Savoring time in Spain’s go-BACK-to beach town in the Basque Country.
By Dina Harrison
With all the fascinating corners of the world left to explore, a place has to be pretty incredible for me to visit twice in two years. San Sebastián is that incredible.
Sure, there are some sights to see. But it’s the magnetic Basque lifestyle, food, and culture that attracts us to the northern Spanish town on the Bay of Biscay. We spend long, lazy days at the beach and love to stroll the New Paseo along the curve of Playa de la Concha with its hallmark white railing.
The donostiarras – the people of Donostia, San Sebastián’s Basque name – literally create some of the world’s best cuisine. You can wander the streets and drop in hundreds of pintxos bars for evening “happy hour,” enjoying the Basque tapas with a glass of local txakoli (white sparkling wine) or beer with the kids. Rest up and head out later for a more formal dinner at one of the town’s Michelin-starred restaurants, or just wander the streets for sweets and boutiques, hang out just outside of Parte Vieja, listen to music, people watch or take another walk on the Paseo. It’s addictive.
- Travelers: Dina & Steve Harrison with two kids, age 7 to 10
- When: July 2017 and July 2018
- Itinerary: 4-6 nights in San Sebastián and 1 night Bilbao
- Budget: The suites and the apartment are each about $300-$600/night, depending on the time of year and how big of a place you need.
The Good Stuff
Stay at the beach. Since we visited over two summers, we stayed at two different places. Legazpi Doce Suites is a great little boutique hotel equidistant to the beach and the old town, called Parte Vieja. We rented an apartment the following summer a few blocks away through Feel Free rentals (a large company managing many apartments). I’d highly recommend staying near La Concha or near Parte Vieja. You can also stay near Zurriola beach and be walking distance to almost everything.
Paseo some time. Walk or bike the New Paseo, which starts (or ends) at Zurriola beach and ends (or starts) at the beach of Ondarreta. You walk all along the sea – great people watching, beautiful sights, and Instagram-worthy photos at every turn. You’ll walk along the famous Playa La Concha too. This will help give you an orientation of the city. Bike rental is super easy near Zurriola beach (and likely elsewhere).
Get high. Hike, walk, or take the funicular to the top of Mount Igueldo. The views of La Concha and the city of San Sebastian are incredible. There’s a small old-timey amusement park for kids and a really old and slightly scary roller coaster. The kids loved it and the adults took in the views, had a beer, and enjoyed watching the fun.
Go fish. Walk the path up Mount Urgull. This is a great way to stretch your legs in the morning and see the park. It’s in the old part of town and at the base is the aquarium. My kids love all things fish and sea-related, and the aquarium is a nice way to beat the heat for a couple of hours.
Shop small. Shopping the boutiques in Gros and in San Sebastián is also a nice way to spend some time – and money! We liked how many mom-and-pop boutiques are mixed in with the Spanish giants like Zara and Mango. Our favorite store was Bimba y Lola for their little purses and pouches.
Have a drink! Cocktails at the famous and expensive Maria Cristina are also a nice way to start an evening. The hotel is absolutely beautiful – and cocktail hour is a “thing” – meaning, you’ll get lots of snacks included with a really amazing cocktail. Likewise for the non-alcoholic beverages, if you have a kid or nondrinker in tow.
Eat well. San Sebastián has a global reputation for food – whether Michelin-starred restaurants or small pintxos places. In fact, there is only one city with more Michelin-starred restaurants per square meter than San Sebastián, and that’s Kyoto, Japan. So if good food by well-known chefs is important to you, there’s no shortage of that here. You also don’t need to break the bank to have really delicious and outstanding food at a tiny pintxos bar. There’s something for everyone.
Go pintxos. Eating pintxos in Parte Vieja and El Barrio de Gros on the other side of the river is by far our favorite way to sustain ourselves. Some of our favorite picks are below:
- Bar Nestor for steak. They only serve four things – steak, egg pancakes, tomatoes, and peppers, so you know they do it well. It’s always a wait because the place is tiny. Be patient!
