Formed by combining three Basque fishing and whaling towns along the bay into one mega-port city, San Sebastián thrived and became a major seaport before being burned to the ground in 1813 by Anglo-Portuguese forces. And so, instead of a casco antiguo filled with medieval buildings, San Sebastián’s historic center is the parte vieja, whose older constructions come from the late-19th-century Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau styles. Even the cathedral is new (relatively speaking—it’s from the 1890s), and the narrow streets of the old quarter are basically on a grid. This newly built city attracted tourists from all over Europe, with its sunny beaches (made popular by Queen Isabel II) helping it to become the tourist-friendly resort town that it is today. There are still neighborhoods (particularly on the east side of the river) where one can escape the occasionally overwhelming feel of turn-of-the-century opulence, but the beaches are free, so even those traveling on a budget can bask in the sunny luxury of San Sebastián.
San Sebastián’s relatively tiny but bustling parte vieja (“old part”) is only about eight blocks by eight blocks in size and sits at the northern end of the central part of the city. The parte vieja is bordered by La Concha bay to the west, Monte Urgull to the north, Río Urumea to the east, and the broad Alameda del Boulevard to the south. South of that is El Centro, a newer district that is the city’s center for shopping and business and contains the Catedral. To the east, across the Río Urumea, lies the Gros neighborhood, which has a surf beach (Playa de Zurriola) and tends to be slightly trendier and cheaper than the parte vieja. On the other side of the tracks, south of Gros, is Egia, where you’re not likely to find any tourists but where you are likely to find a whole lot of cool. To the west of El Centro is the Playa de la Concha, which is not nearly as exciting as the Zurriola surf beach but enjoys a longer and richer history as a resort hangout.
San Sebastian boasts activities for every member of the family. Monte Urgull, the big mountain next to the Parte Vieja with the Jesus statue on top, is not a strenuous enough walk to make it into the hiking listings. The trek is still a lovely escape from the city, despite being just meters away—up, up, and away, of course. As you ascend, you’ll pass castle after castle and be rewarded for your shin splints with breathtaking views of the city and bay (though the breathtaking part could also be chalked up to the climb). At the very top is the Castillo de la Mota, which houses the Casa de la Historia and a comprehensive exhibit on San Sebastián’s history. When you’re done there, you might want to limbo your way back down the dark, low-ceilinged stone stairs and take the north side of the mountain down to see the small, hauntingly beautiful 1837 English Cemetery, whose headstone carvers must not have been English, as names that are memorialized include misspelled ones like “Whiliam.”
While this quaint beach-side town might not be the largest city in Spain, it boasts plenty of exciting sites to visit. Here are a few of the best. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Foodies the world over know San Sebastián for its outstanding culinary reputation. The city’s best tapas bars are all reasonably affordable and are mostly found in the parte vieja, especially along Calle del 31 de Agosto and Calle de Fermín Calbetón. Many restaurants tend to be concentrated in this area as well, but for better prices (and, often, better food) check out the restaurants in Gros to the east of the river, particularly on Paseo de Colón. Those looking to do some exploring can search for hidden gems in the not-yet-gentrified Egia neighborhood.
You’ve probably been to a tapas bar, but you might not have known that tapas is not a type of food—it simply refers to the way the food is presented. The bite-sized portions served at the bar are not to be mistaken with appetizers. Spaniards eat tapas most commonly after work, well before dinner, or while just out drinking with friends.
If you’re in Spain during the summer, you will most likely end up getting gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup. One thicker variety of gazpacho is salmorejo; think of it as the delicious lovechild of normal tomato soup and traditional gazpacho.
No matter what you eat, your primary goal in Spain should probably to get your hands (and tongue) on some jamón ibérico. In simple terms, it’s Spanish ham. But there is so much more to it than that. The ibérico pigs are treated like royalty, allowed to roam the countryside stuffing their fat faces with acorns for two years. After being butchered, the ham is salted and cured for two years, during which time it loses at least 20% of its weight and gains about 400% of its monetary value. Make it your life goal to find some of that thinly sliced piece of heaven.
