Plan the perfect trip to northern Spain with our hand crafted San Sebastian itinerary. Includes where to stay, what to see and the ever important Basque pintxos.
How to Plan Your San Sebastian Itinerary
I’ve visited San Sebastian a number of times (or Donostia, to give it its Basque name) and fallen in love each time. It’s one of those European cities that must make the others jealous.
It has its own sandy beach, an old town of architecture and history, a food scene that explodes with colour and conversation on the bar tops across town (quite literally) and that’s just the start. It’s just about quiet enough not to be over-touristy and it has the energy for new design and hipster creations alongside all the Basque tradition.
Let me walk you through the highlights of San Sebastian. And then we’ll get right on to the that 3 day San Sebastian itinerary.
Is San Sebastian safe?
Spain’s Basque country has seen plenty of trouble within this lifetime of mine. But things have turned around. Instead of hitting the headlines for ETA’s role in terror attacks, Donostia-San Sebastian basks in a different sort of limelight.
2016 saw it relish its new role as European Capital of Culture, which specifically celebrated its transition from conflict to creativity.
Highlights of San Sebastian
Tuck into Pintxos
Half the thrill of eating in San Sebastian is the way in which you do so; the other half involves the flavour of the food itself.
Both are drunk with character; both may not to be to everyone’s taste.
Pintxos (pronounced “pinsho”) typically comes stacked up along the bar. You choose the dishes you want and pay for them at the end according to the number of toothpicks or small plates you’ve acquired…
Find out where to go using this handy guide to eating pintxos in San Sebastian.
Learn How to Make Pintxos Yourself
Nothing beats learning a new skill you can take home with you. I spent an afternoon learning how to make San Seb pintxos and learning, through direct experience, all about the wine. Learn the traditions and new twists of Basque cuisine in El Tenedor in the Old Town
In particular, look out for the the fiery Gilda. The nickname derives from 20th century Franco’s ban on the film – combined with the sexy, salty, spicy nature of the pintxos.
Stride Along the Coast
This is no bucket and spade kind of place. Be ready to look mean, moody and cool (or windswept beyond recognition. Depends on your outlook, really.)
Enjoy the surf vibes
The coastline explains the surf vibe found in the Basque country, as shown by local hipster Pukas Surf. So you can either throw on a wetsuit and head to the waves, or enjoy sipping coffee and browsing through cool boutiques with a surf city vibe. There is no judgment here.
Instagram Like Crazy
From the narrow streets of the Old Town to the interior of the historic San Telmo museum, San Sebastian was made to make your feed look good.
Buy a Beret
You may think berets are French but it’s time to think again. Berets are also part of traditional Basque culture and you’ll see them for sale across the city.
With a spectacular beach stretching between two green mountains before it slides into the jade Cantabrian Sea, San Sebastian is the place to visit in the Basque Country. Some know it for its incredible food scene, some for its sense of history and beauty. Still others for its surf.
This city in the north of Spain, close to the French border, is somewhere where the days pass like sand slipping through your fingers and the nights hang above like a cradle of stars.
This San Sebastian itinerary is an inside guide, which will help you hit all the hot spots in town, plus all those hidden gems that await just outside.
How Many Days to Spend in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is a relatively small city, so if your focus is on sightseeing, a long weekend will do. Alternatively, if you have a week to spare, you can relax on the beach, listen to the waves breaking and eat at at different restaurant each night. It is a blissful, Babylonian experience. And definitely something to try if you have the time.
If you are fitting this into a larger itinerary through Spain and Portugal, then one day will do. Two or three days work if you not only want to see San Sebastian but also to take a day trip to nearby Bilbao or San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
How to Travel to San Sebastian, Spain
Many roads take you to the beautiful city of San Sebastian, so you’ll find plenty of options to add the city to a Spanish road trip.
San Sebastian is easily reached from three different airports: two international and one local.
- Bilbao Airport is only 105 kilometres from the city and connects between the Basque Country and most of Europe.
- Biarritz Airport is a key hub for many Air France planes and is only 47 kilometres from San Sebastian.
