This blog post was originally posted on November 27, 2017, and was updated on November 6, 2019.
Basque traditions, familiar holiday celebrations and delicious food converge to create a winter wonderland here in San Sebastian in December.
Most people might flock to the city’s sunny shores in the warmer months, but that just means that the beaches get packed and there are tourists everywhere you look. In winter, though, San Sebastian is much more laid back and calm, with a tangible sense of holiday cheer filling the streets.
Its prime location not too far from France makes it an easy stop on any European winter itinerary, and the distinctly Basque holiday traditions are unlike those you’ll find anywhere else in the world. If we still haven’t convinced you to visit San Sebastian in December, maybe these fascinating cultural activities and events will do the trick!
Marvel at the lights—then go shopping!
San Sebastian wastes no time in getting the Christmas spirit going, with the festivities starting almost as soon as calendar pages flip to December.
In the first week of the month, the citywide Christmas lights start to twinkle across town, and the main Christmas market along Paseo de Francia and the river officially opens for business. Even if you won’t be in town for the official inauguration, a laid-back stroll beneath the glistening lights makes for a great way to start your visit to San Sebastian in December.
Make your way to the large bright arch that serves as the entrance to the Christmas market and browse the gorgeous handmade decorations, tasty food items, and more available for sale in the stalls.
Visit the most extravagant nativity scene you’ll ever see
Spain doesn’t mess around when it comes to nativity scenes. Rather than just sticking with the standard representation of the Holy Family surrounded by a handful of farm animals, Spanish nativity scenes take things several steps further and depict the entire town of Bethlehem. As a result, they’re literally called belenes (“Belén” means “Bethlehem” in Spanish).
Things are no different here in San Sebastian in December. Head to Plaza de Gipuzkoa starting early on in the month to check out the city’s very own belén, featuring more than 150 one-meter-tall figurines.
Go window shopping
Even the shops and businesses in the city center take things to the next level here in San Sebastian in December. The annual Christmas Window Display Competition, which runs in early-to-mid December, allows shops to show off their holiday cheer by decorating their storefront windows in the most festive way possible.
There are prizes for the most sustainable, most innovative and most popular displays, but you don’t have to be a local business owner in order to get in on the fun. Just take a stroll through the Old Town and marvel at the intricate and festive displays as you do your holiday shopping!
2019 dates: December 5–16
Step back in time at a traditional cider house
Winter marks the start of cider season here in San Sebastian, and what better way to kick things off than by setting up a pop-up cider house out in the streets? That’s what’s in store at the annual Sagardo Apurua, which is set to take place over the long holiday weekend at the beginning of the month (starting December 6).
You’ll be able to witness centuries of tradition as the cider is carried across the river and into the sidrería with the help of oxen. From there, the festivities are in full swing, with plenty of fabulous traditional food and fun activities for adults and kids alike. Our challenge to you for this unforgettable event: try your hand at pouring cider the traditional way (from high above!).
RELATED: Behind the Bite: Basque Cider
Eat txistorra at a city-wide farmers’ market
The city’s patron saint may be St. Sebastian himself, but St. Thomas also has a special place in locals’ hearts. On his feast day, December 21, the entire city becomes a massive farmers’ market.
All throughout the city, farmers and artisans from San Sebastian and nearby villages set up stalls selling everything from fresh produce to handmade crafts—and of course, plenty of txistorra (chorizo’s Basque cousin, which is one of the most traditional snacks on this day).
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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.