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Known as Donostia by locals, the elegant heart of the Basque country lies just ten miles from the French border. Romantic Belle Époque buildings, a prolific international film festival and three beautiful beaches make San Sebastián an ideal choice for couples, cinephiles and surfers. Though home to a constellation of Michelin stars, the city is not only revered for haute cuisine, and for every elaborate tasting menu there is an equally delicious pintxo.
Follow our Basque Country pinxto guide HERE
MARIA CRISTINA República Argentina Kalea, 4, 20004 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Named after and inaugurated by Queen Maria Cristina of Spain, this luxury hotel pays homage to its aristocratic heritage. The lobby’s sumptuous upholstery, original marble floors and ornate chandeliers evoke the glamour of days gone by, while the rooms, decorated with colourful contemporary art, exude a subtler sophistication. Ask for a balcony for views over the Urumea River. The beds are so comfortable and the bathtubs so deep that it might be the only taste of the outdoors you need. Rooms from £196 per night
ASTORIA7 Calle de la Sagrada Familia, 1, 20010 Donostia-San Sebastián, Guipúzcua
Inspired by the San Sebastián International Film Festival and built on the grounds of the town’s first multi-screen theatre, this cinema-themed boutique hotel has 102 rooms dedicated to stars of the silver screen. The décor is charming, more 1970s kitsch than modern Hollywood glamour. Brown, circle-patterned accents on the bedspread and curtains contrast with teal headboards and large prints of stars such as Alfred Hitchcock and Rita Hayworth. Don’t leave without perusing the cinema library in the lobby and eating your fill of the excellent buffet breakfast. Rooms from £62 per night
HOTEL DE LONDRES Calle Zubieta, 2, 20007 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Guipúzcoa
Located on the promenade overlooking La Concha Bay, this stately hotel is something of a San Sebastián landmark. The original building dates back to 1865 and the décor exudes a fittingly old-world feel. The rooms are comfortable, and it’s worth spending a little extra to ensure spectacular seafront views. Relax on your balcony and watch local surfers test the evening waves before sundown. Rooms from £78 per night
VILLA SORO Avenida de Ategorrieta, 61, 20013 Donostia-San Sebastián, Guipúzcua, Gipuzkoa
Elegant yet low-key, the vibe at this 19th-century villa is homely country retreat meets stylish boutique. Villa Soro’s 25 rooms are split between two buildings – rooms in the villa have more character, while those in the carriage house open onto private terraces. Both options are fitted with big beds, and spacious bathrooms with Molton Brown products. If you don’t feel like taking the ten-minute stroll into the Old Town, there’s a fire-lit living room and a wood-panelled library that doubles up as a cosy bar. Rooms from £97 per night
ARZAK Av Alcalde Elósegui, 273, 20015 San Sebastián-Donostia, Guipúzcoa
The 1897 building that accommodates Arzak is as much a family home as it is home to the eighth-best restaurant in the world. If you’re lucky enough to visit when joint head chefs Juan Mari, 72, and his 45-year-old daughter Elena are in residence, then you’ll witness the dynamics of the Arzak dynasty first-hand. Serving cutting-edge Basque cuisine, highlights of the tasting menu include a starter of chorizo and tonic served in a Schweppes can, and lobster presented on a Samsung tablet with rolling waves on the screen. To finish, chocolates cut in the shapes of keys, nuts and bolts from ‘Ferreteria Arzak’ (Arzak’s workshop) offer a reassuring sign that Spain’s most celebrated restaurant is not taking itself too seriously.
MARTÍN BERASATEGUI Calle de Loidi, 4, 20160 Lasarte-Oria, Gipuzkoa
Minimalist décor in muted colours and a notable absence of background music leave the food to do the talking here. Though the tone of this hillside restaurant might be somewhat serious, chef Berasategui’s approach is exuberant, playful and imaginative. Infusing traditional Basque cuisine with exotic flavours, he creates unique dishes such as an oyster starter with cucumber, kefir and coconut. Courses come presented with an artist’s attention to detail – the vegetable heart salad looks more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a plate of lettuce and seafood. The gin and tonic dessert made with gin-infused jelly and cucumber is just as good as it sounds.
MUGARITZ Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria, Guipúzcoa
It’s hard to outwit your competition when your opponents include San Sebastián’s dining elite, but Andoni Luis Aduriz uses a mischievous form of humour to impress his guests at Mugaritz. Set in a verdant valley that is perpetually filled with the fragrance of smouldering wood, the restaurant is as famous for playing with its diners as it is for the quality of the food served. To start the meal, waiters leave a pile of rocks on the table, saying only ‘eat it’ before walking away (they were potatoes so luckily no teeth were broken.) Later, guests are asked to grind up sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle for a soup, making the dining room vibrate with the humming of stone brushing stone. Each course is a spirited feast for all the senses.