- San Sebastian Airport is only kilometres from the city, but it only operates internal flights that arrive from Madrid and Barcelona.
All airports offer shuttle buses that will bring you to the city pretty easily.
From Madrid and Barcelona, the RENFE rail service connects well. The Estación del Norte train station is placed right in the centre of San Sebastian, allowing you to reach your hotel quickly. You can even walk to it if you are not carrying heavy luggage.
You can also take the Hendaye or SNCF from Bilbao or other cities along the Basque Coast. The train is known as the “Topo” or “Mole”.
The most important bus station in the city is next to Estación del Norte and receives buses from all around Spain and other places in Europe. On the bus, you can pay either cash, with an SSCARD or a BASQUECARD, but a credit card is also accepted as long as it is contactless.
We love a road trip and an amazing one do to is to tour the whole Basque Coast. You can either drive from the UK, France or Portugal or rent a car in Madrid or Barcelona if you’re putting together a wider Spanish road trip. And it’s worth noting that Spain has excellent roads. The N-1 connects San Sebastian to the rest of Spain and France, while the AP-8 brings you here from Bilbao.
How to Get Around San Sebastian
You are about to visit one of the most walkable cities in the world, so you may never need to rely on anything other than your own two feet.
Cycling is another option, though, and San Sebastian offers bike rental places and 77 kilometres of bike lanes that will get you flying between your destination points.
For those who cannot be convinced to leave their cars, the great news is that this small town has over 6,000 parking spots, which makes parking much easier than in other cities.
Public transport is also fast and cheap and probably better than driving for many different reasons.
Last but not least, a taxi is always an option if you want to get home safely at night. But keep in mind that in San Sebastian, you can’t hail a taxi from the road, so you will need to order one for your location.
Where to Stay in San Sebastian
- Hotel Maria Cristina – Designed by the same architect who created the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Hotel Maria Cristina combines a gorgeous view of the Bay of Biscay with Bell Epoque architecture and luxurious furniture and décor. As one of San Sebastian’s iconic buildings, it’s entertained aristocrats and celebrities since 1912 and is still a gorgeous location to spend the night.
- Hotel Zinema7 – People in San Sebastian are big fans of the cinema, and every year, a huge film festival is held in the city. Hotel Zinema7 brings homage to this passion for movies with suites decorated to fit the style of different famous directors. As another bonus, it’s also located close to the main attractions.
- Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra – Imagine savouring your breakfast on a luxurious private balcony overlooking the sea or walking in a huge bathroom paved with marble. This hotel offers everything you need for a relaxing weekend, from comfortable king-size beds to helpful staff and excellent restaurant service.
San Sebastian 3-Day Itinerary
Have you booked your flight and packed your bag? Then, you are ready for the ultimate San Sebastian trip. Your 3-day San Sebastian itinerary starts now.
Day 1: Panoramic Views and Lively Markets
Start your first day in San Sebastian looking at it from the best viewpoint in the city: the top of Mount Urgull. Then, descend to discover the Old Town and get a taste of the Basque cuisine that makes San Sebastian so famous.
One of the best things to do in the morning after grabbing a quick breakfast involves climbing Monte Urgull. Don’t’ stress, though. This is more a hill than a mountain, so although you will be huffing and puffing a little when you reach the top, you won’t need special climbing skill.
Three different paths lead to the summit, each of them offering a different view, either of the city or the sea. My recommendation is to start at the San Telmo Museum and then take the Paseo Nuevo.
At the top, the beautiful Castillo de la Mota awaits to tell its 800 year old story. You can stroll around the fortifications and then head to Casa de la Historia to learn about the history of the fortress through exhibitions and interactive videos.
Take a picture of the Sagrado Corazón, the huge monument overlooking the city and marvel at the splendour of the sea. Then stop to visit La Batería de la Damas and the English cemetery on your way down.
You are now close to one of the most spectacular portions of this path. It borders Mount Urgull and allows you to walk very close to the sea, admiring the waves that crash into it below. The effect is phenomenal, but it also means that you need to keep an eye on the sea, as on boisterous days, you risk getting soaked.
