Located in the mountainous Basque region of northern Spain, bordered on one side by the Atlantic, is the country's stunning, gastronomic capital, San Sebastian. The city's picturesque shoreline is dotted with beaches and dramatic scenery, while its lively streets are lined with pintxo bars and Michelin starred restaurants - both options equally delicious. Coastal breezes, opulent architecture, and friendly locals make San Sebastian a must-visit destination in Spain, and one I know I will be returning to often.
THINGS TO KNOW
San Sebastian is in the Basque region of Spain. Although all locals speak Spanish, signage and some radio stations will be in Basque. The Basque language is not at all similar to Spanish, so don't expect to understand much. San Sebastian in Basque is called Donostia.
Don't miss pintxo-pote on Thursdays, a pintxo (Basque tapa) and drink combo at very affordable, discounted rates. Offered at most pintxo bars throughout town!
WHERE TO STAY
Feel Free Apartments | A local competitor to AirBnB apartments, Feel Free provides clean, modern apartments throughout San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Hondaarribia. From searching properties, to booking, to check-in, and to the stay itself the process with FeelFree was seamless, easy, and pleasant. The design of their website, office, and print materials is also excellent (always a major plus for me!), just adding to the overall experience. I highly recommend booking one of their numerous apartments throughout town.
Breakfast at Sakona |
Craft coffee has arrived to San Sebastian, with several shops offering quality brews popping up throughout town. For some more substantial breakfast options or for the global perennial favorite, avocado toast, head to Sakona Coffee Roasters, conveniently located on the river just on the Gros side of town.
Walk Around the Old Town |
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Old Town (Parte Vieja) of San Sebastian is full of narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with pintxo bars and small cafes. The architecture is stunning, varied, and doesn't necessarily look like other Spanish towns, but has its own identity, buoyed by a proud Basque culture. Numerous churches, plazas, and shops appear around every corner, and the bustle of people going about their day is infectious. Spend some time strolling the streets, popping into shops, and enjoying this charming part of town.
Pintxo Lunch / Explore Gros |
Just across the Urumea river from the Old Town is the lively, youthful neighborhood of Gros. There is a definite surfer vibe in this part of town with the Zurriola Beach and the Atlantic just steps away, but as a whole it feels more like a neighborhood where locals truly live. Explore the streets until you need a pick-me-up then head to Bar Bergara for some afternoon pintxos. Order hot pintxos from the super friendly staff, select cold ones at your leisure from the bar spread, and wash it all down with a refreshing glass or two of Txakoli (Basque white wine varietal).
Cristina Enea Park |
To work off lunch mosey down along the river to Cristina Enea Park, one of the more beautiful parks in the city. Pathways meander throughout and a peacock or duck might cross your path as you go. This would be a good spot for a run for the more athletically inclined.
Zurriola Beach & Sunset |
Opening directly onto the Atlantic, Zurriola beach is ideal for surfing and playing in the waves. In warmer months, beach chairs and amenities are available along the beach, but it is worthy of a visit no matter the weather. Tourists and locals alike gather in the evenings to take in the sunset from the promenade - we were lucky enough to witness a very beautiful one on our first night in San Sebastian.
Elkano Dinner |
Just 25 mins West along the coast from San Sebastian is the small coastal village of Getaria, and the acclaimed though not overrun seafood restaurant, Elkano. Whole fish and other types of shellfish are grilled on open-air charcoal grills, positioned at the entry to the restaurant, giving a delicious smokey flavor to the food. The standouts are the whole grilled turbot (rodaballo), the grilled cocochas (some tender portion of the fish's throat), and the sizable wine selection. The service is especially friendly, we even received pro tips on how to eat the edges of the fish using our hands from the down-to-earth owner of the restaurant. Reservations strongly recommended.
Morning Coffee at Fam Kafe |
For what my family considered the best cup of coffee during our San Sebastian visit, don't miss the tiny Fam Kafe counter in the Gros neighborhood. If you need a morning bite to accompany your coffee, a few small cakes and pastries are also available.
