San Sebastian, Spain: A Photo Diary And Tips For Donostia
Planning a trip to San Sebastian Spain?
San Sebastian, Spain is my favourite destinations that I visited in Europe on my round the world trip. Also known as Donostia, it is located in the Basque region along the northern coast of Spain. It is a gorgeous seaside town with beautiful beaches and views of the Bay of Biscay. It is also well-known for having some of the best food and the most Michelin chefs per capita than anywhere in the world.
In the fall of 2011, I booked myself into a hostel for three days. In the end, I extended my visit and stayed for eight days because I enjoyed it so much. Weeks later, I returned for Christmas and stayed for another three weeks.
The Donostia locals were friendly, the food amazing, and the vibe fantastic. There’s a cool surf scene and the beaches were amazing even in the winter. I can’t even imagine what they are like in the summer. One beach called La Concha is perfect for tanning and laying out. Zurriola Beach is where you can surf. San Sebastian is my dream city come true.
Table of Contents
San Sebastian Travel Guide
From Barcelona, I took an overnight Alsa bus. During my round the world trip I left a lot of my planning to the last minute. Because I was travelling alone I could be spontaneous. I hadn’t even planned to go to San Sebastian but I was having a bad time in Barcelona so I decided to change my scenery.
The bus ticket was a lot cheaper than taking the RENFE. To be honest, I don’t mind buses in Europe. They are cleaner and more spacious than buses in North America. Some bus lines in Europe offer great amenities like WiFi, free beverages like juice and water. The ride times are not much different and the savings I would use to go to more travel experiences. My friend Jason who lived in Madrid years go took the bus on weekends he wanted to go surfing. He said the bus times and train times were not much different because there isn’t a high-speed train to the Basque region yet.
The bus I took from Barcelona left at about 10 pm. In the morning, I arrived in San Sebastian at 5 am and was quite weary-eyed. I remember shuffling onto the street in the dark. There is not a proper bus station in town so please take note. I waited on the road for a taxi to show up. Finally, a driver came. In San Sebastian, they speak Spanish and Basque which at the time I spoke neither. Luckily I had written down the address and he knew where to take me.
When I came back to San Sebastian six weeks later, I was in Berlin and the best connection for me was a layover in Madrid and then to Bilbao. From Bilbao, I took the PESA bus that is at the terminal. I didn’t plan ahead and just bought a ticket from the driver.
If you want to fly, there is an airport in San Sebastian. Bilbao, an hour away, has the biggest airport in the Basque region and flights are often much cheaper if you fly there.
I found the best flights on Skyscanner
Where To Stay
At the time, I stayed in a hostel called Olga’s Place (sadly, now shuttered) which is in the Gros area of San Sebastian. I am not normally a hostel person. But while travelling on my round the world trip, I stayed at a handful of hostels so that I could save money and travel longer. It was also a way to meet other travellers since I was travelling alone. Back then, Air Bnb was around but was not available outside of the United States.
Booking has some of the best rates and cancellation policy
At Olga’s, I met some amazing people who I am still very good friends with today. I keep in touch with them thanks to social media and a couple of them hosted me in their homes in Australia. While we were there, we would explore the area, go on hikes, cook together, and most importantly go out and eat pintxos at night. I liked the Gros neighbourhood. Walking around San Sebastian was easy. I didn’t take the bus once. In the mornings we would walk to Zurriola Beach and at nights easily walk to Parte Vieja or Old Town (the heart of the city and where you’ll find many attractions and pintxo bars you will want to visit on my food list).
Now there is so much in terms of accommodations available than on my round the world trip. You have your choice between lodging on Air Bnb, hostels, traditional hotels, or vacation rentals.
Trip Photo Diary
A view from a hike that I did. Kind of amazing right?
I miss you!
Jesus on top of Monte Urdell
Playa de la Concha!
Along the harbour
Boats on boats on boats
La Plaza de la Constitucion
Met these awesome travellers at Olga’s
A little hike with hostel buddies to see the stunning view of the Bay of Biscay
Here was our view of the Bay of Biscay. Unreal!
My friends Matt and Sean. They made my stay unforgettable
My Donostia crew
El Peine del Viento aka The Wind Combs
Standing over the blowholes at El Peine del Viento
San Sebastian Tips
- Stay as long as possible and eat as much as possible!!
- If you are coming from Barcelona or Madrid, I found the Alsa bus line to be fine. The ride is roughly 6 or so hours from Madrid and around 8 hours from Barcelona. I rode the overnight bus since I don’t have problems sleeping on a bus. There are new bus companies offering rides to San Sebastian so check out sites like Rome 2 Rio for information.
- RENFE is Spain’s train system. You can take the train from many cities in Spain but there aren’t any direct high-speed trains to Bilbao or San Sebastian yet. Sometimes the RENFE website is hard to navigate especially on mobile so I check RailEurope for tickets. I didn’t find any price differences when I checked.
- Another option of getting to San Sebastian is flying into the Bilbao airport and then taking a bus to San Sebastian. On my second visit, I flew from Berlin to Bilbao and then took a bus. The ride was about an hour. At the time, the bus fare was 10 Euros each way. At the time I didn’t reserve a bus ticket in advance, I just got onto a bus that was at the airport. The bus company PESA runs buses to San Sebastian.
- There is now a rideshare company called Bla Bla Car if you don’t mind riding with strangers and want other budget options. I have not used the service myself but many of my European friends use it. It is handy in last minute situations or if you want to save some money.
- If you plan on going onward to France, the Spanish and French train lines do not connect. At the time (2011) it was not possible to buy tickets online but that has now since changed. You do still have to take the Euskotren to Hendaye (France) in order to travel onward into France.
- How times have changed! At the time (2011), when I went to Hendaye, the customer service agent at the station was not there. The only option to buy a train ticket was via machine. My American ATM card was not accepted because it did not have a chip at the time. Luckily my Kiwi mate, who was going to change his Eurail Pass ticket (at the time you couldn’t make changes online either), was with me and paid for my ticket (I reimbursed him later with cash). Now you can almost everything online.
- In 2011, there was only one laundromat in town and they charged 15 Euros for one load. Doing a bit of online research it looks like there are now more “lavandería autoservicios” in town and hopefully better prices. I remember being happy to do laundry in a Paris laundromat for 7 Euros for my wash and dry.
- There is quite a selection in accommodations now from very budget to luxury. For budget accommodations, try a hostel or a private room via Air Bnb. In 2011, I stayed in a dorm room at Olga’s Hostel (now shuttered) but they did have private rooms as well. The property was very clean and the staff and proprietress was amazing.
- Please note like the rest of Spain, San Sebastian participates in siesta. Businesses will shut down for a few hours, usually between 2 and 5. I recall a gas station across the street from Zurriola that came in clutch many times for me. When I didn’t plan well, the baguettes and cured meats became my lunch.