Walking San Sebastian - Donostia Spain

Walking San Sebastian - Donostia Spain

San Sebastian - La Concha Beach
San Sebastian - La Concha Beach. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

White sand beaches with a promenade, two small mountains to scramble up and down, a charming Old Town lined with pintxo bars, and a nice shopping district make San Sebastian - Donostia a delightful place for walking day or night. San Sebastian - Donostia is on the northeast coast of Spain near the border with France. The Bay of Biscay sparkles turquoise blue, welcoming waders, surfers and kayakers.

San Sebastian is a compact city. If you like a big variety in walking routes, you would probably exhaust the possibilities after a few days. But what delightful walks they are! Luckily, you can go further afield along the Spanish or French coast and into the Basque country via car, train or bus and come back to San Sebastian in time for evening paseo and pintxos.

They call San Sebastian the culinary capital of Spain. Not only can you enjoy the seafood and pintxos, but there are several Michelin-starred restaurants here for serious foodie dining. Put on your walking shoes and bring along your flip flops for the beach so you can make room for the delicious meals and snacks. Otherwise, you may have to repent for your caloric sins by embarking on the Camino de Santiago.

My trip to San Sebastian was part of a walking tour of Spain with Walking Adventures International, winner of our Readers' Choice Award for walking vacation tour companies. We stayed at Hotel Condina, which is a mile away from Old Town but just a couple blocks from the Promenade. I would recommend staying near Old Town or in the Gros district to have the best access to the delights of Old Town and the shopping district. The city buses are inexpensive and can get you around, but as a walker I prefer to stroll from my hotel to the best pintxo bars. Like all of Spain, the city takes siesta and evening dining doesn't heat up until after 8 pm. That's also when everyone puts on their nicer clothes and strolls through town -- paseo. It's definitely a change from my early-to-bed, early-to-rise habits.

For exploring San Sebastian independently, I used the "Rick Steves' Spain Guide," both the print version and the Snapshot Basque Country on my e-reader. (Compare Prices)

View from Monte Igueldo, San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian - View from Monte Igueldo
San Sebastian - View from Monte Igueldo. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

San Sebastian's two-mile long promenade extends from Old Town (Parte Vieja) under Monte Urgull in the northeast to Monte Igueldo in the southwest. You stroll the wide promenade lined and enjoy the views of the sunbathers on the beaches. On each end you can explore the small mountains.

Our walking group started our walk at the southwest end with a ride up the 100-year-old funicular railway to the top of Monte Igueldo. From here, you have a commanding view of the whole bay.

Strolling around the top, you can take see the full Concha Bay and Monte Urgull to the east. You can also see the headlands of the French shoreline and the mountains of Basque France. On the west side of the mountain, you can see the Spanish shoreline extending to the horizon.

There is a venerable amusement park at the top of Monte Igueldo. We strolled around the top, and you could descend via trails or streets if you prefer.

Peine del Viento Sculpture - San Sebastian, Spain

Peine del Viento - San Sebastian, Spain
Peine del Viento - San Sebastian, Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

At the far west end of San Sebastian's promenade you reach the end of walkway and can see the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb) sculpture by Eduardo Chillida, a native of San Sebastian. The giant metal links are installed on the rocks lashed by the surf.

There is a plaza with artificial blowholes. and as waves come in you can either get a gust of wind or a spray of surf up the blowholes. When the tide is out, it's fun to stand over the blowholes and await a puff of air.

At the time of our visit in the summer of 2013, there were rockslides endangering the plaza and the promenade nearby.

Walking the Promenade in San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian Promenade - Spain
San Sebastian Promenade - Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

We then started along the promenade, first passing by Ondarreta Beach. Like La Concha beach, it has free access and white sand. If you want to go wading, you'll find the water pleasantly cool and the sand is a nice texture. You can rent a beach chair and umbrella at either beach. There are just a couple of stands for refreshments on the beach, giving a sophisticated ambiance rather than a tacky tourist one. As this is Europe, swimwear appears to be optional although most people wore it. During my visit, a small percentage of the women sunbathers were topless and a few men discreetly bared all along the breakwater in Gros. 

As you progress on the walk, there is little shade up on the promenade until you get to Old Town. When you reach La Concha beach and pass by the Miramar Palace, old royal bathing pavilion and La Perla Spa, you can go down onto the lower promenade which is shaded. There are lockers and free public restrooms here as well.

On the eastern end of the promenade, you reach plazas and can turn right to go into the Centro shopping district or continue along the bay to the City Hall (formerly a casino) and to the old fishing port and Old Town.

Monte Urgull, San Sebastian, Spain

Monte Urgull, San Sebastian, Spain
Monte Urgull, San Sebastian, Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

Continue through the port and around Monte Urgull, topped by a statue of Christ and an old fort flying the Basque flag. There are many paths up the mountain if you want to explore it, but they crisscross and you will have to enjoy getting a little bit lost on the small mountain. If you keep going on the path and circle the mountain you can enjoy watching the surf and seeing where people have left "love locks" all along the guardrail. Our local guide was very disparaging of this new tradition of leaving a padlock on a bridge or or seaside guardrail and tossing the key into the water.

