San Sebastián – or Donostia, as it’s known in Basque – has everything you want in a weekend away. Flanked by the colossal Aralar mountains and the glittering beaches of the Bay of Biscay, the seaside city in northern Spain was once the destination of choice for the holidaying Spanish monarchy, and the palatial, Belle Epoque-era architecture is a reminder of its grand past.
These days, people flock here for the Michelin-lauded food: the restaurants share 18 stars in total, although you’re just as likely to have an unforgettable (and much more affordable) eating experience among the densely packed pintxos bars of the old town. As well as the world-class eating, there’s a thriving surf scene, new-wave craft breweries and contemporary art.
Pack your appetite and embrace all this small but perfectly formed city has to offer.
What to do
Get your bearings
From La Concha bay in the old town, walk up the winding path to Monte Urgull for brilliant views across the city and out to sea. On your way, take in crumbling military battlements and the ruins of a 16th-century castle, before ascending to the summit, atop of which an enormous Christ sandstone statue perches.
Hit the beach
There are two main beaches in San Sebastián: Playa de la Concha, with its well-heeled locals sipping espresso from the whitewashed beach cafés; and Playa de la Zurriola, where sunkissed surfers and groups of teenagers congregate at hip eateries and craft beer bars.
The latter is the place to burn off last night’s pintxos in the surf: head to Kirol Musk, a surf shop in the Gros neighbourhood, to hire surfboards or body boards. From €5 per hour, open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-1.30pm; 5-8.30pm. Novices can learn to catch a wave with a lesson from the friendly team at Pukas Surf, from €57 per person during the summer, €44 in winter.
Soak up some culture
The San Telmo museum, in the heart of the old town, is housed in a 16th-century former Dominican convent, and in 2011 a modern extension was added. It’s home to more than 35,000 artefacts which celebrate Basque culture, spanning art, photography, archaeology and history. In the adjacent Church of San Telmo, take in a visual retelling of San Sebastián’s rich past on the Sert canvases, by Barcelona artist José María Sert. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-8pm; admission €6 per adult.
Where to stay
Housed in a picture-perfect 19th-century townhouse near the Gros district, Villa Soro is San Sebastián’s chicest boutique hotel. Expect stylish rooms with antique furniture, plus a grand reception area decorated with unique pieces by Basque artists. The free bike hire is a handy extra. Doubles from €152, room only.
Opened in 1912, Hotel Maria Cristina, an imposing Belle Epoque building overlooking the River Urmea, is worth splashing out on. There’s a suite named after once-regular guest Bette Davis, and the rooms have movie star-worthy chandeliers, enormous bathrooms and giant, comfy beds. Doubles from €269, B&B.
Enjoy stylish Scandi-style design, an effortless electronic check-in system and great value at TALO Urban Rooms in the suburban Amara district. The peaceful terrace is a lovely spot to enjoy a pastry from the nearby bakery for breakfast with a coffee – a fuss-free (and money-saving) alternative to the traditional hotel breakfast. Doubles from €62, room only.
Where to eat
You’ll find some of Spain’s best eating among the busy pintxos bars of the old town. Stop for one or two bites in each, and yell your order from the blackboard with gusto. Every bar has its own speciality: at Paco Bueno, an unassuming-looking joint with old football posters hanging on the walls, it’s all about the crisp, deep-fried tempura prawns, while leather-skinned gents prop up the bar at nearby Bar Txepetxa for the glistening, silver anchovies, skewered with green olives, and a glass of minerally local txakoli wine. Ganbara, meanwhile, specialises in sauteéd wild mushrooms topped with a golden egg yolk.
Get to Bar Nestor early: it makes two wobbly-centred tortillas each day at lunch and dinner, and each usually sells out within the hour. If they’re gone, a blush-red tomato salad and the regional speciality, chuleta (steak), with its burnished-brown crust, is a worthy substitute.
