September 28, 2018
By Joey Tyson
San Sebastian has that rare quality in a city: it’s an all-rounder, but at the same time, completely unique. Blessed with natural beauty, wonderful beaches, and glorious architecture, it ticks all the major city break boxes. But as the epicentre of Basque dining and an important hub for the autonomous region’s strong culture and sense of tradition, Donostia (as the locals say) is a fascinating window into this underrated corner of Spain.
Here’s why San Sebastian should be next on your city break wish list.
Basque people love to eat. Food and drink are so central to social life in San Sebastian that the best way to experience the city is undoubtedly through your stomach.
The city is the undisputed champion of pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”) – a sort of Basque tapas skewered with a toothpick – and bar counters across San Seb are strewn with these tasty mouthfuls which cost upwards from a couple of euros. They are made up of delicious local produce, from cured ham and anchovies to octopus and olives, and are best washed down with a small glass of txakoli (a sparkling white wine synonymous with the region).
We recommend embracing the Basque philosophy of poteo – which translates from Basque as “to go from bar to bar” – filling your belly with a tour of the city’s pintxos bars, sampling a couple of pintxos in each. Usually, a bar with have a chalk board with prices and names of each pintxos on it - simply point at the ones you want and the bar staff will hand it over.
You’ll find the majority of the city’s pintxos bars in the cobbled labyrinth of the old town, where the style is more traditional – try popular Gandarias. Nearby Gros, where the locals go when the old town gets too manic, is home to a more contemporary set of places, such as Bar Gure Txoko – try the soft shell crab burger. Wherever you end up, the classic gilda – olive, pepper and anchovy – and solomillo steak are must tries.
With its own language and distinctive traditions, the Basque culture is what really sets San Sebastian apart from other cities in Spain.
Gain some insight into this fascinating culture at the San Telmo Museoa, a history-cum-art museum that addresses the past and present of Basque society. Discover the secrets of the Basque language (thought to be the oldest in Europe), learn of the region’s proud seafaring heritage and its struggles to find its place in modern Spain.
Located at the foot of Monte Urgull in the old town, part of the museum is housed within a magnificent 16th century convent; its soaring cloisters and mural-adorned alter room make it worthy of a visit in itself.
Meanwhile, Tabakalera a cultural centre and exhibition space located in a renovated tobacco factory, is home to the Etxepare Basque Institute, which promotes the Basque language, and the Basque Film Archive - two other important cultural institutions in the city.
For an authentic glimpse of Basque food culture, head to La Bretxa shopping hall, where you’ll find the city’s premier food market, which dates back to 1870, in the basement. A delightful assault on the senses, pick through huge wheels of Idiazabal ewe’s cheese, hunks of salted cod, whole stalls of cured meats and other Basque delicacies. Outside, you’ll find a daily farmers market (except Sundays) which goes until 2pm.
Just south of the city, set among rolling hills and apple orchards, is the town of Astigarraga, the heart of Basque cider country, and a cultural and gastronomic movement unique to this part of the world: the Basque cider house.
Rooted in tradition, most cider houses provide a set menu (usually a salted cod omelette, beef steak, and a desert of local cheese - prices start at around 25 euros), and the cider is all you can drink. The drinking, or more, getting the drinks in, is the fun part.
The cider master may yell “TXOTX” (pronounced “choach”), which effectively means “come get your cider”. Folk line up before huge oak barrels of cider, and as the master turns a small tap at the top of the barrel, the liquid streams down from a great height: one by one, patrons fill their glasses, moving in as the next person leaves. This unusual ceremony is key to releasing the drink's flavour.
There are around 19 cider houses in the town, and while the main cider season runs from January to April, you’ll find a handful, such as Sidrería Alorrenea, known for its hefty stakes, open most of the year. To get there, it’s just a 20-minute bus (the A2 bus) journey.
With not one but three beaches to pick from, San Sebastian is surely one of the most enviable beach cities in Europe.
La Concha (the Shell) is the biggest, central beach, which borders Playa de Ondaretta to the west, and Zurriola, to the east, across the Urumea River. The latter is popular with the younger crowd, particularly surfers, and fronts the hipster Gros neighbourhood. La Concha and Zurriola are popular with all types of beach goers, and from May through to late September you’ll find them dotted with people.
Although the beaches are tidal – it changes every six hours – the sheltered bay of San Sebastian means they are very safe. The rocky Isla de Santa Clara, in the centre of the bay’s mouth, also has a small beach, and can be reached by ferry from Plaza La Lasta.
The Basques are a creative and resourseful people, and it shows through their art. It’s everywhere accross the region, from the world famous Guggenheim in Bilbao, to Oma, where an entire section of forest has been transformed into an ethereal exhibition. No surprises then that San Sebastian, has plenty of artistic clout worth shouting about too.
Some of the best sculptures are free and can be found dotted about the city. The most famous, the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb) by artist Eduardo Chillida and architect Luis Peña Ganchegui, is located to west of Ondaretta on a coastal promenade the artist would visit for inspiration.
Other outdoor sculptures include Construcción Vacía (Empty Construction) by the artist Jorge Oteiza at Paseo Nuevo and Bakearan Usoa (Dove of Peace) by Nestor Basterretxea, on the Zurriola promenade. Traditional galleries include Arteko, Vetusart and Kur, as well as the various collections of San Telmo.
Beyond the baroque facades, iron-rung balconies and cobbled streets of its old town, much of what makes San Sebastian so beautiful is down to the hand Mother Nature dealt it.
Two lush mountains, Monte Igelgo and Monte Urgull, stand guard at either side of the city’s main bay, protecting the beaches from the power of the Atlantic. You can take the old funicular (one of the oldest in Spain), to the top of the higher of the two, Igeldo, for sweeping views of the entire city, its gorgeous beaches and the rolling hills of the Basque Country. At Urgull, take a stroll around the old city walls, for views of the Basque Coast’s brooding shoreline.