San Sebastian, in the northern Basque country, is one of the coolest and most elegant places in Spain. Not as flashy as some of the southern beach towns of the Costa del Sol, San Sebastian doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of attractions. What it does offer though, it does incredibly well. And that is beautiful beaches, stunning views, and some of the best food in Spain.
San Sebastian can be easily explored in a few days (Check out our suggestions for a three-day itinerary in San Sebastian). If you’re thinking of spending several days in San Sebastian or making a stopover here enroute to France, these are some quintessential things to do in San Sebastian.
Enjoy the Beaches
In summer, there’s no better place to be in San Sebastian than on one of the city’s beaches. Less than a 10-minute walk from the outskirts of the city, Playa de la Concha is the main and most popular beach in the center of the bay. Stake out a square of sand and enjoy the sun and sea. Pick up rental kayaks on the slightly smaller Playa de Ondarreta or head to Playa de la Zurriola to surf some great waves (you can also rent boogie boards or take surfing lessons here). All three beaches are connected by a series of promenades where locals and visitors walk hand-in-hand or bike and rollerblade.
Explore the Surrounding Mountains
The two small mountains (big hills, really) on either side of the harbor can both be scaled. On the west side, Mount Igueldo is more developed. A train takes visitors to the top, where a small old-timey amusement park offers a few rides with great views. To the east, Monte Urgull is more untouched. To get to the top, you’ll need to hike.
Explore the City’s Harbor
In the harbor by Playa de la Concha, you can watch the fishing boats come in with their daily catch (which you’ll most likely be eating) as you sit at an outdoor restaurant. These restaurants have some of the freshest seafood in the city on offer although they can be pricey. The harbor is also home to a small aquarium. Further inland, you’ll find boutiques selling jewelry, shoes, clothing and art to the well-heeled holiday makers.
Feast on the Best Pintxos in Spain
All this sightseeing and beach-going is all well and good, but I’m glad there’s not much else to distract me from the main reason I love San Sebastian: the food. The Basque region of Spain is home to one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, and the highest in Spain.
Three restaurants in San Sebastian – Arzak, Martin Berasategui and Akelare – have been awarded the 3-star designation and have appeared on the list of “Best Restaurants in the World”. You can’t just roll up and grab a table though. Reservations are very hard to come by. Wait lists can be months long, so many people arrange their trips based on when they can score a spot.
For dining that’s easier to get to (and easier on the wallet) head into the Parte Vieja (Old Town) for some tapas, which are called pinxtos (pronounced “pinchos” in the Basque dialect) here. Pinxtos in San Sebastian are a cut above those serves elsewhere in Spain. Delicacies like foie gras, octopus, and lobster often make appearances and are served in two bite portions for just a euro or two each. The street of Calle 31 de Agosto is home to some of the best tapas bars in the city, including La Cuchara de San Telmo. The chef here trained with Ferran Adriá (chef at “The Best Restaurant in the World”, El Bulli) and puts a haute cuisine spin on many of his dishes, elevating them from simple bar snacks to small bites of culinary heaven. Wash the food down with the local Basque Sidra (cider), for the perfect San Sebastian meal.
Photos by: Katie Hammel and Nellie Huang