More than a European Capital of Culture
June 20, 2017
Overlooking the incomparable Bay of La Concha
IMAGE: Javier Larrea
Once visited, never forgotten, this beautiful town situated on the southern coast of the Bay of Biscay, just 20 km from the French border, is one of Spain's most famous and popular tourist destinations.
With its picturesque shoreline, lovely beaches, rugged surroundings, Michelin-star restaurants, and a city firmly established as a cultural heartland, San Sebastián has something for everyone.
Cool, lazy and culturally rich by night and fun by day, the city is always packed with people who love to indulge their passions. Whether surfing at the Playa-de Gros, attending a business conference in one of San Sebastián's world-class conference centres, indulging at one of the renowned pintxos (tapas) bars or restaurants, or taking in a slice of culture at the international film festival, it is all part of daily life in this wonderful peace-loving city.
Known by the local Basques as Donostia, San Sebastián is located in the north of the Basque Autonomous Community. It is a city of just under 200,000 in population, with a greater metro area of over 400,000; it has grown and developed over the past two centuries at the mouth of the River Urumea. The city has a warm, temperate climate, with average temperatures ranging from 9C in January to 22C in August.
But San Sebastián is more than just a beautiful town set in a gorgeous bay, with gastronomic delights and fabulous beaches. In San Sebastián you can breathe real fresh air and be close to nature just by taking a stroll along the beach or up the winding paths to the surrounding hills.
Then there are the Basque peoples of San Sebastián – friendly, polite, welcoming, and great exponents of basic human values, such as peace, dignity, human rights, international order, and unity.
The four centres of action
Apart from visitors being charmed by the friendly and polite local population, one of the main reasons why this unique and much-loved city is such a draw for tourists is because it has four different centres – each one catering for a diverse range of different tastes and experiences.
La Catedral del Buen Pastor (The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and the bustling San Martín Market
IMAGE: Javier Larrea
1. OLD TOWN & ROMANTIC AREA - Tradition & shopping
The fun-filled Old Town (Parte Vieja) sits at the foot of Mount Urgil, with the harbour on the western seaward side and the river Urumea to the east. This is where the most popular tapas (pintxo) bars and restaurants are to be found, along with many of the economy-priced lodgings.
In the south of the old city is the commercial and shopping district which is known as the Romantic area, (Area Romantica), with its handsome 19th-century buildings spreading from La Concha beach to the banks of the River Urumea.
The Old Town is the centre of the city's social life. Large chain stores intermingle with art nouveau Belle Époque buildings along with pleasant pedestrianised sidewalks. Here you can also visit the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (Buen Pastor) and the Victoria Eugenia Theatre.
Also in the old town is the stunning Bell Époque style City Hall, which was originally built as a casino, and the Plaza Guipúzcoa which, with its duck ponds, trees, and flowerbeds, is more of a naturistic park than a plaza.
And let's not forget La Concha beach (Playa de Concha) itself, the symbolic beach of San Sebastián and rated by many as the most beautiful city beach in Europe. In less than a minute from City Hall, you can be walking on the golden sands and taking a dip into its crystal blue waters.
Drinking wine and eating tapas pintxos (tapas) in the Catalonia Square
IMAGE: Javier Larrea
2. GROS - Youth Style
On the east side of the River Urumea is the district of Gross, a charming area with a lively, yet relaxed, informal atmosphere. Gros is primarily an area for the youth of Europe with its surfing beach of Playa de Gros. Although swimming here is more dangerous than at La Concha, it is very popular for surfing and attracts both locals and generations of visiting surfers who are out for a bit of excitement.
In recent years, Gros has blossomed into a lively commercial centre with a host ofcharming shops which are mainly devoted to surfing and cycling. Surfing lessons can be taken here, or as an alternative to surfing, sporty visitors can enjoy a bit of hill-walking in a natural park located in the environs of Mount Ulia.
Gros is also a centre for culture. The district of Egia is well-known for its abundance of live music venues, and Gros is also the best place to go for art galleries.
It also boasts an international conference centre for contemporary culture, known as the Tabakalera, which was opened in 2015 after having been converted from what was once a huge tobacco factory. The massive renovated complex contains exhibition halls, a multi-purpose plaza, a multi-purpose hall, a cinema theatre, a creation library, media labs, spaces for art creation, a cafeteria, a restaurant, a residence for artists, and a hotel.
