San Sebastian: Charming By Any Other Name
Sophistication. This word has been thrown around so much these days that it’s getting hard to define. When does a place become sophisticated? Is it because it’s chic and in the fad? I think it’s when the place takes on multiple characteristics, each suited to the time and circumstance. A city, for example, that is both simple and gentle by day yet vibrant and indulgent at night — now that’s sophisticated.
These were my thoughts as we wrapped up our 4-day trip to San Sebastian, Spain. Also called Donostia, the coastal city is nestled along the Bay of Biscay, a mere 20 kilometers away from the French Border. As the city grew on us, we found that it has become one of our favorite cities on this trip for good reason.
There was something weird that I noticed when we first came to San Sebastian. As frequent tourists, one of our first instincts was to look for the taxi cab. Why weren’t there any here? It appears that they cannot be hailed from the streets, unlike the rest of the world. You will have to ask the hotel or establishment to call one for you!
While that’s unusual, it’s not really a loss. San Sebastian is a small place, and is best explored on foot. And precisely because it’s so small, it can afford to be so pretty. It’s an easy and flat walk, and there are lots of interesting things to see along the way. The beauty, especially along the coast, is magnificent.
Day 1: Exploring the City
We spent the first day on a casual stroll around the city. One of the main attractions in the city was its plethora of churches, the most prominent of which are quartered in the Old Town. In fact, the entire Old Town is divided into two parishes between the San Vicente and the Santa Maria churches. There was also the San Sebastian church outside the Old Town, located in Antiguo.
Of course, we visited some of the tourist shops and bought souvenirs! We also headed to the City Hall, which was an architectural wonder. It was erected in 1887, and it began its life as a casino. Even older is the Constitution Square in the Old Town, which was built in 1817.
Must do: Pintxos! We also took the opportunity to sample San Sebastian’s greatest treasure: its pintxos! This is the city’s famously delectable version of the Spanish tapas. Not just mere bites of appetizers, pintxos are works of culinary art. Pintxos are so prevalent in the city that just touring the bars that serve it provide an opportunity to tour a different face of the city!
Day 2: Igueldo and Miramar
Mount Igueldo is definitely one of the best parts of the city, with amazing views that encompass most of the city. The century-old funicular wasn’t rickety at all, despite the age! It’s too bad we missed the amusement park, since it wasn’t open when we went. This is definitely a place visitors to the city must stop by. The return ticket was 3.15 EUR, which was a great opportunity to have another glance at San Sebastian’s panoramic view.
We also walked to the coast, straight from our hotel (Hotel Londres). Google Maps said the walk shouldn’t be more than half an hour, but it was just so beautiful we took three hours! We had a lot of stops along the way, with lunch thrown in. We also went for another round of pintxos shopping! At least the return stroll did take 30 minutes.
Must do: Miramar Palace. This beautiful, serene palace was a symbol of San Sebastian’s relationship with the Spanish Royal Crown. Build towards the end of the 1800s, it is located between two beaches — perfect for an afternoon stroll destination!
Day 3: Mt. Urgull, plus a cider-filled day
Another height definitely to be conquered in San Sebastian is Urgull, a hill right beside the ocean. Because of its strategic place, Urgull had a military past. Today, this past forms part of a tourist spot, complete with a little museum at the top. It’s great because there are no fees to go up and enjoy, plus you can choose from a variety of paths to the top.
Must do: La Sidreria Zelaia. This is a super cool place! It’s out of the city and could cost you around 15 to 18 EUR to go there. But if you like great cider, by all means pay a visit. You get a glass for 7 EUR, and a barrel is opened. Lo and behold — a fountain appears! Everyone lines up to catch the oozing cider. They also have chuletas, which cost 32 EUR but are definitely worth it.
Where to Eat, Where to Stay
There are two places in particular that I recommend you eat should you find yourself in San Sebastian:
Chin Chin. While the name sounds just like one of those carinderias back home, the meals are great! They have a variety of set meals for a great price.
La Cuchara. For some reason, Google kept pointing us in the wrong direction when we tried to map our way to this culinary haven. We asked around, and it was in a small alleyway behind the museum. It was a bit early when we got there, a little past 7, and the place was still closed. We quickly realized it was a good thing, because the place gets full quickly. The place was heaven! Definitely a must-try, this place left us super happy even after we tasted all those pintxos before.
During our 4-day trip, we stayed at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra. It stands in Calle Zubieta, with an amazing view of the Playa La Concha. The hotel has both great service, outstanding amenities, and the distinct San Sebastian charm. There’s a lot to it, read my review about it here!
Whether it’s San Sebastian or Donostia, it is nothing short of amazing and we had fallen in love with it during the half week’s stay. We’re definitely going back!