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San Sebastian – Sun, Sea and Superb Cuisine

San Sebastian doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the glamorous resort towns on Spain’s Costa de Sol. But this seaside city, with its mix of modern style and old-world atmosphere, offers cosmopolitan shopping and entertainment, Basque culture, and some of Spain’s best dining, just steps from beautiful sandy beaches.

Playa de la Concha beach in San Sebastian, Spain
Relax at Playa de la Concha beach in San Sebastian, Spain

Where to Eat in San Sebastian

Arzak Staff
Arzak: one of the best restaurants in the World

One of the main reasons to come to northern Spain’s Basque country is for the abundance of highly-rated restaurants. Three restaurants in San Sebastian – Arzak, Martin Berasategui and Akelare – have received the coveted 3-Michelin star designation and have appeared on the list of “Best Restaurants in the World”. “Foodies” come from all over to dine at these culinary temples, arranging the timing of their visits around when they can secure difficult to get reservations.

If you are one of the many who can’t get a spot at one of these wonders of the culinary world, you’ll still find plenty of opportunities for sublime dining in San Sebastian. While the art of tapas (or “pinxtos” as they are called in Basque) originated in the south of Spain, they were perfected here. Far from being just your basic bar snacks, the pinxtos in San Sebastian are small plates of haute cuisine.

Delicacies like foie gras, grilled octopus, poached lobster and braised quail are all served in tiny one or two bite portions, along with beer, wine, or the tart local cider. For the best selection of tapas, head to the Parte Vieja (Old Town) and wander from place to place. On the main drag of Calle 31 de Agosto, La Cuchara de San Telmo serves up some of San Sebastian’s best pinxtos. The chef here trained with Ferran Adriá (chef at “The Best Restaurant in the World”, El Bulli) and applies classic techniques of gastronomy to his small dishes.

Spain's fabulous Pinxtos
Spain’s fabulous appetizers: Pinxtos

Where to Stay in San Sebastian

San Sebastian is a fairly small and compact town so staying anywhere in the city center will keep you close to the action. Night owls will enjoy staying in the Parte Vieja, the epicenter of the pinxtos bar scene. It can get pretty loud here at night though, so light sleepers may want to avoid booking a room in the area. Visitors who want close proximity to the beach can take their pick of the many hotels that line the bay. You’ll get great views of the beach below, but you’ll pay a premium for the convenience of being so close.

a street in parte vieja
A Street in the Parte Vieja district of San Sebastian

One great option is Pension Bellas Artes, a small, family-run pension with charming hosts. Owner Leire will bend over backwards to ensure her guests have a great stay. The Pension offers low prices, quiet rooms and abundant hospitality and is located at the edge of the city center, a 10-minute walk from the beach and Parte Vieja.

What to Do in San Sebastian

In summer, the beaches are the places to be in San Sebastian. Playa de la Concha is the main and most popular beach in the center of the bay. Playa de Ondarreta is equally nice but a bit smaller, and is home to several kayak rental companies. Surfers will head to Playa de la Zurriola for the great waves. Connecting all three beaches is a series of promenades perfect for strolling or cycling along.

San Sebastian's Playa de la Concha
San Sebastian’s beautiful Playa de la Concha

The harbor area by Playa de la Concha offers a great view of fishing boats lining the bay. There’s a small but worthwhile aquarium and a row of restaurants serving up tasty, fresh fish. There are two small mountains on either end of the bay. Visitors can hike up Monte Urgull, on the east side, or take a train up Mount Igueldo on the west side to visit the small old-time amusement park.

San Sebastian is a stylish city and offers many opportunities for shopping. Small independent design boutiques sell clothes, jewelry, housewares and shoes, and popular Spanish chains like Zara and Mango also have outlets here.

A  Plaza in San Sebastian, Spain
A Plaza in San Sebastian

Getting To San Sebastian

Getting to San Sebastian from Barcelona takes about 8 hours by overnight bus or train, so flying into the small local airport may be a better option.

From San Sebastian, Bilbao is a 2 hour bus or train ride, Logrono (a large city in the Rioja wine region) is about 2.5 hours, Pamplona is 1 hour and Biarritz, France is about 1 hour as well. It’s often easier to get around the Basque country by bus, as the area is not well serviced by the Renfe train lines.

Written by Katie Hammel for

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