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Topless in San Sebastián


Ok, so it happened guys, I’m officially going native.

For the first time I did something that Spanish and European women are famous for doing in the summer. Can you guess? Here’s a hint: it involves a beach and a complete lack of modesty. Yes, that’s right, I went topless in San Sebastián! And the best part? It was by complete accident!

Are you ready to hear my most embarrassing story of 2012 (so far)? And what is completely ironic, is that this is NOT the first time I have been caught topless in Pais Vasco. Let’s go back to 2007 when I was staying in a 5 star hotel in Bilbao with my parents when the neighbors (all men, of course) across the very narrow street caught me me walking around my hotel room in my undies.

Picture it: last Friday was a perfect, perfect day in northern Spain, something that is RARE. It is always raining and foggy on the north coast here. I had been monitoring the weather all week because I wanted to make my first trip out to San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque), Pais Vasco‘s famous jewel of a city on the water. After living in Spain for so long, it was kinda embarrassing that I still hadn’t been there.

But I have my reasons. I have spent the past 5 years listening to just how wonderful, amazing, and ONE OF A KIND, San Sebastián was. I had built up unrealistic expectations for it. Now that I was living in the north in Logroño, I had no choice but to go. But I would make sure I would go on a PERFECT day; nothing can ruin the fantasy of a place like rain and fog. San Seb is notoriously expensive, so I put off going in the fall since I was as poor as a church mouse, but that also nixed out winter and spring since I wanted to go when it was warm, sunny and a total beach-worthy day.


Friday was that magical day! Sunny with 0% percent chance of rain with a high of 85°F, the weather gods had heard my pleading, begging, and nagging. I packed my bag and was off! After wandering around the charming downtown, I was sunscreened up and sprawled out on the beach by 1pm, along with everyone else in the Basque Country. Seriously, the beach was packed.

I kept having to move my towel around because of the incoming tide. Playa la Concha is long and narrow, so there weren’t a lot of options, but I worked with what I had; every so often there were high-pitched girly screams (some from men) and a rogue wave would wash up and soak everyone’s stuff. Being slightly OCD, I carefully chose my laying-out spots on the beach, equidistant from other beach goers, not to close to annoying children, teenagers or heavy smokers, in the front line next to the water so I can keep an eye on my stuff while I swim, you know, the usual. I was more than a little peeved that I had to keep moving, but whatever, I tried to focus on the positive and be happy that I was finally in Donostia on a perfect day.

Now, I NEVER go topless. I am American. We don’t do topless. However, European women tend to feel differently about nudity. I mean jeeze, there are ads for milk on TV that have topless women in them. And I swear, a good 50 percent of the women in San Seb on the beach were topless that day, but no, not me. Nope, never. I HATE being naked in front of people. I mean, I still change in the bathroom in the gym in Logroño!


At one point I was laying on my stomach, and I had untied my bathing suit top to avoid tan lines on my back, which I always do (part of my tanning ritual), when I heard the tell-tale shouting and looked up to see a line of water quickly advancing towards me! S*** s*** double s***!

My tote bag was sprawled open next to me with my precious SLR camera, Kindle, ipod, iphone, and dry clothes packed inside. I had to make a split decision, tote bag or bathing suit top? My most valuable material possessions or my dignity?

As I jumped up clutching my bag to my chest, I watched my bathing suit top, flip flops, towel and self-pride float down the beach. After abandoning all my rules about prime tanning beach placement, I put my stuff down way up on dry land and went in search of my bathing suit top, which ended up a good 50 feet from where I was. And thus commenced my walk of shame in front of the entire San Sebastián beach, topless. Followed up with 5 minutes of struggling to tie the sandy, soggy top back on.

And that is how I ended up topless on a crowded beach in San Sebastián.

From now on I am wearing one-pieces. Or at least keeping my top tied on. Lesson learned. And in spite of this nudity fiasco, I am still completely in love with San Sebastián and it might be my new favorite city in northern Spain! Maybe next time I will even be brave enough go topless on purpose…

Have you ever been to San Sebastián? Had an embarrassing moment abroad? Are you brave enough to go topless in Europe?

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37 Responses to Topless in San Sebastián

  1. Liz en España June 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Haha, I love this! I recently started going topless at the beach, and I have to say, it’s quite nice. My only concern is that my snow white titties that have never seen the sun for the past 25 years will burn to a crisp.

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

      haha, you’re bold!! I’m sure I would get super burnt if I seriously went topless. as it was I burnt anyways, how were the beaches in Croatia?

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      also I can’t believe you said titties on my blog, <3 you!

  2. Danielle Decker June 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    “My most valuable material possessions or my dignity?” HHAHAHAHAA.

    LOVE this post.

