The Perfect San Sebastian Day Trip from Bilbao

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by Maggie Turansky

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If you only have a limited time in the Basque Country and want to visit some of the most iconic cities, planning a San Sebastian day trip can be a great option.

While it is always preferable to plan to spend 2 or 3 days in San Sebastian to really get the essence of the city, you can very much still get a good feel for the place in the span of a day.

Due to its compact nature, San Sebastian is easy to navigate and definitely digestible for a day. While you won’t have the time to dig deeper and get a bit off the beaten path, you can still fit in all of the highlights (and eat your fair share of pintxos!) if you only have time for a day trip to San Sebastian.

Getting from Bilbao to San Sebastian

There are a few ways to get from Bilbao to San Sebastian, either an organised tour, public transport or your own car.

La Concha Beach in San Sebastian
La Concha Beach in San Sebastian

By Tour

If you’re not interested in dealing with the planning or the logistics of organising a day trip to San Sebastian on your own, then planning to go via tour is an excellent choice. There are countless day tours to choose from that can suit different tastes.

For instance, this full-day tour will take you on a walking tour of San Sebastian before moving onto the town of Hondarribia and across the border into the French Basque towns of St Jean de Luz and Biarritz.

This is a lot to pack into a day (especially when considering how much there is to do in San Sebastian itself) but it can be an option for those who want to see a lot in a short period of time.

If you want a less hectic day tour, then this tour from Bilbao will take you to the towns of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and Getaria before reaching San Sebastian for a guided walking tour.

Another great option is this small-group tour which includes pick-up and drop-off in Bilbao. It will take you around San Sebastian and will also include a few coastal stops including Getaria and Orio. You can also book this private tour which offers a similar experience.

By Bus

If you’d rather go independently to San Sebastian (which is ideal if you want to spend more time getting to know the city itself, rather than simply getting a bit of a taste), then going by bus is an excellent option. Numerous buses depart from Bilbao and arrive in San Sebastian daily and it is easy to coordinate.

The bus journey will take about 1.5 hours and there are multiple connections per day, so it is relatively easy to be flexible if this is the route you take. The bus station in San Sebastian is located close to the city centre so you can begin exploring as soon as you arrive.

If you’re travelling in the busier season (or really, any time of year), it can be a good idea to book your tickets in advance. You can check schedules and purchase bus tickets here.

Alderdi Eder Park & San Sebastian City Hall
Alderdi Eder Park & San Sebastian City Hall

By Train

Unfortunately, there are not currently direct trains running between Bilbao and San Sebastian, so this isn’t an available option when planning your day trip. If you want to go independently via public transport, the bus is going to be by far the best option.

By Car

If you want ultimate flexibility and freedom when visiting San Sebastian independently, then renting a car and driving yourself can be a great option.

While you certainly don’t need a car in the San Sebastian city centre (in fact, much of it is pedestrianised and it is much easier to get around on foot, anyway), there are many places to stop at on the Bilbao to San Sebastian drive that can be worthwhile along with the city itself.

If you plan to get an early start, you can easily make a stop or two on your drive while still being able to enjoy a lot of the activities listed below.

If you do want to hire a car, then I recommend browsing to compare prices across several different car hire companies.

View from Gros to central San Sebastian
View from Gros to central San Sebastian

San Sebastian Day Trip Itinerary

Without further ado, this is what to do if you are planning to spend 1 day in San Sebastian. All of these sites are easily reached on foot, meaning that you likely won’t need to use public transit at all.

See the San Sebastian Cathedral

Begin your day in San Sebastian’s central neighbourhood and visit the beautiful Cathedral of the Good Shepherd – the main cathedral in San Sebastian.

Contrary to many of the other major churches in the city, this one is relatively new and was only constructed at the end of the 19th century, though in a beautiful Neo-Gothic style.

This cathedral is a great starting point for exploring San Sebastian because it effectively marks the starting point of the historic centre.

One kilometre away lies the Basilica of St Mary of Coro in the old town, one of the major churches in that area of the city and a much older church than this cathedral.

San Sebastian Cathedral
San Sebastian Cathedral

Browse Basque Produce at the San Martín Market

After making a stop at the cathedral, as you wander further into the city centre, you will come across the San Martín Market.

This market is easy to miss as it is situated on the bottom floors of a shopping centre and not in a market hall like in nearby Bilbao, but it is still very much worth visiting.

Obviously, San Sebastian is known for its cuisine and at the peak of that is how fresh and local the ingredients are. Where are said ingredients purchased? The market!

Market culture is incredibly pervasive throughout Spain and it can be a great cultural insight. Visiting the San Martín market is also a great idea to see just how much fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and more there are on offer.

Walking through San Sebastian's city centre
Walking through San Sebastian’s city centre

Wander the Old Town

Now it’s time to head into the Old Town of San Sebastion – the most popular place to visit in the city. The Old Town is small, but there is a lot to see and plenty of small winding streets to wander down that you could easily spend a few hours here taking in all of the sites.

If you want to ensure that you don’t miss a thing, it can be a good idea to hop on a free walking tour (Go Local San Sebastian offers a great one) or even go on a paid guided tour through the city to get the right historic context from a licensed guide.

