The birth of an organized urban nucleus in San Sebastian dates back to approximately between 50 and 200 BC during the Roman occupation. However, the foundation of the city as such occurred in 1180 under the command of the King of Navarra, Sancho “the Wise”, with the aim of serving as a seaport.
From early on, this enclave was a continuous victim of internecine wars between the different Spanish kingdoms until, during the reconquest, it was occupied by the Kings of Castile in 1248.
As of this date, San Sebastian experienced contrasting stages of commercial splendour and the continuous fires that it suffered over the next 250 years as well as its repeated and subsequent reconstructions.
Military and mercantile square
By 1475, the town of San Sebastian had become a veritable economic, commercial and military emporium thanks to its strategic location and coveted port, with one of the best commercial routes, which also enjoyed a splendid fortified naval defence.
This strategic location was fundamental in the fight of the Spanish navy against the French, English and Dutch over the next 400 years.
Thanks to its naval and commercial successes, in 1662 Philip IV granted it the title of city, which immediately further increased its economic and military power within its area of geographical influence.
This bonanza and splendour were overshadowed by the invasion of French troops in 1808 and the rapid capture of the city and port. After long skirmishes that followed one another over the years, in 1813 English and Portuguese troops razed the city, leaving only 35 houses standing.
The city had been greatly weakened and diminished by the end of the war, which was evident during a new French invasion in 1823. During the rest of the tumultuous 19th century, San Sebastian was the scene of confrontations between different factions vying for political and economic control, both from the city as the port.
This situation changed when the city recovered its former splendour by being designated the capital of the province and a port authorized to trade with America.
From that date on, the city underwent a profound change in its urban framework by demolishing the old medieval defensive walls, expanding its geographical limits and launching an ambitious urban reorganization plan to modernize itself.
The Belle Époque and the Civil War
By 1885 San Sebastian had become the summer residence of Spanish royalty, which resulted in a socioeconomic and reputational take-off. It became one of the most interesting and cosmopolitan cities in all of Europe.
This new privileged situation resulted in the construction of museums, schools of arts and crafts, cultural centres and innumerable luxury hotels and casinos, all with enormous architectural appeal, which increased its attractiveness to tourists.
During a good part of the 20th century, the city was the seat of academics, artists, businessmen and high-ranking families, experiencing a moment of unparalleled splendour.
However, San Sebastian suffered the impact of the 1929 crack and political instability, with the city being the scene of the Pact of San Sebastian in 1930. This was the founding base for the second republic installed in 1931.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, San Sebastian fell into the hands of the rebels very early on. After the war, the city was declared the Summer Capital where Franco lived during the summer months until his death.
Democracy and a bright future
Under Franco's rule, San Sebastian experienced great splendour thanks to the so-called Ensanche that enlarged its limits. New urban areas were created and new and more spectacular casinos and hotels were inaugurated, increasing its fame as a summer tourist site.
In 1953, the city further increased its fame and appeal by hosting the San Sebastian International Film Festival, one of the most important and prestigious audio-visual events in Europe and Latin America.
With the advent of democracy, San Sebastian got a new impetus thanks to the entry of Spain into the European Union.
This resulted in a large number of infrastructure works that boosted tourism.
In the new century, San Sebastian faces great challenges and difficulties with ambitious long-term plans such as urban reorganization focused on caring for the environment through a sustainable industrial system and better income redistribution to alleviate social problems.
These measures have made San Sebastian one of the most attractive and popular cities in Spain at the tourist and commercial levels.