Making the most of its glorious location, curving languidly around a magnificent semicircular bay that’s lined with golden sand, SAN SEBASTIÁN ranks among the great resort cities of Europe. Although it’s the capital of its region, Gipuzkoa, and has a reputation as a hotbed of Basque nationalism, it has never been a major port, or much of an industrial centre. Instead its primary identity, ever since the Spanish royal family first decamped here for the summer in 1845, has been as a summer playground. In July and August especially, it tends to be packed out, and its hotels are among the most expensive in Spain.
While the superb sheltered beach on its very doorstep is the biggest attraction of all, San Sebastián also boasts a charming old-town core, the Casco Viejo, squeezed up against the foot of verdant Monte Urgull. The new town to the south, known as Centro and the commercial hub of the city, holds a fine crop of century-old belle époque edifices, though they’re interspersed between rather too many dreary newer buildings for this to be an area where you’re likely to spend much time.
The official name of the city, Donostia-San Sebastián, is a tautology, in that Donostia is a Basque name for Saint Sebastian. Some say Sebastian was martyred in the Roman port of Ostia, and is thus the Don (saint) of Ostia; others that Ostia (or Osti) is simply an abbreviation of Sebastian.