San Sebastian Travel Guide

San Sebastian Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

San Sebastian evokes memories of times gone by; she exudes a certain old world charm reminiscent of the French Riviera at the turn of the century, with her white wrought iron railings and Belle Epoque architecture. But in spite of her French influences (the border is only a 15-minute drive away), she is very definitely a Spanish city, and a Basque one at that.

Wondering what to do in San Sebastian? Food is life here, and the Basques have a very strong culinary heritage. San Sebastian has long been on the list of gastronomic greatness, and it´s not for nothing that some of the world’s best restaurants are to be found here. Michelin stars are in great abundance, and 3 of the biggest names in the culinary world have their restaurants in and around the city, each boasting not one but 3 of the coveted stars: Martin Berasategui, Juan Maria Arzak at Arzak and Pedro Subijana at Akelarre. It goes without saying that dining of this calibre isn´t for everyone, this is the stuff of very special occasions, and reservations are often required months in advance.

Thankfully, the Basques are culinary masters across all price points, and the answer to your prayers lies in the form of small bite-sized pieces of deliciousness served in bars and restaurants across the city. The Spanish lay claim to tapas but the Basques take it to a whole other level with their version, called pintxos: bigger, tastier and far more inventive than mere tapas, they are more than just a pre-dinner snack or accompaniment to a few drinks. Pintxos eating is a huge part of the local culture and a social event in itself.

La Cepa | Photo: Kerry Murray

La Cepa | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in San Sebastian

The Old Town, or Parte Vieja, is the heart of the city and where you´ll find the greatest concentration of tiny bars serving pintxos. As the afternoon turns to evening, these bite-sized morsels appear in great variety along bar counters across the town, and the idea is to visit a few places, snacking on pintxos before heading off for a sit-down dinner. The drinks of choice to wash it all down are txakoli (a local white wine) or kalimotxo, a blend of red wine and Coca-Cola served with lots of ice. It sounds terrible but tastes a lot better than you’d imagine, so “don´t knock it ´til you´ve tried it”.

Bar La Cepa is a local favourite that is as famous for their speciality hot pintxos (made to order) as they are for the more traditional cold nibbles, and it´s easy to see why it´s so popular. Service is friendly and informal, and when we arrived with our dog in tow our waitress, with a cheeky twinkle in her eye, informed us that canines are more than welcome to come inside, but that we (the humans) would have to eat outside! At Aralar, around the corner, the heavy wooden bar is laden with plates of pintxos and the ubiquitous Iberian hams hang overhead. In spite of the city´s glamorous foodie reputation, most bars and restaurants in this part of town are very down to earth and make no pretence at being overly fashionable. It´s clear that the food and drink take centre stage and everything else just details.

Playa de la Concha

San Sebastian is built around a naturally formed circular bay with a narrow opening and is protected from the ocean swells, which creates a long stretch of white sand beach and safe swimming. This makes La Concha one of the best city beaches in Europe and the sweeping bay is lined with the famous white wrought-iron promenade, perfect for strolling and people watching. In summer this is the city´s favourite beach and the restaurants and coffee shops along the water overflow onto the promenade.

Oiartzun is a speciality bakery and coffee shop on the edge of the old town, just before you reach the bay. They are famous for their Pastel Vasco (Basque Pastry), an intensely sweet and almondy cake inside a shortcrust shell, as well as many other tempting pastries. This bakery is the perfect stop for a mid-morning coffee and cake as you wander the streets. Around the other side of the bay, overlooking the beach, Narru is one of San Sebastian’s rising stars. Head chef Iñigo Peña studied under Juan Maria Arzak and Martin Berasategi, some of the biggest names in the gastronomic realm, and at only 26 years old he has opened his own restaurant on the Playa de la Concha promenade. The focus is on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and traditional Basque flavours reworked with a modern twist.

Gros | Photo: Kerry Murray

Gros | Photo: Kerry Murray

Things to do in Gros

On the northern side of the city, you find the Gros district, named after a rather portly French general (gros means fat in French). This part of town is less glamorous and old world, a bit more laid-back and modern. The Zurriola beach is popular with surfers as it isn´t protected from the Atlantic swells like Playa de la Concha, so surf culture has a big influence in the laid back vibe of the neighbourhood. But this doesn´t mean that this side of town doesn´t take their pintxos as seriously as across the river. On the contrary, Gros has made a name for itself as the up and coming gastro-district of the city with many bars and restaurants pushing the envelope and winning awards for their innovative interpretations of traditional flavours. At Bergara Bar, the clean, modern interior is quite a contrast to the heavy wooden styling of the old town, but their award-winning pintxos are just as tasty, and the flavours and presentation are inventive and original. The Loaf is an artisan bakery facing the seafront that produces an incredible variety of fresh bread daily and with a strong focus on quality ingredients, it´s a great place for coffee and sandwiches after a day spent in the ocean.

Right on the waterfront the Kursaal Concert Centre overlooks the Zurriola Bay and is the district’s most striking building. Its modern, angular design stands out in contrast to the Belle Epoque architecture of the city, but the building is most impressive at night when all lit up like a Japanese paper lantern. Also housed inside the centre is Nineu restaurant, a bright, modern space serving quality local produce and cutting edge gastronomy. Just around the corner, you find Bois et Fer, an interior design studio and shop that specialises in custom made pieces with a French/Basque style influence. First opened in 2012, the boutique was created by a group of designers passionate about noble materials such as wood and iron with the aim to create a contemporary but timeless line of furniture.

Nineu | Photo: Kerry Murray

Nineu | Photo: Kerry Murray

The best hotels in San Sebastian

Okako is a small boutique hotel in the Gros district that is both comfortable and stylish. It´s a family run business and with only a few rooms available, personalised service is a given. Its central location makes it the perfect base from which to explore the city. Also in Gros, and for those who prefer the self-catering option, this beautiful one bedroom apartment is ideally situated. Located in a historic building in a quiet residential area, the apartment is fully renovated in a modern style while preserving much of the old buildings original character. For those looking to stay a short distance out of town, away from the hustle and bustle, the Iriarte Jauregia Hotel is a mere 20-minute drive from the city centre and located in the rolling green mountains of the rural Basque country. It provides a perfect little oasis of peace and tranquillity. Housed in a fully restored 17th-century palace, the hotel also boasts an in-house spa and wellness centre, as well as a gourmet restaurant, which may make it difficult ever to want to leave!

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