Home > Best Places to Stay in San Sebastián
Updated: February 17, 2020
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The Best Areas to Stay in San Sebastián
Set amid stunning hills and picturesque beaches, with a vibrant culture and mouthwateringly delicious cuisine, San Sebastián (aka Donostia, its Basque-language name) really does have it all. The city’s various neighborhoods each have merits and the city is small enough that whether you stay in the Parte Vieja (old town), Área Romántica (Belle Époque charm), Antigo (affluent and relaxed), Gros & Egia (young, arty, and surfy), or Amara (modern, on the river, great transport links), you can get a feel for local life, even on a short trip.
The city center spans the neighboring districts of the Parte Vieja and the Área Romántica. The vast majority of tourists stay in one of these two areas, and walking anywhere within these two neighborhoods won’t take much more than ten minutes. The Parte Vieja is the best place for sightseeing and bar-hopping to sample the amazing pintxo (pin-cho) culture. While you can find bars serving these varied and rich Basque tapas all over the city, there are so many eating and drinking establishments packed into the tiny streets in the Parte Vieja that it is undoubtedly the best place to start. It is also this part of the city where you’ll find some of the city’s most popular attractions: La Bretxa (breh-cha) food market, the harbor with its world-class aquarium, the stunning Plaza de la Constitución (where many of the city’s festivals are held), the San Telmo Museum, historic churches, and Mount Urgull with its hilltop castle-museum.
The wide Boulevard Zumardia separates the Parte Vieja from the Área Romántica, renowned for its elegant Belle Époque architecture. This area generally houses some of the most important civic buildings and public spaces – not to mention the best shopping. Wandering the streets bounded by the Boulevard and La Concha beach in the north, Easo street in the west, the river in the east, and Plaza Easo in the south will give you a great taste for the unified aesthetic that is unique to this area. You can imagine yourself in the company of Mata Hari and Queen Maria Cristina herself when this part of town was brand new in the late 1800s. Other great examples of the architecture include the ornate Maria Cristina bridge, the Catedral del Buen Pastor, Plaza de Gipuzkoa, and the Casa Consistorial (city hall) in the Alderdi Eder Park.
In the west of the city, Playa de la Concha gives way to Playa de Ondarreta in the Antiguo neighborhood. Although this was where the original settlement of San Sebastián started out, the center shifted around the bay during the 1800s and these days, Antiguo has a sleepier, more recreational feel. Nevertheless, there’s still lots to see and do, including Ondarreta Beach – an extension of La Concha – and its pleasant beachside promenades, the beautiful gardens of the Miramar Palace, ascending Mount Igueldo via the terrifyingly ancient funicular railway (opened 1912) for breathtaking views and a family-friendly amusement park, the cliffside walk around Mount Igueldo to Eduardo Chillida’s Peine del Mar statue, and visiting the Michelin 3-Starred restaurant Akelarre up on Mount Igueldo.
Across the Urumea river from the city center are the neighborhoods of Gros and Egia. Internationally known for its great surf, Gros is centered around Zurriola Beach whose waves are dramatically different from La Concha. Its laid-back bars and cafes feel a world away from the well-heeled shopping streets and traditional pintxo bars just across the river, but citizens of all stripes come to Gros for the events and festivals held at the dramatic Kursaal concert hall, which is most famous for hosting the city’s internationally renowned film festival. On the outskirts of Gros is the world-famous restaurant Arzak, which holds 3 Michelin Stars. Just south of Gros is Egia, mostly popular for its transport links as the main bus terminal and long-distance train station. But don’t overlook the wonderful cultural institution next door, the Tabakalera, which houses exhibitions, events, and stores, and whose cafe must compete for the best views in the city. The building – an old tobacco factory – is set in the beautiful Cristina Enea park, which has rolling hills and a dramatic pedestrian bridge over the train tracks.
While Amara is about a mile from downtown and the beaches, it is a great place to base yourself to explore the wider region as it’s close to the main arteries in and out of town and has good transport links and a variety of accommodation options. The old part of Amara neighbors the Área Romántica; everywhere around the Plaza Easo has a similar graceful feel. As you go south around the river bend, the architecture gets more modern and it’s much easier to get a sense of regular townspeople going about their daily lives, with the action happening around Amara Plaza and Plaza Pio XII. Being so close to the Urumea makes it super easy to navigate the city and provides access to fun riverside spaces to walk or jog along.
The Best Places to Stay in San Sebastián
Best Areas in San Sebastián for…
- Best Area in San Sebastián for Sightseeing: Parte Vieja
The Parte Vieja is packed with sights: the fabulous Aquarium with its walk through the ocean tunnel (complete with sand tiger sharks); the Plaza de la Constitución that used to house city hall and a bullring (hence the numbers you can see painted on houses); 16th-century San Vicente Church (the oldest in San Sebastián); the baroque Santa Maria Basilica; San Telmo Museum; and the port, from where you can take boat tours of the bay, including a stop at Santa Clara Island that sits in the middle of the bay. And that’s before mentioning the many historic bars and stores, and, of course, Mount Urgull, the hill looming over the old town that has a castle, museum, trails to hike, Jorge Oteiza’s dramatic sculpture, Construcción Vacía, an English Cemetery, and wonderful views.
