San Sebastián Favorites

As summer starts to roll around, I find myself thinking about sunny days on the beach. With a husband who loves the beach, and a daughter who dries up like a crusty starfish when she doesn’t get in water regularly, we always seem to find a beach wherever we travel in the world.  Our summer in Spain was no exception.  With more than 1,000 miles of Mediterranean coastline, Spain is certainly no stranger to beautiful beaches.  One of my favorite is Playa de la Concha in San Sebastián.  A resort town in Spain’s Basque region, San Sebastián is the country’s playground for the wealthy.  It is a city renowned for the quality of its cuisine, having one of the highest densities of Michelin starred restaurants in the world.    The Belle Epoque styled railings surrounding the shell shaped Playa de la Concha makes it one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.  Here are our favorites for families in San Sebastián.


IMG_7683Playa de la Concha – its hard to miss in San Sebastián, as it acts like the centerpiece of an elaborate dining table. Playa de la Concha is the perfect beach for families because the surrounding mountains protect it from wind and high waves, the sand is soft, and the clamshell shape makes it like a giant playpen for little kids.  For teens, there is a small island buried between the two mountains surrounding the beach (Santa Clara Island) that only appears at low tide and is within swimming distance.  It’s a fun place to explore as it has its own little beach.


The tides greatly effect the available beach area at Playa de la Concha, but that was our favorite thing about it. When the tide is out the

beach is wide and spacious. When the tide comes in, the adventure begins for kids and adults alike.  The incoming tide rises high enough that the beach disappears, so make sure to watch your tide report.   Because of the clamshell shape of the beach, the ocean splashes up against the boardwalk railings creating walls of water.  It’s so much fun to lean against the railings and take the waves head on!

The Incredible Food: San Sebastián is world renowned for its cuisine.  It is littered with Michelin starred restaurants, including at least 3 of them with 3 stars.  As we are not a Michelin seeking family, we focused our sights on the ever popular Pintxos culture and had a blast doing it.  Pintxos are small snacks served in bars, like tapas, that are typical of the Basque region in Spain, and run 3 to 5 Euros apiece.  Planned strategically, Pintxos can be a fun meal for the whole family.  We spent many nights hopping from bar to bar sampling the best pintxos at each one.  Because the commitment wasn’t too big, even my pickiest eater became adventurous and tried all sorts of new things.

Some of our favorites included:

The Mountains: San Sebastián is surrounded by mountains and each has their own attractions.  Monte Urgell on the east side (to the right if looking at the beach) is great for a morning hike to the top for some spectacular views.  At its peak, you can get a close up of the giant statue of Christ that overlooks the city, as well as explore the ruins of the castle.  Monte Igueldo, on the west, is best reached by the 100 year old funicular (see our post on other fun funiculars in Europe).  What lies at the top is an old world carnival with rides and games as well as a really cool exhibit about birds of prey.  Go in the evening and watch the sun set over the beach below – it’s spectacular.


The Festivities: The most exciting part of our trip to San Sebastián was the surprise arrival right at the beginning of the Semana Grande.  While I spend so much time planning my trips and trips for others, I missed the tiny little detail that the entire city would be celebrating one of its biggest festivities while we were there.  And what a celebration!  Semana Grande occurs from Saturday to Saturday for one week every August surrounding the Virgin Festivity on the 15th.  The week begins with a bang as the cannon shoots from the Town Hall and a week of partying and celebration begins.  The highlights of the festival include:

  • The International Fireworks Competition – companies from around the world compete for the best fireworks show at 10:45 every night for 8 nights.  The winner receives the coveted Concha de oro award.  Note that if you are staying near the beach, it will be impossible to keep small children asleep until the fireworks festivities end just after midnight.  Best to just go out and enjoy it!


  • Al Abordaje – participants dress as pirates and begin building homemade boats made from whatever materials they can find early in the morning.  In the afternoon, they launch their boats in the hopes of making it across the bay to Concha beach.  Thousands of people gather to watch the struggles of the sailors finding creative ways to get across the bay.


  • Daily parade of Gigantes and Cabezudos – in the late afternoon, kids will love going in search of the parade of the dancing giants and the big heads who wll playfully chase them and hit them with pigs bladders.


  • The Toro de Fuego : Each night after the fireworks show, several men don a paper maché bull costume and chase the children down the street in a mini “running of the bulls”. All the while, the bulls have fireworks exploding from their horns!  This activity is not recommended for small children but great fun for middle schoolers and up.

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While the Semana Grande Festival is not for everyone, we have some of our best travel memories there, because it was a week full of surprises, adventures, and very little sleep! If you are not prepared for a party, travel to San Sebastián on any other week than the week of August 15.

Nearby:  If you are in the San Sebastián region, don’t miss the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  Just a 45 minute ride away (buses are available and run very regularly), this was one of my favorite museums in Europe.  Designed by Frank Gehry, it is a pleasure to look at and explore.  The museum houses modern and contemporary art and is well worth an afternoon (especially if it rains!).


For kids to read before you go:  SASS Spain or Shine by Michelle Jellan.  Set in San Sebastián, it tells the story of a college student studying abroad.  Great for teens and tweens.  For more book and movie recommendations see Reading Your Way into Your Next Vacation: The Europe Edition.

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