Your path ends on the beach after passing the “Construcción Vacía”, an impressive modernist sculpture, the Aquarium, and the Naval Museum. Feel free to stop off and visit each of them, as there is plenty of time for exploration.
I know that the beach lies ahead of you, and the temptation in summer is to kick off your shoes and head for a swim. But there’s plenty of time for that on the second day of this San Sebastian itinerary.
For today, it’s time to head to the Old Quarter, a mere eight minutes away on foot.
Plaza de la Constitución
La Plaza de la Constitución is the heart of the city, the place where every walking tour to the Old Quarter starts. With a surface of 2,000 square metres, this rectangular square was once a bullfighting arena, and you can still see where the seats used to be as their numbers are still written above each balcony. Today, it is a great place to chill, with a lot of bars and restaurants. So, if you are feeling thirsty after climbing Mount Urgull, you can stop off at one for a lemonade.
Church of San Vicente
Despite appearances, the Old Quarter isn’t actually all that old. In 1813, a great fire devastated the beautiful Gothic buildings, leaving almost nothing standing with only ashes to mark the spot. The Church of San Vicente was one of the few survivors, so it’s worth paying a visit to soak up the genuine 16th-century atmosphere.
The main attraction of this small church is the central altarpiece which represents scenes from Christ’s suffering and death. The baroque ornaments are exquisite.
Basilica of St Mary of Coro
Just a short walk from San Vicente Church, you will find another typical Basque church built in the 18th century. Its superb Baroque façade is already iconic, so snap a picture before stepping inside to admire the grandiose interior of Neo-classical, Churrigueresque, and neo-Gothic inspiration.
Alderdi Eder Park
A good place to enjoy nature without leaving the Old Quarter, Alderdi Eder Park still preserves the charm of the Belle Epoque when celebrities used to invade the town. Brimming with flowers and tamarisks, statues, and a pond, it fills with colour and perfume in the summer when locals come to relax and admire La Concha Beach.
If you are travelling will kids, they will love the carouse. Installed in 1998, the cover is hand-painted with reproductions from famous painters like Picasso and Monet and the horses, swans, and cars spin around with merry abandon.
For an iconic view of San Sebastian, don’t miss the Ferris wheel, which is installed next to the park every summer.
San Sebastian City Hall
You have probably spotted the elegant building overlooking the park if you’ve taken a stroll around.
Today the city hall, it was initially built as a casino designed to entertain tourists who spent their vacations in San Sebastian. Admire it from a bench in the park or go closer to see the outstanding details. And travel back to the 1880s.
Mercado de la Bretxa
One of the many great things you can do in San Sebastian is stroll around the 19th-century old market, which is filled with history and, of course, fresh produce. La Brexta was at first a u-shaped open market, but it evolved into a covered shopping centre where you can find basically everything, from eateries serving fish and seafood to modern shops perfect for souvenir shopping.
Where to Eat on Your First Day in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is the best place in Spain to try Basque cuisine, a bold claim but one made with good reason. This town has more Michelin stars per square kilometre than any other city in Europe. Plus, a casual evening food scene that’s a delight as well.
Here are some recommendations but don’t miss our guide to pintxos or tapas in San Sebastian.
- Lunch at Agorregi Jatetxea – run by chef Gorka Arzelus and his wife Beatriz Bengoetxea, this small restaurant is the best in town to try an Iberian pancetta cream or caramelised cheesecake.
- Dinner at Arzak – an institution in the culinary world of San Sebastian, this restaurant has 3 Michelin stars and is run by chef Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena. It is the perfect place to dine in style at the end of the day with a complete tasting menu or a few dishes of your choice.
Day 2: From Mount Igueldo to the Splendid Beach of La Concha
The second day of your San Sebastian itinerary starts on Mount Igueldo, the peak at the other end of La Concha. It ends with a stroll on the beach and a delicious dinner in one of the city’s most gorgeous locations.
