It’s virtually impossible to not fall head-over-heels for the charming city of San Sebastian (or Donostia, as it’s known in Basque: the local language of the area). Its rich history being steeped in gastronomic culture has made it a destination dining ‘must’ for foodie enthusiasts, whilst its coastal location in the Bay of Biscay brings in troves of surfers from across the world to compete in its waters. Its mountainous topography doesn’t always bring the sunshine, but the surrounding nature and wildlife will always be lush and abundant. San Sebastian is a city that understands the importance of indulging in the finer things in life, whilst not taking itself too seriously.
The attractions of San Sebastian are vast and plentiful, but the Basque people aren’t always so forthcoming with the treasures of their land. Truly understanding the beauty and depth of this region will require patience and a willingness to seek and explore. So do this bucket list destination justice and ensure that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip by reading our guide to the Basque region’s very own gastronomic capital.
Hang Out On the Beaches San Sebastian is made up of two main beaches that are separated by the Old Town. On the west side of the city, La Concha serves as the main swimming beach and this is where you’ll find the most upmarket hotels and restaurants. To the east, Zurriola is a popular surfing spot for locals and tourists alike. Currents can get quite strong on this beach, so unless you’re a confident swimmer, it’s best to stick to La Concha. Head down during the summer months, ice cream in hand, to find hundreds of sunbathing holidaymakers, soaking up the rays.
Hop Aboard the San Sebastian Boat Party This two-hour boat trip will take you around the beautiful La Concha bay, whilst you sip on bottomless cups of beer and sangria and take in the panoramic views of the Atlantic ocean, Mount Urgell, and the Isla Santa Clara. Take a dip in the ocean and meet other young travelers who are in the mood to party. (Tickets are $33 USD)
Go Surfing San Sebastian is one of the best places to surf in mainland Europe and hosts many surfing competitions throughout the year. Some locals can get a little ‘territorial’ but don’t let that put you off renting a board for the day and having some fun in the waves.
Visit Zarautz This pretty little coastal village about a 40-minute train ride from San Sebastian. Zarautz is also known for its surfing, however, being a little way off the beaten track ensures that the beaches will be clear and you’ll have room to paddle. The town’s main center is quite simple, but if you’re not afraid to rough it then take advantage of the stunning little campsite at the end of the beach with excellent views of the bay.
Go On a Pintxos Crawl Often eaten in bars or taverns the small, bite-sized morsels of the Basque country are said to be the cornerstone of the local culture and society. In recent years, partly due to the province’s growing Michelin reputation, pintxos have started to be become a little more exotic and exciting. Old Town is where you’ll find most of the pintxos bars; on your first night, organize to be taken on a pintxos crawl to give yourself an idea of the different varieties of pintxos available.
Embrace the Old School at Monte Igueldo Amusement Park Located at the far end of La Concha beach and perched atop Monte Igueldo is a charming little amusement park. The small and quaint rides are reminiscent of a bygone era and manage to capture a feeling of nostalgia amongst its visitors. It also offers a beautiful, panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside.
Climb Mount Ugell At the back of the Old Town, you’ll find a small hill with many winding paths leading you to its summit. Mount Urgell once served as a military stronghold back in the 12th century but is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in town. Its tree-covered surface is intermingled with picturesque military structures and pleasant promenades that offer outstanding views of the bay and city center. At the very top, you’ll find a small history museum, which is a continuation of the major San Telmo Museoa that’s located towards the South-Eastern base of the hill. This is a fantastic spot for a lunchtime picnic or a leisurely afternoon stroll to catch the sunset across the bay.
Where To Stay
Being the province’s Michelin capital means that San Sebastian isn’t exactly the most affordable location to holiday in. However, if you’re looking to indulge then there are plenty of different accommodations to fit (nearly) all budgets. Here are our favorites:
High-end Hotel María Cristina is San Sebastian’s premier 5-star hotel. Its grand, Belle Époque design overlooks the Urumea River and is just an 8-minute walk from La Concha beach. Rooms start from $220 USD.
Mid-range The Astoria7 Hotel is a charming, cinema-themed boutique lodging in San Sebastian’s new town. Each room is dedicated to a different movie legend and its sleek, bright and retro interior is brimming with understated elegance and sophistication. Rooms start from $88 USD.
Affordable Pensión Amaiur is located in the oldest house in San Sebastian’s Old Town. Functioning as a guesthouse since 1988, this cozy little hotel will make you feel right at home. Just a 5-minute walk from the beach and smack bang in the middle of Old Town, the rooms are well appointed and refreshingly affordable. Rooms start from $55 USD.
Where To Eat
It’s hard to throw a toothpick in the Michelin star-spangled San Sebastian without it landing in some kind of highly-acclaimed triple-Rosette emulsion. But beyond the big hitters and gastro temples of old, there’s a new sort of chef is coming into prominence. Focusing more on the quality and provenance of ingredients than an overworked technique and flamboyant presentation, the new kids on the block have managed to bring back the rough and raw flavors of Basque cuisine and make it sexy again. Saltxipi, Ni Nu and Xarma are just a few of our favorites.
Where To Drink
After a day of lounging in the sun and an afternoon of sampling the best pintxos in the city, San Sebastian’s nightlife starts coming into full swing. If you’re up for a proper party then there are many late night clubs (open till 6am) scattered throughout the Old Town. However, if you’re into a more refined sort of night then head to Altxerri; this jazz and blues hangout has regular live gigs performed by both local and international stars. Late night jamming sessions will take over on nights with no acts and there’s an in-house art gallery, to boot!
Local Customs and Insider Tips
It’s easy to get carried away at pintxos bars, with all of the exciting and delicious food laid out in front of you. However, the exchange of money works on a trust basis and it’s important that you keep track of everything that you had so you’re paying the correct amount at the end.
Learn a few words of Basque; the locals will appreciate you not trying to speak Spanish to them.
Learn some of the names for hot pintxos instead of just grabbing what’s in front of you; this is how you’ll get to experience the true magic of the cuisine.
San Sebastian is renowned for its Gastronomic Societies (or Txoko as they are known in Basque) but they’re notoriously hard to get into. To gain access, you’ll either need to buddy up with a pre-existing member or book yourself into experience ‘the next best thing’. Txokos are the cornerstone of Basque dining tradition and have existed in San Sebastian for over a century. These members clubs are passionate about cooking, top-quality ingredients and having a damned good time. Txokos offer an authentically Basque experience and one that should not be missed. Prices start from $110pp with a minimum of two people.
If you want to make your San Sebastian dream a reality then make sure that you share it via the BUCKiTDREAM app via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; you never know, you might be eating pintxos sooner than you think…