Cecilia’s walking tour of Donostia – San Sebastián, Spain

Cecilia Garmendia Torres / Cheesemonger @ Elkano-1 Gaztagune, former owner & cheese maker at Lamp Post Cheese, Ohio, USA.


I grew up in Madrid but my Dad is from Donostia and all his family still lives here. After 20 years between France and the US, two years ago, I decided to move to San Sebastián to have a simpler life. Although life doesn’t leave you alone, I am thankful to be in such a beautiful city, near family and friends, the sea, the mountains and good food.

Now, I live and work near the Old Town. These are some of my favorite places.

I am a cheesemonger at Elkano-1 Gaztagune, a small modern cheese shop located at the number 1 of Elkano street near the Old Town and at 5 min walking to the beautiful La Concha beach. “Gaztagune” is an invented word that means cheese corner. In my opinion, it’s a very accurate name. We carry over 70 different cheeses from the Basque Country, Spain and all over Europe. We give personalized attention to our customers that can be neighbors, locals or tourists that spend only a few days in town. We are also producers of sheep milk cheeses and I think this gives us a different perspective on how we approach cheese and how we care for it.I grew up in Madrid but my Dad is from Donostia and all his family still lives here. After 20 years between France and the US, two years ago, I decided to move to San Sebastián to have a simpler life. Although life doesn’t leave you alone, I am thankful to be in such a beautiful city, near family and friends, the sea, the mountains and good food.

One of the places I enjoy visiting is the Traditional Market called “La Bretxa”. Because most of the stalls close around 2 pm, you need to go in the morning. Let’s start with breakfast! Let’s be honest. Breakfast in San Sebastián sucks. You can find a few good breakfast places with avocado toasts and egg Benedict but that is not the way people really eat breakfast. Here, breakfast usually means a coffee with toast or something sweet. Simple and quick. You know that by noon it’s aperitivo time and you will have a snack again so you don’t need to stuff your face in the morning.

Bar Tanger is an old bar, with high ceilings and an air of Belle Epoque with the marble table tops and the big windows. I love going there because you find local people reading the newspaper and because from the big windows you can see the magnificent Hotel Maria Cristina. It is a good place to start.

After breakfast, you can walk towards the Urumea river between the Teatro Maria Eugenia and the Hotel Maria Cristina. Both buildings were built in 1912 when the city was buzzing with rich visitors like the Spanish Royal family, the aristocracy and artists that wanted to accompany them. Since the 1950’s, the Hotel has hosted movie stars that come for the International Film Festival like Fellini, Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, more recently Woody Allen, Juliette Binoche, Brad Pitt, of course Javier Bardem and the list goes on and on.

I love seeing the view of the buildings across the river and the contrast with the Modernism of the Kursaal, two huge, gray blocks. You can imagine that a lot of people got very upset when they were built in 1999!

Walking along the river towards the sea, you will arrive at the Old town and you can reach La Bretxa market. Back in the 1700s the town was fortified. During one of the many wars in the 1800s, the wall was destroyed in one location. Bretxa means breach. Two buildings were constructed in 1870 to host the market. Nowadays, none of the buildings host the traditional market anymore and the area is in a never ending renovation. The farmers are located in the space between the 2 buildings and the rest of the market is underground. The market is not Instagramable but it is worth the visit. More than 70 stands including butchers, fishmongers, cheese stands, vegetables, fruits, olives, pickles. Here is where local chefs come to buy fresh, in season ingredients. Surprisingly, in town the butcher is where you go buy your cheese. Most of them sell Idiazabal, which is one of the Basque DOP (protected origin denominations). It is a raw sheep’s milk aged at least 2 months and it can be smoked or not. 

After the market visit, you can take San Juan Kalea to reach the stairs to go up to Urgull Mount. On the way, you’ll pass by San Vicente church that is worth visiting. By the end of San Juan Kalea, there is the Zuloaga plaza where you will see the stairs. Urgull is probably my favorite place in all of San Sebastian. It is a wooded hill that oversees the Old Town and you can wander around ruins of old walls and the castle that used to protect the city from attacks coming from the sea. There are many trails to explore the hill. 

