This blog post was originally posted on February 7, 2018 and was updated on September 4, 2020.
With its stunning landscapes and world-class cuisine, San Sebastian is a must on anyone’s Spain itinerary.
However, as with any new place, there are a few things to keep in mind before you go. San Sebastian is full of pleasant surprises, and a brief introduction to the local culture will help your trip go much more smoothly.
Here are seven things you need to know before visiting San Sebastian. Keep these in mind and you’ll be prepared for any situation that comes your way!
7 things to know before visiting San Sebastian, Spain
1. Forget everything you thought you knew about Spain
You won’t find any flamenco here, and ordering “tapas” is a sure sign that you’re a tourist. (They’re called pintxos here!)
One key thing to know before visiting San Sebastian is that the Basque Country has a totally unique culture that doesn’t seem to fit the typical image of Spain at all. However, this is part of the charm. Let go of your expectations and enjoy your time in this one-of-a-kind city!
2. The Basque Country’s unique history has shaped its culture
The Basque Country’s unique geography of rugged mountains and jagged coastlines made it difficult for foreign invaders to conquer throughout history. Though the ancient Romans did arrive in the area, the ethnic Basques—who could trace their roots in the region back to Neolithic times—managed to keep most of their heritage and culture intact.
As a result, unlike in many other parts of Spain, you won’t find many Roman ruins—or any Moorish architecture—in San Sebastian. This also means that Latin and Arabic had no influence on the Basque language, which is definitely not the case with Spanish!
3. Many locals speak Basque
That reminds us—one key thing to know before visiting San Sebastian is that the local language may surprise you!
Even if you’ve studied Spanish for years, you might feel overwhelmed and confused upon arriving and realizing you can’t understand much of what you hear. That’s because many locals speak Basque rather than Spanish in their daily lives.
Euskera (the Basque word for “Basque”), is its own root language, with no known connection to any other language on earth. This makes it both fascinating and extremely difficult to learn. If you’d like a challenge, you can certainly teach yourself the basics, but you won’t have any problem communicating in Spanish in larger Basque cities like San Sebastian and Bilbao.
Want to start brushing up on your Basque? Check out some pronunciation tips in the video below!
4. The region has a tumultuous recent history
As you’ve probably figured out, many locals identify as Basque rather than Spanish. In the past, there was an extremist terrorist group associated with Basque nationalism that used scare tactics and dangerous attacks to advance their separatist agenda.
The good news is that the group, ETA, disarmed itself in recent years and has held true to its vow to carry out any further attacks. However, just a few decades ago, their presence meant that the now peaceful streets of San Sebastian were filled with riot police and locals constantly on edge. Being aware and respectful of the region’s dramatic recent past is incredibly important when visiting San Sebastian in a responsible way.
5. Close relationships are important
Residents of the north of Spain, including the Basque Country, often get a bad rap as being colder and more closed off than the warmer, more open southerners.
This common misconception might be one of the things you think you know before visiting San Sebastian. It comes from the fact that many locals have extremely close-knit circles with their friends and family. Despite this, once you get to know them, they are some of the friendliest people in a country known for its friendly locals!
Don’t be afraid to go up to a group in a bar and strike up a conversation—even if it’s just asking for suggestions on where to continue your pintxos crawl. Soon enough, the locals will welcome you like an old friend.
6. Get out and about
The lush greenery and beautiful coastline of San Sebastian make it the perfect place to stay active! Locals tend to be very active and healthy, and when you consider the stunning corner of the world they call home, it’s easy to see why.
Go for a run or a bike ride through the countryside outside the city, or try your hand at rowing. The picturesque scenery will almost make you forget you’re working out!
7. Food is king—especially pintxos
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the food in San Sebastian is second to none.
An integral part of your experience should definitely be an authentic pintxos crawl. Knowing your way around a pintxos bar is one of the most important things to know before visiting San Sebastian. Find a bar, settle in with a glass of cider or txakoli, and get ready to enjoy some of the best food in the world!
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Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.