Posted by: Bryan McArdle | January 12, 2010

Bare Neccesities: Living in San Sebastian, Spain

My friend Andy, who studied abroad in San Sebastian before I did, gave me one piece of advice before I left.“Bryan,” he said. “Bring a raincoat, a good raincoat. Not one of those water resistant things, I mean a real raincoat. You’ll thank me later.” So I did, and I’ve been forever grateful.

It can be difficult, frustrating and annoying if you’re not prepared to study abroad. But how can you prepare for a new environment if you know nothing about it? So, just as Andy passed advice to me, I will pass advice on to others. Keep in mind that I don’t do this for a living. Telling people what to do and what to bring when they travel is not my job. Leave that to travel guides. I’m just someone who has lived in San Sebastian temporarily and has figured out a few things about this beautiful town.

The Basque Country

Basic things you need to know about San Sebastian (or Donostia to the Basques). First, San Sebastian is located in the Basque Country, or Pais Vasco. It is important that you refer to San Sebastian as being in the Basque Country and not Spain because at the moment some people want Pais Vascos to be a separate country, and they don’t consider themselves part of Spain.

Many people who live in San Sebastian are Basque and speak Basque, which is a very difficult and different language, and few speak English. I found that the people here seem cold at first, but once they warm up they are extremely nice.

San Sebastian is on the north coast of Spain, a fifteen-minute drive from the French border. The town is divided into four main sections. Parte Vieja is the old section of town with the most bars per square foot in the world. Gros, which is across the river, Amara, and Centro. Once you get settled in you should take a walk around town and get to know the area. Don’t worry about where you will live because everyone lives at the most a ten-minute walk from the beach. In the summer San Sebastian is beautiful and the beaches are crowded. In the winter and spring expect some (a lot) of rain, but it doesn’t get too cold.

Settling in

I assume that most students who are going to San Sebastian to study abroad have never been before and are not fluent in the language. This can be the first and worst problem. Asking questions and directions isn’t easy when you and the informer don’t understand each other. When all else fails try hand motions, and sign language.

If you’re lucky enough to get directions finding the place can be another hassle. So I suggest you find a friend who speaks Spanish or has lived here for a while ASAP. The study abroad office is also a good place to get help.

When you arrive you will either get an apartment or live with a family. Families have everything ready for you so you don’t need to buy sheets, food, furniture or decorations. But you get the language barrier thrown in your face from the moment you walk in. Families cook all the meals but have a strict schedule. Usually lunch is at 1:30 and dinner at 8:00. Families are a great way to learn the culture and the language in a more social environment.

If you get an apartment you’ll have a little work ahead of you. Apartments usually come furnished but lack sheets, towels and worse, food. So if you want to sleep and eat the first day you have to get started right away. You can bring sheets from home or buy some at a linen store. Don’t expect to see a Best Buy or Wal Mart. If you need appliances there are second hand stores around town. I recommend Cash Converters in Gros.

Where to Shop

Unlike the large American stores, most stores (tiendas) here specialize in specific items. Fruit is sold at a “Fruiteria,” bread at a “Panderia,” meat at a “Carneceria,” etc. It can take a while to complete a grocery list. These places are everywhere so it’s easy to shop, but it takes some planning. You might find a place that carries a little of everything. For toiletries you can go to a pharmacy or a place called Denok that carries toothpaste, soap, deodorant and shampoo, etc. Some things you might want to bring from home are Kool Aid mix, peanut butter, hot sauce and ranch dressing because these things are difficult to find.


When you know what you need you can’t just run out and get it. Spain has “descanso,” or “siesta,” which is a time from around 1:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon when everything closes and people go home to rest and eat lunch. This can get in the way of shopping, but remember that you get to siesta too, so enjoy it. Only restaurants and bars stay open during siesta. Generally stores open at 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. and close around 8:00 p.m., close early on Saturdays and are closed all day on Sundays.

Phoning Home

Once settled in and organized you’ll most likely want to call or write someone telling them about your new place. The cheapest way to call home is to buy a Eurocity phone card. Six euros, which is almost equal to six dollars, will get you an hour and a half of talk time to the US – a great deal. You can buy these cards as well as postage stamps at a local Tabaco, little stores marked with a yellow and black leaf. Some students buy cellular phones (mobiles) because having a house line in Spain is very expensive.


Getting around San Sebastian is easy because city buses go everywhere in town and are very frequent. A trip cost 0.80 centimos if you pay cash. The alternative is to get a Kutxa card, a smart card that you can add money to and use on buses for only 0.50 centimos. That will save you a lot of money in the long run. You can get the card at the main Kutxa bank near Plaza Gipuzkoa; they will show you how to add money to it.

Other students have bought bikes at second hand stores for very cheap, around 40 euros. This is a great way to get around town. Most people in San Sebastian walk everywhere. With a bike you can ride along the beach to school or get where you need to be without taking the bus.

Night Life

Now we get to the fun part. Where to party? The nightlife in San Sebastian is based around the old area, Parte Vieja. Parte Vieja includes about five square blocks of pedestrian-only narrow streets, with bars every five feet. Friday and Saturday nights the streets are crammed with people. You could go to four bars every weekend and still not see them all in one semester. The bars close around 2:30 a.m. and that’s when the discos open. The two main discos are Bataplan and Rotunda, and both are right on La Concha Beach. There is a cover but well worth it. Don’t be surprised if you get back to your place when the sun is rising. The Spanish and Basque know how to party.

Free Time

On the weekends you might want to travel to Bilbao and see the famous Guggenheim Museum, known for its unusual architecture. Bilbao is only an hour west by bus and costs 10 euros round trip from the bus station in Amara.

Biarritz, France is an hour east and is also a great day trip. In San Sebastian you can always go to the beach, or hike to the statue of Jesus on Mount Urgall and get a great panoramic view of town and La Concha. Near the port is a small but impressive aquarium. Walking around town is a daily ritual. Walk along the Playa de la Concha and see the Wind Combs at the east end. If you like to surf the best beach is Zurriola beach in Gros.

That is all the advice I have. I hope it will be useful. If I forgot something, don’t worry; half the fun of studying abroad is being confused and figuring things out yourself. If you need to know something don’t be afraid to ask around, people here are nice and will try to help. So that’s it. Don’t forget to bring a raincoat, and an umbrella. They will come in handy; trust me, you’ll thank me later.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: