Mary was in Spain for three months in 2021-2022 and visited Oviedo for the first time. What she has discovered about the city surprised her.
Why is San Sebastian worth visiting. Friends have sent me pictures of this place and delighted me with stories of their visit. I have seen many other cities in Spain, and they all impressed me, but except for Santiago de Compostela, I hadn't been to the north of Spain.
Visiting San Sebastián–Donostia
When I was younger, I went through the north of Spain with a group. We went to see the tomb of St. Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. But when we arrived it was almost midnight, and we left early for Bordeaux the following day, unable to see much of anything.
So, this time, I decided to focus northward. Since my friends who had been there enjoyed their visit so much, I decided to hit San Sebastián first.
As we drove towards the north, I was impressed with its mountainous terrain with stunning beaches, and it charmed me.
Top Reasons to Visit San Sebastián–Donostia
San Sebastián–Donostia is a resort area in the north of Spain, and is enveloped by mountains while also blessed with the most beautiful beaches in Europe. So, this is one of the top reasons to entice you to come.
The city is in Basque Country, an autonomous region of northern Spain. Though they speak Spanish, they also speak Basque which is not related to any other languages spoken. The majority of speakers are within the country of Spain, though a small percentage are in southern France. That's where the multiple names come from. San Sebastián is the Spanish name for the city, while Donostia is the Basque.
This 1350-meter stretch of fine, golden sand, Playa de la Concha, embraces the side of the Old Town. Shaped like a shell called concha in Spanish, it's flanked by Mt. Urgull and Mt. Igueldo, protecting it from the Atlantic Ocean. In its waters rise the Santa Clara Island, where you can go for an enjoyable visit. You can also take the funicular to Mt. Igueldo to enjoy a breathtaking view of the city.
Connecting to this beach is Ondarreta Beach, often referred to as the millionaire's belt because of its proximity to an upmarket district.
But the most lively of the city's beaches may be the Playa de la Zurriola or Playa de Gros, the surfing beach, where both beginners and professionals catch waves in the water. It is not uncommon to see young people enjoying volleyball on the beach or hanging out in bars, surf shops, and restaurants.
2. Quaint Old Town
As the locals call this area, La Parte Vieja is a maze of old streets, full of fascinating spots and old buildings converted into restaurants, shops, pintxo bars, and bakeries.
The Plaza de la Constitucion is at its heart, formerly a bullfighting arena. You can still see the arena's seat numbers written above the balconies surrounding the square. It's a welcome, open-air space as you emerge from the confusing narrow lanes of the old town.
3. Cathedral, Churches, and Convents
If old churches fascinate you, there are two very architecturally outstanding churches in the old town itself, San Vicente and the Basilica of St. Mary of Coro.
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There is, of course, the city's cathedral. A revival neo-Gothic, the Cathedral del Buen Pastor de San Sebastián houses one of the largest pipe organs in Europe.
And for enthusiasts like me, Zenit Convento San Martin, where I stayed in San Sebastián, was an old convent of nuns who no longer had enough vocations to maintain it. They ended up selling it to Zenit whose renovation retained the old chapel, so when you enter the hotel's reception, you see some of the statues of the saints, the remains of what was the choir, and an upper part of cloister where the sick sisters stayed to attend mass.
Come and join the merry-making, Spanish style. San Sebastián has so many festivals the whole year. Its International Film Festival is one of the fourteen major film festivals, and if you're a Star Wars fan, it premiered here in 1977. Other festivals include:
- In August, Aste Nagusta or Semana Grande celebrates the city's recovery from the 1813 fire. It is a time to enjoy Basque sports, fireworks, open-air concerts, and merry-making in the streets.
- La Tamborrada is a festival celebrated at midnight on the 20th of January when the sounds of drums fill the city, and the city flag is raised in the Plaza de la Constitucion. There is also a parade of the different gastronomic societies in the town.
- Tinkers Parade. On the first Saturday of February,
A bear leads a parade followed by a colourful assortment of costumed groups. The revellers carry pots that they hit with a hammer. It also features a drag queen and gypsy dances.
There are festivals the whole year. Look them up on this website.
5. Pleasant Weather and Safe
While the other cities in Spain are scorching in heat in the summer, this city is pleasantly warm. In the winter, it is sweater weather. When I last went there, some people were swimming in the blue seas.
I was surprised when I checked in to be told by the receptionist to go and have a promenade on the beach. Usually, I get warnings to be careful. It was a bit late at night, but she assured me that it was safe to do so. So, I did, and many people were doing the same. Being alone, I felt very comfortable.
6. Friendly People
It was my first time travelling to a place on my own. The driver seemed uninterested, so I continued on my exploration alone.
Not gifted with a good sense of direction I often had to ask for help. I found that the people in the area were very eager to help and make suggestions to ease my fear of going around on my own.
7. Mercado de la Bretxa
San Sebastián, with its proximity to the sea and the mountains, has a picturesque fresh market where the chefs source their daily fare. The seafood is to die for, and the hills provide the dairy and fresh produce. What a joy to see them in this market.
8. Excellent Local Wine and Cider
After my promenade, I ventured into one of the bars and asked the bartender to recommend an excellent local wine. In my broken Spanish, we conversed successfully.
I also bought a bottle of cider to bring back, knowing they have the best ciders in Spain. They still traditionally make their ciders in local farmhouses.
9. Michelin Starred Restaurants
Many restaurants crowd the city, and the food in each of them is excellent. However, San Sebastián has some of the most Micheline-starred restaurants, only ranking second to Kyoto. Its sea and mountain have some of the freshest ingredients any chef can work with.
I tried one Michelin-starred restaurant with a friend, and we ordered fish, it presented to us raw to confirm our order, making me a bit suspicious. Not my friend, though. When they brought the beautifully presented cooked fish and I tasted it, I thought I was in heaven.
It is not by accident this place is named Donostia, which in the local dialect means heaven on earth. It is true. I was so thrilled by what I experienced in the area I brought guests back to also give myself another chance to have a most beautiful few days.
© 2022 Mary Norton