Ok, before everyone starts throwing things at me, the title of this post is *not* suggesting that you should ignore San Sebastian’s world-renowned food scene. I absolutely loved discovering this city’s best pintxos bars while I was there, but, as with most destinations, there’s more to San Sebastian than its wonderful cuisine.When I wasn’t trying to fill my stomach with bite-sized morsels of perfection, I was trying to counterbalance all of this eating by doing as much exploring as possible.
And there is much to see.
Located on the northern coast of Spain, I got to San Sebastian by taking a short bus ride from Biarritz in France. San Sebastian is part of the Basque Country, and has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2016. With the latter firmly in mind, I was keen to see how this city had earned its spot in the limelight.
From some of the best beaches in Europe to churches to even a spot of hiking, I present my non-foodie guide to San Sebastian.
Let’s start with something not too overly strenuous from the get-go.
When I started researching San Sebastian ahead of my trip there, some photos popped up repeatedly. These featured the same thing: a crescent-shaped bay, lined with golden sand.
|The golden sands of La Concha and Ondarretta in the distance.|
|A slightly busy beach at La Concha.|
Although this entire crescent is often referred to as La Concha beach, there are actually two separate beaches here: La Concha, which is closer to the Old Town, and Ondarretta. In the summer months, both of these beaches are packed with people trying to perfect their tans. For the more active, the calm waters of the bay are perfect for light water sports, with stand-up paddle boarding being a particular favourite.
With an unimpeded view (barring a few umbrellas) of Santa Clara Island, these beaches have to be some of the most photogenic ones in Europe.
|Stand-up paddle boarding, anyone?|
|The view over Santa Clara Island.|
While La Concha is known for its calm waters and busy sands, there’s another beach for those looking to escape the crowds. It’s a short walk away from Old Town, but Zurriola is the top choice for a quieter beach experience. If you’re a surfer/bodyboarder, Zurriola’s waves are filled with like-minded folk, and the promenade above the beach is lined with surf shops.
|The much-quieter Zurriola beach.|
|The surfers take to the waves at Zurriola.|
Whatever you’re into, San Sebastian will have a beach that fulfills your needs; all you need to do is walk along the seemingly endless promenades and pick the most appealing spot.
The bay of San Sebastian is flanked by two mountains; one of these is Monte Igueldo. If you’re after a long walk, you can follow the entire length of the La Concha promenade to reach the base of this mountain.
Once there, you have a few choices. The funicular offers a fun, affordable (around 3 euros for a return trip) way to get to the top of Monte Igueldo quickly. For some reason, I was determined to take the most difficult route – walking all the way.
|The easy way…|
|Or the hard way.|
There’s no set path as such so I ended up climbing a lot of steps and, for the most part, followed the roads. It was a hot day and the climb up took a good half-hour, but – thanks to the views spotted along the way – the physical exertion felt justified.
|The route up Monte Igueldo.|
|And just one of the views along the way.|
So what’s at the top of Monte Igueldo? A few bars, a handful of hotels and, the most surprising feature for me, an old-school fun fair. Although much of the rides were closed at the time of my visit, this theme park has been around for a good long while, opening all the way back in 1912.
The theme park may be one of the mountain’s biggest attractions, but this is easily defeated by something simpler: the views. From Monte Igueldo, you can see all of San Sebastian lying below, with the blue seawater looking overwhelmingly inviting on summer days.
|Part of the Monte Igueldo theme park.|
I must have been possessed by something powerful, as I made the decision to walk all the way back down the mountain again but, if you’re only in San Sebastian for a short time, the funicular should be your first choice when scaling Monte Igueldo.
When you’ve finished up at Monte Igueldo, there’s another site nearby worthy of your attention.
At the end of the promenade underneath the mountain is one of the most beautiful outdoor art installations I’ve ever seen. Peine del Viento, also known as Comb of the Wind, first came into being in 1976.
|On the approach to Peine del Viento.|
These three enormous steel sculptures have been anchored to the rocks, creating a dramatic contrast with the waves crashing beneath. Designed by Eduardo Chillida, the artwork pays homage to the power of the wind, as well as San Sebastian itself, which was Chillida’s hometown.
Apart from being a hotspot for photographers, I found that – even with the people around – Peine del Viento is a surprisingly peaceful place, ideal for sitting down and getting lost in your own thoughts.
|Chillida’s twisted creations.|
Perhaps it’s the mix of the elements at play here – water, wind, metal and rock – but Peine del Viento was the one spot where I truly realised that I had made a mistake thinking that a visit to this city was only about the food; San Sebastian was beginning to surpass my expectations in a multitude of ways.
