2 days in Donostia-San Sebastian

2 days in San Sebastian

First and foremost, Donostia-San Sebastian is absolutely beautiful. If you have 2 days in San Sebastián you really are in for a treat. This city has a gorgeous coastline, beautiful architecture and a fabulous culinary scene tried and tested by the world famous chef Anthony Bourdain. San Sebastián is clean, friendly and accessible, with everything that you need for a perfect weekend break.

Remember to refer to this place as Donostia-San Sebastian particularly when Googling! The problem is that there are two other San Sebastian’s in Spain – San Sebastián de la Gomera (the capital of the island) and one in Madrid!

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Is San Sebastian worth visiting?

So, you’re thinking about travelling to Spain and want to know is San Sebastian worth visiting? I can tell you that it absolutely is. In fact, it is extremely popular because it has of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe. San Sebastian also has a gorgeous old town with several interesting Churches and Museums (later on in this blog I will be telling you which ones not to miss!)

The city is also very accessible and so it’s an easy place to be for anyone with walking difficulties or chronic illnesses – it’s one of the most wheelchair friendly cities I have ever visited.

Lastly, it’s impossible to think about San Sebastian without mentioning the fantastic food scene. You will have the most awesome food tour with cod fish and pintxos. In short, San Sebastian is friendly, easy to navigate and stunningly beautiful – it definitely makes the list of MUST SEE European destinations.

Constitution square san sebastian
How to spend 2 days in San Sebastian – Constitution square

Photography copyright: All the images in this blog are original photography by Amy Green and are property of @templeseeker (unless otherwise stated). Please do not use these without permission or without giving credit. If you would like to use any of these images please email: amy@templeseeker.com for permission. 

Welcome to the Basque Country

Be aware of the differences between Spanish culture and Basque. The Basque Country has its own language ‘Euskadi’ which is the oldest living European language and doesn’t come from Latin roots. The Basque Country is its own autonomous region and it has its own government and its own flag. It might be worth reading up about the history of the Basque Country and maybe learning a few Euskadi words (although you will be understood everywhere in Spanish and many tourist places in English also). Schools here start teaching Euskadi from the age of 2 in order to preserve the culture and the language.

How to get to Donostia-San Sebastián

You can get to San Sebastian by plane as it has an airport. However, most cheap airlines don’t fly there and so you may find yourself getting a flight into Bilbao. It’s fine to do so – there is a bus linking them directly and it takes just under an hour and a half book your bus on www.pesa.net. I flew from Manchester to Bilbao with Easyjet and then took the bus to Donostia-San Sebastian.

Map of Donostia-San Sebastian
Map of Donostia-San Sebastian showing Gros, Zurriola beach, the Kursaal Centre, the old town and La Concha Beach.

San Sebastián train station is slightly South of the old town and conveniently positioned along the river, making it easy to navigate and walkable to downtown San Sebastián and the historical centre. If you have a lot of bags and decide to grab a taxi, you will need to go to one of the official taxi points in the city. The taxi apps such as Uber and Bolt do not work here.

But, you will be pleased to know that my taxi experience in San Sebastián was one of the best I’ve ever had in the whole world! I had the happiest and friendliest driver who put the meter on at the correct price immediately as soon as I got in his cab. He was very welcoming and patient with my limited Spanish! So, it is a simple and comfortable experience to get a taxi here in San Sebastián (unlike the taxi chaos I experienced in Casablanca!)

What to Pack for San Sebastian

You will need a mixture of casual hiking clothes and smart casual and evening wear. For San Sebastian, the locals make an effort to dress up in the evening and you don’t want to rock up to a fancy pintxo bar in your hiking trousers and smelly t-shirt! Pack a mix of shorts, t-shirts, skirts, blouses and dresses for San Sebastian. For footwear, I would recommend a set of walking boots and some smart casual sandals.

  • Hiking boots and medium or light weight hiking socks (such as these Bridgedale ones) – to avoid blisters as there will be a lot of walking.
  • Light comfortable leather or walking sandals (like these from Merrell)- nice to keep your feet cool as well as comfortable, and they will go nicely with skirts and dresses.
  • Black leggings and hiking trousers – perfect for hiking up mount Urgull (mine are Regatta)
  • One or two t-shirtsone black and one white from Fruit of the Loom work well as they are versatile and go with everything (a bit like having a holiday ‘capsule’ wardrobe!)
  • A smart skirt and top set or a comfortable dress – for going out for tapas in the evening.
  • Bikini or swimsuit – essential for relaxing on La Concha beach!
  • Sun cream and sunhat – essential, especially in the summer months from June to September.
  • A good guide book to read on your travels and help you to find the best local eateries and places to stay – the Lonely Planet Pocket Bilbao & San Sebastian is a good option.