It also hosts the headquarters of local culture institutions Kutxa Kultur, the Basque Cinemathèque, the Etxepare Basque Institute, and last but by no means least, the famous San Sebastián International Film Festival.
So with its lovely terraces, pintxo/tapas bars, live music, quaint art galleries and beautiful sunsets, Gros is probably the favourite part of San Sebastián for the young at heart and of course, for lovers of culture.
The beautiful Ondaretta Beach in the Antiguo Quarter
IMAGE: Javier Larrea
3. ONDARRETA - IGELDO - Family
This centre encompasses the beautiful Ondarreta Beach which lies between the Igeldo mountain and the Miramar Palace gardens. The beach is 500 metres in length, and has a width of 100 metres, and is ideal for sun worshippers. The gardens, which edge the beach, make for an ideal area to cool off or to sit in the shade and admire the views.
Popular with families, a favourite pastime at Ondarreta is to take the 100-year –old Funicular railway up Mount Igeldo, where there is an amusement park to keep even the youngest member of the family happy. This park has an old world feel about it and there are rides for everyone, including roller coasters and trampolines.
Some spectacular views of Concha Bay are also to be found from the hilltop, and if the return journey is made by road, there are a number of excellent eateries to be found along the way. An alternative area to dine is at one of the amazing restaurants in the Antiguo hotel area.
At the west end of the beach and the very end of the promenade is the "WIND COMB", a contemporary artwork resulting from collaboration between architect Luis Peña Ganchegui and sculptor Eduardo Chillida. The Wind Comb is said to be a "fusion between the fierceness of the sea and the strength of the iron structures" and has become a popular meeting place for visitors and locals alike.
At the opposite end of the beach is "Parrots Beak" a rocky outcrop, leading to the Miramar Gardens, which again affords some wonderful views of Concha Bay. Located in Miramar is a spectacular palace with its lovely gardens which sweep down towards the sea with flowerbeds and gravel paths.
The surrounding district of Antiguo has a number of areas with pintxos/tapas bars and some medium to high priced restaurants.
Cycling through the Paseo de Bizkaia
IMAGE: Javier Larrea
4. AMARA – ANOETA - A residential neighborhood near downtown
The newest district in this beautiful old city, Amara is the home of the Anoeta Stadium where the famous football team, Real Sociedad, play their home games.Also here is the Antano III Pelota Court Velodrome where the world Pelota championships have been played since 1970.
Amara is probably the first place visitors see when arriving at San Sebastián, and it is primarily a residential neighbourhood. It is only 500 metres from the city centre and it has excellent communications and functional infrastructure and boasts a number of 4-star hotels.
A pleasant bike ride can be taken along the banks of the River Urumea with its six bridges, or a maybe a stroll along the tree-lined Paseo de Francia promenade, with its stylish mansions.
The area also has a museum dedicated to the Real Sociedad Football team, founded over 100 years ago.
Kursaal Congress Centre situated on the Zurriola Beach
IMAGE: JR Mendez
With its spectacular bay, outstanding beauty, and vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere, San Sebastián has become a popular, high-class business conference destination in recent years. The city is now one of Spain's leading conference venue cities, with vast organisational experience, modern infrastructure, and cutting edge technology.
The city is easy to access with its excellent roads, national and international rail connections and is less than an hour by car to the international airports at Bilbao and Biarritz.
San Sebastián is a food lover's dream with its world-renowned gastronomy – an ideal location for businessmen to relax over a gourmet meal. The city is also small enough for visitors to take daily strolls through the city centre, in the parks or down to the beach, making it a great destination for business conferences.
Basque women in traditional dress participate in the Donostia 2016 European Capital of Culture parade
IMAGE: Javier Larrea
City of Culture
In 2016, San Sebastián was the European City of Culture, a title held jointly with Wrocław in Poland.
It could be said that this title was well overdue, as there are few European cities that could better San Sebastián's all round claim to assume this prestigious cultural mantle.
Let's have a look at some of the main reasons why San Sebastián was chosen as a true cultural heartland:
San Sebastián has so much going for it – from its culture, to its gorgeous beaches, to its wonderful nightlife, its nature trails,with an ongoing and great sustainable development.
For all those who haven't yet been there – they really don't know what they are missing.
To plan the perfect city break and enjoy responsible tourism at its very best, please visit:
A Green and Sustainable Congress Centre
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