Here is one possibility:

Go up the stairs from the Zuloaga square, follow the trail upwards until you cross a stone arch. Keep straight and you will see the sea on your right hand. I love the view of the Zurriola from there. I am always amazed that you don’t hear any noise from the city anymore, just the waves breaking at the bottom of the hill. Old walls covered in moss and likens surround you.  If you keep walking, you will find a small cemetery on your left. British soldiers that participated in the many battles against the French are buried there and hence the name of the “English Cemetery”. Keep walking up to visit the Castle (Castillo de la Mota). At the top of the hill, there is also a small, free museum that explains the history of the city that is worth a visit. If you go down from where you came up, hidden behind a wall (there is a sign), there are some narrow stairs going to Urgulleko Polborina, a bar located in one of the small buildings that were used to store gunpowder. You can have a cold local beer and admire the awesome views of La Concha.

After this break, you can go down, following the narrow paths. Follow La Concha for directions, you will always find her on your right hand and then follow the sign “el paseo de los Curas”. Keep following the path towards the Old Town and you will arrive at Gaztelubide “street”.

If you turn left (opposite direction to the port) you will see the Sociedad Gaztelubide, one of the oldest sociedades (or private clubs) of the city. These clubs are part of the fabric of the city. They started in the late 1800’s as places for men from different trades to meet because cider houses and taverns were closing down or moving to the outskirts of the city. But the clubs  also participate in the city festivities with their marching bands and helping with the organization. They are places where men used to meet to cook, eat, drink and sing. If you watched the Anthony Bourdain show, he visits one of them. It took until late 1990s and early 2000s for these clubs to open up to women. Now, there are still a few of them that only accept men, but luckily that is changing.

If you keep walking you will reach the “Basílica Santa María del Coro”, a baroque church built in the mid-1700’s. From its main door, you can see directly the Cathedral of El Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd). If you walk in that direction on Calle Mayor (or Nagusia Kalea), you will find the bar Paco Bueno on your left hand (a block before you reach the Boulevard). Paco Bueno is an old, traditional bar. It’s like a time machine that takes you to the 50’s. But it is not only famous for the decor, it is for the “gamba a la gabardina” (fried shrimp). It’s fluffy with a crispy outside and delicious inside. It’s best when served warm just coming out from the kitchen. Luckily, they make them in small batches and fresh ones come out often.

From here, I hope you are still hungry because now we are going to go for lunch! I propose 2 different options and I suggest you reserve in advance:

  • Bar Arenales: It’s a new, small restaurant run by a young, innovative chef. He uses local produce on season, cheese in dishes and proposes a cheese board from Elkano-1 for dessert. The list of natural wines is incredible and the best of all is that it is affordable.

The other option is:

  • Narru: It is also a new restaurant but proposes a more traditional cuisine. They also use local produce and follow seasonality in their menu. It is more upscale but they have the option to eat small, shareable plates. They also have a great cheese selection sourced from Elkano-1.

After lunch, by that time, Elkano-1 Gaztagune cheese shop will be open. The cheese shop was opened by Ramón Lizeaga on April 17th, 2015. Ramón was a one of a kind cheesemaker in the Basque Country. He was curious and interested in making cheeses different from the omni-present Idiazabal. He opened the shop to sell his cheeses and others from small cheesemakers. Unfortunately, Ramón passed away in 2017 but Iker Izeta kept it open and learnt how to make cheese.

The star of Elkano-1 is Ondare, a lactic cheese with a wrinkly rind made by Iker. The paste is like whipped cream with a runny cream line under the rind. The flavor is mild yet complex and long lasting. It surprises everyone that tastes it.

You can get a chunk of one of the cheeses you’ve eaten, or try something else. It can make for a nice picnic for the following day.


  • Bar Tanger: Mon-Sat 8am – 10pm
  • La Bretxa: Mon- Sat 8 am – 8 pm but most of the stalls close around 2 pm. Mondays there is no fish.
  • Access to Urgull: May thru Sept 8 am- 9pm; Oct thru April 8 am – 7:30 pm. It might be closed due to weather conditions like storms.
  • Urgulleko Polborina: Nov-March open on Sat and Sunday 11am – 7:15pm. The rest of the year it is open everyday 
  • Museum on top of Urgull (La Casa de la Historia de Urgull): July & August, open every day except on Tuesdays; Nov thru March closed; rest of months open only on weekends.
  • Bar Paco Bueno: Sat thru Wed 11am- 3pm & 6pm -10pm; Thurs 11 am – 3pm; Fri closed
  • Bar Arenales: Mon-Thur 12:30pm – 12am; Fri & Sat 12:30pm – 1h30am
  • Restaurante Narru: Sun – thur 7:30 am – 11:30 pm; Fri & Sat 7:30 am – 12:30 am
  • Elkano-1 Gaztagune: Tue – Sat: 10 am – 2 pm & 4h30 pm – 8 pm