History of San Sebastian

King Sancho El Sabio of Navarra’s need for a clear route out to sea for his kingdom led him, to grant the Fuero (or privilege of self-governance) to in 1180, including a series of laws which we can assume to be the official foundation of the town. Maritime trade began to join forces with the traditional activities of cod and whale fishing.

Proximity to France and its position on the Road to Santiago route not only encouraged the development of this little coastal town, but also turned it into a key strategic point during times of war; for this reason it became a garrison town during the 12th century. Although it suffered numerous sieges over the course of centuries, the inhabitants always managed to save the city from its enemies; at least, until 1719, when the first capitulation of the town took place, falling into the hands of France for two years. In 1794, the city surrendered again to the French attackers until 1813, when it was liberated by Anglo-Portuguese soldiers. However, this battle sparked off the worst tire in the history of the town, leaving only a few houses standing, and forcing the citizens to reconstruct it almost from scratch, thus creating the Old Town that we know today.

Happier times were to follow, when Queen Isabel II, whose doctors recommended sea bathing to alleviate her skin afflictions, made summering in San Sebastian fashionable. This was back in 1845, and from then on her presence attracted the Court and numerous members of the aristocracy during the summer months. The city started to become famous Fototeca Kutxa.

Although theories abound as to earlier origins, the first written evidence of San Sebastian dates back to 1014, arising from the donation to Leire of the Monastery of San Sebastian, located in El Antiguo Quarter, by Sancho el Mayor, King of Navarre.

and needed space to grow and expand. The walls were demolished in 1864, and the urban development that took place gave rise to the Ensanche Cortazar, the current town centre. San Sebastian reclaimed land from the Urumea river and the marshes were turned into new neighbourhoods, giving birth to a new, more serviceable city.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, San Sebastian experienced a strong population surge and began a period known as the “Belle Epoque”, becoming the preferred tourist destination of the European upper classes. Queen Maria Cristina installed the court in the Miramar Palace during the summer months and luxury hotels, casinos and theatres flourished in response… During the First World War, moneyed Europeans took refuge from the conflict in San Sebastian. Much of the French influence which is noticeable in the town can be attributed to these visitors.

Not quite such happy times followed with the prohibition of gambling in 1925 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936, in spite of which the city continued to be a favourite amongst the upper classes. The following years of heavy industrialisation gave rise to a dark period to which several errors in urbanisation can be attributed. However, during the second half of the 20th century, San Sebastian consolidated its economic, cultural and tourist potential, encouraging new projects and, at the same time, preserving its natural and historical heritage, becoming, in the process, the magnificent combination of modernity and tradition that we know today.