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Stunning San Sebastian

A Dynamic Resort Town Just 12 Miles South of the French Border

Situated on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, San Sebastian is a dynamic resort town just 12 miles south of the French border. Known as Donostia in the local Basque language, the city was selected as one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2016, an honor shared with Warsaw, Poland. With its own unique language, distinct culture and regional cuisine, San Sebastian stands apart from other popular destinations in Spain. This gem of a city boasts a wealth of charm that pulsates with energy. With its vivacious Old Town, annual jazz and film festivals, a profusion of old-world architecture and first-class restaurants, San Sebastian has earned a reputation of international distinction.

Surrounded by lush hillsides and encompassing three urban beaches, San Sebastian was once a favorite destination for royalty. Queen Marie Christine Hapsburg, the wealthy widow of King Alphonse XII, vacationed regularly in San Sebastian, establishing the city as a swanky seaside resort. Built in 1893, The Miramar Palace, with its breathtaking views of La Concha Bay, was her majesty’s summer residence. Now a school of music, the manicured grounds and flourishing gardens are open to the public.

Parte Vieja, or Old Town, is the dynamic historical center of town. Given the narrow, cobbled streets and alleys, the best way to explore is by foot. The pedestrian roads are narrow and pass through a maze of shops, restaurants and the highest concentration of bars in the world. Many of the city’s oldest buildings and Basque cultural attractions are located here. The Plaza de la Constitucion is teeming with activity and lies in the heart of Old Town. Today the square is a gathering place for shopping, dining and relaxing, but it once held the city’s foremost bullring. Encircled by porticoed buildings with filigreed balconies, the Plaza de la Constitucion serves as an ideal setting for local art and music festivals.

Located in Old Town are two of the city’s historic churches, San Vicente and the Basilica of Santa Maria. San Vicente, the older of the two and Gothic in design, was built in the first half of the 16th century. Mounted on an exterior wall you’ll find a stone sculpture of the “Pieta,” while the church’s interior houses a Romanesque altarpiece and impressive stained-glass windows. The Basilica of Santa Maria is a baroque parish church completed in 1774. The entrance to the church is recessed and marked by two richly adorned towers. Within the recess, the figure of San Sebastian Martir, patron saint of the city, is displayed. Among other treasures, the interior of the church contains classically styled pieces which make up the central and side altars.

While in Old Town, the San Telmo Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in the local culture. Sitting at the foot of Monte Urgull, this impressive building dates back to the 16th century and was once a Dominican convent before it was converted to an artillery barracks. The museum highlights both old and contemporary Basque culture along with a full calendar of original art exhibitions. The San Telmo received a special mention in the 2013 Best European Museum contest. For those interested in further exploring the region’s history, it’s worth noting that the renowned Guggenheim Museum, 64 miles away in Bilbao, can be reached by an ALSA bus in just over an hour.  

Monte Urgull, a forested incline of 400 feet, is visible over La Concha Bay on the border of Old Town. A scenic climb, shrouded in an atmosphere of tranquility, will take you past numerous lookout points with sweeping panoramas of San Sebastian. A historical site between the Old Town and the sea, Monte Urgull was once a defense point. The mount is topped with La Mota Castle, the original strong-hold dating back to the 12th century. Much of the fort retains its ancient stone walls and barracks. A chapel with an English cemetery and a museum with information describing the area’s history are open to the public. A 40-foot sculpture of Christ, added to the peak in 1950, towers over the bay.

A walk or bike ride along the La Concha Promenade will take you from Monte Urgull, past San Sebastian’s impressive beaches, to Monte Igueldo. At the foot of the monte, take the funicular railway, which dates back to 1912 and runs along the steep cliff face, to the top of Igueldo. The lookout point at the summit rises above the bay of Donostia and offers spectacular views of the city and coastline. Among the points of interest atop Igueldo are the Hotel Mecure Monte Igueldo, featuring a terraced restaurant with breathtaking sunsets; an amusement park perfect for families; and a lighthouse built in 1855 and overlooking the vast Cantabrian Sea.

Once back at the foot of Monte Igueldo and further along the promenade to the end of Ondarreta Beach, you’ll come across one of San Sebastian’s better-known sculptures. The Comb of the Wind, a three-part monument of oxidized steel, was completed in 1976 by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Emerging from the rocks, the three pieces form a triangle that juts above the crashing waves. Haizearen Orrazia IV, as it’s known in the Basque language, is Chillida’s most important work. Upon completion, he donated the sculpture to the city.

San Sebastian’s urban beaches have their own unique personalities: crescent-shaped Concha Beach is the best known of the three and the one most frequently featured in tourist publications; Ondaretta, with its volleyball nets and beach tennis, is a family favorite; and Zurriola, with its crashing waves, is popular with the surfing crowd.

At night, Old Town bursts with charm. Sidewalk cafes, neon lights and music drifting from the many bars and clubs awaken the senses. Relax with a chilled glass of Txakoli, the local white wine; and a hearty plate of pintxos, sumptuous Basque-style tapas prepared with all regionally sourced ingredients. It’s customary for locals to stroll from one bar to the next sampling and enjoying along the way. Follow their lead, and by the end of the evening, you’ll have converted complete strangers into friends.

Tourist cards can be reasonably purchased and used for bus transportation to all of San Sebastian’s major attractions. They’re also good for discounts on shopping, dining and entrance fees. Taxis are also available, although many of the more notable sites are within walking distance.

San Sebastian is brewing with small-town appeal and big-city flavor. Stir in open-hearted locals, an abundance of natural beauty and a distinct culture with first-class dining, and you have all the essentials for a memorable vacation.

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