Some travel guides claim San Sebastian has the best city beaches in the world. Hello, don't many say the same about Barcelona? Maybe they mean BIG CITY for the latter and MEDIUM CITY in the case of San Sebastian. Anyway, with a claim like that I had to include San Sebastian in my short visit to Spain.
Does it have the best medium city beaches? More on that later.
o q below Mte Urgull stands for the Old Quarter. The business/shopping area is largely between the words "Concha" and "oq". The long distance bus station is near the 5th bridge across the river - local buses terminate all over town. Long and medium distance trains come into the station marked "trains" but there is another station for town and immediate local area sevices opposite the 4th bridge above the "o" of "bus statiOn"
If you click-expand you may be able to see that it is possible to walk along the sand to neighbouring Ondarreta bch when the tide is low.
The above was shot at about 1400 on a weekday and you can see the beach was pretty crowded. When I returned around 1730 there was twice the crowd - seems locals hit the beach en-mass after school/work. And what really impacted was the ATMOSPHERE - I have never arrived at a beach and been hit by the same wall of crowd noise you get when entering a big packed sports stadium. And I've been to Bondi with a heatwave crowd of 40000+ many times.
LA ZURRIOLA BEACH
This is where the nudists go - I found them concentrated up the far end close to the river break-wall. But there were only a few dozen with more "textiles" in that section and as usual no-one gave a damn.
Note Monte Urgull background right from where you can get great views of all beaches. To its left in far background is Monte Igueldo at the western end of Concha Bay.
Board hire and surfing lessons are available at Zurriola.
So does San Sebastian have the world's best city beaches (medium city division)? Not if quality of sand, number and variety of beaches, water quality and beach weather* are the deciders. The place I grew up in, Wollongong, would blow it out of the water. So would several other SE Australian cities like the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast-Noosa, Newcastle and Gosford-Wyong. But like Barcelona, if we are talking facilities and ease of access for the bulk of residents San Sebastian maybe rates right up there. And we haven't yet included the ATMOSPHERE I mentioned.
*I'm underwhelmed by Basque country weather. It is in a zone which gets variable summer weather which puts it at a great disadvantage to Spain's Mediterranean which has more consistently warm dry days in that season. True, my home region in Australia has also a variable summer weather, but being at a lower latitude it is much more pleasant when a cold front passes thru. And I can't remember the last time at home when the mid-summer sea breeze was so strong (and cool) its unpleasantness made me avoid the beach.
Now a major tourist attraction with its castle, chapel, towering statue of Christ, museum, winding paths thru nice gardens and fabulous outlook over both bays and the city, Mte Urgull historically has been a major defensive position when the city had been under attact from the sea.
Recent work has created more access points for the hill - I wandered along the seaside road on the opposite side in the shot below until I came to a path leading uphill. You can see the descent I made to the marina area bottom-right.
SOME GOOD VIEWS FROM URGULL
STATUE OF CHRIST
The imposing hill on the western headland of Concha Bay is a good one to ascend for 3 reasons - exercise, good views and the amusement/theme park up top (if that sort of thing floats yer boat. I'm underwhelmed). There is also a rather flash hotel.
When climbing by road, the first half is through a pretty flash neighbourhood. Look for stairway shortcuts between the road's zig-zags. It's a good steady climb on the road, people of average fitness will not be troubled - only the shortish stairways can be described as steep.
There are some pretty good views on the way up.......
.....and from the top:
SAN SEBASTIAN TO PASAIA/SAN PEDRO TREK
THE OLD QUARTER
San Sebastian's old town, nestled below Mt Urgull on the narrow peninsula between La Concha and the river at Zurriol's nth, is a good place to spend time.
The place gets busy in the late afternoon and tends to be packed at night.
MY DIGS IN SAN SEBASTIAN
I was after a good value place close to the beaches which had reasonably good user reviews. My search of booking sites led me to the conclusion that accommodation in San Sebastian tends to be more expensive than my other destination. Kaxio Backpackers' seemed to be one of the better deals and certainly filled my other requirements. I wrote the following review for the booking site:
"Good location in the old town close to transport, beaches and a host of restaurant/bars. Nice owners based in downstairs restaurant (a good place to spend time) and the cleaner guy is a gem. Bathrooms small but clean. Good kitchen. But the place is overpriced - my single room was a very compact windowless dog-box at a similar price to a typical package room in a Mallorca resort (TV, aircon, big pool and awesome buffet breakfast) a few days before. The washing machine cost 5 euro with no hand-washing facilities."