Paseo Nuevo Coastal Walk |
Stretch your legs with a 30 minute coastal walk along San Sebastian's seafront, watching the waves surge and crash as you go. Huge chunks of rock have been placed to break the waves, but water does sometimes spill over onto the path. Worth a visit no matter the weather, as the water colors are constantly changing.
San Telmo Museum |
San Telmo Museoa, known by locals as STM, is a modern, Basque cultural museum nestled into the Old Town. Works on display illustrate contemporary and old Basque culture, history, and arts. Labelling is in Spanish & Basque, but audio guides in many languages are available.
Arzak Lunch |
San Sebastian purportedly is the city with the most Michelin starred restaurants per capita globally. For this reason, when on a culinary expedition through this region, it is worth it to dine at at least one Michelin starred establishment. Arzak, most recently ranked as #30 in world, has been in the same family for generations, but it was Chef Juan Mari who revived the restaurant and made it into what it is today. Mari still oversees the restaurant, but his daughter Elena has taken over daily operations, serving innovative, modern Basque cuisines with a touch of Asian influence.
Other highly recommended Michelin starred restaurants in and around San Sebastian include Mugaritz, Martin Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, and Akelarre. **If fine dining isn't your scene, worry not, everyday restaurants or the classic pintxo bars are just as fulfilling.**
La Concha Beach |
Basque in the sun (get it?) or simply digest your lunch on one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe, Playa de la Concha. The long, curved beach looks out over the Concha Bay with the Santa Clara Island, Monte Urgull, and Monte Igueldo framing the views. An elaborate promenade with a lower covered space, and an upper white iron-fenced portion span the length of the beach offering walking space, beach amenities, and more. The water is almost always calm here, so it is a nice place for a leisurely swim or to bring kids.
Walk up to the Viewpoint at Monte Urgull |
Visible from most of the city, Monte Urgull is home to the statue of Christ and castle walls of Castillo de la Mota. Take the path from Plaza de Zuloaga or from behind the aquarium up to the summit for views over San Sebastian.
Pintxo Hopping in Old Town |
If you find yourself hungry again, despite a large lunch, head into Old Town for some classic San Sebastian pintxo hopping. Try grilled mushrooms topped with a soft-boiled egg yolk and a plate of grilled guandilla peppers with salt at Ganbara to start. Then walk over to La Mejillonera for a bowl of steaming mussels and some patatas bravas (the classic spanish tapa of fried potatos topped with aioli and tomato sauce - a Kalina favorite). Finish it all off with a delectable slice of cheesecake at La Vina before rolling home.
San Sebastian is one of those cities where you feel that each time you visit you will stumble upon new places to explore and things to eat. It may not be filled with as many attractions as larger cities like Barcelona and Madrid, but it has an easy-going charm that's easy to fall in love with.
POST SAN SEBASTIAN DESTINATIONS
If you want to extend your trip from San Sebastian, here are a few options for close destinations.
Just an hour's drive from San Sebastian is the cosmopolitan city of Bilbao, home to Frank Gehry's famous Guggenheim Bilbao museum.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe |
On the road to Bilbao, take a minor detour to the coast and the islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (for you Game of Thrones fans, Dragonstone). A steep path followed by a man-made bridge and winding steps that zigzag up the slope bring you to the top of the island and the church that lies there. Head back through the adjacent town of Bakio and stop at the roadside Zintziri Errota restaurant, a 19th century mill turned restaurant that exudes old world charm (the mill machinery is still operational and on display) with a collection of tools, washing tables, and old metalworks adorning the walls. Tasting menus and a la carte options are available.
La Rioja |
The lauded Spanish wine country is just two hours drive away. Hop in a car and zoom through the tunnels of northern Spain until you find yourself in the vineyard lined roads of La Rioja.
The Spanish Pyrenees are full of small towns and outdoor activities. String a few together to fill a couple days in the mountains - I highly recommend the medieval town of Alquezar.