Sangria is Spain’s drink much the same way that a vodka Red Bull is America’s—it gets you drunk, and most people would never drink it in the light of day. It’s made by mixing wine with fruit juice and whatever cheap liquor one can easily acquire. Usually it’s rum, bourbon, and whiskey. Yes, we meant to say “and,” not “or.” Think of it as the Spanish version of frat boy punch. Another way to utilize bad wine? Tinto de verano—“red wine of summer.” Just take the old/cheap/bad-tasting wine you have/found/made and mix it with some lemon soda. Mix it with Coke, and you have a kalimotxo. The hotter the day, the more mixer you use, and you’ve got yourself a refreshing summer drink.
If beer is more your thing, Spain isn’t famous for its selection. Most bars will just have one beer on tap, and it will most likely be a Mahou, though Cruzcampo and San Miguel are also popular.
The most tourist-frequented nightlife scene in San Sebastián is unsurprisingly in the parte vieja, where the bars that served noisy tapas in the afternoon become bars that serve even noisier drinks at night. Each bar is pretty much the same as the next, but a few have their own distinct character. Some of the most prominent (and tourist-filled) nightclubs are located near the beaches, on Paseo de Zurriola and Paseo de La Concha. The nightlife options listed here are a little less obvious to the average tourist and are slightly farther off the beaten track.
Spanish architecture, with just as many influences as the rest of Spanish culture, is all over the place. You’ll find traces of Roman, Celtic, Islamic, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Modernist, and postmodern architecture all over the country, in various combinations.
Most of the churches you’ll come across in your Spanish travels will fit into one of these categories. Romanesque architecture is characterized by semicircular arches, heavy stone walls with small windows, and simple interiors; many of the most austerely beautiful spaces in Spain are in this style. Gothic architecture is probably a bit more familiar—pointed arches, huge stained-glass windows, and the famous flying buttresses. Though there is some overlap, Romanesque architecture generally precedes Gothic, with the transition occurring in around the 13th or 14th centuries in most places.
As conquering Christian forces drove south, the Spanish adopted many aspects of Islamic architecture and incorporated it into a new hybrid style called the mudéjar style. This originated on the Castilian plain, most likely in the town of Sahagún, and spread all across the regions of Castile and Aragon. Some chief characteristics of this style are intricate, patterned brickwork as the chief material, with some Islamic-inspired ornaments and motifs, including glazed tile or azulejo.
Diego Velázquez: court painter, architect, lady-killer. At least, this is what we gather from his famous self-portrait on the left margin of Las Meninas. It calls attention to his long hair, impressive moustache, and piercing gaze. Influenced by Spanish and Flemish realism, Velazquez is best known for his naturalistic paintings, such as Las Meninas and The Water Carrier of Seville. Also operating in the early 1600s was El Greco, real name Doménikos Theotokópoulos. No wonder they gave him a nickname. For those who haven’t guessed yet, his name means the Greek. Less of a lady-killer than Velázquez (he was bald), El Greco made up for it with his vivid and emotional paintings. Said to reflect the Counter-Reformation in Spain, his strong color contrasts and elongated human figures can be pretty creepy, but beautifully vivid.
Moving on to the 18th century, we stumble upon Francisco Goya, affectionately called the Father of Modern Art. Also a court painter, his best work was done outside of his courtly duties. His frank, emotional technique created a whole new style of painting, refreshing to the Spanish people. It was a bit too refreshing for the Spanish Inquisition, however. Goya was detained and questioned for his painting, The Naked Maja, one of the first paintings of a nude woman in Spain. Released relatively unscathed, Goya lived on to do some of his best works exposing the French atrocities during Napoleon’s rule of Spain. The most famous of these, The Third of May 1808, depicts the slaughter of Spanish civilians by the French army. His Black Paintings are also seriously weird.
From there, we move into more modern styles and the inevitable Pablo Picasso. Volatile, emotional, always in need of a muse, Picasso is everything we expect a painter to be. Picasso is credited with starting the Cubism movement, commonly called the “What the heck is happening in this painting?” movement, and made a tremendous political statement with Guernica in 1937, depicting the bombing of civilians by fascists during the Civil War.
Heavily influenced by Picasso, Joan Miró moved the 20th century into Surrealism. An unsmiling man always dressed in somber suits, he took his work very seriously. Not that one could really tell. His playful colors and simple forms bring to mind children’s artwork. Look closely though, and there is a certain dark feeling to his work that stays with you.
