As King Juan Carlos announces his intention this week to abdicate the Spanish throne after a 39-year reign, I thought it timely to take a look at another of Spain’s cities. This time, it’s the turn of stunning San Sebastián, situated a mere 20 miles from the French border and 100km from Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay.
Unlike Bilbao which has long relied on its industrial and maritime commercial heritage (and more latterly tourism with its strong artistic ties), San Sebastián, known as Donostia in Basque, ranks amongst the great resort cities of Europe and, some say, home to one of the finest urban beaches in the world. Indeed Playa de la Concha (the shell) is so-named for its distinctive scallop-shaped curve and has for centuries served as a summer playground not only of the rich and famous, but of the Spanish royal family, too. Arrive in July and August and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an empty hotel bed, yet outside of the summer season there’s plenty to offer the visitor.
Complementing La Concha are three further beaches. The first is Ondarreta, situated between Monte Igueldo and the gardens of the beautiful Palacio Miramar, whilst Zurriola, a surfer’s paradise is situated in the relaxed Gros district of town between the translucent glass cubes of the Kursaal and Monte Ulía. From spring to autumn, you’ll find a full calendar of surfing events and international championships taking place here, with surf dudes packing the bars and restaurants of Gros, Sagüés and along the Paseo de la Zurriola. The city’s fourth beach is located on the Isla Santa Clara at the entrance to the bay overlooked by La Concha. Glass-bottomed boats traverse the 700-metre distance from coast to island throughout the summer and a trip across is worthy way to spend an afternoon.
The best way to explore the city is on foot along the pathways and coastal promenades that connect not only the three main areas of the city but also the hills of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo, acting as natural boundaries at either end of La Concha. At the foot of Monte Urgull and bordered by La Concha and the Rio Urumea, you’ll find the charming Old Town (Casco Viejo) with the Plaza de la Constitutión as its centrepiece. Look out for the beautiful Baroque Basilica de Santa María on the Calle Mayor, as well as the Gothic Church of San Vicente.
In the late 19th century, the walls of the Old Town were demolished and the city was expanded to form what’s known as the Centro Romántico, where you’ll see some beautiful examples of Belle Époque architecture amongst the more modern styles of building, now home to shopping complexes and leisure centres. Highlights include the Ayuntamiento (City Hall, formerly a casino), the Plaza de Gipuzkoa, the Maria Cristina Bridge, the Victoria Cristina Theatre (principal hub of the film festival), La Perla, Hotel María Cristina and the Buen Pastor Cathedral.
Whilst Bilbao may lead the charge in terms of artistic prowess for the cities of the Basque Country, San Sebastián is renowned for its annual San Sebastián International Film Festival taking place each September (19 – 27 September 2014) with a long list of films, directors and actors to rival its Cannes, Berlin and Venice rivals. Indeed, Star Wars had its European premiere here in 1977. And to add another string to its cultural bow, the city becomes European Capital of Culture in 2016.
In addition to its top-notch film festival credentials, San Sebastián enjoys a reputation for its fabulous cuisine and in 2012, the city topped an international poll to be named the greatest gastronomic food destination in the world, beating Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney. And with 16 Michelin-starred restaurants – of the seven three-Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, three are to be found in San Sebastián – complementing the more authentic pintxo tapas bars concentrated in the Casco Viejo, you can be guaranteed a good meal here.
Voted Condé Nast’s 5th best city in the world in 2013, we invite you to discover it for yourself.