Gandarias is a popular, old-school spot for exemplary jamón Ibérico, and La Vina is revered for its incredible soft-centred baked cheesecake (make like the locals and pour a little sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry over yours). For a taste of the modern, molecular pintxos San Sebastián is known for, head to La Cuchara de San Telmo for foie gras with local cider syrup.
Had your fill of pintxos? World-class restaurants abound here, from book-ahead, blow-the-budget stalwarts such as three Michelin-starred Arzak and two Michelin-starred Mugaritz, to modish neighbourhood eateries like Topa Sukalderia. Here, a young team creates Mexican Spanish fusion dishes made with local ingredients: think squid cooked in a dark, chocolate-scented mole sauce.
Discover the rising stars of tomorrow during bargain lunches held in the canteen the Basque Culinary Centre, a training academy founded by a collective of the city’s most respected chefs. Open Monday to Friday, 8am-4pm, the centre also offers top class cooking in the form of a daily menu comprised of a starter, meat or fish main and dessert for just €13 between 1.15pm and 2.30pm, alongside a tasting menu for €27 between 1.15pm and 2.15pm.
Where to drink
The Gros neighbourhood, near the Zurriola surfer’s beach, is home to the city’s flourishing craft beer scene. Find an enormous selection of brews, made locally and from further afield, at Kañabikaña. Nearby, Mala Gissona is a buzzy micro-brewery and bar – try its Shackletown IPA, with its apricot and peach notes.
Expect a warm welcome at family-run Bar Desy, a 30-year-old institution with an array of new-wave craft beers, plus classic pintxos to soak up the booze.
If you don’t fancy beer, Gintoneria is the perfect pit-stop to try a G&T made with one of the extensive selection of gins on offer. They’re served in huge, dome-shaped glasses filled with ice, and come with fragrant garnishes.
The apple orchards in the mountainous regions surrounding San Sebastián mean local cider is plentiful. During the barrel opening season from January to April, many of the cider houses, or sagardotegi, which pepper the hills around the city open their doors, offering a set menu of salt cod tortilla and chuleta alongside unlimited cider for a bargain €30 per person. If you’re visiting out of season, Petritegi is the only sagardotegi that’s open all year round.
Where to shop
As you’d expect in a city that’s obsessed with food, the markets, delis and artisan shops here will make it tricky to stick to your baggage allowance. Locals shop for fresh veg, seafood and spices at La Bretxa market, while across the road, tiny deli Aitor Lasa sells dried mushrooms, local cheeses and preserves.
Opened in 1914, Semillas Elosegui is a treasure-trove shop with heaps of pulses and seeds in paper bags lining the shelves.
For the most melt-in-the-mouth ibérico ham, head to Zaporejai, where owners Aurkene and Sylvain will happily let you try before you buy.
Finally, for a sweet fix, stop at fancy patisserie and café Pasteleria Oiartzun for a toothsome vasco pequeño almond tart.
With its angular form jutting out over Zurriola beach, the Kursaal Convention Centre is a dramatic modern building that’s at odds with the palatial architecture on the other side of the coast. Designed by Rafael Moneo, it hosts art exhibitions, dance, opera and concerts, and is home to a Martin Berasategui restaurant.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Spanish and Basque.
Should I tip?
Tipping isn’t obligatory in Spain, but think seven per cent of the bill at a restaurant.
What’s the time difference?
San Sebastián is one hour ahead.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
You can fly from London to Bilbao in just under two hours, which is easily accessible via a 75-minute bus to the centre of town.
It’s easy to walk the length of San Sebastián, and the city is cyclist-friendly, too. There are also regular local buses run by Dbus.
Take the rickety, 100-year-old funicular railway through shaded forests to the top of Mount Igeldo for fabulous views across the city below, the Aralar mountains and the curved La Concha beach.
While you’ll see many prepared pintxos laden over the counters of the bars, make like the locals and always order fresh from the blackboard. They joke that the ready-made bites are saved for the tourists.
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