The Rise of San Sebastián

It was a queen with bad skin who first put San Sebastián on the international tourist map. In 1845, Queen Isabel II, who suffered from a skin allergy, was advised by her doctor to start bathing in the waters of the southern Bay of Biscay, which have long been known for their therapeutic properties. Her presence each summer attracted the rest of the royal court as well as plenty of aristocrats.

Belle Époque Expansion

The town’s increasing popularity brought wealth and development. In 1864 the old city walls were demolished and the new city (Centro Romántico) came into being. During the early part of the 20th century, San Sebastián reached the pinnacle of its fame when Queen Maria Cristina and her court spent the summers here in the Palacio Miramar. It was during this period that the city was given its superb belle époque makeover that has left it with a legacy of elegant art nouveau buildings and beachfront swagger. Even World War I couldn’t put a damper on the party, when the city was used by the European elite as a retreat from the war raging elsewhere.


But the good times didn’t last. The combined effects of the Spanish Civil War followed by World War II finally put out the lights, and for decades the city languished. It’s only in recent years that the tide has again turned in San Sebastián’s favour. In the latter half of the 20th century, the city underwent a major revival. Its overall style and excitement are giving it a growing reputation as an important venue for international cultural and commercial events. The beachfront area now contains some of the most expensive properties in Spain and the city is firmly entrenched on the Spanish tourist trail, which gives it a highly international feel. Its most recent accolade was its designation as a European Capital of Culture, a title it shared with the Polish city of Wrocław back in 2016.