This lovely, compact city is made to order for grazing on great food and drinks as you stroll. Graceful belle epoque buildings line cobbled streets, off the perfectly crescent-shaped Playa de Concha beach and Bay of Biscay to the north. Walkways wind along and six graceful bridges cross the Urumea river which bisects the city like a spinal cord. When high tides roll in from the sea, dramatic waves crash into the river driving up flocks of seabirds from the surface. Two mountains bookending the beach are hike-able, rewarding you with great photos of the bay and city but the charming narrow streets can get overcrowded in high season.
Starting out at 8am and finishing at 1pm, this self-guided tour includes Brexta Market; three bridges of San Seb; views of Urumea River, Hotel Maria Cristina, Victoria Eugenia Theater, San Telmo Museum, Santa Maria Church, Mt Urgull, Playa de la Concha, Palace Miramar and a pinxto bar crawl.
There’s no better place to start a San Sebastián Wokabout than a morning visit to the city’s oldest fresh food market – the Mercado de la Bretxa. Conveniently located just southeast of the Old Town at Boulevard Zumardia, 3, the market is open Monday to Saturday from 8 am to 9 pm. Built in 1871, it was converted into a mall in the late 1900s, relegating the original butcher, seafood and charcuterie stalls to a neighboring basement and the fruit, vegetables, flowers and cheese stalls to outdoor lanes. A visit here is necessary to glimpse fresh local produce and the latest catch from the sea, and stock up on the best shipped-in jamon, cheese, canned anchovies, spices and smoked salmon as demanded by the highly discriminating local home cooks and chefs.
I arrived early enough to catch the outdoor greengrocers begin to set up their stalls. Vibrant leafy greens, rosy peppers and tomatoes, many oddly shaped heirlooms from small farm holdings would make the most ardent veg haters change their minds. Producers strive for the Euskal Baserri quality symbol.Kiwis, pears, apples, leeks, walnuts, hazel nuts, Swiss chard and herbs harvested that morning from the surrounding Ebro valley were loaded onto a small van and driven into the city.
In Brexta market’s underground section you’ll find freshness, variety and quality at butcher, charcuterie and seafood stalls, despite being packed in such a small area. And the place is spotless – you could eat off the floor. Here, I again fell victim to Basque humor (the night before my friend Toby and I received a lot of inoffensive but puerile kissy-noises and sly grins from the other staff when we asked a waiter to pose for a photo with us).
I was taking closeups of so-fresh-it-quivers Basque steaks when the butcher dangled an unidentifiable, veinous pocket of meat right before my lens. I looked up, puzzled while he gazed back, deadpan.
“Donde está?” using my bad Spanish to ask where it was from and pointed to my calf.
Nope, he shook his head, indicating “higher up” with his palms. I poked at my thigh and he waggled his eyebrows, gesturing again. Omigod, those are testicles, it dawned on me as half dozen watchers roared with with laughter. Trying to look cool while fleeing, I wandered round the corner to the charcuterie section to pick up a half a kilo of jamón Ibérico at Jesus Maria Bresau’s. The delicacy is so expensive and the leg of jamón so slender and irregular that the only way to get it off the bone and minimize waste is by an expert’s hand, which meant a 15-minute wait as he deftly carves.
I explored the fascinating seafood section next. It was a lesson in marine biology as Basques, like the Cantonese, create sublime dishes out of almost anything that moves, even the ugliest of critters. For example, percebes, or gooseneck barnacles. These prehistoric-looking, filter feeding, rock clinging barnacles (look them up in my intro to must-try seafood here), aptly named dinosaur toes, are not only the fixings of a pinxtos dish but one of the most prized. They don’t look any better cooked – with just a slight darkening in color – and served whole, as they are usually plainly simmered in seawater to preserve their incredible lobster-like flavor and clam-like texture.
The rest of the seafood on display, fresh from the Bay of Biscay, aka the Cantabrian Sea, was spectacular even in the depths of winter. The sardines, anchovies and sole were pearly, and the skinned stingray and monkfish gelatinous and pink. To further display their freshness, the gills and innards are fanned out and show off their pink and ruby red glory from still-oxygen rich blood.Some of the stall holders were delightful, with mischief dancing in their eyes as they posed for photos. Here are the lovelies at the Espe Pescadería stall (and the ladies look pretty good too)…
But best of all were several quirky, artistic pescatarian displays like bizarre dancers on ice, or something Dali would’ve dreamed up. I hope you can see the gent languishing in the background exhausted after setting up his composition.
Walking San Sebastian Town and River
Head out of the market, onto the San Juan kalea (street), snack at any of the amazing cafes nearby serving cheap but excellent coffee and hot chocolate and Basque pastries made from amazing local dairy products. Then head south a few steps on the same street, turning left at any street. Walk eastward toward the river just a block away.
Cross the stone-and-brick Zurriola Bridge (Puente de Zurriola) just for the fun of it (or find a local Tides table to catch the start of high tide, when dramatic Cantabrian sea rollers crash up the river, driving flocks of seagulls wheeling into the air). You’re now in the slightly less-touristy Gros district. The art deco lamposts of the bridge clash with the hyper modern, large and somewhat impersonal “Kursaal cubes”, the nickname for the Congress Center building. You’ll see this sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes brilliant meshing of modern and classic architecture throughout the city.