Warning – Daily Pintxos Siren in Donostia-San Sebastian!

This is something that you definitely need to be forewarned about! You can imagine that I was pretty alarmed when I heard what I can only describe as an ‘Air Raid Siren’ on my first day in Sebastian. What on earth? Are we under attack? Do we need to get in the underground bunkers?!? ‘Oh no’, a local told me, ‘don’t worry, that’s the midday siren, it means it’s time for pintxos!’ Wow – a pintxo siren! I could get used to that!!!

Pintxos at Gandarias in San Sebastian

The ‘pintxo siren’ happens daily and lunch is a relaxing long one, starting fro around 12-3pm. Evening meals are also much later in Spain, so don’t expect people to start going out for dinner until around 8pm or even 9pm. The late evening meals took some getting used to for me, as I usually eat around 6pm or 7pm!

2 days in San Sebastián

I am so excited that you have made the decision to travel to this part of Spain. Trust me, you will not be disappointed! If you are looking to spend 2 days in San Sebastián this is the perfect itinerary….

Day 1 – Gros, Kursaal centre and walking towards the Old Town

On your first day, you will have enough time to walk from the other side of the river (Gros) past the Kursaal centre, little Paris and into the old town.

Gros – Hipster neighbourhood and Zurriola Surfing beach

In the morning, grab a breakfast in the hipster neighbourhood of Gros – I really love GRONX Zurriola. They have delicious sandwiches, eggs benedict and very good coffee. This area on the North East side of the river is a very trendy up and coming area that is popular with surfers, artists and musicians.

Make sure that you take a short walk on Zurriola beach and you will probably see some surfers catching the waves. Surfing now spans across all generations here in San Sebastian, and the children even have surf lessons with school!

The Kursaal Centre

Then, you will walk from the surf beach past the KURSAAL centre across the bridge and into the old town. But before you cross over, take a look at the Kursaal centre and walk around it to get a good view of the sea. The word ‘Kursaal’ means multi-purpose building – it has a ballroom, spa centre, lecture halls and restaurants. There used to be a casino on this site, but it’s lack of use in the 70’s meant that it would lie dormant as an ugly empty space for 2 years. Then came the building of the Kursaal centre, which was very controversial because the style was a stark contrast to the current architecture and it blocked the views of the houses behind it. However, it has now become an icon of the city and is all lit up at night. It brought the neighbourhood of Gros to life and brought a lot of economic activity. The land that Kursaal was built on is all artificial and before this it was just sea!

Kursaal Centre

‘Little Paris’ – Oquendo Plaza and Plaza de Gipuzkoa

When you cross the river, turn left first and walk until you reach Oquendo Plaza with Vitoria Eugenia theatre on one side and the Hotel Maria Cristina. This is the area that gave San Sebastian the nickname of ‘Little Paris’. In the centre is the statue of Antonio de Oquendo who was a Spanish admiral in charge of the Spanish forces at the battle of the Downs (1639). The building of the statue commenced in 1887 and it was unveiled in 1894.

Oquendo Plaza and Plaza de Gipuzkoa
Oquendo Plaza, Donostia San Sebastian

Next walk to Plaza de Gipuzkoa where you will find the provincial castle, which has a number of statues of important people on the top. One of these was Juan Sebastian who changed the way of thinking from the world being flat to the world being spherical. He is a very famous Basque sailor who took part in an expedition to circumvent the globe. Sadly, he forgot the barrels of the cider for the boats and as a result he died of scurvy. The gardens of this square were designed by a French gardener.

Gipuzkoa Plaza San Sebastian
Gipuzkoa Plaza, Donostia-San Sebastian

Downtown San Sebastian

The original city walls of San Sebastian were demolished at the end of the 19th Century in order to transform San Sebastian into a more modern society and make it accessible to grow the tourism industry. They then built parallel perpendicular roads that resulted in the streets being so clean and organised as they are today. The end of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th Century was when downtown San Sebastian was built. This is a good place to stop for a lunch or snack.

Lunch at Mercado San Martín

For lunch on your first day, be sure to stop off at Mercado San Martín, a foodies heaven! The market dates back to 1884, and is full of shopping outlets, cafes and food produce.

La Concha Beach and San Sebastian Harbour

In the afternoon, you will have time for a glimpse of the beautiful La Concha Beach. There is often a guy doing sand art in the sand – apparently, or so the locals tell me, he is there daily without fail! The beach is regularly voted the most beautiful Urban beach in Europe, and it’s not hard to see why! The bay has created a gorgeous seascape and a beach with soft yellow sand. The sea is calmer here than on Zurriola beach, because the beach is protected by the bay.

