Topless in San Sebastián

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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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39 Comments on “Topless in San Sebastián

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. ( 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

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