cafes and restaurants at the summit and even a small amusement park. In the winter months, feel inspired by the gorgeous contrast of the Cantabrian Sea and the snowed-capped Pyrenees mountains.
7. Climb to the 12th-century Castillo de la Mota at Mount Urgull
If you’re feeling adventurous, take a 30 – 45 minute hike to see the remains of Castillo de la Mota, a fortification originally built in the 12th century. The views at the top are breathtaking. We didn’t have special hiking clothes to get up there, but make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes.
At the summit, you’ll also find a large statue of Jesus Christ and a small church. There’s a bar on site for refreshments.
8. Grab food or drinks at Plaza de la Constitución, a former bullring
Built in 1817, you’ll notice the numbers on the houses around Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square): they were the boxes where people would watch bullfights. The place is no longer a bullring, but still hosts many festivals. It’s surrounded by bars and restaurants. I had a cerveza or two there (just forgot to take a picture!).
9. Eat delicious pintxos and drink txakoli, the traditional Basque wine
A trip to San Sebastian can’t be complete without great food and wine. Txakoli is fizzy, slightly sour, festive and pairs well with fresh seafood.
These were my favorite pintxo bars and restaurants in San Sebastian:
Casa Vergara: Located in Parte Vieja (Old Town), it offers a variety of pintxos and specializes in cod. The cod in black squid ink tasted like paradise. I ate there multiple times.
La Cuchara de San Telmo: Be prepared to stand in line, so arrive early for delicious pintxos. We couldn’t find seats and ate at the counter, but I loved every bite I had. Located in a hidden corner of Parte Vieja at Santa Korda Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia.
Narru: Restaurant on the pricier side located at Hotel Niza. Upon tasting their ravioli dish, I felt warm tears bubbling up in my eyes. I’m one of those ridiculous foodies and yes, I give you permission to laugh at me and with me.
Casa Urola: We opted to sit outside in the cold and enjoy the fun vibe of Parte Vieja’s nightlife. Delicious pintxos!
Ganbara: The sit down dining room appeals to a romantic dinner. I had to contain myself not to make suspicious sounds while eating the mushrooms with runny egg yolk…so good that my senses were in overdrive! We toasted to the late and great Anthony Bourdain many times over for his fabulous recommendation. Located in Parte Vieja (Old Town).
La Viña: considered the best tarta de queso (Basque cheesecake) in town. BTW, it’s not at all like a traditional American cheesecake. Located in Parte Vieja, it has a casual and lively vibe. One of my most memorable evenings in San Sebastian was sharing genuine laughter and human connection over tarta de queso and txakoli pours with my friend Mariana and a couple in their 70s. They had been married for over 50 years and lived just a couple of blocks away. I explained that I had just arrived from a spiritual retreat in Andalucía. With a mischievous smile, the lady looked at me and said: “querida, you don’t need a spiritual retreat, you just need to live! This, right here, is life!” I totally get her spirit.
10. Spend a day (or several) in Hondarribia
Called Fuenterrabia in Spanish, this picturesque medieval coastal town is a must-see gem and only one hour away by public bus (30 minutes by car/taxi). Fortified city walls and narrow cobblestone streets embrace centuries-old buildings with colorful façades. Stop at the Oficina de Turismo (Visitor Center) in front of 10th century Charles V Castle (now a hotel) and book a walking tour. Grab a delicious meal at the charming outdoor restaurants in Calle San Pedro (I had THE BEST fresh anchovies of my life there). Walk to the marina and hop on a ferry. Within 5 minutes you’ll arrive in the resort town of Hendaye, France, where you can take a nice stroll along the beach.
Best things to do in San Sebastian at night
Go to Parte Vieja (Old Town), sit down in a tavern, eat pintxos, watch people and just enjoy life!
Frequently Asked Questions
How many days in San Sebastian are ideal?
I recommend four days. You can do the highlights listed in this guide without feeling rushed, visit plenty of restaurants and still take a day trip.
What day trips are available from San Sebastian?
There are many, both in Spain and France. As mentioned before, I highly recommend Hondarribia. Bilbao, which hosts the Guggenheim Museum, is a popular destination. Pamplona, known for the running of bulls (Fiesta de San Fermín) is also within a short distance. The French resort town of Biarritz is less than an hour by car.
What’s the nearest airport?
You can fly directly into Donostia-San Sebastian Airport (EAS). That’s how I landed there. Many people prefer to fly into Bilbao Airport (BIO), located 61 miles (98km) away, because it has more and cheaper flight options.
Where to stay in San Sebastian?
I shared an apartment with a friend and highly recommend this place. It wasn’t the cheapest option, but it was well worth the price. Find it on Booking.com
I also LOVED the Hotel Palacio OBispo in Hondarribia, built in the XII century, where I spent two nights.
Is San Sebastian safe for solo female travelers?
Yes. Crime rate is very low. Of course, you should always exercise caution and be aware of your surroundings anywhere you travel.
Are Uber, taxi and public transportation available?
Yes to all. If you’re staying near the city center or Old Town, you don’t really need a car. Though a car would be nice if you want to explore other towns in the region. Many popular restaurants are not located in the city center and are only reachable by car.
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