- Bar Sport for their foie gras (heavenly)
- Ganbara for their mushrooms
- Goiz Argi for their garlic prawn skewers (hands-down favorite), but also their ropa vieja is fantastic.
- La Cepa for ham and cheese sandwiches
- La Vina for cheesecake. If you have room after all the pintxos.
- Paco Bueno for fried shrimp
- Txepetxa for anchovies
- Bar Bergara is a classic pintxos bar and one of our favorites. If you are looking for a more elaborate meal, check out
- Aitzgorri is a great spot for a bigger meal, they serve seasonal food and speak some English.
- There are plenty of other gastro notables in the area too, including the Michelin three-star winners like Akelarre, Arzak, Martín Berasategui, and two-starred Mugaritz. There are also plenty of one-star places, including Alameda, Amelia, Elkano, Eme Be Garrote, Kokotxa, Mirador de Ulia, and Zuberoa. Check this local blog for more ideas.
Reserve a table. Many of these restaurants require reservations and several start booking 60 days ahead. Consider lunch as an option if you can’t get into your pick for dinner.
Lunch fancy. Get a required reservation at Rekondo and be sure to request the outside terrace, especially on a nice day. We had a delicious albacore crudo that was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen – with cucumbers, pomegranate seeds, mint, and avocado on a beautiful plate. The stuffed peppers were also incredible, as was our favorite: rice and clams. It’s a signature dish and didn’t disappoint. Desserts were fabulous too – chocolate cake, an apple tart, and of course, a cheese course. We had wine pairings too. It is a lovely way to skip the siesta and still relax away from the beach.
Tour food. Overwhelmed with the tapas selection and don’t know where to start? Try taking a food tour through a private person or through the visitors’ center. We did that our first year in San Sebastián and it was wonderful. Not only did we book a small group – only eight of us – but it was inexpensive and our guide knew his stuff. He explained about the history of the pintxos (yup, there’s a history), the sparkling Basque txakoli, and why many pinxtos bars are known for just a few specialties.
Do Bilbao. For museum aficionados, I’d recommend heading west for an at least one night in Bilbao. My kids were enchanted by photos of the Guggenheim Museum – and well, who am I to say no? So we jumped on the bus (see below) and headed west.
Bilbao is a mix of old and new. The museum is the biggest draw in town and you can buy tickets in advance, do a guided tour or an audio tour, or just wander through on your own. We chose the latter.
There’s an enormous playground just outside the museum and it’s a great place to let the kids get their wiggles out. And the little cafe is a perfect place to grab some lunch or a glass of wine and watch the action. We had a little more than 24 hours on the ground in Bilbao. After the museum, we headed to Casco Viejo (Bilbao’s old town) for some sightseeing. Lots of great restaurants, bars, stores, and plenty of churches to keep you busy for hours.
Venture nearby. San Sebastián is very close to the French border. In fact, it’s only about 30 miles from Biarritz in France. You are also 200 miles to Picos de Europa, a national park with fantastic hiking and sightseeing. Another cool spot is the fairly new Hotel Marqués de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry. If I weren’t with the kids, this luxury hotel complete with spa, wine tasting, and yes, more delicious Basque cuisine, would be an ideal night-or-two jaunt from San Sebastián.
Good to Know
Get around. The ALSA buses are easy to use and bring you right into the heart of San Sebastián from Bilbao and other nearby spots. The trains are equally easy to use but slightly more expensive. We’ve flown into Bilbao and taken the bus to and from the airport. We’ve also taken the trains from San Seb to Madrid and to Barcelona. It’s all pretty easy and the bus terminal is located within walking distance to La Concha in San Sebastián. Note: I highly recommend the Rome2Rio app for help with planning all your point A to point B travels. (Including short flights!)
Dina Harrison – April 2019
Like ambassadors of adorable, Dina’s two-of-the-cutest-kids-you’ll-
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