There is no better spot to eat in Spain than San Sebastián. It’s a brash statement, but if anyone can make it, it’s the food-obsessed Basques that populate this dazzling coastal town. With the second-most Michelin stars per capita and a respectable claim to the title of most bars per person, this is a glutton’s heaven. The Basques have even invented a novel way of eating – hopping from bar to bar, standing up, and sampling bite-size bits of culinary art, aka, the pintxo.
Stroll the Belle Époque promenades of the city’s three urban beaches to work up an appetite, sip glasses of local fizzy txakoli wine, and listen out for the Basque language, an ancient tongue unrelated to its Indo-European neighbours, still widely spoken in this part of the world. The Basque culture and its unique, insular customs are on display at every turn, from the L-shaped frontoia (outdoor courts used for community gatherings) to the many celebrations marked by rigorous and strange steps of euskal dantza (a local dance). Soak it all in between fabulous meals.
Start the day in the water, as do many locals in the neighbourhood of Gros. Head to the Zurriola beach, San Sebastián’s younger, buzzier playa. No matter what your level of experience with surfing, the instructors at Pukas Surf Eskola can adapt a personalised lesson to your level. An hour bobbing up and down, observing the Ulia mountain and the dramatic outline of the Kuursal, will leave you feeling refreshed and at one with nature.
Change out of your wetsuit and you’re likely to be in the mood for a refreshment. Perfect timing, as it’s right around la hora del vermut – the vermouth hour. Experience this local ritual down the street at vermouth mecca Bar Roberto Berri. Order a local red vermouth on the rocks and toast to cultural enlightenment.
Vermouth is a notorious appetite opener, and you’re going to need it. Next stop is Arzak, ground zero for the New Basque Cuisine movement and a perennial on top restaurant lists. In a city where Michelin stars are blinding, one three-star experience is obligatory. Father-daughter duo Juan Mari and Elena’s tasting menu is playful and technically thrilling.
Post-meal, some light strolling is in order. Get the taxi to drop you back off in the centre of town, and marvel at the regal architecture as well as the boutiques that crowd its blocks.
Skip the supersize Zara, keeping your eyes out for smaller, local boutiques: Minük and Labui for women’s clothes, inma_lo for shoes, and Loreak Mendian for Basque-influenced design and clothing for both sexes; Valentina and Bois et Fer for housewares and Hunky Dory, the recent winner of the title Best Indie Perfume Shop in Spain.
Wind up your stroll on the north side of the centre and follow the beachside promenade to the entry to Monte Urgull. Ascend this mini mountain, scattered with landmarks (stone remains of a castle, a fort, and even a cemetery that pays homage to English soldiers) and topped with a giant statue of Jesus Christ. Admire the late evening summer sunset from your perch – there’s no better view.
When in San Sebastián, pintxo hopping is obligatory (not to mention, it pairs nicely with tasting menu lunches). Come down from the mountain and conduct a mini tour of the best the Old Town (Parte Vieja) has to offer.
Elbows up to the bar and order away: anchovies at Bar Txepetxa, the best seasonal produce at Ganbara, elevated miniature creations at Casa Urola, and the famous cheesecake at La Viña. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the area, see our guide.
Finish off your evening at Dabadaba, San Sebastián’s hippest evening spot where the most varied crowd ends up. Check the calendar for live music performances, which vary from flamenco to global indie bands.
Head to the edge of the city, towards the steep, green Monte Igueldo. Take the century-old funicular up the photogenic mountain, and snap away to your heart’s content at one of San Sebastián’s most popular lookout points. Then take in the vintage attractions at the amusement park, being sure not to miss the retro yet harrowing “Swiss Mountain”.
Stroll downhill (about a 20-minute walk, or just grab a cab) for lunch at a Basque farmhouse whose cellar hides one of the world’s top wine collections: Rekondo. The breezy terrace is the perfect spot to enjoy a 1964 Rioja (at a bargain price!) in summertime – be sure to order the squid in its ink.
On your way back into town, stop as you pass La Concha beach. Santa Clara Island, in the middle of the bay, is a bit of a secret – it’s actually easy to visit by boat so head to the lovely, quiet island and have a digestif at its sunny seaside chiringuito (bar) or hike up to the white lighthouse to see Hondalea, a gigantic art installation by Cristina Iglesias.
Back on solid land, venture over to the neighbourhood of Egia, where an imposing building casts a shadow over the train line. This is the International Centre for Contemporary Culture, better known as the Tabakalera, and there’s something for everyone in this former cigarette factory. Check out the exhibitions and hands-on laboratories and libraries, or stop for a coffee or snack in the mini food hall.
For dinner, catch a cab out to the nearby fishing village for one of the best meals you’ll have – Elkano was a favourite of Anthony Bourdain, and for good reason. The Arregi family sources their fish direct from the port a few blocks down, and their grilled turbot is world famous. The best time to eat is in spring/early summer, when the fish are spawning and are extra tender.
After arriving back in San Sebastián, finish off the night with a relaxed nightcap at La Gintonería Donostiarra. The selection of over 150 gins are mixed in a show that brings to mind a scientific experiment: dry ice, infusing botanicals, special spoons especially for the single swipe to mix your boutique gin and premium tonic – this spot is the perfect place to finish a gourmet getaway. For more suggestions of the best nightlife in the area, see our guide.