If you didn’t appreciate having to walk to the top of Mount Urgull, I have great news for you. You can get to the summit of Monte Igueldo by taking a 1912 funicular and focusing more on the amazing scenery and less on getting your breath back.
Admire the best views of La Concha and Santa Clara Island as you head up and stop for a postcard-perfect picture on top of the hill with the bay stretching behind you.
Then, head to the funfair for a morning born directly from the Belle Epoque with a wooden rollercoaster, trampolines, and endless mazes. The hill’s peak also reveals an old-time casino and dance hall that will give you goosebumps and nostalgic flashbacks to times you’ve only read about.
Located in the quiet Antiguo neighbourhood, the San Sebastian residence of Queen María Cristina of Austria was once where the royal family spent every summer. It’s a beautiful spot to stroll around for an hour, taking in the green gardens of the palace and visiting the building. Each floor is decorated in a different style, with some preserving portions of the original décor.
La Concha Beach
Once you step onto La Concha, you will fall in love with San Sebastian forever. This is exactly what happened to Queen Isabel II, who came here to bathe in the sea and escape her skin problems and ended up bringing the whole court with her.
The best way to explore La Concha is in the late afternoon when the sun burns softer, allowing a more comfortable stroll along La Perla, a Spa facility right on the beach, and a restful stop in front of the Comb of the Wind, a complex of three avant-garde statues by Eduardo Chillida.
San Telmo Museum
Keep going until you reach the San Telmo Museum, originally a Dominican convent and later used as a military fortress. It is worth visiting for the Sert Canvases, a set of paintings that cover the walls of the old church to illustrate the most important scenes in Basque history.
It is the oldest museum in the Basque country and it will help you understand how the city has developed over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Zurriola Beach & Gross
Continue your walk from the museum to Zurriola Beach, the perfect place to admire La Concha Bay. This place has a more energetic, hipster atmosphere with surfers and youngsters here to enjoy the sun and the waves and have fun. Take a surf course or simply dip your feet into the sea.
Where to Eat on Your Second Day in San Sebastian
- Lunch at La Cuchara de San Telmo – this popular pintxos bar prepares everything on the spot and is known for its delicious veal cheeks in red wine and bacalao. Make sure to get here before you are too hungry, as the restaurant gets packed, especially during the high season, and you may need to wait a bit for your order.
- Dinner at Zelai Txiki – enjoy a cosy atmosphere as you dine at one of the most gorgeous Michelin restaurants in the city at the bottom of Mount Ulia. The menu is different every day, as the chef is dedicated to using only the freshest ingredients available.
Day 3: Go Beyond San Sebastian – Bilbao and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
If you have one more day to spare, consider taking a road trip to one of the beautiful cities close to San Sebastian.
You cannot leave the Spanish Basque Country without visiting Bilbao and its famous Guggenheim Museum, home to one of the most important modern and contemporary art collections in the world. A place for art and fun, with many Michelin-starred restaurants and pintxo bars, Bilbao is also that is often visited by pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela.
Visiting Bilbao is really one of those unique things to do in Spain.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Take a day trip to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe for a dramatic Game of Thrones experience. The island is accessible from the mainland via a stone bridge, where you will find the Chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe with a magical bell on the front of its façade. According to legend, if you ring the bell three times and make a wish, it will come true.
Head just out of town to learn all about Balenciaga at the Balenciaga Museum. It’s an incredible story of success, whether or not you care about fashion (and if you do, the range of gowns on display is impressive.)
When to Visit San Sebastian
Although a beach city, San Sebastian is not particularly hot all year round, so the best time to visit it is between July and September, when you will enjoy temperatures of up to 28 degrees Celsius. Unlike other parts of Spain in summer, it wont’ be too hot.
If you want to see the city without the crowds, then autumn and spring bring comfortable temperatures and are perfect visiting the palaces and museums.
The temperature can drop to 14 degrees in the winter, so you will need to bring a jacket, but it is never truly biting cold in this corner of Spain.
There’s always a sense of history
And above all, a sense of place.
Salud y topa San Sebastian!