Like most European cities, there is a huge number of religious buildings to explore in San Sebastian. Since I was tight for time, I decided to train my focus on three such structures.
The first two are located in the Old Town.
The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus seems to be surrounded by some of the city’s busiest pintxos bars. If you can tear your eyes away from the food on offer, the 18th Century church, especially its exterior, also offers plenty of visual rewards.
|Iglesia de Santa Maria in Old Town.|
|A rather grand entrance.|
The entryway of the church is heavy with detail, so much so that the interior may seem a little sparse in comparison – at first. But there is a lot to admire within the church, the dome of which rises to a height of 27 metres.
|Inside the basilica.|
The church is built in the Roman baroque style and, although the interior may look a bit subtle at first glance, there are treasures to find within. The altar is one such find; this is home to a detailed wooden carving of the church’s namesake Saint Mary of the Chorus, who is one of the patron saints of San Sebastian.
Also located in the Old Town, the Church of Saint Vicente is even older. The 16th Century church is also packed in amongst other buildings (making it slightly difficult to photograph in its entirety – unless you lie on the ground like I did!) but simultaneously reaches far greater heights than the rooftops around it.
|Church of Saint Vicente.|
Inside, my eyes were initially drawn to the high vaulted ceilings but soon I was enthralled by the colours streaming through the rose windows. These windows were late additions to the church, installed in 1923. Before you leave the church completely, keep an eye out for ‘Pieta’ outside; this striking sculpture was made by Jorge Oteiza.
|The stunning interior of the church, with those lovely rose windows.|
|Pieta – this sculpture can be found on the church’s exterior.|
To conclude this particular trio of churches, you’ll have to wander out of Old Town towards the newer part of the city. Passing long stretches of shopping opportunities, you’ll eventually arrive at San Sebastian’s Cathedral.
Although it may have been built later than the previously mentioned churches, it feels like this 19th Century-structure is meant to be the city’s centrepiece. When I visited, the lawn surrounding the cathedral was full of people while cyclists, skateboarders and pedestrians all tried to share the same pavement directly in front of the grand building.
|San Sebastian’s impressive cathedral.|
|With a glimpse inside.|
And the grandeur continues inside, where the cathedral covers a total area of over 20,000 square feet.
Even if you aren’t religious, San Sebastian’s churches are worth your time. With their history and architecture, you’ll easily find yourself occupied for an entire afternoon with just these three sites.
Yes, another mountain. Trust me, I needed to take an urgent break from the pintxos consumption sessions.
Monte Urgull is a popular spot for walking enthusiasts and, even just a few steps into my own walk, I could see why. Although this mini mountain may be minutes away from Old Town, I took a few steps and felt like I was already miles away from a built-up area.
|One of the pathways on Urgull.|
Instead, I was surrounded by trees, which threw some much-appreciated shade over the pathways. I did occasionally see another walker along the way, but I almost felt like I had the whole mountain to myself.
With its height, Urgull became an important location for defence. The earliest buildings of this kind can be traced back to the 12th Century, although much more formidable fortifications were added later. Nowadays, all of these structures are being reclaimed by nature, which may not be great for the crumbling walls but is great for camera-happy people out there!
|The well-earned view from Monte Urgull.|
There are various sites to visit on Monte Urgull, all of which are signposted, but the most famous has to be the 12-metre-tall statue of Jesus Christ. You can see this statue at the top of the mountain all the way from La Concha beach and the return view is equally spectacular.
I may have mentioned a number of sites that are worth seeing above, but, sometimes, the best discoveries are those found by chance.
|San Sebastian’s Victoria Eugenia Theatre.|
San Sebastian is an extremely walkable city and it felt like I could walk for hours trying – and failing – to take it all in. While San Sebastian may be known for its pintxos, churches, beaches and viewpoints, there are many other sides to this city too: a grand theatre, a bright splash of street art, a statue dedicated to Don Quixote, an underground food market and the locals hanging out at their favourite spots.
|One for the Don Quixote fans.|
That next portion of pintxos can wait – instead, take a slow amble around San Sebastian to see what will cross your path next.
Inspired to explore all of what San Sebastian has to offer? You can retrace my steps using the map below.