If you need a break from the standing up of pintxo bars, try the midweek prix-fixe lunch menús del día available at even the finest restaurants. You can find steals at traditional restaurants (from €10/£8.65 for three-course meals with all-you-can drink wine and dessert) or relative bargains at fancier spots. For home-style cooking, try the bargain-priced menú del día at Pollitena, or take advantage of the midday deal at Restaurante Astelena from Tuesday to Friday.
The neighbourhood of Gros offers the same treats as the famous Old Part with fewer tourists. Explore along Calle Zabaleta and Calle San Francisco for shopping, food, yoga and vermouths, or pintxo-hop down the pedestrian Calle Peña y Goñi. You’ll find an infinite selection of bars, boutiques and sights to see. Don’t miss a playful selection of up cycled fashion at Vintage Closet on Zabaleta Kalea or the famous, classic pintxos at Bodega Donostiarra.
While there is a regular boat that takes visitors back and forth from the Isla Santa Clara, it’s just as simple and a lot more exciting to rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from aloKayak and head over. The waters are generally quite calm, and the memories will be unforgettable. From €11.50 (£10).
The Hotel María Cristina is housed in one of the city’s landmarks, a Belle Époque 1912 building. Non-guests are welcomed to peruse the interior, and the ground floor also holds the Dry Bar, one of the top cocktail spots in the city. A menu by famed mixologist Javier de las Muelas changes often and drinks come with a bottomless assortment of olives, mixed nuts and potato chips.
Did you know?
San Sebastián has burned to the ground more times than history can count. The most recent destructive fire was August 31, 1813, and it swallowed nearly the entire Old Town. On the eponymous Calle del 31 de Agosto one can view the oldest building in the city, the only vestige of the architecture and lifestyle before the 1800s.
Where to stay
A spectacular wall-mounted sculpture welcomes guests to Lasala Plaza – 13 copper and wood ‘oars’, a reference to the important tradition of rowing in the Basque culture. The hotel has the perfect location, amazing views, and a rooftop pool to enjoy it all in style. The art, architecture, and cuisine are a reflection of the local seaside culture, but with a healthy dose of glitz and glamour.
Pedro Subijana’s Akelarre is a combination of five-star boutique hotel and a restaurant that holds three Michelin stars. Architecture studio Mecanismo has sourced top-quality natural materials to create sensual, spacious interiors. Oak, grey filita stone and brass feature throughout the property, forming sculptural shapes and undulating walls – there are a lot of strokable surfaces.
Beside the river is Ibaia Et Arramak, the millennial version of a traditional Spanish pensión. Floors are cement, tones are muted, lightbulbs are exposed with retro filaments what just might be the most modern, fashionable rooms around (a random hanging terrarium, a nook with a custom-fitted collection of preserved moth). In short: a hipster design-lover’s paradise.
What to bring home
The world’s best anchovies pour in from the nearby Cantabrian Sea. Pick up a jar of Maisor’s salt- or vinegar-cured anchovies at Lukas Gourmet Shop, painstakingly cleaned and cured to perfection in nearby Getaria.
Boinas (the Basque berets) have played a role in both fashion and social politics for centuries. Casa Ponsol is an old-school hat shop with a perfect selection: pick up the locally crafted “1858” beret by Boinas Elosegui.
When to go
The only redeeming factor of San Sebastián’s 200 rainy days per year is that there is plenty to do (and eat, and drink) indoors. The rainiest months are January, April, and November. June and September are prime months to visit – a high probability of good weather and not yet overcrowded with domestic tourists (like in July and August). The Zinemaldi film festival in September is a great time to visit, with its overload of cultural activities and celebrity sightings. Being a tourist town, San Sebastián’s bars and attractions are often open on national holidays.
Tourist Office: Alameda del Blvd. 8, San Sebastián 20003; 00 34 943 48 11 66
Emergency fire and ambulance: 080
Emergency police: 112
British Embassy: Torre Espacio, Paseo de la Castellana 259D, Madrid, 28046 (00 34 944 146 300; gov.uk)
Flight time: London to Bilbao normally takes around an hour and a half, then a bus to San Sebastián is a one-hour journey
Currency: Euros €
International dialling code: +34
Local laws and etiquette
• Tipping is not customary, mostly consisting of change left behind by people too lazy to grab it. At nicer restaurants, a five to 10 per cent tip is appreciated.
• It’s best to adapt your meal schedule to local time to reduce frustration and off-hour hunger. Lunch is served from 1pm to 3pm in most places and dinner from 8pm to 11pm.
• The majority of businesses close from 1:30pm or 2pm to 4:30pm or 5pm, save larger supermarkets or global chains.
• You can’t hail taxis just anywhere; look for official taxi stands or call to arrange a pickup (00 34 943 46 46 46). At nightime only a small percentage of taxi stands are active, so it’s best to call.
• The norm is to pay one’s bill (for drinks and food) when finished consuming. It is often up to the diner to keep track of food and drink consumed.
• At pintxo bars, locals never take a big plate and load it with pintxos. If you want a pintxo from the bar, just grab it or ask the waiter to heat it up. Then have another. Also, feel free to throw your napkin on the ground.