A few summers ago, we drove from Andalusia to Southwest France. It was a last minute trip in late August (read: hotels were at capacity and expensive) so we (mistakenly) decided to skip San Sebastián. I can’t tell you the amount of times we have said to each other, “We should have gone to San Sebastián!” So we finally made it right, and visited the city that has been on our bucket lists forever.
Two days in San Sebastián, also known as Donostia in the Basque language, was just enough to see the top sights and enjoy its famous food scene. San Sebastián is known for its pintxos and is home to one of the best urban beaches in Europe.
San Sebastián’s natural beauty of a bay punctuated by two mountains offers a unique beach and viewpoints. The ocean climate became the vacation destination for the Spanish royal family and Maria Cristina moved the summer court to San Sebastian in the 19th century. After spending two days there, you can see why one of the most popular cities in the Basque region draws tourists from near and far.
In this itinerary, I’ll share where to stay, the best things to do, tops places for pintxos and some travel tips along the way.
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Where to Stay
I chose Hotel Arbaso for its perfect location and contemporary, yet warm interiors. Arbaso means ancestors in Basque; the name is an homage to their unique heritage, authenticity and family friendliness. From the moment you enter, you’ll be greeted by friendly service in chic oversized linen and espadrilles.
The Junior Suite was perfect with its extra space, beautiful view of the cathedral and massive bathroom complete with a standalone tub. Of all the hotels we’ve stayed at with our baby (10 or 11 so far in his first year of life), this is the first with an actual wooden crib. It is a small detail, but a luxurious one.
Dine at their restaurant Narru for modern dishes or enjoy room service. We took advantage of the early bedtime with baby and enjoyed local wines from their extensive wine list.
San Sebastián Itinerary: Day 1
On a rainy morning, we struggled to find a cafe open to pass the time. I’m so glad we ended up finding Maiatza, not only for shelter, but also for the food and service. Definitely save this place if you are interested in breakfast, as it seems like one of few options.
Right across the street, you’ll find San Vincente Church. The Gothic church was built in the 16th century and is free to enter.
After the rain let up, we continued the hike up to La Mota Castle on Mount Urgull. The castle is free to roam around and look at canons and views. While I wouldn’t say you need special hiking gear to walk around these trails, it is a light workout.
Stop for a drink at Urgulleko Polboriña on the way back down. The outdoor patio has beautiful views and a beer is just 2,50 euro.
Take the walking trails back down the hill, stopping to enjoy the lookout points, the English Cemetery and even the aquarium if you fancy.
As you walk along the marina, cut into the Old Town to get to Calle Mayor. This main street in San Sebastián has two bookends: the 18th century Basilica of Santa Maria (3 euros to enter) and the late 19th century El Buen Pastor Cathedral (free entry). You can get a peek at both when you stand in front of Town Hall near the carousel, a real treat if you are visiting with kids.
Starting near the Basilica of Santa Maria on the northern end, begin your evening tapas crawl at Atari. We stopped here at the suggestion of Hotel Arbaso and loved the quality food and view of the church.
Wonder the Old Town, stopping in shops and eating tapas until your heart’s content. I’d also recommend making your way to La Viña for the infamous cheesecake and Ganbara where Anthony Bourdain ate on the San Sebastián episode of Parts Unknown. Both hot spots are easily identified by a long line of people waiting to sample the culinary specialties.
Ok, ok… So, I may of taken this photo solely for the dog in a wagon at first.
Don’t miss Constitutión Plaza, a square used for fairs and events. The main building was previously the City Hall. Today, you can enjoy a coffee, drink or pintxos at one of the restaurants under the archways.
The numbers on top of each balcony reference the boxes when the square was used for bull fights. Book a balcony room at this guest house to stay in one.
Continue on your wander of the Old Town and tapas crawl into the evening. Also consider a food and wine tour to make the most of your time and hit the best spots.
San Sebastián Itinerary: Day 2
El Buen Pastor Cathedral
Start your morning at El Buen Pastor Cathedral/Good Shepherd Cathedral. The largest church in San Sebastián was built in the late 19th century and is free to enter. In 1888, the queen regent Maria Christina and her son, King Alfonso XIII attended the ceremony where the foundation was laid and also 9 years later when it was consecrated.
From there, you can easily stroll along the promenade that runs the length of La Concha Bay. Be sure to stop in the middle at Miramar Palace. This was the summer home to Maria Cristina, the Queen of Spain. Not only is the park beautiful with blooming hydrangeas, it also has a stunning view of the bay and Santa Clara Island.
Interesting fact: People infected with the plague in the late 16th century were moved to the chapel on the island.
You can also take a 30-minute boat tour of the bay that stops on the island for only 7 euro.
Funicular to Monte Iguldeo
Continue along the promenade to take the historical funicular to the top of Monte Iguldeo (located here). Ride the wooden funicular just how it was in 1912 with its original wooden coaches. TIP: Sit on the left side (closest to the door you enter in) so you can admire the view.
Once you get to the top, not only will you find stunning views of the bay below, but there is also an amusement park and 18th century tower. Previous iterations of the amusement park included a ballroom and casino.
I was most intrigued by the tiny boat ride that takes you around the top on a narrow canal, reminiscent of a miniature log ride (minus the splash part at the end). However, it was closed for siesta. So be sure to check the schedule as it varies by season.
Depending on how long you traipse around the amusement park, you should have plenty of time to hit the beach in the late afternoon. I noticed a handful of beach clubs where you can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, but mostly people laid out their own towels.
You can also head across the river to the Gros district and visit the smaller Zurriola beach.
For an upscale dinner, choose from one of the 8 Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastián. As of 2023, the city has a total of 16 stars making it the city with the highest concentration of stars in all of Europe. Read more about each restaurant and make your reservation far in advance.
Have more than two days in San Sebastián?
If you have more than two days in San Sebastián, I would recommend taking a day trip to Saint Jean de Luz. We spend the day here in route to France and loved it.
Want to continue on your itinerary? Cross the border into France and stay a few days in Biarritz.