Practical Travel Tips: San Sebastián / Donostia, Spain

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We love to travel for food and, without a doubt, one of the culinary treasures in Spain is San Sebastian. There is a high concentration of Michelin starred restaurants around San Sebastian. Dan, who previously wrote about Martinique, lived in San Sebastian working as a teacher. Here are his practical travel tips should you visit.

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View of San Sebastián from the top of Monte Igueldo , San Sebastian, Spain - Photo: (c) 2016 - Dan Cruse

View of San Sebastián from the top of Monte Igueldo , San Sebastian, Spain – Photo: (c) 2016 – Dan Cruse

San Sebastián/Donostia, a small city in Spain’s Basque Country, is best known for its beautiful natural scenery, neoclassical architecture, unique food culture, and distinctly Basque attitude. I lived in San Sebastián for a year when I worked as an English teacher and it is, without contest, my favorite city in the world. It is a small but lively city that is rooted in tradition and local pride. It’s located right on the northeast coast of Spain, only an hour from the French border.

Basic information:

San Sebastián is the capital of Gipuzkoa, a province in Spain’s Basque Country. Locals identify themselves as Basque, not Spanish. The Basques have their own history, culture, and language. For example, you will see the city referred to in Spanish as San Sebastián, but more commonly in Basque as Donostia.

Getting there by plane:

The only direct flights to San Sebastián (Airport code: EAS) are with Iberia from Madrid and with Vueling from Barcelona. In my year of living in San Sebastián, I never once flew into or out of that airport. It was always cheaper to fly to nearby Bilbao (BIO, aka Loiu Airport) and take an hour-long bus to San Sebastián directly from the airport with PESA bus lines (€17,10 one way).

Another nearby airport is in Biarritz (BIQ) in France, which is about an hour away from San Sebastián by car. Taking public transportation between Biarritz Airport and San Sebastián is complicated and sporadic. I only did that once and I do not recommend it. I had to take a cab from the airport to the Biarritz train station, then catch the train to Hendaye, then switch to another train to get to San Sebastián. It’s probably not worth the trouble.

Getting there by train:

It is also possible to take a 5-6 hour Renfe train from Madrid (Chamartín) or Barcelona (Estació de Sants) to San Sebastián, which usually costs between €30 and €50 one-way. Accessing San Sebastián from France is also possible. I have found cheap TGV tickets from Paris-Montparnasse for about €20 one-way to Hendaye, France. The trip takes about six hours and when you get to Hendaye, you catch a local train (Euskotren, aka El Topo) to San Sebastián, which costs around €3 one-way and takes a little more than 30 minutes.

Getting there by bus:

If planes and trains are not your thing, you can also catch buses from places like Madrid or Barcelona with the Alsa bus line for about €35 one-way.

Getting around the city:

One of my favorite things about San Sebastián is its size. It is very manageable and can be very easily toured on foot. However, there are city buses to get around. There is also system of Renfe Cercanías (commuter) trains, as well as the Topo (Euskotren) to get to other places in Euskadi (Basque word for Basque Country).

My favorite thing to do in San Sebastián was to walk along Paseo Nuevo (Pasealeku Berria), which goes around Monte Urgull and offers incredible views of the sea.

Neighborhoods:

There are several neighborhoods in San Sebastián but I am only going to focus on three.

Plaza de la Constitución (Konstituzio Plaza), Parte Vieja , San Sebastian, Spain - Photo: (c) 2016 - Dan Cruse

Plaza de la Constitución (Konstituzio Plaza), Parte Vieja , San Sebastian, Spain – Photo: (c) 2016 – Dan Cruse

I lived in Parte Vieja (aka the Old Part), which I’d say is the liveliest part of the city. It’s almost all pedestrian with small, narrow streets filled with shops, bars, and restaurants. It is also where you will find the Plaza de la Constitución, the city’s main plaza. Parte Vieja is at the base of Monte Urgull and directly in between the beaches of La Concha (Kontxa) and La Zurriola. I recommend spending lots of time in this neighborhood; but if you enjoy sleeping during weekend nights, I would advise you to find a hotel or apartment in a different neighborhood.

Playa de La Zurriola), San Sebastian, Spain - Photo: (c) 2016 - Dan Cruse

Playa de La Zurriola), San Sebastian, Spain – Photo: (c) 2016 – Dan Cruse

A lot of my friends lived in the Gros neighborhood, an area directly south of Zurriola beach. Gros, despite what it sounds like in English, is a beautiful neighborhood with bars, restaurants, shops, and plazas but doesn’t get as rowdy as Parte Vieja.