- Best Area in San Sebastián for Nightlife: Parte Vieja
The streets, packed with bars in the Parte Vieja, make evenings in this city a particular joy. Go for the pintxos (see below), but stay for just one more caña or txikito to soak up the lively atmosphere. On warm evenings, there’s usually a great vibe in the little plaza outside the Basílica de Santa María del Coro and also in the Plaza de la Constitución. And while ‘Sanse’ (as the locals call their city) is not known for its wild parties, there are a handful of bars that turn into clubs later in the evening (try GU on the harbor, Dioni’s, or Altxerri JazzBar), as well as one serious club, Bataplan.
- Best Area in San Sebastián for Food and Restaurants: Parte Vieja
Boasting 18 Michelin stars in and around the city, San Sebastián is quite simply one of the best culinary destinations of the world. But it is not all fine dining: there is no greater (or more budget-friendly) joy than wandering the streets of the Parte Vieja and seeking out the best pintxos – mouthwatering delicacies in their own right. Each bar has its own take on the Basque version of tapas, whether they’re skewers, small bowls, desserts, or fine ingredients piled high on a slice of baguette held in place with a stick. In general, the culture is that you go into a bar, order a drink and a pintxo or two, then move on to the next place, but once you find your favorite spot, it’s more than acceptable to stay all evening. Some of the bars do main meals or big sharing plates, like enormous beef steaks (txuleta), but the Parte Vieja has fantastic traditional restaurants, too, including several that are outstanding, like the Michelin-starred Kokotxa or Basque food haven Bodegón Alejandro. And then there’s La Bretxa food market. Although it’s no longer housed in the magnificent old market building (now a mall), the stalls underground and shops around Plaza de la Bretxa are still the place to come to for fresh produce (you may even bump into a celebrity chef).
- Best Areas in San Sebastián for Families: Parte Vieja or Antiguo
This one depends on the age of your kids and what they’re into. Most kids will be enthralled by the Parte Vieja. Apart from the fantastic Aquarium, there is Mount Urgull, with its ripe-for-exploration paths leading up to the castle and fort at the top. Together, they can provide a day’s worth of activities. Boat trips can also be arranged from the harbor, and the sheer number of restaurants means that even picky eaters can be satisfied. On the other side of Concha bay, there’s Antiguo. This area would make a natural base for anyone renting a holiday home, as the pace of life is slower and there are plenty of little neighborhood jungle gyms. Then there’s the kiddie heaven of the funicular railway leading up to the hilltop amusement park – great fun. Both neighborhoods have superb beach access, too.
- Best Areas in San Sebastián to Stay for First Timers: Parte Vieja & Área Romántica
Either of the neighborhoods that make up central San Sebastián, makes a perfect base for those new to the city, as it’s where the majority of sights are packed together and everywhere is walkable within 20 minutes. Either area will give you quick access to the things the city is most famous for: pintxos, hikes up Mount Urgull, promenading along the seafront, and historic buildings and churches. Furthermore, both are positioned in between Antiguo and Gros, so you can see other parts of the city just as easily from the Parte Vieja as the Área Romántica.
- Most Romantic Area in San Sebastián: Área Romántica
The so-called Romantic Area (sometimes referred to as the Zona Romántica) wins the prize thanks to its superb location in between La Concha Bay and the River Urumea. It has everything you need for a fairy-tale vacation: breathtaking views and sunsets from your hotel balcony of La Concha Bay and its twin hillocks, Mount Igueldo and Mount Urgull; a splendid beachside promenade that includes the graceful Alderdi Eder park where there’s usually a big wheel to cozy up on together; seemingly never-ending shopping streets filled with specialty stores selling Basque-made handicrafts, jewelry, and delicacies; riverside strolls with views of the ultra-modern Kursaal building in the eastern side of the neighborhood; graceful colonnaded squares; and in case that wasn’t enough, you can book yourselves in for thalassotherapy followed by a couples’ massage at the La Perla Spa and a romantic meal at the Michelin-starred Amelia Restaurant, which has bay views.
- Best Areas in San Sebastián for a Local Vibe: Gros & Egia
Lounging in Gros with surfers or wandering around the Tabakalera and exploring the Cristina Enea park in Egia are just a few of the joys of life in this half of the city. As soon as you cross the Urumea, life feels less like a movie set than the city center (unless you’re here during the film festival season, of course, when the Kursaal and Tabakalera turn into one big red carpet as Hollywood descends). Although you’re just a few minutes’ walk from the Parte Vieja and Área Romántica, shops, bars, and restaurants have significantly fewer tourists, and many of the foreigners who stay in the city’s east side are athletes concentrating on the surf rather than the scenery. Another reason this part of the city feels more normal is the bus terminal and train station, which heave during rush hour with people coming and going from all over the Basque Country and beyond.
