The jewel in the crown of Spain’s northern Basque region, read our guide to making the most of 48 hours in San Sebastian.
Known as Donostia in the local Basque language, San Sebastian – like neighbouring Biarritz in France, is a beach resort worthy of royalty. Literally. The Spanish royal family even have a summer palace here!
Rapidly becoming one of Europe’s most popular stops, San Sebastian has a reputation as one of the gastronomic hotspots in Spain. No mean feat considering the competition, but if you’re spending 48 hours in San Sebastian you’ll quickly see why.
Notoriously it is home to a surprisingly high amount of Michelin starred restaurants. But you could easily skip all of these and still come away with your mind blown by the standard of food here.
So loosen your belt, put on your walking shoes and get ready to get stuck in to 48 hours in San Sebastian! Vamonos!
Get Your Bearings:
San Sebastian is small enough to walk around although there is a good bus service. There are also many places to hire bikes from although in honesty, you’ll spend most of the time on foot.
San Sebastian is dominated by La Concha beach. You won’t be able to miss it. The huge sweeping bay framed by two hills at either side and Isla de Santa Clara acting as a natural breakwater in the middle. With 48 hours in San Sebastian you’re bound to end up on the beach more than once!
If you’re facing the sea, the Parte Vieja (old town) is to your right, Ondaretta is to the left and Gros is over the bridge to the right of the Parte Viejo. Zentroa (central) is the more modern part of town with department stores and the standard high street layout.
Keep that breakfast light! A pastry and a coffee should see you though til lunchtime.
The Loaf in Gros or Iturralde in centro are two of the best pastry shops in town and both will have queues snaking out the door for their excellent coffees. Take that as a good sign and join the line.
Basque weather is notoriously changeable but we’ll assume you’ve got some sun.
La Concha Beach
Stake out your place on the beach of La Concha. Surely if you’re going to come to one of Europe’s best city beaches you had might as well make the most of it. Swimming in the sea here is a luxury thanks to the minimal swell, the long gentle gradient beach and the relatively warm water (for the Atlantic).
If you’re not much of a swimmer then there’s plenty of people watching to be done here too. Or you can hire a pedalo from the far end of Ondaretta beach or from the cafe in the middle of La Concha.
If you’re more of a surfer, head to the beach in Gros, Zurriola. You can rent a board here or simply watch the cool kids tear it up on the waves.
With the midday heat fast approaching you’ll be wanting to get ready for a decent lunch.
We went to Narru which is literally a stones throw from the beach. You can either sit upstairs for their bar menu or reserve a table to sit in the basement restaurant. For €35 the 3 course lunch menu is great value, including coffee. The food here is typical modern Basque, with chef Iñigo Peña previously at Michelin starred Arzak, just down the road.
Having come straight from the beach we were by far the scruffiest people in the place, but we did do ourselves up before hand and threw on some presentable clothing (albeit slightly creased).
Alternatively, Michelin starred Kokotxa just on the edge of Parte Vieja has phenomenal reviews and several options of set menus. You will need to clean up a bit more before you head here for lunch though, the dress code is a bit more presentable.
Siesta? Or wander?
With lunch settling in your belly, walk it off with a wander along the promenade towards Monte Igueldo. Opting for a siesta before the wander isn’t a bad idea, but make sure you’ve got your camera with you.
The walk towards Monte Igueldo from central takes you past the Miramar Palace.You are free to wander around the grounds and enjoy your siesta in the shade, but the building now is part of a music school. There is also a decent spot to grab a coffee and check out the beach, so why not take it easy.
Heading towards Monte Igueldo, you’ll want to go to the far end of the beach and behind the sports halls. There are signs leading you to the funicular train which will take you up to the top of hill.
The train goes every 15 minutes and costs €3.15 for an adult or €2.35 for a child (round trip).
You can walk too, simply follow the road that goes past the funicular station. It’ll take you around 30-40 minutes depending on how fast you walk.
You should be getting to the top of the hill around mid-late afternoon, ideally after 3 or 4pm. The first thing you’ll spot is the incredible view across the bay and the city.
The next thing you’ll spot is the antiquated theme park.
Don’t be shy get stuck in. We went on the clunky roller coaster and considered going on the boats, but opted instead to climb the tower for better views. Each of the attractions has an additional charge, for the roller coaster it was around €3 each and the same for the tower.