NI NEU De Zurriola Hiribidea, 1, 20002 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Located inside the Kursaal congress centre, this restaurant’s sleek, monochrome interior and open-plan kitchen make it a popular choice for working lunches and casual dates. Ni Neu means ‘myself’ in Basque and the emphasis here is accordingly placed on the creative presentation of homegrown seasonal produce. To start, lettuce infused with garlic oil accompanied by walnuts, bourbon and idiazabal cheese is a dish that is intense both in flavour and in texture. The pork with hazelnut sauce and spinach is equally delicious, while the French toast with lemon ice cream is out of this world. Take your cofee out on the terrace for dramatic views over the Cantabrian Sea.
BODEGÓN ALEJANDRO Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 4, 20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa
Stepping into this subterranean restaurant is like stepping back in time – a backlit mural of a mountain range dominates the dining room walls, while intricate Andalusian tiles evoke an authentic taverna feel. Martín Berasategui earned his first Michelin star here at the tender age of 25, and today Bodegón Alejandro ofers a welcome break from a city filled with mind-boggling menus; the food is elegant, simple and delicious. Try the tomato salad or grilled mushrooms and poached egg to start, follow by a cod and pil-pil sauce taco, then seal the deal with apple pie and lemon ice cream. The six-course tasting menu is excellent value at €40 (£31)
LA FÁBRICA Calle del Puerto, 17, 20003 San Sebastián, Gipuzkoa
Exposed brick walls and copper sheeting on the low vaulted ceiling create an ideal atmosphere for an evening date. La Fábrica means ‘factory’ in English, but there is nothing of the mechanical about this intimate restaurant. Service is discreet and very efcient while the tasting menu, at €54 (£42) for nine courses, is excellent value. Highlights include a trio of starters including green olives stufed with vermouth and black olive paste, chilled tomato soup topped with basil oil and foie gras with caramelised apple compote. Eat your fill and then take a short stroll to the nearby Santa María church.
BORED OF BASQUE?
Why not try Va Bene for delicious freshly made burgers, hot dogs and grilled sandwiches; La Madame for a New York-style brunch – French toast and huevos rancheros or The Loaf for roast beef sandwiches, carrot cake and brownies.
TAKE A HIKE
Monte Igueldo, Monte Urgull and Monte Ulia frame the rugged landscape surrounding San Sebastián. Though these ‘mountains’ are in reality mere sizeable hills, some exercise is likely to be a welcome relief from your excessive pintxos intake. The Old Town huddles around the base of Urgull. Pick up the trail behind the Santa María church and scramble through the woods to the summit for dramatic views over the city. On your way down, pay a visit to the San Telmo museum, which covers an impressive amount of Basque history. Entry is free on Tuesdays.
HIT THE BEACH
The horseshoe-shaped Playa de La Concha is San Sebastián’s most celebrated stretch of sand. The beach is a popular spot for sun-seekers during the summer months, while the winter waters of the Cantabrian Sea keep all but the hardiest surfers at bay. If you’d prefer to stay dry, take a stroll along the promenade towards the dock, taking in the brightly coloured boats and eclectic architecture of the fishermen’s houses behind. For surfing, Zurriola beach is your best bet, while Ondarreta is a favourite amongst local families.
As the sun goes down in San Sebastián and weary travellers head back to the comfort of their hotel rooms, a band of wetsuited figures dive into the surf at Zurriola. Watersports are big business here, and the relatively calm waves make it an ideal location for beginners. Pukas is the longest-running surf shop in Spain and the one with the coolest window displays. Find them on Calle Mayor and book a class with one of their experienced instructors, or just buy a bikini so you at least look the part. An hour-long lesson for two people is €40 (£31) each.
BALENCIAGA MUSEUM Aldamar Kalea, 6, 20808 Getaria, Gipuzkoa
Though Paris was to become his adopted home, Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in Getaria, a small seaside village located 25km from San Sebastián. Drive along the winding coastal roads to this sleek, modern museum that has been constructed in memory of the Basque couturier. The permanent exhibition is vast and houses the world’s most significant collection of his work.
