Rei Sancho el Mayor de Navarra (Sancho the Elder) founded the city of Donostia (the Basque name of San Sebastian) around 1180. It is likely, however, that people were settled there prior to the 12th century, possibly in what is now El casco antiguo. That walled medieval area was the beginning of the Parte Vieja (historical quarter, pictured at right), although not much evidence of 12th century architecture remains there. The oldest buildings still standing in San Sebastian were constructed after the 16th Century. Remains of the city wall erected in the 1500s can still be seen at Monte Urgull , El Muelle and the Muralla de la Ciudad , a parking lot unlike any other you've seen.
Due to a huge fire in 1813, few buildings of even the immediately post-16th century era remain standing in San Sebastian. Among the few that do are the Iglesia de San Vicente (Saint Vincent Church), the Basílica de Santa María del Coro and the convent of San Telmo. After the fire, San Sebastians (or "donostiarrak," as the Basques say) began a concerted modernization effort that continued with the demolishing of the city wall, (which had previously served to contain the city's growth), and the forging of city expansion through reclaimed land from the Urumea River , the sand dunes surrounding the city, and the salt marshes. This area of 19th century expansion is referred to as the Area Romántica. Buildings from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that typify this era in the city's history include the Hotel María Cristina , the Teatro Victoria Eugenia (Victoria Eugenia Theater), the grand avenues of "Boulevard" and Francia and the Calle Prim . In these places you'll come to appreciate a rather eclectic style—a reinterpretation of previous architectural styles applied to dwellings built with modern materials.
Be sure you don't miss the seaside promenade and beach of La Concha . La Concha links two important urban areas that are separated in time but not so much in space: the port, whose construction began in the 14th century, and the original outdoor sculptures of Peine de los Vientos , created in 1976 by Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. Along the way you can visit other places of interest such as the Real Club Naútico (Royal Yacht Club), the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), the area of La Perla, the Palacio de Miramar (Miramar Palace), and you can even catch a ride on the funicular for a spectacular view of the city.
The medieval community of Spain was clearly inclined towards commerce and, despite several interruptions over the ages, this activity continues today, as evidenced by San Sebastian's broad selection of cultural, gastronomic, and commercial offerings. From a self-sustaining fishing and farming community in the Middle Ages to a favorite spa resort of European royalty in the 19th Century, San Sebastian today presents a modern image to the world, adapted to the demands of tourism. The city hosts huge events, like the well-known San Sebastian International Film Festival , and boasts new infrastructure developments like the Palacio de Congresos del Kursaal (Kursaal House of Parliament).
Hondarribia, Pasaia & Orio
Once you have visited San Sebastian itself, consider taking in the small townships and villages surrounding the city, which are of significant tourist and cultural interest. Of particular appeal are the surrounding medieval towns, typified by the town of Hondarribia. Here you can see the impressive remains of the city wall, the local church and the Castillo de Carlos V (Castle of Charles V), then take a walk to Monte Jaizkibel . A particularly relaxing place to visit is the village of Pasaia , situated on the edge of the bay of the same name and whose buildings have a charming nautical flavor. To the west of San Sebastian, there are three more coastal settlements worth a visit. One is Orio, with its casco histórico (medieval historical quarter) and busy fishing port. Another is Zarautz , which offers some very accessible tourist sites, such as the Torre Luzea (Luzea Tower), Campanario (bell tower), Itsas Natura (a marine museum), the Photomuseum, and various other ancient and modern monuments. Zarautz is also renowned by surfers for its totally tubular waves. Finally there is Getaria, with its historical quarter, varied choice of pintxos (tapas) and other Basque and Spanish foods, and its port, where people fish for both business and pleasure.
San Sebastian is worth more than a day-trip, but if you only have a day, hit the beach, and don't miss the lively bars and restaurants of the pedestrians-only Parte Vieja. Buen viaje!
San Sebastián: Dining and Drinking
One of the attractions of visiting Donostia-San Sebastian is its gastronomy. The Basque Country has a well-deserved reputation for fine wining and dining. In gastronomic terms, Donostia takes the biscuit: the best restaurants in the country can be found here. In fact, a whopping four restaurants in or near San Sebastian were included on Restaurant Magazine's list of the "Top 100 Restaurants in the World." From the most expensive and luxurious type of restaurant, characterized by modern Basque cuisine ( Arzak , Akelarre, Zuberoa , and Martín Berasategui ) to pintxo bars (pintxo is Basque for tapa) such as Bergara ,Aloña Berri and Banbara , to sandwich bars like La Cepa and Narrika , they all pay careful attention to quality and presentation. Here are some words of advice to visitors:
1. Meal times in restaurants are fairly rigid (from around 1p to 3p for lunch, and 9p and 11p for dinner).
2. Choose fish over meat. It is easier to find good meat in other places.
3. Eating is a sacred activity, almost a religion in the Basque Country. Chefs are seen almost like gods.
4. You ought to try txikiteo — this is like a Basque pub crawl, going from bar to bar having txikitos (tiny glasses of wine) and pintxos at each stop. (It should be noted that people do not get amazingly drunk during these visits the way they do in the British equivalent).
The most typical restaurants ( Morgan , Clery , Bodegón Alejandro ) are in the old quarter of the city (Parte Vieja), but the most refined restaurants (Arzak, Akelarre) are not in this area. Aside from Basque cooking, there is a local custom that you must not miss sidrerías (cider bars). For the first three months of the year the cider bars open for dinner and for tasting the cider produced at the end of the previous year. Any day of the week is fine for going to a cider bar (Kako, Sidrería Illumbre ). You can drink all the cider you want straight from a kupela (keg), and to accompany it you will eat only tortilla de bacalao (cod omelette), txuleta (pork chops) and queso con nueces (cheese with walnuts). For the rest of the year you have to drink bottled cider. It is important to note that the opening hours of the cider bars do not conform to any set timetable. Each place keeps its own hours. They generally open before dinner around 8p, and closing time depends on how many people are around. For this reason it is a good idea to call ahead before heading off to any of the multitude of cider bars in and around San Sebastián.
Wine is the most popular drink in the Basque Country. Most wine comes from the Rioja, Alavesa and Navarra regions. Recommended are the reds of the Rioja region and the roses of Navarra. As far as more indigenous drinks go, you have to try cider, and the txakolí from Getaria. This is made from local white grapes, and is slightly carbonated. The flavor is a cross between white wine and champagne. You tend to drink txakolí more in summer, accompanied by fish and seafood dishes.
One of the preferred activities of donostiarras (citizens of Donostia) is txikiteo, mentioned above. Groups of friends meet after work and go from bar to bar drinking small amounts of wine or other drinks. You drink your wine (or a zurito, which is a tiny glass of beer) and move on to the next place; in this way, you cover many bars in a short time. Pub-crawling in a Spanish way is a unique kind of activity. The aim is not to get drunk, but to socialize. The tradition is enhanced by sampling pintxos with your drink, which, although a little more expensive, makes it more enjoyable. A delicious accompaniment to a longer session of txikiteo are the local filled rolls (try them at Gaztelu and Senra ). Although you can go pub crawling in any area of the city, the best place is the Parte Vieja (old quarter).
The txikiteo usually goes on until about midnight. To top it off, have a leisurely coffee in a cafe (Kai, Unión Artesana ) to help settle your stomach.
Fiestas (public holidays, feast days) are another typical aspect of the donostiarra lifestyle. You will notice there are many fiestas throughout the year, that everyone takes part in them and that gastronomy is integral to them ( San Sebastián , Santo Tomás ). The old quarter is the main place to go for any fiesta.