San Sebastian has won, in recent years, numerous titles that have given it an international reputation, such as, for example, having the best beach in Europe (La Concha Beach), or being the best dining destination in the world. But the city hides many more secrets scattered throughout the neighborhoods that are part of this coastal land. Discover its architecture, nature, and customs in this guide.
To move about sustainably through the different neighborhoods, we recommend you purchase a San Sebastian Card. And if instead of going around on your own, you would prefer to have an expert guide to tell you about all the details of this beautiful city, do not miss the guided tours offered by San Sebastian Tourism.
The Old Town
The Old Town: Where the City Starts. Commonly known as “lo viejo” (“the old quarters”), this is an area that defines much of the essence of San Sebastian. It lies in the shadow of Urgull Mountain, between the port and the Urumea River, and to one side of the famous La Concha Bay. It’s a typical place that has become a social club for locals and visitors. Throughout its pedestrian streets, various dining establishments can be found – tapas or “pintxos” bars and traditional restaurants that reign over this historic space, visited each week by thousands, and provide it with flavor.
Business, social, and festive activities rule in the city’s old streets. The most important events happen, are spoken about, and are reflected in this central area; more specifically, in the Plaza de la Constitución Square – one of the most popular squares that is a symbol and stage for some of the most important of the city’s festivals. It is noteworthy to mention that all of this square’s balconies are numbered. That is because it was used in the past as a bullring.
The interior of these old quarters houses two of the most important religious temples of the town: the Basílica of Saint Mary of Coro and the Church of San Vicente. Topping off the place is the San Telmo Museum, located in what was once a convent, and which will take you on a fascinating journey through Basque history. This sixteenth-century building integrates almost naturally into the side of Urgull Mountain, crowned by the Castillo de la Mota Castle. On the other side of the Old Town, the port can be found. The view is dominated by docked fishing boats, seafood restaurants, and the typical houses of the fishing families. At the end of the port, there is the Naval Museum, which houses the seafaring memory of San Sebastian, as well as the Aquarium. That is where the Paseo Nuevo (“New Promenade”) begins, the wildest and most beautiful of the city, known for the giant waves that it offers on stormy days. Along the promenade, and in front of the Cantabrian Sea, visitors will find the impressive sculpture entitled “Construcción Vacía” (“Empty Construction”), by the artist Jorge Oteiza.
San Sebastian also has a romantic character, both boastful and Parisian in nature, and this is especially noticeable in the city center. Separated from the old quarters by the large pedestrian street known as the Boulevard, the center sprawls towards the interior of the city.
This is where the city’s first urban park can be found, the Plaza Gipuzkoa Square: a charming English-style garden from the nineteenth century that greets those visiting the Provincial Council building, a building whose façade is home to the busts of some of the most famous Basque sailors.
Just a few streets away from there, along the banks of the Urumea River, another of the city’s most important areas can be found: the architectural ensemble from the Belle Époque made up of the Victoria Eugenia Theater and the María Cristina Hotel.
More towards the interior there is a large pedestrian area with trees; this is the shopping area, which houses small boutiques full of local flair and large brands that are famous worldwide. Even so, what undoubtedly draws attention in this neighborhood is the Catedral del Buen Pastor (Cathedral of the Good Shepherd), a Neo-Gothic building that touches the heavens in all senses.
Gros and Egia
One, two, even three bridges allow for access to the Gros and Egia neighborhoods, located on the other side of the Urumea River. These are two different areas that share a youthful, commercial nature where visitors and inhabitants alike can find some of the most cutting-edge shops.
The first bridge takes you from the center to Gros, where you will run into a great contemporary piece: the Kursaal Conference Palace. This creation by Rafael Moneo is made up of two large buildings that have been termed “cubes” and overlook the sea.
From Kursaal, a long boardwalk begins that goes along the shore of the Zurriola Beach – a favorite for young people and surfers. This is the only of the three beaches with a nudist area.
