San Sebastián has it all. This lovely Basque seaside town boasts some of the world’s best cuisine, both in miniature and Michelin versions, as well as gorgeous beaches against a lush green mountain backdrop.
San Sebastián is a book you can judge by its cover. The first time you round the corner and see the gorgeous bay of La Concha stretch before you, your breath is bound to catch. Contemplating how a town can be so beautiful is best done over a glass of local txakoli wine and a pintxo, the small bites that the Basque people have invented (and perfected).
Most visitors to San Sebastián come with a checklist not of sights, but of bites. From the bars of the Old Town to the Michelin-starred restaurants (with the most per capita in the world), there is too much to eat in San Sebastián for 48 hours. Pace yourself – do as the locals do and have your big sit-down meals at lunch. After a lengthy lunch, enjoy a siesta and a walk around the town, exploring the shops, galleries, and even the city mountains, which are dotted with landmarks. When the evening rolls around, whet your appetite with a few drinks before hitting the city’s boisterous pintxo bars.
The Packing Edit
Akelarre’s location, while well outside of the centre of San Sebastián, is nonetheless breathtaking. Its perch atop Monte Igeldo means magnificently expansive ocean views are the norm, both from its 22 rooms and its three-Michelin-star namesake restaurant, which predates the hotel by several decades. Stone and warm oak surfaces pervade the hotel, arranged positively sculpturally by the famed Spanish studio Mecanismo. The rooms are mid-century modern, all with exquisite views and balancing modern luxury (Apple TVs) with true luxury (total peace and quiet). The hotel houses both Pedro Subijana’s three-star fine dining restaurant and Oteiza, which has a more simple but still upscale offering. The terrace bar is a must in good weather – cocktails by one of the city’s best mixologists and amazing views attract locals as well as guests.
Located in the bustling shopping district of San Sebastián, Arbaso is a hotel that, more than any other hotel in the city, celebrates the Basque culture. Decorated in natural textures from oak to local Marquina marble, the 50 rooms are ‘haute Basque’ – outfitted in furniture with a pedigree, much of it custom made, such as the side tables inspired by the stone weights lifted by harrijasotzaile, a type of traditional sportsman. The decor favours natural, timeless materials, but the hotel features the latest technology including iPads that greet you by name, Marshall Bluetooth speakers, and high-tech systems to control the shutters and heating. The hotel has more features than the typical city centre hotel in San Sebastián, including a gym, steam room, and sauna. The ground-floor restaurant, Narru, has been a local favourite since it opened over a decade ago, thanks to top-quality produce and its refined take on traditional Basque food.
Location, location, location, as they say – Villa Favorita is a stunning 23-room hotel with a front-row view of La Concha beach. A former villa, built in 1866, the hotel channels the gilded, Belle Epoque past that defines the city. Sea-view rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, making them totally worth the splurge. Be sure to spend the early evenings in the hotel bar, plush with velvet upholstery and gorgeous brassy details, in addition to serving up some of the city’s best cocktails and a gorgeous terrace. The hotel also houses Amelia, home to two of San Sebastián’s many Michelin stars.
EAT + DRINK
This family run restaurant located in a farmhouse right outside of town has it all. From the moment you walk up, the latticed trees over the expansive terrace create an enchanting atmosphere (the best spot to sit in summer). The menu reads like a Greatest Hits of Basque cuisine – squid in its ink, spider crab a la donostiarra, and rice with clams – yet the dishes are presented with a delicate hand under the eye of head chef Iñaki Arrieta. The real reason to visit Rekondo, however, is its wine cellar. Its 250-page wine menu reflects the richness of the stacks and stacks of rare wines that lie below its surface, all product of the owner Txomin’s lifelong obsession with wine, carried on by his daughter, Lourdes.
Beyond pintxos and Michelin stars, there are a group of young chefs hungry to make a mark on San Sebastián’s dining scene by serving the absolute best produce in simple yet refined presentations. Rua 887 is one of the best examples of this trend – run by chef Antonio Carlos Belotti, the restaurant has one of the most mouth-watering in the city. The spider crab, covered with a paper-thin sheet of pork fat and a sous vide egg yolk, is sensational, as is the simple fish (often served with beurre blanc) and the grilled lamb or steak. The bar and terrace menu is more snacky but no less impressive – don’t miss the cured Wagyu Cecina, grilled mussels, or the steak tartar with black caviar.
This bustling pintxo bar would blend into the crowd of San Sebastián’s famous Old Port if it weren’t for the stacks of fresh mushrooms, peppers, and other produce atop its bar counter. The pintxos at Ganbara are both traditional and exquisitely prepared – time capsules, albeit delicious ones. From the croissant with jamón ibérico to the plate of seared mushrooms served with a glimmering egg yolk, Ganbara has been a groundbreaker on the scene since it was opened in 1983 by Jose Ignacio Martinez and his wife Amaia Ortuzar. Today, it continues in the family, and the second generation has both preserved and even bettered the bar and restaurant, curating one of the city’s best wine lists.
Visit Hondalea, Santa Clara Island’s art installation
Huge, outdoor installations that interact with nature are sort of San Sebastián’s thing (The Comb of the Wind by Eduardo Chillida, Empty Construction by Jorge Oteiza, and more). Cristina Iglesias is the latest local artists to create an impressive imprint on the local sculpture scene with her installation of Hondalea on the island of Santa Clara. Using large casts of bronze, she recreates the geology native to the Basque Coast, spiralling through the inside of the emblematic lighthouse, with a grand scale and perspective only surpassed by Mother Nature. Getting out to see the incredible work is half the fun, so spend a morning taking the short boat ride to the island, having a coffee in the makeshift bar, and making the climb up to the lighthouse to see the installation.
Walk along the sea to Pasaia
Within five minutes of beginning the walk that starts in San Sebastián’s easternmost neighbourhood, Gros, the urbane charm of the city is forgotten for the greens and blues of a wildly windswept cliffside. The hike is far from challenging, barring the first five minutes climb uphill, allowing you to focus on the stunning Cantabrian Sea and the twists and turns along the coastline, dotted with flora, fauna, and the occasional fellow hiker. After just under three hours, you end up in the fishing village of Pasaia, where there are several restaurants specialising in seafood if you need to sate hunger. Take a short 10-minute taxi ride or public bus back to San Sebastián.
Albaola, a living nautical history
Located in Pasaia, Albaola Factoría Marítima is the perfect post-hike stop in Pasaia. This museum-slash-shipyard is a living and breathing construction area, where you can see masters of the craft work on building a replica of a 16th-century Basque whaler in real time. The project is sponsored by UNESCO and driven by the passion of a few master shipbuilders, including Xabier Agote, and a local intent on promoting the naval heritage of the Basques. During the building process, the builders hand-selected and felled the trees themselves, using only techniques and tools available during the 1500s. It’s an impressive project that speaks to the connection the local culture has to the sea.
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