ZARAUZ aka ZARAUTZ
With over a week in the area I was keen to see a bit more of the coast. Biarritz in France is not all that far but I kinda think the French insistence on only speaking French at international tourist destinations maybe doesn't deserve my Aussie dollars. Zarauz, which is closer, has a reputation of being a good surfing beach with a naturist section so I thought I'd move there for a few days.
I'm an older dude but places like this don't phase me - as an ex-surfer and current frequent backpacker I tend to fit in okay, particularly as my policy is to keep a low profile and check the scene.
Stoke Travel offers some other deals: they do a surfari along the Basque coast and into south west France - I reckon this would be a great way to see/surf legendary spots like Mundaka, Biarritz and Hossegor. Stoke also have a party boat out of Barcelona. Sounds like fun.
My other criticism was cost - higher than a comfy bed in a backpacker joint back home - and Australia is an expensive place these days with its overvalued exchange rate.
You can just see some of the surf boards in background above. There seemed to be one for everybody - from plenty of big high flotation learner boards to some rather nice looking short boards for experts - although I didn't detect any gun surfers.
I'm not a big fan of these big open featureless beaches - I like mine compact with lighter sand, no settlement and book-ended with forested headlands.
BTW these crap small wave conditions are ideal for surf schools - it's harder to learn when the waves are big, fast and tubing.
If you check the headland in the background you will be able to see the lower parts of the walking track up to the camping area - about 10 minutes total.
RATING AND RANKING SAN SEBASTIAN.
I really enjoyed my visit to San Sebastian. I found the city beaches fun and unique in atmosphere, the montes well worth the climb, the trek to Pasaia excellent, the old quarter the usual old town good value, Stoke Surf Camp a bit of a blast, the general Zarauz area worth the time and people watching excellent. I rate it an A.
BUT make that an A-. Whereas my other places of visit in Spain all rank higher: Tossa de Mar A+ with Ibiza, Mallorca and Barcelona all an A.
I think San Sebastian's reputation as an "in'' destination with trendoids and the "it" crowd may make other people rank it higher than me. The film festival and being named European Culture Capital 2016 (in 2011! How does that work?) could well give it kudos with the arty set and culture vultures even if they can't visit at key times, fashionistas may be attracted by the rep of the high end boutiques, foodies by the "superior" tapas/pintxos and unique basque dishes, history buffs by the old quarter and Moto Castle. This "in" place factor may explain why accommodation and many other prices* in San Seb are higher on average than my other destination.
But my experience is that all my other destinations apart from Barcelona have nicer beaches and better sea water. I think culture vultures and artistic types will find Barcleona way superior. History buffs will find more of interest in the other areas....
....fashionistas more variety and better value in Barcelona and more exclusivity in Ibiza. I thought Ibiza's and Tossa's old quarters more attractive. People watching is better in Ibiza and no worse in the others. Scenery is better in all others bar Barcelona - and there you can find wonderful scenery a short day trip away. Ditto trekking. But only Tossa beats San Sebastian for trekking immediately out of town.
I forgot ragers. No doubt San Seb has some great nightlife venues but Ibiza, Mallorca and Barcelona have more and better.
I have already mentioned the superior weather in the south. This isn't based on the times of my visit only - I'm a weather/climate nerd and have a real good idea about long term weather conditions in all these regions.
Some of you are maybe thinking I'm downrating San Sebastian on account of the limited nudist area at Zuriola and lack of naturists at Zarauz. But if you look at the rest of this blog you will find most reports are on my favourite destinations of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. No nude beaches there, so lack of same is not something I down-rate a place on.
Okay all this is merely my subjective opinion based on excessively short visits of all places. People who know all areas may well rate and rank differently. It would be neat if you could post in below giving your opinion.
*gotta praise the low public bus prices, at least for longer trips. Hell, I went 25km from San Sebastian's airport near the French border into town for about 2.20 euro. The buses back from Pasaia after the trek and to Zarauz were similarly inexpensive..
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