La Concha Beach San Sebastian sand art
La Concha Beach, San Sebastian with the daily sand artist

You can then walk to the main gate to the old town via San Sebastian harbour. From the harbour you have a nice view of the ‘fishermans Church’ which is

San Sebastian Harbour
Donostia-San Sebastian harbour

San Sebastian Historical Centre

San Sebastian’s historical centre is really a delight. Spend the afternoon here on the first day and when you are ready to eat, you will be pleased to know that all of the best tapas bars are right in the historical centre and in close proximity to the main historical sites. My favourite places to visit in the old town were Basílica de Santa Maria, Saint Vincent Church and the San Telmo Museum. You would need to spend approximately three to five hours to explore these delights of the old town.

Basílica de Santa Maria del Coro Donostia San Sebastian
Basílica de Santa Maria del Coro -Donostia-San Sebastian
  • Basílica Santa Maria del Coro – This famous Basilica in San Sebastian has a beautiful gothic facade. Built on the site of a Roman Church, this is considered to be the oldest Church in the city. Inside it has a religious museum where you can see Baroque statues and Renaissance religious art. The entrance fee is €3.
  • Saint Vincent Church – For a long time, Saint Vincent came within the Paris of Santa Maria Basilica. It wasn’t until 1940 that it was a Church within it’s own right. Saint Vincent is a gothic Church with octagonal apse and ribbed vaults externally supported by flying buttresses. The highlight of the inside of the Church is the main altarpiece of San Vicente (1586). Free entry.
  • San Telmo Museum – The San Telmo Museum is a museum of Basque culture, history, art and photography housed in a 16th Century convent. The Church is covered in canvases by Sert and 16th century paintings in the apse. Videos explain how the art has been restored and preserved over time. Admission is €10 (€4 for students and senior citizens) and free on Tuesdays.
San Telmo Museum Donostia San Sebastian
San Telmo Museum – San Sebastian

Evening – San Sebastian Tapas tour

Now, it’s time for the best of San Sebastian – the pintxos tour. I had a fantastic time eating out in San Sebastian, and there were a few foods that I tried for the very first time, including octopus and caviar. If you want a local guide then you can book a San Sebastian pintxos tour here. The advantages of booking with a tour guide include making new friends and getting great local insights and recommendations. However, if you are in the old town it’s completely possible to do a DIY pintxos tour. Just head to Saint Mary’s Basilica and start at Atari, then follow the locals!

Atari Pintxos
Atari near the Basilica – a great place to stop for pintxos and a glass of Txakoli (Basque sparkling wine)

The great news is that the pintxos are relatively cheap for what they are. You are looking at spending around €4 a pintxo. 2-3 will be perfect for a snack and 4-6 will probably fill you up as much as a meal. But, don’t go into one tapas bar and order all 6 from there! The idea is to order one drink and one pintxo and then move on to the next bar where you do the same again!

Gandarias taberna

If you want more recommendations on where to get the best pintxos on your 2 days in San Sebastian, here are some of my favourites….

  • Atari – Tapas bar and restaurant right opposite the Basilica, with specialities such as octopus and bacalau (cod fish). Also has vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options.
  • Gandarias – Gandarias Taberna has amazing cheese and ham ‘croquetas’, gorgeous prawn, crab and caviar pintxos and suckling pig!
  • Jose Mari – A great place for Pintxos and Txacoli. I highly recommend the anchovy pintxos (the taste is not too strong and overpowering but eat this one second if you have another tapas, because the flavour can dominate and linger!)
  • Beharri – Another fantastic pintxo bar and a great place to try squid tapas.
  • La Viña – The locals will tell you that this is the best place to go for Basque cheesecake. Get there early, as the queues are often out of the door!
Pintxos at Jose Mari
Pintxos at Jose Mari in San Sebastian

Day 2 – Mount Urgall, Miramar Palace, Monte Igueldo and Isla de Santa Clara

You have a second day – wahoo! On day 2 in San Sebastian you will be able to continue exploring the coastline to the West of the La Concha beach, head to the palace and go up the Fernicular. Finish the day off with a trip to the stadium for some Basque style sports and an evening at a local cider house.

Mount Urgall

If you fancy an early morning hike with gorgeous views of the bay, then take the hike up to Mount Urgull, which will take around 45 minutes to one hour to complete the 1.9km hike. At the top of the hill you will find a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The hike is an easy to moderate challenge and always best done early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, especially in the summer months. If you are still feeling it from walking around the old town, skip this one and go straight round to Miramar Palace.

