One of Northern Spain’s top tourist destinations, San Sebastian, or Donostia as the Basques call it, is located on the Bay of Biscay just a few miles from France. It’s best known for its great beaches, but there are also pretty cathedrals and other attractions in San Sebastian to see, including an international film festival. It is not only the capital but also the soul of Spain’s Basque community. The Basques have their own language and culture, one that is different from Spain, but no less rich than what’s found elsewhere in Spain. It’s almost like getting two countries for the price of one.
The Buen Pastor Cathedral, or Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, is a towering landmark that reaches 75 meters (245 feet) into the sky. Construction started in 1888, with King Alfonso XIII, just two years old at the time, signing documents relating to the construction kick-off ceremony. The church – it wasn’t designated a cathedral until 1953 – was finished nine years later. With its Gothic Revival style, it is considered the most important church in San Sebastian. Visitors who’ve been to this Old Town structure praise it for its simple interior compared to other Spanish churches. They recommend visiting it at night because of its spectacular lighting.
The Aquarium Donostia-San Sebastian is considered one of the best aquariums in Europe allowing visitors to get up close and personal with marine life. The aquarium is actually several aquariums, some devoted to only a specific marine animal. A highlight is walking through a see-through tunnel with 200 species of marine life swimming over and around visitors. And to think it all started in 1928 with a museum that featured a whale skeleton. A visit to Aquarium Donostia-San Sebastian makes a good family outing since it has special tanks where kids are encouraged to touch the fish.
Old Town’s Plaza de la Constitucion is the happeningest place in San Sebastian. Described as the city’s nerve center, draws people all the time, but especially on saints’ feast days and other holidays, such as the raising of the flag on January 20. Travelers should be on the lookout for numbers above windows facing the square. The square was once a popular bull-fighting venue; the numbers mark spectators’ seats. Built in 1817 after a fire nearly destroyed the city four years earlier, visitors can find shops and cafes where they can linger over a glass of wine.
Miramar Palace, located on the shores of La Concha Bay, is a result of the Spanish royal family’s love for San Sebastian. It was a popular summer vacation spot for them. Miramar Palace was constructed in the late 19th century because they needed a summer home. Located on an estate that once had a monastery, Miramar Palace is quite English in its appearance, perhaps because it was designed by an English architect. The palace underwent several changes of ownership and is now owned by the city of San Sebastian. The palace is open to the public as a park and party-venue; classes also are held here.
The Peine del Viento, or Comb of the Wind, is, perhaps, San Sebastian’s most famous sculptures. This unique sculpture, located at the end of Ondarreta beach, is one of the most visited attractions in San Sebastian. The ensemble work is considered Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s best and most famous work. The work consists of three 10-ton steel sculptures that are embedded in rocks. The holes in the pieces make noise when the wind passes through them. Many believe the pieces look like a twisted comb, thus the name. The sculpture has been overlooking Concha Bay since 1976.
Because of its strategic position on the ocean, Monte Urgull has been a place to defend San Sebastian since the 12th century. The Mota Castle was added later, and, in 1960, a 12-meter (39-foot) tall sculpture of Christ was added at the top. Visitors also will find a small history museum at the top. A good way to get there is to walk from Old Town, starting either from behind the aquarium or the Plaza de Zutoaga; the spectacular views of San Sebastian and the bay make the trip worthwhile. A visit also makes a relaxing break from the city.
La Zurriola is one of the best beaches in San Sebastian. Located on Santa Clara Island, La Zurriola is popular with sun-seekers and young people. It also is attractive to surfers who come for the waves. April is considered the best time for beginners. Don’t know how to surf? They give lessons here and even host championships. La Zurriola is considered the liveliest beach in the city, though it isn’t the biggest. For sun lovers who aren’t couch potatoes, there’s beach tennis, swimming, football and volleyball matches. Strolling along the promenade is a popular activity for locals.
When spectacular views are important to travelers, they head for Monte Igueldo at the west end of La Concha Bay. In turn, at 181 meters (600 feet) high, Monte Igueldo is one of three peaks visible from the bay. Getting to Monte Igueldo’ scenic views is half the fun since it involves a ride on a 1912 funicular railway. Visitors will find two things at the top. One is the Torreon de Igueldo, an 1855 lighthouse that has been converted to a scenic viewpoint. The other is an amusement park with rides for kids of all ages.
Parte Vieja (Old Town) is one of the most visited places in San Sebastian, though it isn’t the oldest neighborhood – Antiguo is. Buildings with their colorful roofs are protected from the sea by Monte Urgull, with the River Urumean on one side. Concha Bay guards the other side. Social butterflies will enjoy Old Town, because it’s filled with trendy bars and cafes. Other visitors may just enjoy walking through its busy streets to see the city’s famous churches, such as the Basilica of St. Mary’s of the Chorus. This historic neighborhood was surrounded by a city wall until 1863.
La Concha, on the bay of the same name, is considered the most beautiful city beach in Europe and one of the best in the world. With its golden sands tapering down to azure blue waters, it is hard to argue with that assessment. It’s definitely a busy place in the summer, when thousands come to claim their spot on the beach. La Concha, which is Spanish for “shell”) takes on a party atmosphere. When darkness falls and the lights go on is a good time to walk along the promenade to the marina for some nice views.