Dangers & Annoyances
Most visitors to San Sebastián never feel remotely threatened, but a sufficient number have unpleasant experiences to warrant some care.
- The main thing to be wary of is petty theft (which may of course not seem so petty if your passport, cash, travellers cheques, credit card and camera go missing).
At museums, never hesitate to ask if there are discounts for students, young people, children, families or seniors.
- Senior cards Reduced prices for people over 60, 63 or 65 (depending on the place) at various museums and attractions (sometimes restricted to EU citizens) and occasionally on transport.
- Student cards Discounts (usually half the normal fee) for students. You will need some kind of identification (eg an International Student Identity Card; www.isic.org) to prove student status. Not accepted everywhere.
- Youth cards Travel, sights and youth-hostel discounts with the European Youth Card (www.eyca.org), known as Carnet Joven in Spain.
San Sebastián Card
The San Sebastián Card entitles users to free citywide transport, reduced admission rates at many of the city’s sights, and discounts at various shops, restaurants and tour operators (including boat trips). Cards are valid for 10 days, cost €9 or €16 (for 6 or 12 trips on public transport), and are available at the tourist office.
Emergency & Important Numbers
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- Greetings The Basques almost always greet friends and strangers alike with a kiss on each cheek, although two males only do this if they’re close friends.
- Eating and drinking Basque waiters won’t expect you to thank them every time they bring you something, but they may expect you to keep your cutlery between courses in more casual bars and restaurants.
- Visiting churches It is considered disrespectful to visit churches for the purposes of tourism during Mass and other worship services.
- Escalators Always stand on the right to let people pass.
As in other parts of Spain, San Sebastián is generally a gay-friendly place. Homosexuality is legal and same-sex marriage has been law since 2005.
San Sebastián has a handful of gay nightspots around town, as well as bars that draw a mixed gay-straight crowd.
A travel-insurance policy to cover theft, loss, medical problems and cancellation or delays to your travel arrangements is a good idea. Paying for your ticket with a credit card can often provide limited travel-accident insurance and you may be able to reclaim the payment if the operator doesn’t deliver. Worldwide travel insurance is available at lonelyplanet.com/bookings. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Wi-fi is almost universally available at hotels, as well as in some cafes, restaurants and airports; generally (but not always) it’s free. Connection speed often varies from room to room in hotels (and coverage is sometimes restricted to the hotel lobby), so always ask when you check in or make your reservation.
The most convenient way to bring your money is in the form of a debit or credit card, with some extra cash in case of an emergency.
Many credit and debit cards can be used for withdrawing money from cajeros automáticos (ATMs) that display the relevant symbols such as Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus etc. There is usually a charge (around 1.5% to 2%) on ATM cash withdrawals abroad.
Tipping is almost always optional.
- Restaurants Many Spaniards leave small change, others up to 5%, which is considered generous.
- Taxis Optional, but most locals round up to the nearest euro.
- Bars It’s rare to leave a tip in bars (even if the bartender gives you your change on a small dish).
Standard opening hours are for high season only and tend to be shorter outside that time.
Banks 8.30am to 2pm Monday to Friday; some also open 4pm to 7pm Thursday and 9am to 1pm Saturday
Post office 8.30am to 9.30pm Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 2pm Saturday (smaller branches 8.30am to 8.30pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 1pm Saturday)
Nightclubs Midnight or 1am to 5am or 6am
Restaurants Lunch 1pm to 4pm, dinner 8.30pm to 11pm or midnight
Shops 10am to 2pm and 4.30pm to 7.30pm or 5pm to 8pm; big supermarkets and department stores generally open 10am to 10pm Monday to Saturday
Correos, the Spanish postal system, is reliable, though a little slow at times.
Delivery times can be erratic but ordinary mail to other Western European countries can take up to a week (although often as little as three days); to North America up to 10 days; and to Australia or New Zealand between 10 days and three weeks.