With children you’ll be up here for hours. Adults, you’ll probably do an hour and head down. However, if you’re here for the sunset then be prepared to jostle for space for that amazing picture. But, it’ll be worth it.
Assuming you’ve spruced up and you’re ready for a night on the town, it’s time to head to Parte Vieja.
You’ll have noticed pintxos on the bars around many places in San Sebastian and if you’ve got this far without trying one then you’re of stronger will than me!
Pintxos (pinch-os) are bite sized morsels of food art, some of them look too good to eat. Not that that’ll stop you.
The deal is, you arrive at a bar and ask for a plate (‘uno plato por favor’) and take what you want from the bar. When you leave you ask to pay the bill (‘cuanto cuesta?’ – or ‘puedo pagar por favor’).
Some of the bars you will need to ask a member of staff to serve you, but they will normally make it obvious if this is the case.
Each of the pintxos on the bar will be around €2-3 each, usually. There will often be a specials board too which is always worth delving into. You’ll see words like foie which is foie gras (very rich goose paté), anchoas (anchovies), bacalao (cod), cerdo (pork) and carrilleras de ternera (beef or veal cheek). The specials are often around €5-7 a pop.
Be brave and try everything. Ask your fellow patrons what they’re eating, ask the bar staff – they often speak decent English. Better still practice your Spanish.
The bar which blew my mind was Bar Zeruko which was packed from the moment it opened and was one of the ones where staff served you the food. Also, Bar Azkena which is actually in the market near the Lidl but is nothing short of incredible. A fuego negro and Borda Berri are also highly recommended.
Wash it all down with some txakoli (apple wine – pronounced ‘cha-ko-lee’) or several vermouths.
If you made the most of Donosti’s fabulous bars and nightlife then you might be a bit worse for wear…
Wash that hangover out of your system.
If you didn’t go to Bar Azkena yet then they do some great breakfast pintxos. They open at 8am so head down and grab the tortilla espanola. I also had some fish thing with apple foam. It was amazing but I have no idea what it was.
Another hill? Overlooking the old town, Monte Urgull is a gentle forested climb along twisty tracks. We meandered and took our time, enjoying the fantastic views as we went.
At the top is a fort and a statue of Jesus Christ, not unlike the famous Redeemer in Rio. There is also a small museum in the fortress and some more spectacular views.
Done at a leisurely pace the whole walk is around 2 hours. You could probably do it quicker if you really feel like it but, hey… You’re in Spain. Relax.
Parte Vieja again…
As you descend from Monte Urgull you’ll find yourself back in old town so take a meander, refuel yourself and have some pintxos and a coffee.
Whilst you’re here there are a couple of options to get cultural.
San Telmo museum is all about Basque culture and includes some fascinating photography and modern art as well as changing exhibitions. It’s €6 to get in unless you’re a student or senior citizen in which case it’s €3.
If you’ve got children in tow, or you’re not too bothered about local history head to the aquarium. At the other end of Parte Vieja, on the edge of the small harbour. Children under 4 years old are free but adults are €13 and children between 4-12 years are €6.50.
If you’re feeling all pooped out from climbing a hill and wandering around museums then hit the beach or have a siesta.
If you’ve still got some exploring left in you take a stroll across to Gros and walk the path towards Paloma de Paz. A modern art monument just next to the beach with views back towards the city.
Alternatively, prop up the bar with a cidra or txakoli until the sun sets then start eating again!
If you’re spending more than 48 hours in San Sebastian/Donostia then it’s highly recommended to check out the local area. Towns like Zarautz are a welcome break from the tourist hoardes, a mere 20 minute drive west.
The Geoparque de Costa Vasqua is around 40 minutes by public transport from the city. Fans of Game of Thrones will also be intrigued to hear that several locations for the hit show are a stones throw from San Sebastian/Donostia.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and Itzurun Beach are both easily accessible within an hour from San Sebastian and worth a day trip.
It would be a crying shame to leave San Sebastian without trying some of the finest food in the world. Arzak delivers just that. You’ll need to reserve a table before you arrive in town though.
There are more to choose from so take a look at San Sebastian Turismo’s site,
Getting to San Sebastian
Donosti has a small airport which is linked to Madrid and Barcelona. The best bet is to fly in to either Biarritz or Bilbao and take a connecting bus.
The connection to Biarritz is actually quicker although there is less choice of airports to fly into.
Find flights to Bilbao or Biarritz below on our handy flight widget!
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