The best things to do in San Sebastián

·7-min read
san sebastian, tambarrada - JUAN MANUEL SERRANO ARCE
san sebastian, tambarrada - JUAN MANUEL SERRANO ARCE

Posing gracefully between sea and mountains, San Sebastián’s beauty is enthralling; staring at (and photographing) it is a favourite pastime. While most come to eat, the city has been attracting visitors since long before the gastronomic boom, and it boasts plenty of non-foodie activities.

Whether nature or culture is your preferred way to while away a holiday, in San Sebastián they collide. Climb the three mountains by foot or funicular, visit retro theme parks, or take a boat out to the island for a new view of the spectacular bay.

For further San Sebastián inspiration, see our guide to the city and its best hotels, restaurants, pintxo bars and nightlife.

Journey to a beautiful island


The Isla de Santa Clara is one of the most photographed islands in the world, but few visitors actually step foot on it. The island has long been a catch-all; it was even used to quarantine those with the plague centuries ago. Nowadays, it is home to a lighthouse with an huge bronze art installation by Cristina Iglesias, stone tables that seem to pop up out of nowhere, ideal for a picnic, and a full-service bar with tables in the sun – not to mention amazing views of the city.

Insider tip: The common way to arrive is by boat, which sails regularly in summer season. The even cooler way to arrive is in a rented kayak (try Alokayak), paddling up and enjoying the island on your own time.

Contact: motorasdelaisla.com
Price: £

La Isla de Santa Clara
La Isla de Santa Clara

Indulge in some retail therapy


As its regal architecture and ritzy inhabitants suggest, San Sebastián is a moneyed town. Blocks of independent shops of all types stretch the imagination (and the wallet). Head to Minük and Labui for women’s clothes, inma_lo for shoes, and Loreak Mendian for Basque-influenced clothing. Unique homeware can be found at Valentina, and stationary shop Tamayo is a classic spot for getting lost among shelves of tempting goods.

Insider tip: Unassuming storefronts might hide great finds, such as Bois et Fer, an eclectic shop founded by furniture designers and stocked with stylish housewares. And a bit off the beaten path you’ll find the one of the best independent perfume shops in Spain, Hunky Dory.

Price: ££

minuk, san sebastian
minuk, san sebastian

Head to the beach and catch some waves


Of San Sebastián’s three beaches, the Zurriola attracts the young, surfing crowd.  Several surf schools line the beach, renting equipment and offering lessons, but Pukas is the most established. Jump atop a foam board if you’re beginning, or a short, handcrafted Pukas surfboard if you’re already confident, and surf the lefthander that peels off towards the pier or the Monpas righthander.

Insider tip: In summer months, the beach can get very crowded. Apart from convenience and educational factor, having an instructor also helps you claim wave real estate more comfortably.

Contact: pukassurf.com
Price: From £59 for group lessons and £93 for one-on-one lessons

Zurriola beach - MARCO BOTTIGELLI
Zurriola beach - MARCO BOTTIGELLI

Tuck into the city's gastronomic culture


Sociedades, or txokos, stand tall as the pillars of Basque eating culture. These members-only spaces are outfitted with professional cooking equipment, dry storage and lots of wine – everything one needs for a long meal of classic Basque cuisine, made by and enjoyed among friends. These clubs are rarely open to the public, so snag entry with a member (some tour groups offer the experience on a private basis).

Insider tip: The other option is to visit on San Sebastián Day, January 20, when some of the Old Town’s most famous societies open their doors to the public – a wilder atmosphere, yes, but a glance at the hallowed halls.

Contact: sansebastianpintxos.com
Price: ££

Dine like a local at one of San Sebastián's private sociedades, or txokos
Dine like a local at one of San Sebastián's private sociedades, or txokos

Get a mountaintop view of the city


Ascending this ancient lookout spot is one of the city’s great pre- or post-prandial joys. Monte Urgull towers over the Old Town, and it played an important role in San Sebastián’s history. Enjoy the views, the hidden bar on the west side, or the scattering of landmarks (stone remains of a castle, a fort, and even a cemetery that pays homage to English soldiers).

Insider tip: The giant statue of Jesus Christ atop the mountain isn’t just for show – it happens to hold a fun (and free) museum with a multimedia look at San Sebastián, past, present and future.

Price: Free

Monte Urgull view
Monte Urgull view

Drum the night away for the Feast of San Sebastián


The evening before January 20, all locals prepare for Tamborrada, the biggest day of the year, gathering in the Plaza de la Constitucion with drums at the ready for the stroke of midnight. San Sebastián Day has been celebrated with tamborradas, or drumming groups, since 1871, and since then the festival has grown to immense proportions.

Insider tip: Don’t miss the emotional izada (flag raising) at midnight, and follow along as dozens of groups dressed as cooks and soldiers march around the Old Town. This is also the only day of the year that you can slip into one of the city's dining society.

Price: Free

Tamborrada
Tamborrada

Take in some culture at the Tobacco Factory


An amble through this immense building, a former cigarette factory that towers over the Urumea River, reveals the beating cultural heart of the city. The Tabakalera holds five floors of exhibition space, media labs, a creation library, and plenty of extra nooks. Don’t miss  a food court with some fabulous pizzas and coffee.

Insider tip: Be sure to make it to the very top floor – an unadvertised but spectacular glass prism with an outdoor terrace. The view of the city is breathtaking.

Contact: tabakalera.eu
Price: Free

Tabakalera
Tabakalera

Release your inner child at a retro theme park


One of the oldest attractions in San Sebastián, the Monte Igueldo Amusement Park also happens to be one of the most magical. Inaugurated in 1912, it sits on an incredible overlook, the best spot in town for breathtaking photos. The real charm, however, lies in the park's retro – and exceptionally well-priced – rides.

Insider tip: Be sure to take a turn on the Swiss Mountain, a vintage rollercoaster that incites heart palpitations as much for its age as for its precarious perch over the sea.

Contact: monteigueldo.es
Price: Funicular from £1.30, Rides from £1

Monte Igueldo Amusement Park - WALTER BIBIKOW
Monte Igueldo Amusement Park - WALTER BIBIKOW

Get to the source of the Basque cider industry


An experience, not a restaurant – Basque cider houses are some of the most curious productions of the local countryside. Arrive at the expansive country homes, nearly all of which are still owned by single family, where cider has been crafted for centuries. Drink cider from the barrels and dine family-style on salt cod and steak, course after course, experiencing a real Basque tradition.

Insider tip: 'Gutxi eta maiz' is the expert’s technique. In Basque it means “a little bit and often”, and it’s the way to drink so that your cider is always cold and your night always lively.

Contact: zapiain.eus
Price: ££

Basque cider houses
Basque cider houses

Tour an art-filled townhouse


Eduardo Chillida, with his thrillingly Basque sensibility, is San Sebastián’s favoured artist. He is famous for his geometric sculptural pieces, made with rock, iron and other elemental materials. His recently re-opened museum outside of the city limits, Chillida Leku, exhibits the artist’s work as he intended, in a Basque farmhouse environment, stark against rolling green hills and distant mountains.

Insider tip: If you can’t make it out to the countryside, at least marvel at Chillida’s famous curved iron structures that branch out from the rocks at the end of Ondarreta beach, combing the wind as it whips from the ocean into the city.

Contact: museochillidaleku.com
Price: £

Eduardo Chillida, Chillida Leku - ENEKO SANTIAGO SARACHO
Eduardo Chillida, Chillida Leku - ENEKO SANTIAGO SARACHO