Photo Courtesy of Alexander Savin
San Sebastián, or Donostia in the Basque language, is a playground for the senses: Framed by the aquamarine Bay of Biscay and a ring of green mountains, the European beach town is as lovely as it is rich in culture. Part of Spain's autonomous Basque Country, the region is home to a proud and indepen…dent people, and the city's unique language and culture bear little relation to the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Many of the world's top chefs list San Sebastián as their favorite destination, and the city has more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any other city in the world.
What to know before you go to San Sebastián
Winters are cloudy and wet (though still warm), making summer the ideal time to visit. The population of the city increases considerably from June through August, but unlike other European cities, the crowds aren't large enough to make a trip unpleasant. San Sebastián’s food scene is delicious all year round, though restaurant hours can be limited in the winter. To really live like a local, plan a trip around one of San Sebastián’s many festivals, when the city comes alive with, say, film buffs (September's San Sebastián Film Festival), drummers (January's Tamborrada festival), farmers (December's Santo Tomas), and summer revelers (August's Great Week).
San Sebastián has a tiny and pleasantly dated airport (EAS) located in the nearby village of Hondarribia. From there, you can take a city bus or a taxi, which will run you about 30 euros. Flying into Bilbao (BIO) is another easy option. A bus leaves from the airport exit to the center of San Sebastián every 45 minutes past the hour and costs about 16 euros.
Once you arrive, San Sebastián is best experienced on foot. The city can be walked end to end in about an hour (this is a favorite local pastime). City buses are plentiful, punctual, and straightforward. Taxis (+34 943 46 46 46) begin at 6 euros for a journey within city limits. San Sebastián is well-connected to other cities by bus and train, though buses are usually more efficient (if you have the option). The Renfe train connects to the rest of Spain, while the Euskotren connects San Sebastián to France and Bilbao.
There's not much that beats watching the sun set behind Monte Urgull from a bar in the Old Quarter. Order a mojito and see if, from a distance, you can spot the tiny bar built into the side of the mountain.
Follow the locals to any pintxo bar. Order one pintxo and one drink, and then move on. Pintxos on the bar are up for grabs, and you pay when you are finished. Lunch hours usually run from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Kitchens typically open for dinner at 8 p.m. and allow seating up to 10:30 or 11 p.m. It can be difficult to find substantial food outside of these hours. Expect wine and beer pours to be smaller than in your home country, but also expect them to be cheaper. If you want an even smaller serving (all those pintxos, all those wines...) you can ask for a zurito (small beer) or txikito (small wine).
San Sebastián is home to Basque people who are culturally and genetically distinct from other Europeans. They speak Euskara, a language isolate that is unrelated to the Romance languages of the region. Learn a few words, if you're aiming to please: kaixo means "hello," and agur is "good-bye." Basques know how to celebrate their uniqueness—whether with a day dedicated to Euskara, or by partying on Calle San Juan de Bilbao in the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter).
Basques love a good party. The Tamborrada (held on January 20) celebrates the city's patron saint with a 24-hour festival in which participants walk through the city, drumming. Saint Thomas’s Day (December 21) commemorates the day that farmers used to travel to the city to pay their yearly rent; festivities include traditional dress, generous quantities of cider, and the eating of txistorra (a Basque pork sausage). For a more modern cultural event, check out the September film festival, Zinemaldi, which is one of Europe’s most important.
At a restaurant or bar, don’t pay for your food or drink until you’re on the way out. Tip only if you’re feeling too lazy to pick up the change. When walking avoid the red paths, which are for cyclists only. Do not forget your umbrella as the city sees many rainy days, even in summer.
read before you go
Marti is a freelance writer and a cook living in San Sebastián. She has contributed to Modern Farmer, Southern Living, Remedy Quarterly, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, EITB (Basque News), Mindfood, and Edible, among other magazines. She also gives regular cooking classes, runs a bakery business (@TheCookie_es), and founded a society for the appreciation of vermouth (@vermutsociety) that is making its way across the globe.