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Spain, Travel Destination City Guides

Travel Destination: San Sebastian

Travel Destination:  San Sebastian

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?

San Sebastian promenade

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.

sunset at the beach

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.

San Sebastian art

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!

walking in San Sebastian

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.

Basque cooking class

  • 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

Cafe de la Concha, San Sebastian

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 MurallaNi 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.

Getting There

San Sebastian is serviced by an airport, as well as train and bus stations.

Links and Useful Information

About Anita Mac

The bucket list just keeps growing! The more I cross off - the more exciting new destinations and activities I find! I have been fortunate enough to travel a considerable distance over the years. My love of many things, including travel, cycling, kayaking and photography fit together like hand and glove. I have to keep asking myself....where to next? I am happy to share my travels and photography through my blogs: http://traveldestinationbucketlist.com and http://anitamacphotos.wordpress.com Hope you enjoy them as much as I do! On to the next adventure!

Discussion

22 thoughts on “Travel Destination: San Sebastian

  1. Tell us followers more about the pintxos crawl – a pub crawl with tasty bites sounds like a lot of fun!

    Posted by iampetert2 | December 2, 2012, 6:49 pm
  2. The Pintxos crawl is an essential San Sebastian foodie experience. Basically, it is bite sized haute cuisine! Similar to tapas, pintxos are generally presented on a stick. Each bar’s offerings tend to be laid out along the bar although those in the know can also ask for items not presented on the bar.
    You can explore the pintxos bar on your own, or use the services of a local guide – someone in the know of what to ask for and where. Either way, you are in for a real treat.
    The process is simple – when you arrive, ask for a plate. You will be charged by piece (generally €1-€3 per piece). Pintxos are generally taken with a drink. The traditional Basque white is txakoli, but beer and regular wine is also available.
    The best way to enjoy pintxos – just get out there and try it out! The flavours are amazing. Have a 1 or 2 pieces at one bar and move on….you won’t be disappointed!

    Posted by Anita Mac | December 3, 2012, 8:32 am
  3. Fantastic guide! If I ever find myself here (which someday, I WILL!), I will definitely check out your restaurant recommendations! I love a cafe overlooking the water with fab food!:-)

    Posted by Jess @UsedYorkCity | December 5, 2012, 4:31 pm
    • Glad you like it…tough to decide where to go…a week was barely enough time. I would also recommend, just up from the cafe, there is a brilliant little burger joint…also overlooking the water! The burger was pretty awesome. (Sometimes, you just have to have a little taste of home!)

      Posted by Anita Mac | December 5, 2012, 9:29 pm
  4. Hey Anita! Thanks so much for the link to my blog. What an honour! Every time I am reminded of San Seb I want to go back.

    Posted by miramiandmog | December 17, 2012, 3:41 pm
  5. Great tips! I have yet to visit San Sebastian, but I will bookmark this for when I do go. Sounds like a place I would definitely enjoy!

    Posted by The World Wanderer (@TheWrldWanderer) | April 28, 2013, 6:33 pm
  6. I’ve always wanted to come here.. to eat. lol. At least now I can add a few more things to my to-do list. :P

    Posted by Kieu ~ GQ trippin | April 29, 2013, 12:43 am
  7. looks soo relaxing. and yummy! count us in.

    Posted by Lazy Travelers (@lazytravelers) | April 30, 2013, 8:46 am
    • The beach is a gorgeous place to lay out in the sun, read a book, and recover from all the amazing foods and drink that will no doubt be filling your evenings! I sat out there for hours and could be back there in a heart beat!

      Posted by Anita Mac | April 30, 2013, 9:06 am
  8. I adore San Sebastian! Have been quite a few times with my parents and it was actually my first weekend away with Mr O, almost 10 years ago. The food is outstanding and great to see you writing about this place, Anita!

    Posted by Ana Silva O'Reilly (@mrsoaroundworld) | May 1, 2013, 7:19 am
    • You are so lucky to have San Sebastian so close…I would love to have a weekend away there – that beach, the restaurants, and a little shopping…brilliant weekend getaway. But then again, I was there for a full week and it wasn’t enough – could easily spend an entire month!

      Posted by Anita Mac | May 1, 2013, 8:40 am
  9. I had no idea San Sebastian would be so pretty but why should I be surprised?? Spain is gorgeous!!

    Posted by Lauren DiMarco | May 1, 2013, 8:14 am
  10. Beautiful pictures of a lovely destination! It’s been added to our list of places we need to visit!

    Posted by Chris & Tawny (@CaptainandClark) | May 2, 2013, 12:26 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Series: Gelato « traveldestinationbucketlist - January 14, 2013

  2. Pingback: More from Restaurant Week in San Sebastian: Ni Neu « Travel Destination Bucket List - February 21, 2013

  3. Pingback: Culinary Inspirations from Restaurant Week – La Fabrica « Travel Destination Bucket List - February 21, 2013

  4. Pingback: TDBL Roundup – February 2013 | Travel Destination Bucket List - February 28, 2013

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