Regardless of whether or not you choose to go on a walking tour, there are a few highlights in the Old Town not to miss. I’ve already mentioned the Basilica of St Mary of Coro, but also make sure to check out the Church of St Vincent.

And, of course, you cannot visit any Spanish Old Town without admiring the central plaza, and the lovely Plaza de la Constitución is no exception. Like many Spanish plazas, the square was once the site of bullfights but today it is lined with restaurants and cafes.

And, moving over to the seaside, take the time to admire the lovely Alderdi Eder Park with its old-style carousel and lovely views over La Concha Bay and the beach. There are also beautifully landscaped gardens that are especially beautiful in the springtime.

Plaza de la Constitución
Plaza de la Constitución

Indulge in Pintxos

After all of your morning sightseeing, it’s likely that you’ve worked up quite an appetite. Luckily for you, you happen to be visiting one of the best cities in the world to be hungry in!

One of the absolute top activities to do in San Sebastian is to experience their pintxos culture, and that is just what you should be doing for lunch!

If you want to stay in the Old Town, there are countless amazing bars to choose from. Note that you should only plan to order one or two dishes (off the menu, not the cold ones behind the counter!) at a bar before moving onto the next one. And make sure to wash it all down with a local cider or a glass of txakoli – a locally effervescent white wine.

Many bars in the Old Town can be overpriced and lower quality, but there are plenty of great spots to enjoy, as well. Head to Bar Txepetxa for fresh, local anchovies. Bar Nestor has an amazing tomato salad, padrón peppers and you can also indulge in T-bone steak known locally as a txuleta.

La Cuchara de San Telmo is another fantastic stop that has an excellent pulpo Gallego (Galician octopus) and Bodra Berri is a rustic stop that does an excellent orzo risotto among other local specialities.

These are just some of the amazing places to eat in the Old Town and you will be wishing that you could spend a bit more time in San Sebastian simply to continue eating at all of these delicious bars!

If you want to learn more about Basque cuisine and pintxos, then consider going on a guided food tour where you can get a bit more context.

Pintxos & Cider from Bar Txepetxa
Pintxos & Cider from Bar Txepetxa

Stroll La Concha Promenade

Now that you’re likely full to bursting on delicious Basque specialities, a good walk is just what the doctor ordered. And there is no place better to do this than along La Concha Promenade.

This vast promenade spans La Concha Bay and Beach and takes you all the way to Monte Igeldo and the famed “Comb of the Wind” sculpture.

The promenade is flat and wide, meaning that it is perfect for a leisurely stroll. There are also plenty of benches, so you can go ahead and take a rest on your walk should you want to!

The promenade is about 2.5 kilometres long, so it only takes about thirty minutes to walk along it. Near the end of La Concha Beach, you will also come across Miramar Palace, the former summer residence for the Spanish Royal Family that is now used as an event space.

While you cannot tour the palace itself, its beautiful gardens are open to visitors free of charge – it’s worth the stop!

Miramar Palace
Miramar Palace

Ride the Funicular to Monte Igeldo

At the end of La Concha Promenade, you will find yourself at the base of Monte Igeldo, where you will find signs leading you to an early 20th-Century funicular.

This cable car is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe and is an experience in and of itself to ride – and it’s definitely worth it.

Once you’ve ridden the funicular to the top of the hill, you will be greeted with some of the most spectacular views of San Sebastian, La Concha Bay and Santa Clara Island below.

The top of the hill is also home to a small amusement park which houses a number of rides and games – including a classic, wooden roller coaster that juts out over the cliffs and the sea below!

This is the perfect place to get some amazing photographs and an ideal way to end your day in San Sebastian.

View of San Sebastian from Monte Igeldo
View of San Sebastian from Monte Igeldo

Where to Stay in Bilbao

Hotel Gran Bilbao – If you’re hunting for a luxury hotel in Bilbao, then this is a great option. Located within easy reach of the city’s main sites and attractions, they have plush rooms to ensure you’re well-rested for your time in Northern Spain!

Hotel Bed4U Bilbao – This hotel is an excellent option if you’re travelling on a mid-range budget but are still after something comfortable, clean and trendy. They have a central location within easy reach of the main attractions and even have an on-site bar and fitness centre.

Latroupe la Granja – For the backpackers, budget and solo travellers out there, this hostel is the perfect choice if you’re after a great social atmosphere are a good price. They offer both private and dorm rooms (all ensuite), have a great location and are plenty of common areas to make meeting other travellers easy.

Private Rental – If you want to live like a local in Bilbao, then a private apartment rental is an excellent choice. There are lots of properties to choose from – like this modern flat in the Old Town – that can suit all kinds of travel styles and budgets.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Bilbao hotels!

Bilbao's Colourful Buildings
Bilbao’s Colourful Buildings

Planning a San Sebastian day trip from Bilbao can seem a bit overwhelming when considering all of the amazing things there are to do in the city. Though spending as much time in San Sebastian as possible is always a good idea, this route can help you get the most out of the city in a short period of time.

Are you planning a to visit San Sebastian? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

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