Zurriola bridge is one of the three older ones of the six in San Sebastián, each with a unique character. If you want to check out the other two walk turn right to walk south along the pleasant tree-lined Ramon Maria Pasealekua (street). You can return to Centro, by crossing the Santa Catalina Bridge or walk a few minutes’ south to the De Maria Cristina Zubia Bridge. The latter has two picturesque obelisks at each end. Head further south to the stunning Hotel Maria Cristina on the Urumea’s western bank (Note – you could rent a bike and travel on bidegorris, bike paths along the riverbank. Even better, you could explore the river with a rental canoe from Alo Kayak tour agency or Hotel Arrizul Urumea Basque Country.)
Stop by the Hotel Maria Cristina (Paseo Republica Argentina, 4) the grand dame of hotels in San Sebastián, just to gawk at the princely interiors.One of the musts in the city is a visit to the SSF (San Sebastián Foods) gourmet boutique and cooking school in the lower floor of the hotel (note it has a separate entrance to the left of the hotel’s main one). Absolutely divine culinary treats are sold here, for a corresponding price of course, including Iberian loin and hams, bacon jam, Basque sausage, Gilda pinxto kit, dried marine plankton (for you molecular gourmets), caviar, Spanish pimenton (paprika), saffron and other goodies for friends and family. You might also want to check out SSF’s gourmet classes. Drop by Easo Restaurant, which serves breakfast ‘til 11am for tea and to check out more of the gorgeous hotel.
After exiting the Maria Cristina, just 100m north along the Salamanca you’ll pass the elegant neo-renaissance Victoria Eugenia Theatre (you might want to try the cafe but reviews suggest its service is spotty) where the annual International Film Festival is held.Keep heading north and turn left at Soraluze Kalea, which turns into Abustuaren 31 Kalea after a few blocks. Walk west for a few minutes and take the first right-hand street after Narrika Kalea. Follow the street which makes a right until you arrive at San Telmo. The museum is a great intro to Basque culture, history and archaeology. It’s also a showcase of spectacular architecture, housed in a lovely 16th Dominican Convent, blending gothic and renaissance with cutting edge modern architecture.
Open Tue-Sun 10am-8pm; Closed on Mondays. Free on Tuesdays, and for under 18s (and the unemployed); 3€ other days.
Walk farther west on Abustuaren 31 Kalea and you’ll be right at the doorstep of Basilica Santa Maria del Coro (Santa Maria Church). The Basilica sits at the southern foot of Monte Urgull in Old Town, dates from 1750. It’s one of the most popular sights. Its florid facade features a dramatic vaulted niche, chock full of reliefs, statues and embellishments in an otherwise architecturally-restrained city. Built atop an old Roman church, therefore considered the oldest church in the city, it is set out to a rectangular design with a semicircular apse flanked by secondary buildings. The church is flanked by two towers.
From this point, you have a choice of continuing on a hike or getting a bite to eat at the cluster of old town pinxto bars few minutes walk away – click here for lunch or dinner pinxto bar listing.
Hike Mt Urgull, Old town
Hike up Mt Urgull to work off your pinxtos pig out. Don’t worry, it’s not much of a mountain as it’s a mere 30-minute walk to the 123 meter-high summit from the hotel (without other stops or getting lost).
If you’re facing the church just to its left are some steps leading to an upward-sloping path that eventually zig-zags behind and above the church (I don’t remember any signposts but on the map it’s marked as Andrea Zipitria Kalea) This is one of the two entries to the summit, the other is behind the Aquarium, on the western shore of Old Town. Neither were clearly marked when I visited, so print my map and ask around.
The Mt. Urgull path is a lovely meandering birdsong-filled forest walk and tour of hilltop fort and castle ruins. On the way up (if you take the Santa Maria Church entryway) you’ll get views of the pretty marina, Playa de la Concha, Old Town, a closeup of the Statue of Christ, the Bay with Santa Clara Isle and the Cantabrian Sea. The fort, dating back to a tower built in 1150, was scene to numerous battles, where Spanish, British and Portuguese troops were pitted against the French (hence the English Cemetery on the northwestern slopes).
Mota Castle sits at the top, complete with the canons and arrow slits used to defend it. The City Museum, Casa de la Historia, is here, open Tuesdays-Fridays 11am-2pm and 3pm-5.30pm; open Saturdays and holidays 10.30am-5.30pm.
Zig-zagging down Mt Urgull, toward the Aquarium exit, you’ll see a lovely pine forest and views of the open sea and the bay.
At the foot of the hill, either turn right for a view of the waves crashing onto the dramatic black rocks off the headland or head left, passing the marina and its pristine little sailboats. Continue southward until you get to the stately City Hall (Ayuntamiento de Donostia) formerly a casino frequented by WWI spy Mata Hari.
Enjoying a great view of the bay (complete with surfers evening winter), perfect beach, and even an antique carousel, you stroll along the beachside promenade Paseo de la Concha. Walking further south along the promenade you’ll pass the Alderdi Eder Gardens.
From here you can continue South to Avenida de la Libertad then turn right to walk eastward toward Centro and stroll the small off-streets for coffee and pastries or some shopping.
Or keep walking 15 minutes along the promenade all the way to Miramar Palace at other end of the crescent beach. Continue 10 minutes along Ondaretta Beach to the take a funicular (open 10am-10pm during summer months June-Sep) up to the children’s amusement park atop the 172 meter tall Monte Igeldo hill.
Note – It’s about an hour walk from the Aquarium in Old Town to the funicular station at the base of Mt Igueldo.
Other sights in the heart of Old Town if you have time include the Plaza de la Constitution, a former bull ring with a vibrant white and yellow embellished former city hall. This is where the flag is raised for San Sebastián Day on January 20 and festivals are held. Other sights around town….