There’s no way to have a conversation on surrealism without the movement’s star: Salvador Dalí. With a moustache to die for, greased back hair, and always in a suit, Dalí was a character whose ultimate goal was to get at the greater reality of man’s subconscious. Most famous for his painting The Persistence of Memory, (a dorm room favorite) Dalí did much more than paint. He did everything from sculptures to book illustrations to jewelry design. Judging by all the photos we found of him, he also enjoyed intensely staring people down and walking his pet anteater and his Tocelot, Babou.
Although not always renowned for its literary genius, Spain does have a few key authors to mention. While Miguel de Cervantes’s name might not trigger a memory, his world famous opus,Don Quixote, certainly should. Born in 1547, Cervantes’s life is almost more interesting than anything he could ever have written: it involves getting kidnapped by pirates and enslaved in Algiers for two years.
Another groundbreaking work of Spanish literature, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and His Fortunes and Adversities, came in quite low in the shortest title competition. In the mystery category, however, it ranked quite high. It was published anonymously in 1554 and then outlawed by the Spanish Inquisition for heresy (hence the anonymity of the author). Then again, what wasn’t? One of the first Picaresque novels, Lazarillo de Tormes was highly critical of Spanish society and greatly advanced the genres of the satire and the novel in one blow.
This talented gentleman wore many hats during his lifetime. As a poet, dramatist, and theater director, Lorca gave the world insight into 20th century Spain. Right smack dab in the middle of corruption and coup, Lorca’s work reflects the decades of violence, but also dabbled in themes of love and passion. Considered too liberal by conservative nationalists, Lorca was shot and buried in an unmarked grave in 1936 at the start of the Civil War.
Most likely drawing from Jewish, Muslim, and Roma culture, Flamenco may be Spain’s most stereotypically known art form. Most people only think of flamenco as shapely ladies in tight polka-dotted dresses, but it actually originated as a musical genre, with the dancing added on later to complement the pairing of guitar and vocals. Flamenco is violent and emotional; you sort of need to see it to get it.
When it comes to this category, it’s probably best to fully adapt to “Spanish time,” or you might end up missing out on most of what Spain has to offer. Besides the little things, like being 15-20min. late for meetings or events, the Spanish basically overhaul their entire day’s schedule to better fit their night-owl lifestyle. A prime example: meals. Lunches don’t happen before 1pm; most occur often around 2pm and are usually followed by a siesta, during which most businesses will close. As for the evening, Spain is not constrained by any of the Puritan influences that Americans have to deal with—nothing closes at 2am (looking at you, Boston). How does this work, you might wonder? Let us walk you through a normal day. Wake up around 9am and eat a light breakfast. Work until lunch around 2pm, take a siesta, then head back to work from around 4 or 5pm until 8 or 9pm. Dinner is usually around 10 or 11pm. For the younger crowd, the bars only get interesting around midnight or 1am. Go drink for a few hours, until the bars kick you out around 3am and the nightclubs open. Dance until 5 or 6am and get ready to wake up at 9am to do it all over again.
You’ve probably realized by now that Spain is a pretty divided country, meaning that Spaniards have a huge sense of pride in their home neighborhoods and provinces. In fact, many of them would probably be pretty insulted that we keep writing “Spaniards.” Consider them Catalans/Basques/Andalusians/Romani/Madrileños first and Spaniards second. Another tip? Avoid discussing the Spanish Civil War unless you know for sure which side the family of the person to whom you are speaking was on. The wrong comment could bring up some relatively fresh wounds. Same goes for soccer. Unless you know with certainty that your audience is full of Barça supporters, you might want to hold off on describing the team’s most recent news in excruciating detail.
Spaniards are very clothing-conscious: don’t expect to see anyone out in old sweats doing their errands. For tourists, these guidelines might not matter as long as you don’t mind being pegged as an out-of-towner. Proper church attire is a must. Wearing shorts or miniskirts while visiting churches and cathedrals is often not allowed and is always just plain rude. Women must have their shoulders covered, which may be the only real reason to ever wear a shrug. As a rule, keep it classy.
Meals in Spain are nothing to joke about. The Spanish eat late, and they’re serious about their food. Given the schedule that Spaniards keep, breakfast is rarely eaten at home and is hardly considered a meal. To make up for it, lunches and dinners are practically small holidays. Expect constant conversation and a lively atmosphere. Like everything else Spanish, the cuisine depends largely on what region of Spain you’re in. So sit back, pour yourself some tinto, and prepare to drool at the best that Spain has to offer.