After circling Mount Urgull, you can visit the San Telmo Museum, which has exhibits of local culture, history and art of the Basque people. Several from our group spent hours exploring it.

Now you can enjoy pintxos in Old Town, or cross the bridge into the Gros area and enjoy another beach. We continued to Gros and then back into the Centro shopping district.

Gros Surfing Beach - San Sebastian, Spain

Playa de Gros - San Sebastian, Spain
Playa de Gros - San Sebastian, Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

From the Old Town (Parte Vieja) in San Sebastian, I walked over the bridge to the Gros district. The river Urumea under the bridge has quite a bit of tidal surf. Just over the bridge is the Kursaal Congress Center, which has restaurants as well as being a convention center. I entertained the idea of eating lunch at Restaurante Ni Neu there, which features nouvelle Basque cuisine. But I decided to save my hunger for the pintxo bars back in Parte Vieja. I continued around the Kursaal to the beach and decided it was time to go wading.

The beach at Gros, also called Zurriola, is a fun place to watch surfers. The surf was fairly calm during my visit, but I saw a couple of riders catch a good wave. I enjoyed splashing ankle-deep in the waves, which were cool but far warmer than the chilly surf in my native Pacific Northwest. I can see why our Spain Travel Guide rates San Sebastian as having the top city beaches in Spain.

I retreated back up the beach, cleaned the sand from my feet, and continued back across the bridge to the Centro district for a little shopping before lunch.

Centro Shopping District and Cathedral - San Sebastian, Spain

Centro District and Cathedral - San Sebastian, Spain
Centro District and Cathedral - San Sebastian, Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

The Centro district of San Sebastian has trendy shops for clothing as well as many of the international brand stores. I had to replace my iPad Bluetooth keyboard and easily found a shop here to suit my needs. I also needed some cosmetics and stopped at a Sephora shop. Keep in mind that many shops (except in shopping centers) close for siesta. The general open times are 10 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. and then 4:00 p.m. until 7:30 p.m.

I circled the Good Shepherd Cathedral and passed through the lovely park next to De Gipuzkoa Plaza. Now on to my ultimate destination -- the pinxto bars in Old Town.

Parte Vieja - Old Town San Sebastian, Spain

Parte Vieja - San Sebastian, Spain
Parte Vieja - San Sebastian, Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

The Old Town in San Sebastian is where you will find streets lined with pintxo bars, as well as the Bretxa market for fresh produce and meats, pleasant squares and funky shops. The town was destroyed in a battle between Napolean's troops and an Anglo-Portuguese garrison in 1813, so the buildings date from after that era. You won't have to dodge vehicles on the narrow pedestrian streets.

The pintxo bars are generally open by noon for the pre-lunch crowd, perfect for a quick light lunch. They may close in the afternoon and be open again by 7 pm to start the long evening service. They can get crowded and lively in the evening.

You can also find world-class restaurants and take cooking classes here. I dined at the Michelin-starred restaurant Kokotxa.

I was disappointed that our hotel wasn't closer to Parte Vieja, and on my next trip I will make sure to book one close or within this delightful area. But I could have joined in the evening paseo -- walking along the promenade on your way to and from a traditionally late dinner.

Pintxo Bar in San Sebastian, Spain

Pinxto Bar in San Sebastian, Spain
Pinxto Bar in San Sebastian, Spain. Wendy Bumgardner © 2013

Now this is what I like for fast food! At the pintxo bars in San Sebastian, Spain, the tapas are laid out on platters on the counter. You simply help yourself to the food, order a drink, and pay when you leave. The bars have various systems for keeping account. At some, you need to save the toothpick to show how many you ate and they may be color-coded for different prices. Our local guide noted that it is unthinkable for anyone to violate the honor system for paying.

This bar has a traditional spread of pintxos, plus a display of their wonderful iberico ham. In San Sebastian, some of the pintxos may come hot from the kitchen or require reheating. Your bartender will make that clear. Many bars also have a menu of hot, fresh pintxos that come from the kitchen as delicious works of culinary art. I was in foodie heaven with these small plates.

For drinks, you can have beer, cider, wine or switch to water or lemonade. I enjoyed the local white wine, Txakoli, as well as red rioja. Oddly enough, they often chill the red wine, too! Order it natural if you don't want cold red wine.

Walking from bar to bar is a pintxo-hopping tradition. Typically, you would enjoy a drink and a pintxo or two at one bar, then get moving on to the next one. If you do so, you may want to alternate non-alcoholic refreshments as you go! The local bus can get you back to your hotel cheaply if you are done walking, and they even make change. After all, you want to return again and again to walking and eating in delightful San Sebastian.

Continue Reading