My Trip Diary: Madrid to San Sebastian

San Sebastian is not on everyone’s itinerary when they visit Spain. However, whether you’re living in Spain or simply visiting from afar, I can’t stress enough the value of spending time in the town of San Sebastian. Rich culture, lovely beaches, and great food: it’s all there for you in the Basque town of San Sebastian.

Madrid to San Sebastian, town of San Sebastian

Beautiful San Sebastian, with mountains on one side and beach on the other

Basque country, briefly

The Basque Country of Spain, or País Vasco, is located in the north of Spain. It runs along the coastline towards the Pyrenees and into France. The region is semi-autonomous and has its own language and customs. Many, if not most, of the signs are in Basque, a language that involves extremely long words and lots of x’s. However, most people in the area speak Spanish, though not everyone speaks Basque. Historically, the independence movement of the Basque country resulted in high tensions and violence between the extremists of the region and the central Spanish government, but today those tensions have largely subsided.

Basque country is green and mountainous, with rolling hills and peaks that surround the towns and give backdrop to the beaches. Some towns are nestled in the hills, while others like San Sebastian crowd along the ocean. Basques are famous for their unique food and language, and during my time there, I found the people to be incredibly sweet and helpful and full of life.

Getting there

My trip consisted of going from Madrid to San Sebastian, but you can get there from just about anywhere in the country. If you’re starting in the south of Spain, look into prices for a flight to Bilbao, a larger city nearby, as busses run often between the two cities. If you’re in or around Barcelona, you can easily take a train or a bus. Busses, of course, are less expensive than trains are, but if you feel like being a little luxurious, the trains to either San Sebastian or Bilbao are a great option.

My traveling crew and I decided to rent a car, since splitting the cost of rental and the cost of fuel between five people ended up costing less than a bus ticket would have. Bus tickets run about 60 euros round trip, which isn’t too expensive at all, but Enterprise car hire was truly the best choice in the end, because the drive was beautiful. I had no idea that the north of Spain was so stunning! We drove past snow-covered mountains and saw the point where snow turned into grass. I had never seen anything like it, with lush green and snowy white existing side by side. If you can, I would absolutely suggest driving from Madrid to San Sebastian.

Madrid to San Sebastian view from the car

Sunset from the car

Beware, though! Most Spanish rental cars are standard transmission, not automatic. So if you’re thinking of renting a car, agree on either the higher cost for an automatic vehicle or make sure that a member of your party can drive with a stick shift.

As far as accommodations go, San Sebastian is very inexpensive compared with other tourist destinations in Spain. There are multiple seaside hostels in the area that cater to the thriving surfing community. We stayed in an apartment-cum-hotel that we rented through Booking.com called Apartamentos San Marcial 28 that included a full kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms, a fold-out couch, and three mini-terraces. Between the five of us, we paid 36 euros each per night.

Things to do

As I mentioned before, San Sebastian is a popular destination for surfers. While we were there, we ran into a surfing competition that we watched from the sidewalk. It seemed that most of the participants and members of the audience were Spanish, and secretly I felt excited to be in a tourist destination that catered to Spaniards instead of only Americans. So, if you like surfing, or if you want to try and learn, San Sebastian is a great option.

Obviously, where there’s surfing, there are beaches. San Sebastian has some beautiful beaches. The most famous is La Concha, which borders the bay in a crescent shape. The sand is soft, the water is refreshing, and the blue skies and sunshine make it perfect for sitting out or swimming. There are also several other beaches, Ondarreta and Zurriola, that are outside of the historic center of town. These beaches are smaller but no less enjoyable, and if the larger one gets too crowded, the other beaches may be a better choice.

La Concha beach

La Concha beach

San Sebastian is a very small town, so beyond the usual visiting of churches and perhaps browsing through the local museum, my things to do list is rather short. However, while we were there, we did fill our time with two other notable adventures. First, we rode the Funicular Railway to the top of the “mountain” (really more of a steep hill). From there, we got a spectacular view of the town nestled in the mountains on one side and the expansive ocean on the other. Furthermore, at the top of the railroad we found an amusement park! To be fair, “amusement park” is a big term for a small place, but we had a great time playing some of the games, riding the bumper cars, and laughing our way through some of the “rides.” For good clean fun, definitely take an afternoon to ride the railroad.

Our second activity was a day trip to Bilbao, a larger city about an hour away from San Sebastian by bus. Bilbao is a completely different kind of city that contrasts incredibly with the atmosphere and appearance of San Sebastian. And still, it is one of the best day trips I’ve taken, and I would go back in a heartbeat. The Guggenheim museum is a marvel, inside and out. Some people advise not to go into the museum, but I found the exhibits and the architecture inside to be fascinating. But if modern art isn’t your thing, spend your day walking along the river and into the old town of Bilbao. The contrast between the traditional and modern architecture is astounding, and you’re sure to stumble across delicious food and lovely parks.

What to eat

You may or may not know that Basque country is famous for its pinchos (spelled pinxos in Basque). These are similar to tapas found elsewhere in Spain, but they’re almost always served on a large skewer. Each pincho is only enough for one person and cost somewhere between 1 and 3 euros. So, be it breakfast or lunch or dinner, you can have a varied meal of different types of pinchos and your drink of choice for a fairly low price. For breakfast, we ate pinchos of eggs and meats, and for dinner we were sure to try the famous anchovy pinchos. This is a cheap and absolutely delicious way to eat your way through Basque country!

Madrid to San Sebastian Pinchos

Pinchos can be basic or fancy, and they’re always delicious

If you’re in the mood for more luxurious food, San Sebastian has the highest number of Michelen-starred restaurants per capita in the entire world. These restaurants can be easily researched and located for all your gourmet needs. And if you’re looking for something in between these two options, look up the sidrerías, cider houses that serve all kinds of foods and drinks based on their homemade cider, that are located nearby. These may be hard to reach without a car, but in either a cab or a local bus, you’re sure to have access. At the sidrerías, you can order a three-course meal complete with drinks and desserts for around 25 euros per person.

Our drive home was just as beautiful as our drive up, and this time we took a different route. Instead of driving through Burgos like we did the first time, we drove towards Pamplona and stopped there for lunch. This was a great way to see the famous town without making a trip specifically to go there. And even though Pamplona is famous for the San Fermín festival, we found it to be charming and lively without the crowds and chaos that come with the celebration.

MAdrid to San Sebastian, view

I’ll miss you, San Sebastian!

My trip to San Sebastian opened my eyes to a completely different part of Spain, one that has its own culture and language and types of foods. The countryside was new to me, while the beach felt familiar and comfortable. The journey from Madrid to San Sebastian was unforgettable, and as soon as I left, I wanted to return.

Have you travelled through the north of Spain before? What parts of Spain seem completely unique to you?

Photos courtesy of Nicole Raine and toolmantim

Comments

  1. Yes San Sebastian is a great place to visit. HIre a car is easy way to move around the city, and it will cost you less rather than a bus or train. It would be a great fun.

  2. DonostiAir says:

    Hello, how about flying to San Sebastian’s Airport??? Why you dont mention our Airport with daily flights from/to Madrid with Iberia and from/to Barcelona with Vueling!!! Is a very good option, only 15 min from the airport to the city center by bus or taxi!!!!!

  3. Love the beach pictures. San Sebastian looks beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

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