The most common thing said about San Sebastian is that it is impossible not to fall in love with this coastal town on the northern corner of Spain’s Basque Country, only 12 miles from neighboring France.
Situated on the Bay of Biscay, a bay formed by the mountainous Cantabrian coastline, San Sebastian (or also known by its Basque name, Donostia) was a high-class tourist destination starting in the mid-19th century. It continues to be an exceedingly popular destination in Spain thanks in large part to its elaborate festivals and fireworks shows. Festivals range from traditional city celebrations to music, theater or cinema festivals which take place year round, but are especially concentrated in the summer months. In the last week of July, the longest running jazz festival in Europe, the San Sebastian’s Jazz Festival (Jazzaldia), attracts visitors from all corners of the world.
Activities for visitors in San Sebastian center around La Concha Beach and the historic old town, Parte Vieja. La Concha Playa rivals any big European city beach. The town literally encircles the beach and most areas are within walking distance, meaning you can pop over to Parte Viaje for a coffee, lunch… or as I like to do, for an afternoon wine.
To explore the beaches of San Sebastian, you can talk a walk along the 4-mile oceanfront promenade that takes you through the city’s 3 sandy beaches. The most beautiful and picturesque is undeniably, La Concha Playa, which comes alive at sunset when the setting sun and city lights combine to make a a setting that looks postcard perfect.
We happened to be there during a local festival called Donostia Piratak (pirates) where teams build their own boats and attempt to sail them out to the edge of the bay and back. So the beach was literally filled with spectators cheering on their family and friends, and visitors like us taking in the mania of the crowd. A local spectator standing nearby said to me, “this is most exciting 5 minutes in Basque sports every year!”
The Parte Viaje is lined with old cobblestone streets containing the city’s the most popular pintxo bars. Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas. The perfect pintxo is meant to be savoured in 2 bites. Typically pintxos are seafood given the historical seafaring and fishing history of the Basque country. So imagine marinated anchovies, or chili spiked mayonnaise prawns, chopped crab or grilled squid with a flavorsome sauce heaped upon small pieces of baguette-style bread. But pintxos are not just seafood… if that’s not your thing… but I can promise you, it is worth a try since you are in the area which has the best seafood Spain, and some would say Europe, has to offer. The typical way to enjoy pintxos is to do a txikiteo — this is the local term for a pintxo bar hop. In a txikiteo you would go to multiple pintxo places and inquire about their most popular dishes – order 1 to 2 of these and a glass of wine, and then move on to the next pintxo bar to do the same. And so on and so on…until you have had your fill.
Very popular and widely regarded as one of the best pintxo restos is A Fuego Nera at Calle 31 de Agosto, try the spider crab and avocado dishes. A more modern interpretation of pintxos, slightly more sophisticated and less traditional, can be found at La Cuchara de San Telmo at Calle 31 de Agosto 28 – here you can try foie gras or mushroom risotto pintxos. I tend to favor the more traditional ambiance and fare at Astelena at Calle de Iñigo 1 where people take a seat at the long wooden counter and typically order the croquetas studded with pistachios and the salmon and cheese crepes – their 2 most popular dishes.
Also, an odd and slightly giddying fact about San Sebstian’s Parte Viaje is that it contains the densest concentration of bars per square meter in the world! While any number of cocktails are available (locals tend to favor gin and tonic), one simply must try the local wine, Txakoli. This is a young, acidic white wine which typifies the terroir of the Basque region, and as you might expect, also pairs perfectly with seafood. It is typically served extremely cold and poured from a considerable height to force air into the wine, giving it a slightly fizzy character. Atari Gastroteka at Calle Mayor 18 is one good spot to sample Txakoli.
Just a taste of San Sebastian, or Donostia, to whet your appetite for Basque country. Like many who visit this place, I too have fallen in love!