On the other side of the beach, the place popularly known as “el muro” (“the wall”) can be found. This is an esplanade from which you can contemplate the warm sunsets of the summer days. Here is where the great “Paloma de la Paz” (“Dove of Peace”) sculpture stands, by Nestor Basterretxea.
To the south of Gros, after crossing the streets full of bars and fashion shops, you will arrive to Egia. This is a neighborhood that is a recent addition to the city’s cultural agenda, especially thanks to the newly inaugurated International Center for Contemporary Culture, Tabakalera, whose rooftop terrace offers a new (and until now unknown) view of the city.
Egia likewise is home to San Sebastian’s largest urban green area: the Cristina Enea Park, a gift to the city from the Duke of Mandas.
Antiguo and Igeldo
At the point where La Concha Beach ends, there is a third beach called Ondarreta. It represents a totally different area located just 15 minutes from the center and reachable through the MiramArt Tunnel. Said passageway comes from the mind of the artist Víctor Goikoetxea and allows those who pass through it to experience the sensations of being submersed under the sea.
Reigning over the tunnel is the stately Miramar Palace. Built in 1893, it was once the summer residence of Queen Maria Christina, Alfonso XIII, and Juan Carlos I. Today it is owned by the City and its extensive landscaped gardens are one of the capital’s hot spots. From here, the Igeldo Mountain can be seen, a unique place crowned by a hotel and an amusement park which can be reached by a cable car that is more than 100 years old. At the foot of the mountain, San Sebastian’s most symbolic cultural piece can be found: “El Peine del Viento” (“The Comb of the Wind”). This is a joint work by the sculptor Eduardo Chillida and the architect Luis Peña Ganchegui.
From the Comb of the Wind, and crossing Ondarreta Beach through an area full of old, stately manors, we arrive to the Antiguo neighborhood – an extension of the city that is popular because of its family bars and numerous traditional shops.
Amara and Riberas
Now is time to once again go along the shore of the Urumea River, a wonderful, relaxed walk lined with trees that, in addition to separating the Old Town and the Center from Egia and Gros, takes us towards the interior of the city until we reach the Amara and Riberas neighborhoods. Both neighborhoods have grown in recent years, largely adding to the size of the capital.
Amara can be defined by its three major avenues: Sancho el Sabio, Madrid, and Carlos I. To the south, at the end of Madrid Avenue, the Anoeta Stadium is located. This is the field where Real Sociedad, the local, first-division soccer team, plays its games. The stadium is being partially rebuilt and is expected to be fully remodeled this year. Next to the stadium, there is the Illumbe Bullring and the Atano III Fronton Court, where Basque pelota matches are held.
In the Riberas neighborhood, the “Jardín de la Memoria” (“Garden of Memory”) can be found – built to remember all victims of violence, wars, and terrorism. Next to the park is the Iesu Church, an impressive piece of architecture by Rafael Moneo.
Aiete and Miramón
The Aiete and Miramón Hills close the city. These are two residential neighborhoods located on hills and surrounded by lush forests and gardens.
Aiete Park is noteworthy at the highest point, along with its palace – a space that was ordered to be built in 1878 by the Dukes of Bailén and which, for years, was a summer residence of Franco. In fact, he even held the summer Councils of Ministers there.
At the beginning of the Miramón neighborhood you will find the Amphitheater, an open space in Roman style that is characteristic for its shape, where outdoor activities are planned. From here, there are several trails through the forest that will take you to the city’s largest business park. This area is home to some of the most important companies of the region, which coexist with the Basque Culinary Center – Europe’s second culinary university and a pioneering academic institution at the global level. All this comes combined with Eureka! Zientzia Museoa (the Science Museum), an interactive museum for all ages.
Art, culture, nature, gastronomy, landscape. Each of San Sebastian’s neighborhoods has their own essence to set them apart, and all of them together make this city unique and a place in which to lose yourself time and time again.
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