Wandering the Beaches In San Sebastian

Today we are talking Beaches in San Sebastian, which ones you should visit, and the best things to do when you get there so grab a drink and start planning your time in the sun!

San Sebastián (Donostia in the Basque language) is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. A place brimming with culture, gastronomy, and a proud national identity is capped by a series of picture-perfect beaches.

My definitive image of San Sebastián is of the mouth of the Urumea river, which surges through the city center and divides the city’s beaches.

I don’t know any other city that has this juxtaposition of coast and river, and it offers us a really easy way to orient ourselves: as I take you along the coast, we are going to start to the east of the Urumea and gradually head west.

Playa de Zurriola

Zurrilola Beach is the easternmost of the beaches of San Sebastian and arguably the trendiest and rowdiest of San Sebastian’s beaches.

People in distance enjoying a sunny day at Zurriola Beach in San Sebastian
Enjoying a sunny day at Zurriola Beach in San Sebastian

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The north coast of Spain is well known for surfing, and Zurriola Beach is at the heart of the city’s surf scene, frequented by brave souls in wetsuits bracing themselves before venturing out into the Atlantic’s waves. There are a number of surfing schools offering courses (as well as competitions) if you want to join their ranks.

This beach was modernized in the 1990s, and ever since has been the center of a lot of the coast’s more physical activities.

Fun zone

For those who prefer drier sports, Zurriola beach is also the most likely spot if you want to join impromptu games of beach football and volleyball.

As you can imagine, all this physical activity means Zurriola tends to attract a lot of young people. It might be a little too rambunctious if what you are after is a quiet swim.

Having said that, the sand here is welcoming: finely grained and soft, and it offers you the chance to wander off the beach through the local Gros district of the Parte Vieja (old town), watching locals stroll by, surfboard in hand.

Wandering the beaches in San Sebastian

And here there are, thankfully, less taxing activities to be found. Bar Roberto (General Artetxe Kalea 2), just a few blocks from the seafront, is a city-wide famous spot for a vermut.

A river runs through it

Leaving Zurriola beach means crossing the river, and speaking as someone who lives in Barcelona, whose two rivers course sheepishly down the outskirts of the city, it’s a real pleasure to see this wide, blue expanse of water sweeping through the city center to join the ocean.

Scenic view of a bridge over the River Urumea in San Sebastian with surrounding buildings
Bridge over River Urumea with cityscape, San Sebastian

Located between the river and the Bahía de la Concha there is a seafront, and because we are heading east-to-west this can make for some gorgeous photos of the sunset in the evening.

Playa de la Concha beach

Playa de La Concha (spelled Kontxa in Basque – they love k’s and x’s!) is probably San Sebastián’s most famous and photographed beach. Named after its shell-like curvature, La Concha beach makes up most of Bahía de la Concha (La Concha Bay) and has a lot going for it.

While not particularly wide – at high tide, the sea reaches the wall of the boardwalk – it is almost a mile long and most times of day you will see people walking along its length. Looking out seawards, the ocean blue is punctuated by lush greenery – to the right is Mount Urgull, a 123m-tall hill complete with a fortress and to the left is Santa Clara island.

While “Spain’s best beaches” would be a competitive category, there is something about these features that sets San Sebastián apart, giving it (on a sunny day) an almost Caribbean feeling.

Looking inland, one can see how long this view has attracted the great and the good of Spain, including Queen María Cristina, as a plush summer residence.

It’s a very elegant seafront, relatively old-fashioned by Spanish standards, perhaps more reminiscent of the French Riviera in summer. Here the boardwalk, Kontxa Pasealekua, teems with life at all times of the day.

Ondarreta Beach

Ondarreta Beach is also found in La Concha Bay. It is separated from Playa de la Concha by El Pico del Loro – a rocky outcropping meaning “The Parrot’s Beak”.

A few people in a distance enjoying the evening at Ondarreta Beach in San Sebastian
People enjoying the evening at Ondarreta Beach in San Sebastian

The beach stretches out a further 600 meters along the western end of the bay, towards Monte Igueldo (Igeldo in Basque), the other green hillside which booksends this beautiful bay.

Of all San Sebastián’s beaches, Ondarreta beach is the one most favored by families. While it is still common to see beach tennis and volleyball here, it is less active than Zurriola beach, and surfers don’t tend to come this far along unless the weather is stormy.

It is probably the part of the coast best equipped with all the necessities for a family day out, including toilets, showers, and lockers. But that makes it a very popular destination too, so don’t expect acres of space to yourself.

View of Monte Igueldo and Santa Clara Island from Ondarreta Beach
Monte Igueldo and Santa Clara island as seen from Ondarreta beach.

This brings us to the end of the city’s three beaches, but it is worth continuing along the coast to discover some of the city’s most photographed monuments.

El Peine del Viento XV (Haizearen orrazia in Basque) are three steel sculptures that weigh over nine tons. Meaning “The Comb of the Wind”, Chilean artist Eduardo Chillida had them anchored to the rocks, where they are buffeted by the wind and the sea on San Sebastian’s stormy days.

The Comb of the Wind sculpture on rocky shore
The Comb of the Wind by Chilean artist Eduardo Chillida

The XV refers to the number 15, as it was originally part of 23 sets of sculptures dotted throughout the world.​ Igueldo itself is worth a hike up, offering breathtaking views of the bay.

Santa Clara Island Beach

Out in the middle of the ocean, it’s easy to imagine that Santa Clara Island is off limits, perhaps a national park or a no-go zone.

Scenic Santa Clara Island on a lovely summer day
Santa Clara Island on a beautiful summer day

Happily, that is not the case, it’s open during the summer months and there are a number of ways to get there: by boat, kayak, stand-up paddleboard and kayak. Some even make the 500m swim!

There are very few buildings on the island: a chiringuito (beach bar)/restaurant, a small dock, and a lighthouse at the end of a winding hillside trail. The dock is the point of arrival on the island, which offers a lovely, rare opportunity to see San Sebastián’s coast from a reverse angle.

There is only a small beach – even at low tide it is 30m wide, but that is perhaps part of its charm. At high tide, a natural pool is formed at the end of the beach as seawater floods in.

The island can get surprisingly crowded in summer, and the beach bar can have a bit of a party vibe.

Local tip: If you would prefer a little peace and quiet, taking the path up to the lighthouse will lead you away from the crowds, and there are picnic tables along the way.

This is also the way to go if you are looking out for wildlife. This area, on the highest point of the island, offers great views of the Cantabrian Sea, and it is common to see birdwatchers glued to their binoculars in quieter corners.