A guide to San Sebastián, the crown jewel in the Basque Country
San Sebastian is a mysterious place, a destination that flies under the radar of many tourists and avid foodies alike. But to a knowledgeable few, San Sebastian is a gold mine for both exploration and most importantly food. The apparent secrecy surrounding the Basque country city is almost accidental and is certainly not the doing of its inhabitants; San Sebastian somehow has managed to escape the mass migrations of sun seeking tourists, and we should all be grateful for that. This has ensured the quiet explosion of a culinary capital, both in Europe as well as globally, whilst maintaining its stunning charm, making San Sebastian undoubtedly one of our favourite city escapes. This fusion of Basque country culture, driven by its culinary scene, accompanied by striking architecture and surrounded by jaw-dropping coastal landscapes has allowed San Sebastian to become an everlasting gift in the travel and food world. With all such places however, it can be difficult to know where to start, so here is a complete guide to ensuring you can make the most of this special place. Oh, and should you be reading this, keep it to yourself, we don’t want to ruin its secrecy now, do we?
The city is located on the uppermost edge of north-east Spain’s coastline and is only around 30 miles from the French city of Biarritz. The easiest airport to fly in to is Bilbao, around 70 miles from San Sebastian, and roughly an hour’s transfer. Whilst you may be feeling eager for the transfer to go by quickly, perhaps take a minute on the journey to take in the dramatic countryside you drive through. Spectacular valleys tower over the road, with lush, leafy green slopes softening the jagged landscape and with the low hanging cloud floating overhead you would be forgiven for thinking you may have landed in the Alps rather than northern Spain. The journey soon speeds past, and you emerge from the valleys into a bustling metropolis that still retains a quaint atmosphere. You’ve arrived in San Sebastian.
Where to stay
There is no shortage of hotels, guesthouses and boutique retreats in San Sebastian, and quality is assured and regardless of where you stay, navigating the city will still be relatively easy due to its fairly small size. However, one hotel stands out above the rest, both on its stylish comfort and most importantly location. The establishment in question is the Lasala Plaza placed perfectly on the quaint harbour front, with mesmerising views of the tranquil bay, whilst backing out onto the historic old town. Lasala Plaza is a city escape dream, with its elegant rooms, many boasting brilliant views of the bay, as well as their opulent bathrooms and chic design, you are spoilt from the minute you arrive. Apart from the rooms, the hotel has a roof-top pool, bar and restaurant that offers the best sunset drink or dinner in the city. The view from this intimate retreat is unrivalled and should most definitely be taken advantage of. You would be hard tasked finding a more complete sanctuary to relax in after a day of exploring in the labyrinth of San Sebastian’s backstreets.
What to do?
Of course due to San Sebastian being a city, there will always be an abundance of excursions, but what is so attractive about the city is the range of activities and sights. There are three main areas to the city: The Old Town, Monte Igueldo & The New Town and San Sebastian Gros. Each quarter holds a wealth of gems to explore and enjoy. In the Old Town, otherwise known as the Parte Vieja is in itself a fascinating attraction, with narrow winding streets, lined with beautifully designed buildings. To the north, you can find the San Telmo Museoa which houses a variety of artwork covering modern art to historical pieces and artefacts with the San Telmo serving as a tribute to the famous Basque culture. The quaint harbour also offers a wealth of attractions, with various seafood culinary hotspots lining the quayside, and at the end of the harbour you can find an aquarium that plays host to an abundance of creatures from the deep. In the heart of the Parte Vieja you will find the Plaza de la Constitucion, San Sebastian’s prettiest square, lined with numerous Pinxto bars accompanied with a vivacious atmosphere that embodies the beating heart of the Parte Vieja. If you happen to stumble into any shops, then make sure to stop by at Pukas Surf Shop, Sebastian Store and Torrons Vicens San Sebastian, for original, unique shopping experiences that really symbolise San Sebastian style and lifestyle.
Monte Igueldo, found on the opposite side of the crescent shaped bay, is a must visit. With the antique funicular carrying you up the steep sided hillside, you enter a time capsule at the summit with an old-school funfair that offers panoramic views of the city, the surrounding countryside and the striking coastline. Trapped in the past, the fun-fair has a variety of rides ranging from a roller-coaster that roars along the cliff edge, a traditional house of horrors to a gentle boat-cum-log flume that eases it way around a stream overlooking the bay. Mount Igueldo and its festival of fun at its summit is a truly novel place, that has a childish magnetism that will certainly not disappoint, whatever your age. On your way back from Monte Igueldo, make sure to stop off at the Playa de la Concha, an idyllic city beach that serves as a picture-perfect location to sunbathe and swim. Further along the beach front promenade is the verdant Parque de Alderdi Elder, which is teeming with greenery, and trees offering shade. Within the Parque de Alderdi Elder is an old-fashioned carousel, which is assured to provide entertainment for all ages, and you can often find numerous street artists lining the walkways throughout the park.
Heading east will bring you to San Sebastian Gros which has two major elements: surfing and coffee shops. Gros is home to Playa de Zurriola; the epitome of city surfing. Suitable for beginners to advanced surfers, the beach break is a fun wave that is excellent in smaller to medium swells, although with bigger swell there is a risk of closeouts. For those who have yet to learn to surf, there is an excellent school there, Pukas Surf Eskola, who will teach you all the essentials to get you started in the water. Gros is typified by its trendy, surf infused fashion culture, and with that comes plenty of excellent coffee shops serving barista made drinks, which of course must be ordered with a slice of the Basque cheesecake. Make sure to stop in at The Loaf bakery for a post surf coffee!
Eating and Drinking
Ah, the main reason for visiting San Sebastian, and the reason that will keep pulling you back. This is a place that has the most Michelin stars per capita in the world, so there are no questions about the culinary pedigree of the place. The Michelin stars however are not going to be our focus here. Grassroots is where it is necessary to start your journey into the world of food in San Sebastian. By grassroots we are referring to Pinxto bars (pronounced pin-cho). A northern Basque tradition, these small, usually family run bars are hotspots for locals and tourists alike. The concept is simple, you enter one bar, try a couple of the pinxtos, a tapas-like snack with a drink and then move onto the next bar, in effect bar hopping. The catch, however, is the pinxtos are simply delicious and in some cases extremely indulgent. Served with a glass of the crisp, refreshing Basque white wine, each bite sized morsel can be made up of anything from lobster, T-bone steak slices to scallop and premium serrano hams. Most importantly, each pinxto is jaw-droppingly cheap despite the quality of ingredients, with most usually costing €3, whilst a glass of the wine is around €2. The majority of the best Pinxto bars can be found in Parte Vieja area of San Sebastian with Casa Vergara, Gandarias, Zumeltzegi, La Vina and Bar Goiz-Argi being the pick, although this only scratches the surface of the hundreds that exist throughout the city. You will be completely spoilt for choice!
San Sebastian will blow you away and keep you wanting more from the city. There is such a plethora of places to explore there, including all the food spots, that you will feel compelled to return again and again. This is coupled with an understated attractiveness that results from a mixture of the various cultural interjections the city has been exposed to. San Sebastian truly is the beating heart of the Basque country and will continue to be so as it has a timeless charm that is irresistible to travellers and locals alike. However, make sure to keep this secret to yourself!