By Rebecca Land, Missouri State University
During your study abroad experience, there is an abundance of cities to visit. One of my favorite places I’ve traveled to is San Sebastián. San Sebastián is a coastal city located on the northern edge of Spain. A friend of a friend recommended it, so my friends and I decided to plan a little getaway weekend. It ended up being such a gorgeous place, and now I recommend it to everyone I meet.
How to Get There
We used the app Omio to find the cheapest route to San Sebastián. Traveling by bus ended up being the most affordable option; with fees, the ticket was only $69 round trip. Because we had activities going on during the day, we took an overnight bus that left at 10:35 p.m. from Barcelona Sants. By bus, it takes about 7 hours to get from Barcelona to San Sebastián.
What to Pack
I underestimated how cold it would be when we got there. I was wearing shorts and a light shirt when our bus arrived at 5:30 a.m., and I was freezing. It warmed up significantly during the day, but be sure to check what the temperature will be, especially at night and early in the morning. Because it’s a coastal city, the humidity makes it feel a lot colder than it is. Locals told me it can rain continuously during the winter months, so look at the weather before your trip!
Things to Do in San Sebastián
1. Walk the City
One of the best things about San Sebastián is how easy it is to walk everywhere. We didn’t use public transportation once while we were there, although we did stay in the same general area most of the time.
I highly recommend arriving early in the day or waking up early to explore. At 7:30 a.m. a few cafes start opening and there are several beaches that are perfect to enjoy the sunrise. One of my favorite things was experiencing the city before it became crowded with cars and people. We spent most of our time in the Old Quarter, which is the oldest area of San Sebastián. There you can find old churches, little shops, and lots of bars & cafes. We explored early in the morning and when we returned to the same part during the night, it felt like a completely different city.
Note: If you’re arriving early, check with your accommodations (whether it be a hostel, hotel, etc.) to see if you can arrive before the normal check-in time in order to drop off your bags and freshen up a bit. Our check-in wasn’t until 3:00 p.m., but once the front desk opened, our hostel let us leave our bags and use the restrooms.
2. Hike Mount Urgull
While walking around, we saw a statue on a hill in the distance. We later looked it up online and figured out how to make our way to Mount Urgull. The hike was fairly steep, but it was all paved with brick so it wasn’t too intense. There are multiple lookout points along the way and many photo-worthy spots. At the top rests the Cristo de la Mota, a statue of Jesus, and the Casa de la Historia de Urgull, a free museum. If you go inside the museum and up the stairs, it has access to an overlook of San Sebastián. There may be a line to the lookout deck because they only allow about 20 people up at a time. But it was worth the wait for one of the best views of the city.
3. Explore Local Bars/Cafes
On our way down the mountain, we found a cute little bar called Polboriña. It had outdoor seating and a breathtaking view of the ocean. As we were leaving, the bartender told us that there was a DJ later that night and invited us to come back. We ended up going back that evening to watch the sunset over the ocean. Even though it was crowded, it had a chill vibe with lots of local culture. I had the chance to talk to some locals and ask for recommendations in and around the city. They explained that during the warm months, the bar has a DJ every Friday and Saturday night.
4. Try Pintxos
Pintxos are a tapa originating in San Sebastián and are most often identified as appetizers with toothpicks, although there are many different forms. The best part is that all of the different pintxos are laid out on the bar so that you can see exactly what you’re getting. Ask the bartender for a plate and grab whatever catches your eye. The Old Quarter is full of pintxo bars; walk down the street and you’ll be bombarded with so many different places to choose from. In true Spanish fashion, it was fun to grab a few pintxos at one bar and then move to a different spot to see the other options.
5. Experience the Beaches
San Sebastián is known for its iconic La Concha beach. If you’re a surfer, there’s also a surfer beach called Playa de La Zurriola. Near the pier at La Concha, there were a few rental shops for surfboards and kayaks starting at around €8-10 per hour.
However, be careful about what time of the day you’re planning to go to the beach. We went to La Concha in the early afternoon at the end of September, and after a few hours, the beach completely disappeared with the rising tide. Depending on the time of year, don’t expect to go to the beach in the late afternoon and be able to comfortably lay on the beach for several hours.
6. Boat to an Island
Near La Concha Beach is a spot to buy tickets for boats. They offer boat tours and boats that take you straight to the island. We opted for the boat to the island for only €4 round trip. The boats usually go to and from the island every hour. Because of the strong waves, we weren’t able to go until the end of the day, when things had calmed down a bit. It still gave us enough time to climb up the mountain, see the lighthouse, and enjoy the gorgeous view of the city and ocean. Then we caught the last boat back for the night. If you want to spend more time on the island, there’s a little café there and a spot to go swimming.
My friends and I saw a lot of San Sebastián in only two days. But there’s a lot we didn’t do, such as museums or spending time in the main part of the city. Whether you only have a few days or a whole weekend, San Sebastián is a must-see.