DABADABA Mundaiz Kalea, 8, Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Inspired by multifaceted cultural venues in cities such as Berlin, the newly opened Dabadaba is a bar, café, concert venue, screening room and host to weekend roller discos. Be sure to check their website before you venture out – the space is located in the city suburbs and is quiet if there is no event scheduled. San Sebastián has recently been named Spain’s most expensive city in terms of living costs, so many young Basques have ventured elsewhere in search of work, but the ones that remain can be found here.
ATARI GASTROTEKA Calle Mayor 18, 20013 Donosti / San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa
Situated in the shadows of the Old Town’s Sant María church, this bar is the perfect place for an atmospheric evening drink. It’s a popular pintxos stop for tourists, but really the best food is to be found elsewhere. Skip the calamari, stick with the locals and take a glass of wine to one of the tables outside.
PLAZA DE LA CONSTITUCIÓN
Always buzzing with activity, this colourful square is the heart of the Old Town. Choose one of the bars that line the plaza’s edges and spend an evening fantasising about the lives behind the shutters of the numbered balconies – they date back to a time when the square was used as a bullring.
CÔTE Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 48, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
Local wine, local cider, local beer – in spite of all the Basque bounty, sometimes a traveller gets a hankering for home. Cocktail aficionados might find their fix at Côte, an intimate bar with an eclectic drinks menu and a low-key vibe. Order your cocktail of choice – most are €9 (£7) – and head to one of the window seats.
POKHARA Sanchez Toca Kalea, 1, 20006 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Located in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Reyes Católicos, this corner bar leads a double life. By day, come to spy on local surfers, students and shoppers; by night, swap your coffee for a cocktail and electronic music. Be sure to get there early to grab a seat on the terrace.
BAR ALTXERRI Reina Regenta,2, Donostia-San Sebastián
San Sebastián hosts an international jazz festival every July, and the city’s enthusiasm for music remains year-round. This jazz and blues bar has regular live performances from local and international acts. Their cocktails are good too, although a little on the strong side.
REYES CATÓLICOS Reyes Catolicos Kalea, 20006 Donostia
San Sebastián’s coolest neighbourhood makes for an alternative shopping experience. Try Ä Photostore for second-hand cameras and graphic prints, while Diner is the place to go for re-worked vintage clothing. Flow and Dela are sibling shops, and both stock surf-style clothing, trainers and sunglasses.
NOVENTA GRADOS Mayor Kalea, 3, 2005 San Sebastián, Gipuzkoa
Halfway down the cobbles of Calle Mayor lies this innovative space, accommodating a range of internationally recognised brands as well as Spanish favourites – Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and Proenza Schouler brush shoulders with Hoss Intropia and Ash. Their range of cosmetics and fragrances is also impressive, and they even have an in-house hair salon if you’re in need of some holiday hair rescue.
BERRIZ Hondarribia Kalea, 21, 20100 Errenteria, Gipuzkoa
A slice of Paris in the centre of San Sebastián, this sophisticated boutique stocks designers such as Isabel Marant. The minimalist interior and muted colours make for a calm shopping experience, so you can take your time to peruse the carefully selected pieces on offer.
SOLBES Aldamar Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa
This celebrated delicatessen stocks an excellent range of local produce. Their elegant packaging means that their select varieties of wine, ham and cheese make the perfect presents to bring back home; ask one of the friendly staff for advice.
The high quality and variety of food remains constant year round,but the crowds in this coastal city differ dramaticallybetween seasons. In the summer, San Sebastián is a popular destination for young people from southern France, Madrid and Barcelona. In the winter months, you risk being caught between zimmer frames and surfoards as the season dies down.
‘Pintxo’ comes from the Spanish verb ‘pinchar’ meaning ‘to pinch’ and traditionally refers to food that fits on the end of a cocktail stick. Today, pintxos can mean any variety of small plates or appetisers that are eaten socially with a glass of wine or beer. They are not to be confused with tapas; learn this early on and save yourself the trouble.
Speaking a little Basque goes a long way: kaixo means ‘hello’ and agur means ‘see you later’.
HOW TO GET AROUND San Sebastián is a small city and one that you can easily cover on foot. For those eager to move a little quicker, Sanse Bikes rents reasonably priced wheels for about town and also organises mountain bike tours for groups. Taxis are easy to find and won’t break the bank, although the late-night meters start at €6 (£4.70).
HOW TO GET THERE
There are no international flights into San Sebastián airport, so fly to Bilbao or Biarritz instead. Bilbao is located 62 miles or a 1hr and 30min drive from the city, and if you choose not to rent a car then there are hourly transfers with the PESA bus company that leave from outside the terminal. Biarritz is closer (25 miles) but is not serviced by as many airlines so compare flight prices beforehand.
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