I have a tendency of seeing a place in a movie or on a TV show and deciding on the spur of the moment that I have to go there. I watched Midnight in Paris a few years ago and immediately booked a trip to Paris. And earlier this year I was watching an old Jamie Oliver travel show in which he visited San Sebastián and within minutes I was researching places to stay, dates and flights.
Spoiler alert: San Sebastián and the surrounding Basque Country simply took my breath away. I had no idea what I had been missing all these years.
We flew into Bilbao after 16 hours in London with a vague idea of dropping in on the Guggenheim after we landed, but on driving by and seeing the super long line we decided to save it for another day. I planned to take the long, spectacular coastal route to San Sebastián, spending a night along the way in a wonderful old castle: Castillo de Arteaga (more on that in a subsequent post).
For the uninitiated (as I was) San Sebastián is a cultural and gastronomical center of Europe. The city holds one of the highest ratios of Michelin-starred restaurants per square meter and naturally, this little nugget of information alone, whetted my appetite.
We opted to stay in an AirBnB near one of the three beaches, in our case Zurriola beach, which is popular with surfers. Just across a bridge from the heart of the old town, and opposite the magnificent Hotel Maria Cristina, we were able to walk to the center within about 7 minutes. Note: a car is merely a hindrance in San Sebastián. Parking is a pain (as I came to find out) and you really can walk everywhere.
We did a lot while we were there, but here are some of the highlights.
1. Eat Pinxtos
Pinxtos served in bars, otherwise known as tapas or small appetizers, are one of the highlights of the food scene in San Sebastián’s old town and it can be quite overwhelming knowing not only where to go, but how to order, and what to eat. The old town comes alive at the end of the day with the bars spilling out on to the streets as tourists and locals mingle, ready to shed off the drudgery of the day.
If you really want to have a great experience, I recommend you find a local guide to take you to the best spots. San Sebastián Food offers a pinxtos tour. We tried to go it alone and later learned that 1) you never pick the food displayed on the bar top – that apparently is for novices and 2) you order from the blackboard and hope that the server finds you in the thronging mass that surrounds every bar (and he will). Oh and don’t forget to try the amazing “gin tonic” – they come in a glass the size of a fish bowl, no complaints here.
2. Walk along the promenade
It is impossible to spend time in San Sebastian without going for a walk on the sea-front. In fact, if you were to try and walk the length of the three beaches that are strung together to form the promenade, you might find that you’ve taken on more than you bargained for.
Let’s imagine you happened to take a few wrong turns and detours here and there, and before you know it you’ve been walking for over two hours on a very hot day with no lunch and a recalcitrant teen in tow. But hopefully that won’t happen to you, and even if it did, the views are so breathtakingly spectacular it’s hard to go wrong. And don’t forget to check out the sunset too.
3. Take the tram to the top of Monte Igueldo
To the west end of La Concha bay is Monte Igueldo – a very large hill with a medieval-looking tower, cafe and little amusement park at the top. This had been the destination of our “sea-front promenade” but after two hours of walking and no end in sight we decided to get the bus to funicular. The funicular itself reminded me of the Peak Tram in Hong Kong, a perennial favorite.
After an incredibly steep climb (by the tram, not you) you’re rewarded with the most breathtaking, spectacular views. It is other-wordly. And it’s definitely worth climbing to the top of the tower for a 360-degree view of the city and the Atlantic. Just supremely gorgeous.
4. Get a reservation at a Michelin-starred restaurant
As I’ve already recounted here, we were extremely lucky to get a cancelation at Arzak, one of the world’s best restaurants, albeit at 9.30pm at night. When in Rome… and all that. It was simply fantastic and will be a life-long memory for me and Monkey. If, like me, you’re incapable of planning ahead, start dialing for dinner the minute you arrive in San Sebastián and I’m sure you will luck out and get a cancellation just as we did.
5. Take a cooking class and visit the market
Another highlight was the day we spent at San Sebastián Food cooking school, located in the basement of the Hotel Maria Cristina. We opted for the class which included a tour of the local market – I just love hearing about the local specialities and delicacies and it’s always nice to buy the produce you’re going to cook with. The chefs who taught us were fun and incredibly knowledgeable. We learned SO much about Spanish gastronomy, and Monkey got to use a blow torch for the first time. Replete from eating our creations, and topped up with wonderful local wine, this class was well worth the money.
6. Live like a local
For me, part of the fun of staying in an apartment vs. a hotel, is that you invariably end up in a local neighborhood. I sent Monkey out in the morning to buy bread from the bakery for his breakfast and we got his hair cut across the street.
I marveled at how busy the local playground was at 11.30pm a night… toddlers begging to be pushed on the swings while their parents chatted away to their friends. I mean, it was nearly midnight, but everyone seemed very happy and enjoying all their local community had to offer.
We also visited the museum (tip: the ticket includes a pinxtos and a drink at the cafe afterwards), roamed around the streets shopping at dusk and wished we had time for so much more. But alas, three days really isn’t all that much time, so we will be back without question.