Almost everyone I met told me San Sebastián is the rainiest part of Spain. But I didn’t believe it until now. Since I’ve gotten off that Vibasa bus from Barcelona, all I’ve ever seen are gray clouds, wet pavements and people ducking into shops to avoid the cold drizzle. It is springtime here in San Sebastián, about 14 degrees Celsius and it rains frequently. It isn’t the beach destination I was hoping for. Tell me again why I chose this over Ibiza?
The next day was worse. On my 21st day in Spain, my host Maria and I were greeted by the cold morning wind as we rushed out of her apartment. She had gone to work and I was left to explore the city on my own. With an open mind, I threw expectation to the Cantabrian wind and hoped that life and this wet and charming city was giving me what I needed.
While I didn’t have amazing beach weather when I was in San Sebastián that was no deterrent from falling in love with this place. It only took one day.
The charms of San Sebastián
Tucked in the Basque Country close to the French border, Donostia-San Sebastián (official name) is made up of a series of beaches linked together by well-designed boulevards as well as an eclectic city center.
From June to September the population here swells as hundreds of Spaniards escape the heat and head for this regional capital.
On a stroll through the city’s Parte Vieja (Old Quarter), I found its cobblestone streets bursting with life and the constant coming and going of passersby. Even in the rain, the atmospheric street, Fermín Calbetón drew locals for pintxos. At dusk, the bars and restaurants filled up with both the young and old. Here you eat pintxos instead of tapas—stuffed piquillo peppers, txangurro (spider crab) and ham croquettes, pulpo gallego—all dreamed up by a Basque chef.
Everywhere you look is a matter of bounty and excess, friends losing themselves in food and conversation and vino. It seemed to me that you haven’t lived until you’ve spent a day bar-hopping in the Old Quarter of San Sebastián getting drunk off some of the best wines in the world (at lunch hour) and getting filled off little bite-size pieces of heaven.
Zurriola beach. 14 degrees at 4pm. The cold and the shivers found home in different parts of my body. The sand was still damp from the morning rain.
Maria told me people come to the “Zurri”—which is the in name for the beach amongst Donostia’s young people—to move and burn off some energy. Its waves attract surfing enthusiasts throughout the year and in the summertime it is the site of a series of championships. I was told that this dynamism is precisely what gives the beach its appeal. But on that spring afternoon, there were not more than 20 people on the 800 meters of shoreline that Zurriola occupies. Not much surfing or beach volleyball going on—just couples engaged in quiet conversation, a sprinkling of blonde surfers braving the waves and some dreamers staring longingly into the sea.
Moments tripped gently along here. For me it was spent writing postcards to friends and family, wishing they were with me to watch the sun set. It was one of those days I never wanted to see the end of.
Another day, another beach
The sun had finally come out of its hiding on my second day in the city. Sparing no moment indoors, I rushed to the less packed Ondaretta Beach, which is situated between Mount Igueldo and Miramar Palace Gardens.
The city has three beaches: the Playa de la Concha, Ondaretta and the Playa de Gros or Zurriola. La Concha is probably the prettiest, with a wide crescent of sand stretching around the bay, but it’s also the busiest. Ondaretta is less packed and considered to be the best beach for swimming. The atmosphere here is calmer than La Concha’s bikini party atmosphere, and locals call the beach La Diplomática.
The beach was as colorful as it can ever get—candy-striped beach tents, umbrellas and lounge chairs dotted the shoreline. Families basked in the warm glow of the sun. I lingered for a while; contemplating how cold it will be as soon as I hit the water. I promised myself I’d take a dip no matter what. But I was still fully clothed and my teeth chattered. Just do it, I thought. The Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic Ocean, will I ever experience this again?
So I braved the cold water for several minutes. I called it the polar bear dip—the water was so cold it made my jaw ache. It’s lovely, it’s invigorating. But interestingly cold water robs the body of heat 32 times faster than cold air and physical exercise like swimming causes the body to lose heat much faster. I was freezing.
They’ve probably never seen anyone—an Asian for that matter—sprint that fast from the beach.
The sea is its protagonist
As the wealthiest city in the Basque region, San Sebastián exudes an air of casual cool and understated elegance. While the city dates back nearly a millennium, it is extremely modern and sophisticated. The streets are lined with palm, orange and rose trees, and maintained by the more obvious general wealth of the city’s population.
Elegant iron fences and lavish globe streetlamps border its seaside villas and fancy residences. Its Playa de la Concha is just as perfect in reality as it is in a postcard.
The Bay of Biscay gives them everything. San Sebastián’s enduring marriage to the sea is shown in the locals’ daily encounters—from the freshest seafood to its picturesque port to its natural and historical heritage, and even the lively beat of the city.
Perhaps it was the sea breeze or misty rain that soaks all the corners of the city, but there was something about San Sebastián that makes you long to live there. Or maybe it’s the food-rich geography, a scallop-shaped coastline sandwiched between the fertile sea and mountainous farmlands.
Whatever its magic is, the city is accessible, cosmopolitan and stunning all at once. Even in the gloomy weather, it’s impossible to lay eyes on the city and not wish you were Donostian too.