By Shannon Asher
Nestled in the mountainous Basque region of Northern Spain, San Sebastián boasts breathtaking beaches, elegant architecture and lively streets filled with pintxo bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. Enlightened by charm and sophistication, the town feels a bit like Spain’s best-kept secret. While the sightseeing attractions are somewhat limited, the town is better known for its romantic ambiance, world-famous cuisine, legendary International Film Festival and friendly locals who proudly show off the Basque culture to tourists.
San Sebastián is the culinary capital of the Basque Country and the delicious gastronomic offerings are a wonderful introduction to the culture. One of the best parts of San Sebastián is wandering through the historic Old Quarter. Here, tourists will be met with a maze of winding cobblestone streets—dazzling the senses with an overload of charming shops and quaint pintxo bars.
Basque bars distinguish themselves by elegantly displaying platters of pintxos (local specialties, similar to tapas) allowing customers to snag a plate and grab what they want. The selection of food will have you drooling — but try to resist and eat only one or two pintxos per bar and then move on to the next to get a full sampling of the variety of food. Be sure to pair gastronomic tastings with a glass of Txakoli (cha-koh-LEE). This is the local white wine that is poured from high, in a somewhat theatrical fashion, to aerate it and to add sparkle. The Txakoli will likely end up being a favorite as it pairs perfectly with the abundant seafood cuisine. Commonly priced at only €2 a glass, it’s an easy choice.
Stumbling into various pintxo bars for a variety of different, but just as delicious options is a terrific way to spend the days. When looking for a place to start, Bar Borda-Berri should be on the list. The popularity of this bar is verified by the steady flow of people pouring in and out. Despite the low-key vibe, the food is phenomenal. The specialties here consist of melt-in-your-mouth beef cheeks (carrillera de ternera) in a red-wine sauce, risotto with wild mushrooms, and foie gras (grilled goose liver) with apple jelly.
The real secret to ordering pintxos is to order hot pintxos advertised on the blackboard menus. The best pintxos are the ones made fresh to order with locally sourced ingredients, not necessarily the ones that have been sitting out. The bars are small in size and can often get packed. Customers find themselves sitting belly up to the bar or standing around a table outside to munch on their tasty tapas. Be assertive when ordering; fighting the crowd just to get your order in is common, so know what you want and proclaim it with certainty!
RENT A BIKE:
To work off the tapas, take a break from Old Town and rent a bike to explore more of the city. The town has some great bike lanes and luckily, the city is pretty flat—making for an easy cruise around town on two wheels. Ride along the coast to Peine Del Viento for picturesque views of the city and shoreline.
EXPLORE CONCHA BAY:
The shell-shaped Playa de la Concha is San Sebastián’s pride and joy. The beautiful stretch of sand, bordered by the Atlantic and anchored by mountains at either end with a luscious green island in the middle, is a popular spot for beach bums, surfers and locals looking to bask in the sun and take a dip. Well-dressed families, couples in love, street musicians and worldly backpackers adorn the two-mile long promenade that lines the Bay of Biscay. It can be easy to lose track of time here while admiring the extraordinary beauty and the esteemed architecture of the city.
WALK UP TO THE VIEWPOINT AT MONT URGULL:
Mont Urgull is home to the statue of Jesus Christ — which can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. Some find it calming to look up and see Christ no matter where they are — as if he’s always watching over the people of San Sebastián. This statue can be reached by a short hike (it’s a great way to work off all those pintxos) following the path from Plaza de Zuloaga or from behind the aquarium up to the summit. Disguised by the castle walls of Castillo de la Mota, Polboriña is a hidden bar that offers some of the best views of the city. It has live music on Sunday afternoons and enjoying a Caña con limón (beer with lemon soda or lemonade) while listening to local tunes is a great way to wind down the week.
WHERE TO STAY:
The fabulous Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection hotel located in the heart of San Sebastián, is a great option for lodging. Overlooking the Urumea River and next door to the Victoria Eugenia theatre, the 5-star hotel offers 136 rooms that all boast impressive historic integrity. The around-the-clock room service makes each stay effortless and tremendously relaxing. With a buffet breakfast, car and bike rental, and a full-service gym, the amenities offer optimal convenience. The “Luggage Liaison” service is one of the hotel’s signature programs that allows guests to ship their luggage in advance to San Sebastián. The guarantee that personal luggage will be at one's destination upon arrival is a very satisfying feeling.
This famous hotel is named after Queen Maria Cristina who reigned in Spain in the early 1900s. She frequently spent summer holidays in San Sebastián. The presence of the queen, of course, attracted many celebrities and this put San Sebastián on the map as a luxury holiday resort destination. Every September, San Sebastián becomes wonderfully chaotic as famous faces from around the globe jet in for the city’s International Film Festival. The invited guests of the festival are accommodated at Hotel Maria Christina and many A-listers stay here throughout the year. Some impressive names include Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Bette Davis, Robert De Niro and the Rolling Stones.