- Best Area in San Sebastián for Walking: Gros
Although the city center is the best for urban adventures on foot, the natural coastal park covering some 32 hectares just northeast of Gros is superb for serious walkers. Start on or around Mount Ulía, where there are plenty of trails, including a section of the famous Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James). For the more adventurous, there’s a spectacular coastal route (3-hour walk) to the picturesque town of Hondarribia that sits near the French border.
- Safety in San Sebastián
San Sebastián is generally very safe for tourists. The biggest risk, as in most European cities, comes from pickpockets or muggers, but the likelihood of either of these is low as long as you aren’t flashy with your possessions and keep an eye on what’s going on around you.
The 5 Best Neighborhoods in San Sebastián for Tourists
1. Monte Urgull & the Port
On the peninsula that juts out of the middle of the city stands Monte (mount) Urgull, with the port wrapped around its south-western side. A walk around the port is one of the loveliest experiences of the city: its characterful buildings cling to the rocks and there are steep passageways behind them that take you quickly to the summit for glorious views of both the city and the Bay of Biscay. Even if you don’t want to scale Urgull, make sure to walk around the harbor for incredibly fresh seafood from the characterful restaurants, a visit to the Aquarium, a magnificent contemporary sculpture by Jorge Oteiza, or to take a boat out to Santa Clara Island. Up Urgull itself is a tangle of trails flanked with exotic fauna that lead to a fortified castle housing a city museum. There’s also an ‘English Cemetery’ and a 40-foot statue of Christ. One of the pathways leads down to the interesting San Telmo Museoa (museum), built into the southeastern side of the hill, which is dedicated to exploring Basque culture and society.
Best Hotels: Lasala Plaza • Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Pensión Casa Nicolasa • SANSEbay
Within the warren of streets that make up the Parte Vieja, two of the most important sights are Mercado de la Bretxa (breh-cha) and the Plaza de la Constitución, which lie just a couple of blocks apart. The old market buildings (dating back to the 1870s) are set around Plaza de la Bretxa and are in the process of being renovated to create new public spaces. The market itself is in stalls in the plaza and underground, where there is an abundance of fresh produce and fine local delicacies like cheeses, preserves, and charcuterie to be found. The Plaza de la Constitución is a fine square with colonnaded walkways and wraparound balconies leading to apartments with curious numbers over the doors that date back to the era when the square was used as the city’s bullring and spectators would have to rent a spot to watch. The square is best experienced during one of the city’s festivals, like Santo Tomás (December), Semana Grande (August), or the Tamborrada drum parade (January), when it bursts into life with stalls, festivities, music, and Basque tradition.
Best Hotels: Hotel Maria Cristina • Lasala Plaza Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Pensión Casa Nicolasa • SANSEbay
It’s worth spending a little time east of the Urumea River, if only to experience the stark difference between the gentle waves of La Concha and the sometimes brutal surf on Zurriaga Beach. The surfing culture that has grown up on this side of town gives the area a youthful feel – you’ll notice groups of young people on the seafront year round – but the area is much more than a laid-back hangout. There are hikes up Monte Ulía, walks along the eastern Sagüés sea wall to the Dove of Peace statue, and do not miss the uber-modern Kursaal, designed by Rafael Moneo. It always has great programming for concerts from opera and ballet to jazz and pop, as well as a tasty restaurant, Ni Neu, which is great at any time of day.
Best Hotels: Hotel Maria Cristina • Villa Soro • Arrizul Congress Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Pensión Casa Nicolasa • Okako Hotel • Koba Hostel
The best way to experience the city’s premier beach is to get in it. Failing that, it’s best appreciated by strolling around the bay along the ornate Belle Époque promenade from the Casa Consistorial (city hall) near the Parte Vieja in the east, through the Alderdi Eder Park, and to the tunnel leading to Playa Ondarreta in the West. If possible, book yourself into La Perla Spa, which was created during the Belle Époque and offers a wide range of thalassotherapy via a range of seawater pools as well as private treatments, steam rooms, and saunas. Nearby, and built in the same Victorian style, is Cafe de la Concha, one of the best places for refreshments with a view of the whole city.
Best Hotels: Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra • Hotel Villa Favorita • Lasala Plaza Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Hotel Villa Victoria by Intur • Hotel Niza • Hostal Alemana
Tucked away in the western corner of La Concha bay is Ondarreta Beach, which leads round to Mount Igueldo and its hair-raising funicular railway. The beach itself is pleasant enough – essentially an extension of La Concha itself – but its position on the bay means it gets a little more surf. In general, it’s family-friendly, with umbrellas and loungers for hire and a beautifully landscaped park promenade. It’s worth walking the whole way from the Miramar Palace gardens, around the base of Mount Igueldo, and to the thrilling Peine del Mar (Wind Comb) sculpture by Eduardo Chillida to get to know the neighborhood. No one coming to this neck of the woods should miss a trip up Monte Igueldo on the precipitous funicular railway, even if you’re not interested in the kitsch amusement park at the top. The century-old transportation and the views from the top should be experienced.
Best Hotels: Hotel NH Collection San Sebastián Aránzazu • Hotel Codina • Hotel Mercure San Sebastian Monte Igueldo Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Hotel Avenida • Hotel La Galería • Koisi Hostel