Traveling has never been as easy as it is now, which means that now it’s more important than ever to be a responsible traveler.
After all, don’t we all want to make cities better for those who live in and visit them?
San Sebastian is located in the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria in Basque. This means “home of the Basque people,” and it is a cultural region that covers four provinces in Spain and three in France. It’s a small piece of land that has been isolated for many centuries from the rest of the world by a mountain range on one side and the rough waters of the Bay of Biscay on the other. The inhabitants have managed to preserve their traditions, culture and language almost unchanged over hundreds of years, which is what makes the region one of the most interesting destinations in Europe. Recent years have brought a record number of visitors and we all, locals and tourists alike, have to take responsibility for preserving San Sebastian so that future generations will be able to enjoy its treasures.
How to be a good tourist in San Sebastian
- Learn a few words in Basque! You will get the respect of Basques and melt their hearts!
- Support local businesses. Small and family-run places will give you the real experience.
- Get to know the story behind San Sebastian and its people. Take a guided tour and find the answers to all your questions.
- Use public transportation—it’s fantastic! The buses and trains will take you anywhere you want to go, and parking your car out of the city center will cut down on congestion and save you money and hassle.
- Get out of the Old Town and visit other neighborhoods. You’ll love the Basque hospitality.
- Respect the residents’ right to rest. We all love to stay out and hang out with friends but remember that not everyone around you is on vacation.
- Learn the pintxo etiquette before heading out to bars—it isn’t a buffet!
- Leave the city and its beaches clean.
When to visit San Sebastian responsibly
This shouldn’t come as a surprise: during the low season! San Sebastian is the busiest during the summer months, especially in August. This is the month when it takes an hour to find a tiny spot on La Concha beach and when the Old Town becomes so crowded that you feel like you’re marching in a parade just to get from A to B.
But fear not, there is a solution! San Sebastian is wonderful any time of the year. Imagine all these beautiful beaches just for yourself (and maybe a few local dog walkers), enjoying a delicious pintxo and glass of local wine without being jostled from side to side, and most importantly: meeting locals and maybe even making some new friends. Visit November through March for the most authentic experience!
Where to stay in San Sebastian responsibly
As a responsible traveler, you want to support local businesses, not massive chain hotels. We have plenty of great options in San Sebastian and the surrounding areas.
Choose boutique hotels if you’re looking for a memorable experience with a taste of luxury.
Guest houses, called pensiones in Spain, are a simple, cheap and authentic accommodation option in San Sebastian. There are hundreds of them all over but the majority are in the Old Town and Gros neighborhoods.
Avoid over-crowding the most central neighborhoods and invest some of your tourism budget in a lesser-visited neighborhood.
The last option is to escape San Sebastian all together and stay in one of the nearby villages which are well-connected to San Sebastian. This is sure to be the cheapest option, great for a relaxed pace!
Our picks: Astigarraga, Hernani, Pasaia or Lasarte-Oria.
Where to eat in San Sebastian responsibly
In Spain we might call a place a “bar de toda la vida,” which means that the place has been open for a long time and is recognized as a great place to try local specialties. These establishments are often family-owned businesses, running back generations, that use local, seasonal and fresh products in their kitchens.
Here are some of our favorites:
- Txepetxa: house-marinated anchovies and over 120 years of tradition.
- La Cepa: famous for their excellent ham sandwiches.
- A Fuego Negro: a very Basque and very modern approach to local dishes.
- Casa Urola: home to a fantastic chef whose kitchen is based on seasonal products.
- Paco Bueno: well known for its pintxo gambas en la gabardina, or “prawns in a coat.”
- Ganbara: the third generation of fantastic chefs. Their specialty? Spider crab tartelette.
- Haizea: delicious & traditional dishes.
- Hidalgo 56: love black pudding? Try their volcan de morcilla.
- Bergara: one of the favorites in Gros that offers delightful pintxos like txalupa.
- Bodega Donostiarra: a locals’ favorite!
- Antonio Bar: yummy pintxos and their excellent crayfish ravioli.
- Zazpi: where tradition meets modern high cuisine.
- San Marcial: you will feel the history in this traditional Basque bar.
And let’s not forget the cider houses that are located around San Sebastian. This experience is unique and definitely unforgettable. You will not only eat an excellent local menu that includes a salt cod omelette and Basque steak but you’ll also try the local specialty: cider! It’s not what you’d expect after hearing “apple cider:” cloudy, dry, flat and very much loved among the Basque people.
A responsible travel itinerary for San Sebastian
Visiting San Sebastian doesn’t only mean eating local food and swimming in the Cantabrian Sea. It’s also about getting to know the Basque culture and its history. Take time to visit the San Telmo Museum to learn about the region. Make sure to book a guided tour or rent the audio guide.
If, after this visit, your curiosity still isn’t satisfied, take a trip to the nearby villages of San Juan and San Pedro to discover the Albaola Museum. You’ll learn about Basque maritime heritage—and help to build the San Juan whaleship!
For those who like to get moving, San Sebastian boasts a wide range of activities like hiking, cycling, water sports and more. San Sebastian is located on the coastal route of the Camino de Santiago and visiting is a great opportunity to do a part of it. You can go towards France or Bilbao. Both of the trails are well marked and easy to walk. The views of dramatic Basque coast will take your breath away.
The other alternative for those craving action is to rent a bike for an environmentally-friendly way to discover the city and its surroundings. There are plenty of places to rent a bike around town and San Sebastian boasts an extensive network of cycling paths, or “bidegorri.” If you’re aiming for a longer ride, pick up a map for cyclists in a local tourist office.
And most importantly, meet the locals! The best way is by taking part in local celebrations and festivities and by visiting markets. San Sebastian Tourism created an impressive website where you can find agendas. Check what’s on and join us!
Our favorite small shops and artisans
No way you’re going home without at least one of these delicious products: a bottle of local Txakoli wine, Idiazabal sheep cheese, or anchovies and beans from Tolosa. Pick up your favorite in one of San Sebastian’s gourmet shops: Goñi Ardoteka, Zapore Jai or Gourmet.
San Sebastian is home to many talented people who create beautiful art which doubles as the perfect responsible souvenir. In Alboka, Koloreka or Lance & Malone you will find the city’s real treasures!
Time for fashion! Loreak Mendian is home to Basque designers and edgy styles. And we have a special treat for gentlemen: the boina, a traditional Basque beret for men. Check out Casa Ponsol, where they’ve been outfitting the heads of Basque men and women since 1838.
Follow these tips and you can leave San Sebastian knowing you’ve been a great tourist. Don’t stop there—take a look at the rest of our responsible tourism guides:
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.