Centro is a very aptly-named neighborhood in the center of San Sebastián, opposite Parte Vieja on the other side of the Boulevard. This neighborhood is where you’ll find La Concha beach, La Catedral del Buen Pastor, as well as many big clothing stores and markets.

Pintxo culture:

San Sebastián is very famous for its food culture, especially pintxos. Pintxos are similar to tapas, but smaller – usually just a few bites. They can be very simple or very intricate, depending on the place you visit. Normally at a pintxo bar, there will be an assortment of cold pintxos out in the open on the bar. There is usually a menu of hot pintxos to order as well. It’s very common to go pintxos bar-hopping, going to several different bars for a drink and a few pintxos. Most pintxos range in price from €2-€5, so be careful because they add up quickly.

When my friends and I would go out for pintxos, we would normally do a bote, where each person puts in about €20 and one person is in charge of all the money. As you hop from bar to bar, that person is in charge of paying and you stay out until the money is gone.

Like the rest of Spain, lunch time is usually between 1pm-3pm and dinner is usually after 9pm, but more commonly between 10pm and 11pm.

Sagardotegi:

If you are in the Basque Country for cider season (late January to early April), I highly recommend going to a sagardotegi, or Basque cider house. Usually found outside the cities in small towns out in the country, a sagardotegi is a place to experience authentic Basque culture. There is a set menu at every sagardotegi, including tortilla de bacalao (cod omelet), bacalao con pimientos (cod with peppers), txuleta (thick cut grilled steak) and cheeses, nuts, and membrillo (quince paste) for dessert. Oh, and all the cider that you can drink. The cider is kept in huge barrels, which you catch in your glass as it shoots out of the barrel. I went to Petritegi in Astigarraga. It was one of the most fun nights of my life.

More practical information:

  • As mentioned previously under Basic Information, San Sebastián is more Basque than Spanish and it is important to remember that. Basques are very proud of their heritage.
  • Basic Spanish phrases should get you along fine in San Sebastián. The city is begrudgingly bilingual (Basque and Spanish) so while you will be able to communicate in Spanish, knowing some Basque words will endear you to the locals.
  • Bring an umbrella. The summers in San Sebastián are beautiful; but most other times of year, you will likely encounter strong wind and rain.
  • San Sebastián is such a small city that navigation is not really a problem. You’ll most likely be touring the city on foot and it is really easy to get your bearings quickly.
  • Spain is part of the European Union, so US Citizens will just need a valid US Passport to enter the country.
  • WiFi is widely available, including in restaurants and cafés.
  • The currency in use is the euro. As of September 2016, the exchange rate is €1 = $1.12USD ($1.45CAD).

About the Author

Dan Cruse is a Boston-based content developer and traveler. He lived in Spain for four years and took many trips around Europe during that time. Since returning to Boston, he takes several international trips per year to places like China, Thailand, Mexico, and Turkey. Soon, he will be traveling to Japan for the first time. He is a proponent of budget travel, inspiring many friends, family and coworkers to take advantages of cheap travel deals. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

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4 Responses to "Practical Travel Tips: San Sebastián / Donostia, Spain"

  1. waterlilinyc says:

    I’m planning a visit to San Sebastian from Lisbon with my family at the end of November and am still struggling on how we should get there, either an overnight 12-13 hour train ride or take TAP or Iberia into Bilbao. Did you ever travel on TAP’s ATR-72 plane? Would love your thoughts/comments, if you have. My husband is concerned with the safety of those planes as they’ve had a number of crashes and safety issues.. Otherwise, we’re looking at connecting in Madrid or Barcelona OR taking a long train ride to get there.

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @waterlilnyc – have not flown on a TAP ATR-72, but have flown on ATR-72. besides being loud since its a propeller plane, its fine. as for accidents, looking at the accident history for the ATR-72, 5 out 15 of them are with TransAsia.

      Reply
  2. Rose says:

    Excellent article! I love San Sebastian and Dan has fantastic tips. Thanks Dan!

    Reply
  3. Robert says:

    San Sebastian is a hidden gem. I studied in Bilbao in college and on a whim joined a group to San Sebastian for La Tamborrada festival in mid-January. We had a fantastic time seeing Donostia in festival spirit. But the advice of avoiding Parte Vieja if you want to sleep is amplified during Tamborrada!

    Reply

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