San Sebastian, Spain; discover its vibrant Old Town

Photo of Old Town of San Sebastian (Navarra, La Rioja, Basque Country region)

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Visit Old Town of San Sebastian

The vibrant old town of Donostia-San Sebastian sits at the bottom of Monte Urgull with a pretty harbour to the west and the river Urumea to the east. San Sebastian is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and its old town is at its vibrant heart, especially at night when everyone is drawn to its bars and pintxos.

Explore the Old Town of San Sebastian

The old fisherman's quarter and the streets at the foot of Mount Urgull are the oldest part of San Sebastian. There was a fortified town here in the 12th century but succumbed to attack from the French on a couple of occasions. In 1813 it was 'liberated' from the French by Anglo-Portugese soldiers who promptly looted and burnt down the town!

Only a few houses survived and the town had to be rebuilt . The resulting town is the old town that is such a pleasure to explore today.  Its narrow streets are bursting with bars and on a night and lunch time you can see the counters filled up with vast arrays of pintxos.

Pretty street in the old town of San Sebastian

Pintxo is a kind of local version of tapas but is almost always something served on a thick chunck of bread. Tortillas are the other main pinxtos you will find. It is quite different to tapas in Seville, for example, where the tapas is a small serving of almost any Spanish meal you can think of. It is though hugely popular and the bars are packed with tourists and locals drinking and snacking on the Pintxos. The street called Fermin Calbeton is especially noteworthy for its number and variety of pintxo bars.

At the centre of the old town is Constitucion Square with the old town hall on one side and the arched buildings of the former bullring around the others. The identical balconies still have the numbering from its days as a bullring and the edges of the doors are all painted in a golden yellow. It is quite lovely especially when lit up on a night.

The Basilica of Santa Maria is near to here and is a Baroque church built in the 18th century. It is also home to a museum whose display includes works by El Greco and Chillida. If you head down 31 de Agosto street and look at the buildings with even numbers, these are the buildings that survived the 1813 fire. Trinidad square on this street is one of the venues for the San Sebastian Jazzaldia Jazz Festival and has hosted BB King and Ella Fitzgerald amongst many others.

Another key monument is the San Vincente church which is the oldest building in San Sebastian and was built in the 16th century. It is built in Gothic style and outside has some interesting modern statues including a Pieta sculpture by the Basque artist Jorge Oteiza with José Ramon Anda. Near to here is the San Telmo museum which is housed in a 16th century Convent and has an Internationally acclaimed avant-garde extension. Inside is an exhibition devoted to Basque culture.

lovely harbour in San Sebastian

One of our favourite parts of San Sebastian is also part of the old town and that is the pretty harbour lined with the small colourful fishermen's houses. This area is charming has a number of waterside bars and restaurants where you can stop and enjoy the view. The Aquarium of San Sebastian is also here and has a tunnel through the water so that you can see fish all around you.

In summer you can take a boat from the harbour to Santa Clara island. (The more intrepid amongst you can swim from Ondarreta beach which is the closest to the island). On the island there is a small beach, various walks, picnic spots and some lovely views.

Places to visit nearby

San Sebastian is one of our favourite cities in Spain and as well as the old town be sure to explore the Romantic District and Centre, Mount Igeldo and Mount Urgull and Antiguo.

See also:

Photos of Old Town of San Sebastian

Click any picture to start the gallery

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Map of Old Town of San Sebastian and places to visit

Old Town of San Sebastian places to visit