Semana Grande in San Sebastián: the social event of the year!
Visiting any town or city during their biggest celebration of the year is a chance for an immersion in the local customs and traditions and a sure way to have a good time. If you’re in San Sebastián in mid-August you may get to experience Semana Grande or ‘Big Week’ – seven days of celebration and a whole variety of unique experiences for all ages.
The origins of San Sebastián’s Semana Grande
Queen Isabella II of Spain chose San Sebastián as the summer destination for her court. Her presence in the city during the 19th century played a decisive role in turning it into the place we know today. It was during those heady aristocratic days that the city’s most important annual fiesta started to take shape: the Semana Grande. The Local Council of San Sebastián decided to promote bull fights – also exploiting the celebration of the Assumption on August 15th – as a way of entertaining its regal summer visitors.
From then on, the annual bull fiestas starting on August 15th gained in status. A whole host of other activities have developed around them since then, including concerts, open-air dances, culinary events, fireworks, sport, exhibitions, film and much more.
High points during Semana Grande
If this is your first experience of San Sebastián’s Semana Grande, follow some of our suggestions to make sure you don’t miss out on the most important, fun and strangest events during this week of festivities:
- The ‘cañonazo’
The fiestas can’t get going without the traditional canon fire marking the start of Semana Grande. On the first day, the masses congregate in the Alderdi Eder gardens to join in with the popular song Artillero dale fuego at 7pm sharp. After the song comes a deafening canon fire unleashed by the head artilleryman or woman, signalling the start of the celebrations. Let the good times commence!
- Fun for kids: giants and big-heads
A troupe of eight giants and fourteen figures with oversized heads has been entertaining Semana Grande party-goers since 1982.
The troupe takes various routes around the city over the course of the week. The four-metre-tall giants dance to the sound of the Basque flute while the big-heads chase children around.
- Pirates take over San Sebastián
The Donostiako Piratak collective organises an alternative popular festival that coincides with Semana Grande. There’s food, street music and family-friendly activities by day, followed by concerts, DJ sets and musical dinners by night.
The most eagerly-awaited event of this alternative fiesta is the abordaje pirata, a mass pirate assault on San Sebastián by raft. More than 1,000 participants spend the morning painstakingly crafting their rafts with all sorts of materials before raising their pirate flags and setting sail in the harbour.
Make sure to register in advance on the website if you want to take part. The event is growing increasingly popular.
- International Fireworks Contest
Las Fallas in Valencia are not a patch on the fireworks displays in San Sebastián during Semana Grande. Every year, swarms of people descend on the city centre at night to enjoy the light and colour show that illuminates Playa de la Concha for 30 straight minutes.
The contest has been held on more than 55 occasions and the competitors are renowned fireworks companies. The colours and shapes of the fireworks, together with the competitors’ eagerness to bring something new to the skies each year, makes for quite a show. Safety and the environment are top concerns throughout.
In a city with more than 10 Michelin stars within just a few square metres, the culinary expectations during the most important celebrations of the year are high. Food is an important aspect of Semana Grande and you’ll come across contests, food trucks, group meals, pintxo pote events and more.
Walk through the streets to soak up the smells and flavours, and don’t miss some of the competitions in which participants compete to create the best paella, hake in green sauce, lamb stew and other dishes. Pintxo fans will also be in their element. The Plaza Cataluña (Gros) holds pintxo pote on one of the days – during this traditional Basque event you can enjoy a pintxo and drink for a fixed price.
- Swimming competition around the Paseo Nuevo
The arrival of the good weather also marks the start of the swim competition season. There are events all across the country though those in Gipuzkoa are the most famous. Swimmers equipped with cap, goggles and time chips try to complete the distance in as short a time as possible.
One of the oldest and most famous swim crossings (held since the 1930s) takes place around the beaches of San Sebastián during Semana Grande. Competitors enter the water at Playa de Zurriola and finish at Playa de la Concha, covering a total distance of 2,959 metres. Spectators can watch from all along the Paseo Nuevo, hence the name of this particular event.