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.
The glorious crescent of sand that curves all the way west from the old town to the pleasant but unremarkable suburb of Ondarreta, the Playa de La Concha, has to rank among the very finest city beaches in the world. Even in the depths of winter it’s usually busy with walkers and playing children, while on summer days every inch tends to be covered in roasting flesh. Swimmers keen to escape the crowds can head out to floating platforms moored offshore. Slightly further out, a little pyramidal island, the Isla de Santa Clara, is accessible via regular ferries that set off from near the aquarium, just outside the old town. Also at the old-town end of the beach, the strange-looking building that resembles a boat seen side-on is the Real Club Náutico (Royal Sailing Club), built in the Rationalist style in 1928.
San Sebastián’s busy annual calendar of fiestas and festivals kicks off on the stroke of midnight at the start of January 20, the feast day of its namesake saint. Carnival too is celebrated in style, but the two biggest events of the year are the five-day Jazz Festival in late July (943 481 900, jazzaldia.com), which attracts some of the world’s best-known performers and DJs, and the week-long Film Festival in the second half of September (sansebastianfestival.com).