Sagrado Corazón Sacred Heart statue Mount Urgull
Sagrado Corazón – the Sacred Heart statue Mount Urgull (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Miramar Palace

Next, it’s time to head round the bay to Palacio Miramar, a 19th Century Palace that was commissioned by the Spanish Royal family. Miramar Palace was designed in 1888 by the English architect Selden Wornum, in the style of a ‘Queen Anne cottage’. It isn’t open to visitors inside, but you can see the outside of the palace and explore the gardens. From the gardens, there are nice sea views of Monte Igueldo, the Santa Clara island, and Monte Urgull.

Miramar Palace
Miramar Palace, San Sebastián (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Monte Igueldo

Monte Igueldo is further round the coast again, and a popular place for tourists due to the spectacular views of the bay and Isla de Santa Clara. You will be pleased to know that you don’t have to hike up the steps all the way to the top, there is a fernicular! It’s €4 for a return ticket per adult on the fernicular, but some people choose to pay €2,50 to go up and then walk down to experience some of the better views. There is an amusement park at the top (a bit like Tibidabo in Barcelona) which is cheesy and kind of takes away from the romantic view, but it’s fun for families nonetheless.

Isla de Santa Clara

If you still have the time and energy after all that, consider taking a ferry to Isla de Santa Clara. You can actually book a boat tour of San Sebastián including a trip to Santa Clara island on GetYourGuide here. The island is only 400 metres across and 48m above sea level. The island has a lighthouse, a cafe and a nice swimming point where year round swimming is possible.

Next, it’s time to head back to your hotel for a quick rest and to get washed and changed ready for a great night out! You still have a game of Jai Alai and a trip out to the cider house to look forward to!

Watch a Game of Basque Pelota or Jai Alai

If you really want to immerse yourself in Basque culture then get tickets to watch a game of Jai alai – a Basque indoor variation of Jai Alai, one of the most dangerous racket sports in the world! We headed to Atano III pelota Court with TBEX to see some of the league professionals play. I was impressed by the size of the court as well as the cesta – the wicker scoop strapped to the players arm and used to catch and throw the ball down the court. Tickets start from around €20 and you are best to book in advance. If you are up for it, you can even book to have a go yourself! Don’t forget your helmet!

If you want to know what it’s like, check out my Jai Alai YouTube short here.

Experience Petritegi Sagardotegia-Bodega local cider house

Although you might think that the main traditional basque country is Txacoli, it might surprise you to hear that they are big producers and lovers of cider. I highly recommend that you finish off your two days in San Sebastian with a trip to a cider house – our cider house of choice was Petritegi Sagardotegia-Bodega and it wasn’t just a meal and drink, it was truly an ‘experience’!

We walked towards the cider house from our tour bus and we were greeted by two very talented young men playing the Txalapata, which is a traditional Basque instrument involving rythmic knocking on wooden blocks with wooden sticks.

Aftern that we headed inside to see the cider barrels. When they open the barrel, you need to catch the cider in your glass without spilling a drop. They will shout “Txotx” when they remove the stick so that you can start drinking! As your glass is almost full you need to move up ready for the next person to take over the cider stream! It’s really fun to take part in this.

Barrels of cider at Petritegi Sagardotegia-Bodega cider house
Barrels of cider at Petritegi Sagardotegia-Bodega cider house, San Sebastian

The it was into the main hall for a delicious five course meal – erm, no – a gastronomic experience, with more cider than we could ever drink to wash it down! The courses included chorizo, Spanish omlette, briskett with green pepper, a steak course and finally a cheese course served with walnuts and quince jelly. Wow, just wow!

steak at Petritegi Sagardotegia-Bodega cider house
Spending 2 days in San Sebastian? Don’t miss steak at Petritegi Bodega!

More Relaxing Options for San Sebastian

If you’re too tired to continue round the coast, you can always trade in your second day of exploring for a beach day on La Concha beach! For those looking for health and relaxation, why not try the Spa that utilises the salt water of the sea – La Perla Centro Talaso Sport.

I hope that you can tell that spending 2 days in San Sebastián is well worth it. Glorious beaches, hikes and churches aside, the food alone makes it worth the trip! If you can spend 3-4 days there, you could consider doing a day trip within the region such as a day in Vitoria-Gasteiz or Bilbao.

Further Reading on the Basque Country and Northern Spain

If you enjoyed this blog on how to spend 2 days in San Sebastián you might also like to read….