WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT SAN SEBASTIAN?
San Sebastian isn’t your typical city in Spain. The Basque Country’s rocky mountain range and uneven coastlines made it extremely hard for invaders to enter the region. Thanks to this, the Basque heritage, traditions, and culture were virtually kept intact throughout history. In San Sebastian, you won’t find any Moorish ruins or Arabic influence – instead, a treasure trove of authentic, local, and bold Basque heritage awaits.
Of course, we can’t talk about San Sebastian without mentioning gastronomy. If there’s anyone that’s obsessed with food, it would be the Basques—after all, San Sebastian has 16 Michelin-starred restaurants packed into its compact 60 sq. km. What’s more, the city boasts the second most Michelin stars per capita in the world.
No matter if you have a quick weekend or an entire month, San Sebastian can be savored in many different ways:
1. La Concha Bay: A place to be enjoyed by everyone. This iconic beach has more than 1,350 meters to savor, from taking postcard-perfect photos of the railing (which King Alfonso XIII himself inaugurated in 1916!), to enjoying the sun virtually any day of the year, a visit to La Concha is practically a rite of passage when in San Sebastian.
2. The French Basque Country: Just a stone’s throw away and less than half an hour’s drive, the French Basque Country makes for a dreamy day trip. While there are dozens of delightful towns sprinkled across the French Basque, here are a few to get you started: Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a quaint seaside town with a rich fishing port, while its elegant neighbor, Biarritz, sports plenty of spa centers and gastronomic charms. Heading further north, be prepared to be charmed by the colorful houses dotting along the riverbank in Bayonne, or veer right and take a detour to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a fairytale-like town at the foot of the Pyrenees.
3. The Basque Coast GEO Park: Nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the Basque mountains is the jaw-dropping rock formation made out of flysch. These layers upon layers of sedimentary rock are one of the best examples of flysch in the world, and were even declared a UNESCO site in 2015 as ‘landscapes of exceptional value.’ Make it a day trip with a visit to Zumaia, a leisurely seaside town with an interesting history.
4. Chillida Leku Museum:The famous Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida once noted, “I dreamt of a utopia, of a place where my sculptures could rest, so that people could walk among them as though in a forest.” Thankfully, his dream came true in the form of Chillida Leku, an open-air museum situated near a sixteenth century Basque farmhouse in Hernani.
5. Monte Urgull, Monte Igueldo and Monte Ulía: The lungs of the city and the guardians of the coast. These mountains have protected it for centuries and can now let their guard down. One of the most beautiful views of the city can be found at the top of Monte Urgull, where it is possible to see the four beaches along with the Sagrado Corazón statue and the Mota fortress. If you’re lucky, you can witness the people of Donostia climbing to celebrate their festivities at the top. Igueldo, the highest of all, supervises from the other end of the Bay next to the sculpture of the Peine del Viento, an emblematic symbol of San Sebastián. To get here you can opt for the Funicular, which has been in operation since 1912. To the east of the city is Ulía, an old watchtower for whale spotting and a Natural Park in itself. At its base, you can locate another famous open-air sculpture in San Sebastián, La Paloma de la Paz, which symbolizes the power of dialogue and words.
6. Surfing in Zurriola beach: Although San Sebastian is blessed to have four surf-worthy beaches, one spot stands above the rest: Zurriola Beach. Known as the best place to surf in San Sebastian, Zurriola is a surfer’s paradise thanks to its exposed coastline, which gets great waves from the Cantabrian Sea. Best of all, both beginners and seasoned pros can take advantage of the surf.
7. Explore the Gros district: Flanked by Zurriola Beach to the north and Mt. Ulia to the east, Gros is the slow-paced, trendy gastronomic hub of San Sebastian. From traditional Basque pintxos and rations to modern dishes with a twist, this is the go-to district if you want to have a full stomach and a happy soul.
8. Go by kayak to Santa Claire Island: Discover one of San Sebastian’s best hidden spots by kayak! Take the 500-meter trip out to the island to meet a very local friend (the Iberian lizard of San Sebastian, which can only be found on the island), or enjoy the 30 meters of (almost private) beach.
9. Itsas Aurre bridge by Santiago Calatrava in Ondarroa: Although small in size, this coastal town has the privilege of hosting a Calatrava bridge. Measuring 70 meters in length, the bridge connects locals to Ondárroa’s port, and was the first work of Calatrava in the Basque Country.
10. Food markets in Ordizia and Tolosa: Two of the most well-known markets in the Basque Country are located in Ordizia and Tolosa. Start off with the market in Ordizia, which happens every Wednesday and is focused on highlighting seasonal produce and what’s in harvest. On the last Wednesday of every month, there is even a special gastronomic demonstration involving the month’s ‘it’ product. Just a few kilometers down the road, locals gather in Tolosa’s old town on Saturday morning to sample fresh produce, at the Verdura plaza for flowers and plants, and for foreign goods at the Euskal Herria plaza.
11. Hiking paradise: The national sport in Gipuzkoa province is mountain walking and hiking, either alone or with a group of friends or family. The region is crisscrossed with over 1.5 million kilometers of marked trails and a million and one picture postcard views. With more than a dozen trails, hikers are treated to spectacular views, as well as ex-military lookouts, remains of a funicular railway, leisure and picnic areas, and even a whale spotting area.
