Rei Sancho el Mayor de Navarra (Sancho the Elder) founded the city of Donostia (the Basque name of San Sebastian) around 1180. It is likely, however, that people were settled there prior to the 12th century, possibly in what is now El casco antiguo. That walled medieval area was the beginning of the Parte Vieja (historical quarter, pictured at right), although not much evidence of 12th century architecture remains there. The oldest buildings still standing in San Sebastian were constructed after the 16th Century. Remains of the city wall erected in the 1500s can still be seen at Monte Urgull, El Muelle and the Muralla de la Ciudad, a parking lot unlike any other you've seen.
Due to a huge fire in 1813, few buildings of even the immediately post-16th century era remain standing in San Sebastian. Among the few that do are the Iglesia de San Vicente (Saint Vincent Church), the Basílica de Santa María del Coro and the convent of San Telmo. After the fire, San Sebastians (or "donostiarrak," as the Basques say) began a concerted modernization effort that continued with the demolishing of the city wall, (which had previously served to contain the city's growth), and the forging of city expansion through reclaimed land from the Urumea River, the sand dunes surrounding the city, and the salt marshes. This area of 19th century expansion is referred to as the Area Romántica. Buildings from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that typify this era in the city's history include the Hotel María Cristina, the Teatro Victoria Eugenia (Victoria Eugenia Theater), the grand avenues of "Boulevard" and Francia and the Calle Prim. In these places you'll come to appreciate a rather eclectic style—a reinterpretation of previous architectural styles applied to dwellings built with modern materials.
Be sure you don't miss the seaside promenade and beach of La Concha. La Concha links two important urban areas that are separated in time but not so much in space: the port, whose construction began in the 14th century, and the original outdoor sculptures of Peine de los Vientos, created in 1976 by Basque artist Eduardo Chillida. Along the way you can visit other places of interest such as the Real Club Naútico (Royal Yacht Club), the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), the area of La Perla, the Palacio de Miramar (Miramar Palace), and you can even catch a ride on the funicular for a spectacular view of the city.
The medieval community of Spain was clearly inclined towards commerce and, despite several interruptions over the ages, this activity continues today, as evidenced by San Sebastian's broad selection of cultural, gastronomic, and commercial offerings. From a self-sustaining fishing and farming community in the Middle Ages to a favorite spa resort of European royalty in the 19th Century, San Sebastian today presents a modern image to the world, adapted to the demands of tourism. The city hosts huge events, like the well-known San Sebastian International Film Festival, and boasts new infrastructure developments like the Palacio de Congresos del Kursaal (Kursaal House of Parliament).
Hondarribia, Pasaia & Orio
Once you have visited San Sebastian itself, consider taking in the small townships and villages surrounding the city, which are of significant tourist and cultural interest. Of particular appeal are the surrounding medieval towns, typified by the town of Hondarribia. Here you can see the impressive remains of the city wall, the local church and the Castillo de Carlos V (Castle of Charles V), then take a walk to Monte Jaizkibel. A particularly relaxing place to visit is the village of Pasaia, situated on the edge of the bay of the same name and whose buildings have a charming nautical flavor. To the west of San Sebastian, there are three more coastal settlements worth a visit. One is Orio, with its casco histórico (medieval historical quarter) and busy fishing port. Another is Zarautz, which offers some very accessible tourist sites, such as the Torre Luzea (Luzea Tower), Campanario (bell tower), Itsas Natura (a marine museum), the Photomuseum, and various other ancient and modern monuments. Zarautz is also renowned by surfers for its totally tubular waves. Finally there is Getaria, with its historical quarter, varied choice of pintxos (tapas) and other Basque and Spanish foods, and its port, where people fish for both business and pleasure.
San Sebastian is worth more than a day-trip, but if you only have a day, hit the beach, and don't miss the lively bars and restaurants of the pedestrians-only Parte Vieja. Buen viaje!