    I would never go topless either, though not for dignity reasons. My chest is “snow white” as well and the thought of having to wear a bra with sunburned tatas does not sound entirely pleasant …

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

      I’m too scared to go topless. I would definitely get burnt and I am far too self conscious! though seeing some of the women who go topless in spain, I shouldnt be haha

  3. Anonymous June 17, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

    nice!! i’m in logroño & i’ll go to san sebastian on tuesday!;)

  4. Miss Button June 17, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    LOL, love this post! I usually am not big into the public nudity thing for myself either, but when I was on the beach in Barcelona in 2007 I went for it. It was only a couple hours, but I was pretty proud of myself for conquering my fear. The fact that so many people do it there regardless of how they look is pretty cool, though, and made me feel more secure.

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 18, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      yeah you are totally right. major kudos for trying it out in barca! when I see people here at the beach who do it and don’t care, it’s cool, but I am just a big weirdo and I hate being naked in public haha. I suppose I sort of conquered my fear a bit last week but who knows!

  5. Reg of The Spain Scoop June 18, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    haha! Great post!

  6. Kaley [Y Mucho Más] June 18, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Ohhhh my, Liz! I’m laughing, but I can’t imagine if it were me. I hate, hate, hate the Spanish gym and understand why you still change in the bathroom — it’s weird enough to be naked, but why do people have to say “Adiós” to me as they leave??! Anyway, I’m just glad you didn’t have your stuff ruined!

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 18, 2012 at 10:18 am #

      I know! i’m like why do I have to talk to you? you’re not wearing pants! and the old ladies who just hang out on the benches “en pelotas”? makes me so uncomfortable. yup i’m the weirdo who changes in the stall haha

  7. Cassandra June 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    Wowza, bet this wasn’t exactly the introduction to Donostia you were expecting!! This’ll be a story to pass on to the grandchildren, for sure.

    Ps. Love that “en pelotas is catching on!

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 19, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      haha I will never, ever forget what “en pelotas” means! definitely wasn’t the introduction I was expecting, but Donostia and I are still on good terms 🙂

  8. Fer June 19, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Well, I only have to say three things:
    1.- San Sebastián is overrated, IMHO. I went there five years ago and it wasn’t all that wonderful/charming/heavenonearth place people kept talking about. It has a nice beach, it has some beautiful buildings and the most decadent fun park I’ve ever seen (in Monte Igeldo), but it’s not -in any case- Spain’s most beautiful city, not even Northern Spain’s most beautiful city. Anyway, I have to say it is not as hugely overrated as Santander.
    2.- It’s not a drama going topless. Think of all the Spanish guys that do it. Even I do it whenever I go to the beach. Even to the swimming pool. For God’s sake, even to the river!
    3.- Yours was not a drama. I mean, it was accidental and kind of funny, but I have a worse story involving Americans and topless: a student asked me in Cascais (Portugal) if she would be fined if going topless in the beach… when still being with the rest of our group. Every boy in the group quickly looked at her (specially at some parts of her anatomy) so I didn’t need to answer: her embarrassment was enough to change her mind.

    • Elizabeth Carlson June 19, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

      only 3 things to say?? haha I never said it was Spain’s most beautiful city, but it’s definitely up there. I really loved it, but I think I caught it on a good day 🙂

      accidental and kinda funny? ouch, don’t be too honest there lol

  9. Sofie December 18, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    I’ve been to San Sebastian with my boyfriend last summer and we had rainy and foggy weather 90% of our time there, but I wouldn’t say it’s an expensive city. It’s ‘normal’, definitely for European standards.
    Oh by the way, I’m European and I never take off my top either, not even in SS 🙂

  10. Jeremy Branham December 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    You should have found a beach to go all in. Be like the natives! I went topless and bottomless in Portugal (granted, it did take me two hours but I did it)! 🙂

  11. Dave Brown December 31, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    I was wondering if you had ever considered doing El Camino de Santiago?

  12. Sanne January 21, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I just discovered your blog and have spent most of the morning reading it/not doing all the things I had planned to do this morning. It’s hard to find good travel blogs and I will definately be coming back. I have been to San Seb 3 times and I am one of those people who is telling everyone how wonderful, amazing, and ONE OF A KIND it is;) I miss it. Even the rainy days…

  13. Jennifer January 23, 2013 at 11:15 pm #

    Oops! No one probably would have paid any attention had you just gone topless, but it was the chasing your stuff down that likely had them looking.

    I’ve gone topless in the Caribbean and around Europe, but not always. It’s just nice not to have tan lines!

