Travel Destination: San Sebastian
Playground to the stars at the International Film Festival every year, San Sebastian’s glamour and glitz remains understated. Its gastronomic delights and cultural calendar are world class and Playa de la Concha brings one of Europe’s best city beaches to the steps of the Old Town. What is not to love?
Even 4 days of rain out of my one week in San Sebastian couldn’t dampen my spirits. People and umbrellas dotted the promenade along the beach and the pintxos bars were always full. Clearly it takes a little more than rain to slow this city down! The atmosphere in town is so laid back and hospitable – it is no wonder San Sebastian is known as the Pearl of the Cantabrian Sea. It received high honours as Spain’s top destination for tourism quality in 2011.
San Sebastian is ideally located on the Bay of Biscay. The city itself is small, having started out with humble beginnings as a small fishing village that flourished into the cultural and gastronomic centre that it is today. The city can be divided into a number of districts including the City Centre, Old City, the Gros District and the quieter Isla Cristina, accessible only by boat, but in the summer, it is the pristine Bahia de la Concha and magnificent sandy beach that steals the show!
Things to Do
You are spoilt for choice as San Sebastian has something for everyone.
Performing Arts and Cultural Programs include the International Jazz Festival, International Film Festival, a Folklore Festival and many more…check out Spain Guides listing of Fiestas for more information and dates. For something a little different, growing in popularity, the Horror and Fantasy Film Festival, held the first week in November or the Surfilm Festibal held in June.
Museums San Sebastian provides an extensive selection of museums including:
- Aquarium – recently renovated, the Palacio del Mar is considered one of the most modern aquariums in Europe. Walk through the tunnel with 360 degree views where you will be surrounded by sharks, rays and all manner of marine life. (link)
- San Telmo Museum – take a look at Basque culture and society in the refurbished 16th century convent. (link)
- Cristobal Balenciaga – dedicated to Haute Couture, the Cristobal Balenciaga museum’s location is as exquisite as the exhibits. Located high atop a hill, you have can enjoy the city and sea views that stretch out before you. (lnk)
- Outdoor sculptures – contemporary art by the sea is only a short stroll from town. Follow the promenade out to see the works of artist Eduardo Chillida, including his work Peine del Viento.
Spa – La Perla, right on the beach, offers the ultimate in relaxation. Melt your worries away with a relaxing massage or some time in the baths overlooking the Bay. La Perla, it is said, is an heir of la belle époque. Over a century ago, Queen Maria Cristina is said to have established a royal summer house in San Sebastian. The sea baths, then and now, were considered to be a pleasure combining therapy, relaxation and wellness, making it a popular activity for holiday makers. I have to agree. While I didn’t have the chance to enjoy their salt water baths, I did make 2 trips to the spa for massage treatments. La Perla provided me with a locker, robe and slippers while I waited. The world was quickly forgotten as my massage therapist gently kneaded away any aches and pains left over from walking the Camino de Santiago. For more information on what the spa has to offer, check out their website.
Walking Tours – while tour dates may be limited outside of summer, check with the tourist office for guided walking tours of town. On offer: Essential San Sebastian, Flavours of San Sebastian and their Film City tour will introduce you to some of the essential sites in town. The Camino de Santiago also passes through San Sebastian on the Camino del Norte option. You can always do a day trip to walk a section of this ancient pilgrimage.
Best Views – walk out to Monte Urgull Mendia or Monte Igeldo Mendia for amazing views looking out over San Sebastian and the Bahia de la Concha. Monte Igeldo mendia has it all – a fun park for kids, including “Mysterious River” and bumper cars. If you are traveling during the off season, check for times of operation first. I found it a little depressing as it was all shut down mid week. The walk up was beautiful and worth the effort. You can always take the historic funicular down the steep side of the cliff!
Gastronomy and Culinary Tours – Basque cuisine is at the heart of Basque culture, and San Sebastian is in the heart of Basque country! San Sebastian is the proud home of 16 Michelin stars however there are a great number of restaurants and culinary treats to choose from.
- Pintxos, a regional specialty that has elevated small food to an artform. Evenings in town, locals and tourists alike flock to the narrow streets in the old town, moving from bar to bar, in a form of pub crawl (Pintxos Crawl – No Reservations Required), enjoying decadent bite sized snacks and drinks. The pintxos ritual is such a huge part of the Basque culture, it even has its own name: txikitea.
- Culinary Courses – if you want to do more than just taste your food, San Sebastian has a number of cooking experiences on offer. There are plenty of options to choose from, including market and tasting tours as well as wine and cheese, and guided pintxos tours. I tried the Basque Cooking Experience with San Sebastian Food and loved every minute of it!
- Cider Houses – while the true cider experience happens in a traditional farm buildings between January and April, outside of the city, Basque Cider houses have cropped up in town. With a focus on typical menus and cider…they offer a Basque experience that is different to the pintxos experience. Check out Spain’s Top 10 Cider Houses to experience for yourself.
- Restaurant Week – Should you happen to be in San Sebastian for Restaurant Week, you are in for a real treat! Restaurant week is meant to “reinforce San Sebastian’s position as a food tourism destination,” according to the creators of the event. I have to say…I think they are succeeding! Check out my reviews on the following participating restaurants: La Muralla, Ni Neu, La Fabrica. I had not heard of San Sebastian’s Restaurant Week before I arrived, and have to say, I was more than pleasantly surprised! I would go again to experience all the chefs have to offer. Menus were set at 25€ plus 10% VAT, including courses, bread and a bottle of wine. Really, what more needs to be said?
Where to Stay
By no means a comprehensive list, a few notable hotels include:
Maria Cristina – recently reopened after a major refurbishment, Maria Cristina is a luxury hotel under the Starwood banner.
Londres Y Inglaterra – another luxury property in San Sebastian, Londres Y Inglaterra is found beach front to the most popular Playa de la Concha. Currently, renovations are underway – check the website for more information.
Pension Alemeda– I stayed in this pension for my week in San Sebastian…the owners were friendly and very helpful and the rates were affordable. Pension Alemeda is located right in the heart of the Old Town along the main boulevard. Trip Advisor ratings for Pension Alemeda were good, right in line with how I felt – excellent hospitality, fabulous location and the price was right. The accommodations were simple, but I spent little time in my room.
Where to eat
For breakfast, my favourite was the cafe overlooking the beach (Cafe de la Concha)…they had a fantastic breakfast menu which was served until 11am. To be honest, I ate there every day – enjoying a bowl of yogurt and granola with fruit and honey and a pot of tea for 5.50€. Between the breakfast and the view, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat anywhere else!
I tried a number of Pintxos bars while in town. There are so many to choose from….some of my favourites included: A Fuego Negro,Garagar and Barandiaran….but your best off to poke your head in and see what is on offer!
With so many restaurants to choose from, you could spend a lifetime dining your way through town. Many restaurants offer a Menu del dia – a three course fixed price menu that offers great value for money. As San Sebastian is a food lovers paradise, I don’t imagine you can go wrong all that is on offer. La Muralla, Ni Neu and La Fabrica all offered sensational menus, but if you are looking to try some of the michelin star restaurants, the restaurant that came up time after time was Arzak. I didn’t have the privilege of eating there myself, but their reputation for quality is excellent.
San Sebastian is serviced by an airport, as well as train and bus stations.
Links and Useful Information