Public holidays include the following:
Año Nuevo (New Year’s Day) 1 January
Día de San Sebastián (St Sebastian Day) 20 January
Epifanía (Epiphany) or Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day) 6 January
Jueves Santo (Good Thursday) March/April
Viernes Santo (Good Friday) March/April
Fiesta del Trabajo (Labour Day) 1 May
Día de Santiago Apóstol (Feast of St James the Apostle) 25 July
La Asunción (Feast of the Assumption) 15 August
Día de Euskadi (Basque Country Constitution Day) 7 October
Fiesta Nacional de España (National Day) 12 October
Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day) 1 November
Día de la Constitución (Constitution Day) 6 December
La Inmaculada Concepción (Feast of the Immaculate Conception) 8 December
Navidad (Christmas) 25 December
- Smoking Banned in all enclosed public spaces.
Taxes & Refunds
Value-added tax (VAT) is known as IVA (ee-ba; impuesto sobre el valor añadido).
Hotel rooms and restaurant meals attract an additional 10% (usually included in the quoted price but always ask); most other items have 21% added.
Claiming Tax Refunds
Visitors are entitled to a refund of the 21% IVA on purchases costing more than €90.16 from any shop, if they are taking them out of the EU within three months. Ask the shop for a cash-back (or similar) refund form showing the price and IVA paid for each item, and identifying the vendor and purchaser. Present your IVA refund form to the customs booth for refunds at the airport, port or border when you leave the EU.
The once-widespread, but now fast-disappearing, blue payphones are easy to use for international and domestic calls. They accept coins, tarjetas telefónicas (phonecards) issued by the national phone company Telefónica and, in some cases, various credit cards. Skype is generally the cheapest and easiest option.
Local SIM cards are widely available and can be used in European and Australian mobile phones. Not compatible with many North American or Japanese systems.
Spain uses GSM 900/1800, which is compatible with the rest of Europe and Australia but not with the North American system unless you have a GSM/GPRS-compatible phone (some AT&T and T-Mobile cell phones may work), or the system used in Japan. From those countries, you will need to travel with a tri-band or quadric-band phone.
You can buy SIM cards and prepaid time in Spain for your mobile phone, provided you own a GSM, dual- or tri-band cellular phone. This only works if your national phone hasn’t been location-blocked; check before leaving home.
All the Spanish mobile-phone companies (Telefónica's MoviStar, Orange and Vodafone) offer prepagado (prepaid) accounts for mobiles. The SIM card costs from €10, to which you add some prepaid phone time. Phone outlets are scattered across the country. You can then top up in their shops or by buying cards in outlets, such as estancos (tobacconists) and newspaper kiosks. Pepephone (www.pepephone.com) is another option.
If you plan on using your own phone while in Spain, check with your mobile provider for information on roaming charges, especially if you’re using a phone from outside the EU.
Public toilets are rare in Bilbao and it’s not really the done thing to go into a bar or cafe solely to use the toilet; ordering a quick coffee is a small price to pay for relieving the problem. Otherwise you can usually get away with it in a larger, crowded place where they can’t really keep track of who’s coming and going. Another option is to use the toilets in a large shopping centre.
The friendly Oficina de Turismo offers comprehensive information on the city and the Basque Country in general.
Travel with Children
With its beaches, hilltop funfair, and abundant snacking options, San Sebastián is a great destination for a family-friendly holiday. Visiting as a family does require some careful planning (especially in regards to meal times), but no more than for visiting any other European country
San Sebastián is not overly accommodating for travellers with disabilities, but some things are slowly changing. For example, disabled access to some museums, official buildings and hotels represents a change in local thinking. Newly constructed hotels in most areas of Spain are required to have wheelchair-adapted rooms. With older places, you need to be a little wary of hotels who advertise themselves as being disabled-friendly, as this can mean as little as wide doors to rooms and bathrooms, or other token efforts.
Volunteering possibilities in Spain:
Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org) Occasionally Spanish conservation projects appear on its program.
Go Abroad (www.goabroad.com) At last count it had links to 66 different volunteering opportunities in Spain.
Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com) A good website to start your research.