With its stunning landscapes and world-class cuisine, San Sebastian is a must on any traveler’s itinerary when visiting Spain.
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 7 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!
1. Forget everything you thought you knew about Spain
You won’t find much flamenco here, and ordering tapas is a sure sign that you’re a tourist. One key thing to know before visiting San Sebastian is that the Basque Country has a totally unique culture that might make you feel at times like you’re not in 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 is one of the very few regions of Spain that the Romans and the Moors never conquered. As a result, the people in this area developed their own unique culture without the influences of the conquerors. You won’t find Roman ruins or 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 the majority of what you hear. That’s because many locals speak Basque rather than Spanish in their daily lives. Basque is its own root language, with no known connection to any other language on earth, which 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.
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, this strong identity led to the formation of an extremist terrorist group who 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 not 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
The north of Spain, including the Basque Country, often gets a bad rap as being more “closed off” and “cold” than the warmer, more open south. 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 introduce yourself. Soon enough, they’ll 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—especially pintxos—is king
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!
The foodie scene is one of the most important things to know before visiting San Sebastian. Devour it with us on our Ultimate Pintxos & Wine Tour! You’ll learn how to order and eat pintxos like a local while exploring the hidden backstreets of the old town. We can’t wait to have you!
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.