  14. Meg @ Anderstons in the Andes January 28, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    I studied in Donostia in 2007. It was one of my favorite cities in Spain, and where I learned to surf! My favorite hang outs there were Bar Juantxo for tapas and A Fuego Negro for wine, if anyone is planning a visit.

  15. john_sfc August 3, 2013 at 7:00 am #


  16. John De Herrera April 21, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    ( 5/20/14) Love the “topless in san-sabastian” story and all the information here! I am planning a trip to Northern Spain soon. I want to travel the “Trail of St. Jaimes”, visit San Sabastian, and visit Garandbal village. I am a Researcher and Philosopher of Science and Religion.
    Could I hire a local as a Tour Guide for that region? That way I won’t miss something important or interesting in Northern Spain.
    John De Herrera
    Fullerton California, USA

  17. Pablo June 2, 2014 at 6:38 am #

    tits or gtfo!

  18. Chris September 27, 2014 at 1:25 am #

    About ten years ago I was visiting my girlfriend who was studing abroad in France. She was there with a mutual girl friend of ours who we knew from school. I had asked them before I got there if they were going to tan topless when I was there and they said, you’ll have to wait and see. When I arrived and we went to the beach they both did take their tops off along with another friend of theirs. That’s when the embarassment happened — we were all hanging out there and talking and they plotted to distract me — and boom — pulled down my swim shorts to my ankles in the middle of the day on a crowded beach!!! So humiliating. They rationalized since I saw them topless, they should get to see me, lol. I can laugh about it now….but back then it was so embarrassing.

  19. matt April 21, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

    I lived in Vitoria for a year 15 years ago. I fell deeply in love with Spain and the Basque Country, and I had many wonderful trips to San Sebastian. The truth is, I only left Spain after a year because if I didn’t , I would have never left.

    Among the things I admired about the Spanish (and Basques) was their anti-voyeuristic way of living. The Spanish don’t look at life… They LIVE it, as willing, enthusiastic, active participants. A big part of that is their acceptance of what a human being IS– physically and socially. They are far more realistic about how real people should behave, and how real people look.

    If you don’t know what I mean, go to the Correfoc in Barcelona one time, or Fiestas De la Virgen Blanca in Vitoria, or the Fiestas in Durango, or Carnaval in any medium-sized Spanish city. Watch the zest with which they enjoy themselves. Or just go to the Casco Viejo of San Sebastian or Vitoria any given Friday night. Or go pasear in any Centro on any given day. Watch people in Spain. Watch how comfortable they are with others how comfortable they are with themselves.

    The way they live, the way they interact with each other and with life is fundamentally different to the way we do it as Americans.

    So good for you for living in Spain. Now do yourself a favor and open yourself up to the Spanish way of living. Notice that being topless in Spain is not a show like Girls Gone Wild — it is an active acceptance of what a woman is. It is saying “I am a woman, and these are my breasts. It is both wonderful and beautiful, sexy and natural. It is not a big deal, and yet a big deal. It is me, and that is OK.” That’s why women aged 1 to 99 do it in Spain.

    Spanish women go topless more than any others in Europe because it is a manifestation of their comfort with themselves, which is a facet of the Spanish character.

    I am a guy, so I couldn’t go topless. But getting used to being around topless women, learning the way the Spanish thought of it, that was a cool cultural experience. And of course I did go nude for the first time on several beaches, because it’s not just female nudity that the Spanish are comfortable with. It’s humans.

    Learning to be comfortable with myself is the greatest gift Spain gave me. Drop your hangups, and drop your top. You’ll never regret it. “Going topless” isn’t exciting. Liberating yourself from an old way of thinking– that is part of a larger American cultural inculcation- IS.

  20. Martin May 26, 2015 at 2:45 am #

    My wife and I visited San Sebastian and Bilbao in 2006 and loved that whole area! My wife took the ‘When in Rome’ approach and decided to whip the bikini top off a couple of times, and was very relaxed with it – and it didn’t really attract any attention from anybody, it’s all pretty natural in that part of the world. I thought it was pretty cool as well to be honest, there’s something just mildly ‘schoolboy’ and naughty in all of us that doesn’t mind seeing our spouse’s boobs soaking up the sunshine on the beach!

  21. John April 28, 2016 at 10:46 am #

    That’s a great story Liz,
    I had a very similar story about my first time at Gunnison nude beach in NJ 15 years ago. But once I finally got over being exposed and actually enjoyed the freedom and liberation of being under the warm sun without clothes I was hooked and became a regular at the beach.
    Unlike me however, my wife never felt comfortable to expose any part of her body until we visited Spain. At EsTrenc, she was inspired by all the topless Spanish women on the beach that she decided to go topless as well. She now always goes topless wherever we travel in Europe.
    Hope you give it a try next time you’re back in Spain. You might just get hooked too.


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