"Looking at San Sebastián" exhibition

  • Place: La Mota Castle - Mount Urgull ( 943 48 15 47)
  • Timetable:
    - April, May, June, Septembre and Octobre: sunday and monday, 11:00-19:00 (closed the first two sundays of september)
    - Easter (1-16 april): every day, 11:00-19:00.
    - 1st July - 31st August: every day except Tuesdays, 11:00-19:00.

The exhibition Looking at San Sebastián, journeys through the history of the city and its economic, urban, social and cultural development, making reference to the Basque identity. The exhibition is therefore a great opportunity get to know ourselves better and delve into our contemporary history.


Sections of the exhibition:

1 Identifying traits

1 min

2 In the shade of Mount Urgull

In the shade of Mount Urgull

3 Market Town

3 min


4 min

5 From Citadel to City

5 min


6 min

1 Identifying traits

Introductory environment which rapidly touches on several identifying features of the city which will be treated in-depth throughout the exhibition.

When thinking about the city where we live, we follow the traces that define it and locate the features which are built into the public imagination. Features transmitted and not always shared, but which make up San Sebastián's identity.

Merchants and traders; Fishing and Navigation; Military and Civil; San Sebastián, Donostia, Easo, Izurun; Fire and Reconstruction; To see and be seen; Liberal and Enlightened.


2 In the shade of Mount Urgull

The coexistence of the civil and military is the conceptual axis of this section, which shows San Sebastián's status as a city in which to live and a city to defend.

The population, who lived in a military stronghold, got used to living with repeated sieges and attacks, since "the key of France", as it was called, was a cherished booty. European wars, especially in Spain and France, made San Sebastián a place of refuge as well as a site of sieges. San Sebastián was also a key communication point on the Cantabrian sea, a product-exporting port, and a city with great economic activity.

Exhibition Urgull

An audiovisual entitled "From the Watchtower" journeys through the history of the city from its foundation until it was burned down in 1813 from a historical point of view, and the coexistence of the military and civil is presented by means of seven mannequins dressed as different characters from that time: three soldiers, a mayor, a corsair, a Gascon, and a working woman, since the latter carried out different jobs to respond to the family needs (cloth sellers, innkeepers, carriers, net menders, etc.)

Audiovisual narration: I, Sancho, king of Navarre by the grace of God, make all men, both old and young, present and future, who have populated and who in the future will populate San Sebastián (...) With pleasure and of free will I give and grant you and your successors good charters and good customs.

3 Market Town

The economic aspects of the city are reflected in this section, which highlights the commercial side of the city, looking towards the sea from its origin and the most important port on the Cantabrian sea in the Middle Ages. This area covers the different infrastructures and bodies which were created to promote commercial activity in the city: the three ports and their commercial activity as river port and sea port; fishing and navigation, the shipyards, corsairs; the Consulate and the Royal Gipuzkoa Company of Caracas (RCGC).

In times of war –abundant in the second half of the 16th century– the port was the point of departure of corsairs as well as of merchants and sailors. The corsair expeditions for the defence of the coasts of the kingdom and to combat enemies under royal licence allowed the fleet to arm itself and to carry out attacks by sea in exchange for booty.


These activities, together with fishing, were the main sources of income of Donostia in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1728, the RCGC was founded with the aim of gaining the trade of cocoa from Venezuela, a product which arrived in Spain through Dutch hands at very high prices. This meant economic reactivation for the city.

4 Festive Calendar

San Sebastián lives its festivities very intensely. Some are traditional and others are new forms of cultural manifestations in a city open to modernity. All of them demonstrate Donostia's society; Drum marches (Tamborrada) on Saint Sebastian's Day; Semana Grande (Big Week); 31st August; Saint Thomas's Fair; International Film Festival; Jazz Festival; Musical Fortnight; Boiler Forgers; Carnival; Basque Festivities; and rowing regattas.


5 From Citadel to City

From the primitive settlement in the shade of Mount Urgull, Donostia becomes stronger and grows in time with the drumbeat of history. Firstly, as a medieval walled town, then as a small town and military stronghold. Destruction by fire will bring to bear the most groundbreaking modernity, demonstrating the innovation and fighting spirit of its inhabitants.

The "Frenchified" mood of the city, open to the ideas of the French Revolution, gave way to the liberal character of the San Sebastian people, which would be maintained despite unfavourable circumstances, wars and sieges throughout time.

The necessary demolition of the walls will be the true engine of the urban, economic and social development of San Sebastián. As the new city was being built, elements such as gas, concrete and the railway were incorporated, which meant the definitive takeoff towards modernity.

Converted into a fashionable summer resort, San Sebastián began to welcome a flourishing bourgeoisie who saw it as a cosmopolitan and attractive city, full of charm.



In this room you can see an adaptation of the exhibition with the same title organised in the San Telmo Musuem in 2020, based on reproductions of a selection of original prints from the museum’s collection.

San Sebastian appears represented in the 16th century as a small town at the foot of Mount Urgull surrounded by the sea and sandbars. From then until the end of the 19th century, Mount Urgull has figured strongly in representations that local people and visitors made of the city, as its role as a defensive fortress marked the identity and development of the city to a large extent.

For more than four centuries etchings were the only way to disseminate images on a large scale in Europe; the technique of etching a drawing on a wood, metal or stone plate and then stamping it onto paper meant that several equal images could be reproduced. This was the case until the end of the 19th century, when the appearance of photography changed the situation.



San Sebastián, ciudad de la cultura

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  • Ayuntamiento de Donostia-San Sebastián
  • Gobierno Vasco
  • Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa
  • Ministerio de Cultura