FOOD & WINES IN SAN SEBASTIAN
Food in San Sebastian is a religion, and the local chefs are gods. Some of the most well-known chefs hail from this region, which is no wonder why San Sebastian is referred to as “a gastronomic oasis” or “the food capital of the planet.” But beyond stars, the street food scene is overwhelming, and it is precisely the natural combination of refinement and rusticity what makes this city unique. Here are some of the top foods not to miss while traversing through San Sebastian:
✧ FOODS NOT TO MISS
- Roncal, Idiazabal and Ossau-Iraty cheeses: The Basque country is fortunate to have three local cheeses that enjoy protected status thanks to its roots in tradition. The Roncal cheese enjoys Protected designation of origin (PDO) status; Idiazabal has Denomination of Origin (DO); and Ossau-Iraty is recognized as an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) product thanks to its ancient origin and production by local shepherds in the French side.
- Access a sociedad gastronómica: Perhaps one of the most interesting and intimate ways to get a first-hand perspective into Basque cuisine is to visit a txoko or sociedad. A sociedad is a type of gastronomic society where members gather and cook together, experiment with new dishes, and enjoy leisure time afterwards. With an emphasis on cuisine, these clubs are one of the main reasons why traditional Basque dishes have not died out, and in fact, have flourished. The first sociedad was created in San Sebastian in the 19th century, and there are now more than 1,500 across the Basque country. So if you’re not a member you need to know someone!
- Sidrería experience: Cider houses are a well-loved institution in the Basque country, especially around the Gipuzkoa province. When visiting a cider house, guests can expect to enjoy a 3-course menu that includes a cod omelet, cooked cod with peppers and chorizo in cider sauce for starters, beef ribeye for the main, and a local cheese with apple jelly and walnuts for dessert… and, of course, plenty of cider on tap. Many of the cider houses are only open during txotx season, which runs from mid-January to April, when the new cider of the year is tasted.
- Txangurro: Appreciated for its delicately flavored meat, the Txangurro (spider crab) can be found in pintxos bars and seafood restaurants across the region. The crab is normally stuffed with garnishings and then baked in its own shell, or used in crab cakes and soufflés.
- Bacalao al pil pil: Ah, cod fish. The king of Basque seafood, Bacalao can be seen in virtually all of its forms across the region. We recommend starting with the most traditional, Cod in Pil Pil sauce, before working your way through the menu. The sort of mayo made out from the fish protein (jelly) with olive oil is delicious and delicate preparation no to miss.
- Turbot: Another big player in Basque cuisine, this species of flatfish is particularly tasty when grilled whole. For the most authentic flavors, head over to the small fishing village of Getaria, which gets its fresh seafood from the Bay of Biscay. Pair with a local white wine, such as Txakoli, and enjoy!
- Gilda: Crowned as the first ever pintxo from San Sebastian, the name was inspired by Rita Hayworth’s character in the movie Gilda. The reason being that the pintxo was made of a pickled green chili, olive, and anchovy and was often described as ‘verde, salado, y picante’ (green, salty, and spicy) — just like Hayworth’s character in the movie.
- Pantxineta: A typical dessert of the Basque Country, the Pantxineta consists of a puff-pastry bun filled with thick custard cream and topped with almonds. The Pantxineta was born at the turn of the 20th century, when a local patisserie called House of Otaegui attempted to imitate traditional French frangipane tarts to appease the Spanish aristocrats on vacation.
✧ WINES REGIONS AROUND
From Barcelona you can easily reach stunning wine regions in a short drive…
- DOCa Rioja: Rioja is a region of rugged pioneers: it was the first to obtain the Designation of Origin in Spain (in 1925) and also the first to earn Calificada status (1991), the highest category in Spanish wine regulation. The region spans more than 65,000 hectares and is subdivided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental, and Rioja Alavesa. See our maps and learn more.
- DO Txakolina: Easy on the palate and with plenty of flavor, Txakoli wines offer high acidity and low alcohol (around 10 to 12 percent). A rite of passage of guests, the traditional way of serving txakoli is to pour it a height into a short cocktail glasses, which aerate the wine and release the bubbles to create a flavorful concoction. See our maps and learn more.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN SEBASTIAN?
For those chasing after the effervescence of the Belle Epoque, the Hotel María Cristina is an excellent luxury hotel. Named after the Spanish queen consort who was the first “guest” to enter the property in 1912, the hotel boasts stunning views over the old town and the historical buildings that line the Urumea River.
Of course, we can’t talk about San Sebastian without mentioning the iconic Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra. This hotel arguably has the best view in all of San Sebastian, with La Concha Beach practically at your feet. Formally a palace, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra now features simple yet tasteful décor, with historical heirlooms from years past.
Finally, the recently-opened Villa Favorita might seem like a newcomer, but it packs a powerful punch. This gorgeous gem offers exclusivity, elegance, and a fully personalized approach to every guest, just like a boutique hotel should. Villa Favorita is set in one of the city’s oldest villas – dating back to the mid 1800s – and features 23 distinct rooms for all types of travelers. However, the hotel’s crowning moment is the fact that it houses a Michelin starred restaurant, Amelia by Paulo Airudo.
Paladar y Tomar will help you selecting the option that best suits you.