San Sebastián, Spain
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
A Historic Old Town in Basque Country that has it All
San Sebastián, located on the Bay of Biscay, is part of Spain’s mountainous Basque Country. This resort town is blessed with three beaches, copious amounts of sunshine and a thriving food scene.
The idea of traveling to San Sebastián came about when planning our 2018 trip to Bordeaux for the entire month of September. The apartment Rick and I fell in love with in Bordeaux was already booked for five of the nights that month; this meant we would need to pack up and stay somewhere else during that time. Instead of staying in Bordeaux, we seized the opportunity to explore San Sebastián; it was relatively close and accessible by bus. After searching the internet, I was able to reserve seats for a four hour bus ride using the Oui bus website.
The beaches were packed with citizens swimming, tanning and enjoying the warm weather when we arrived. Being September, the Atlantic Ocean was definitely on the cool side but worth the energy it took to get in the water. One of the beaches, playa de Zurriola, is known for surfing and boogie-boarding, while another beach, Playa de la Concha, is a gathering place for families. Playa de la Concha also has a fantastic view of the Santa Clara Island, found out in the Concha Bay.
The beachfront is lined with a promenade, filled with people together enjoying the warm breezes coming off the water; several local shops and restaurants are also close by. I loved the wide boulevards in the old town; they were filled with flower boxes and overflowing with colorful blooms.
Being on the coast means San Sebastián has access to an abundance of the fresh seafood. On our first night, we walked along the waterfront and found La Rampa located by a boat ramp. La Ramp has ample seating outside the restaurant where diners can enjoy watching small fishing boats moored in the bay and sample authentic Basque cooking. We ordered grilled grouper, which the waiter recommended, along with grilled shrimps and local white wine. The preparation was simple and exceptional.
While in San Sebastián, we also feasted on other standout seafood dishes; a paella teaming with shrimps, mussels, clams, and langoustines; fresh sardines grilled and served with just a squeeze of lemon and salt; and grilled scallops still attached to their shells.
To find dining options, apps such as Yelp, The Fork and Tripadvisor are helpful, but, keep in mind, most of those reviews are written by tourists. To get the good stuff, you want to talk with people that live or work in the town you're visiting. Eat where they eat!
Pintxos (pinch-ohs), little snacks you can hold in your hand, are a main stay of the Basque food culture. In the old town, pintxo bars are everywhere; when you walk into one of these bars, you'll find the counters overflowing with all kinds of pintxos. In the evenings, we would see the streets fill up with people coming in and out of the bars, enjoying plates filled with pintxos and glasses filled with wine.
It was a little intimidating as first figuring out how to be a part of this food scene, but here are some tips we picked up for doing what is known as a Pintxo Crawl.
#1-Plan on visiting at least three or four different pintxo bars. When deciding which bar, look for where the locals go. Look for bars that have a crowd; that's where you want to be.
#2-Be intentional about what you order. It's going to be tempting to ask for several of the pintxos on display; it really is a spectacular sight. Snacks are lined up as far as you can see, but use some control and make sure to ask for the house specialty. That's the trick-order the specialty which sometimes is not on display; the specialty is usually something the kitchen cooks to order. Ask and be surprised.
#4-Don't forget to order a glass of the local white wine, Txakoli. The bartender will hold the bottle of wine high above the wine glass and start pouring; not only does this make for a great show, it adds a little effervescence to the wine.
#5-Know when to leave. You don't want to fill up at the first pintxo bar you come to; you've got to pace yourself. Drink the wine, enjoy the pintxo, throw your napkin on the floor and head to the next crowded bar. So much fun! Rick didn't believe me when I told him to throw down the napkin, but all the locals do it to keep dirty napkins off the pintxo counters. Makes sense!
#6-Here are a few pintxo bars to get you started. La Vina was my personal favorite; its house specialty is cheesecake, yes, cheesecake. Don't miss it. We also loved Bar-Goiz-Argi for their shrimp skewers and Bar Sport for Fois Gras. Who am I kidding? There wasn't a pintxo we didn't like.
Interesting Ways to Explore San Sebastián
Bike paths are in internal part of San Sebastián's infrastructure; providing safe ways for bicyclists to travel along the beaches and through parts of the city. We booked an electric bike tour of the city through Go Local and found that the bikes were easy to handle and had plenty of power. The tour took us along the beaches and up a mountain for panoramic views of the ocean. We also rode around the city and through a tunnel that was built into a mountain. The temperature dropped significantly as we pedaled our way inside the long, white tunnel; the experience was a bit surreal.
The tour included stops at several interesting locations; the guide shared stories of the city's history and culture along the way. One stop was at the water's edge, where the waves crashed against the rocks. Here we learned about the three metal sculptures collectively known as El Peine del Viento ('The Wind Comb'). These structures are spread apart from each other and placed in strategic locations, physically symbolize the concept of time: past, present, and future.
The sculpture in the first photograph represents the past: placed a short distance beyond where we could stand, we could not physically touch this sculpture. The sculpture in the middle frame represents the present; we were able to touch this sculpture and the tour guide snapped a few pictures of us standing next to it. The third sculpture, pictured in the last photo, symbolizes the future. This sculpture is placed in the distance, with the sky behind it and waves surging around it -- very symbolic. My words don't do justice to this work of art, but do check out the Donostia San Sebastián tourism website. It provides excellent information and videos of the El Peine del Viento.
Ferry Ride to Santa Clara Island
The tiny Island of Santa Clara is located in the middle of the Concha Bay. A ferry boat regularly goes back and forth between San Sebastián and the Santa Clara Island. It was easy to purchase tickets at the harbor for the boat ride; we just watched where the ferries moored at the dock and found a ticket booth. The ride across the bay to the island gave us the opportunity to see the beauty of the city, its beaches and the mountains in the distance from a different perspective.
There is one bar on the island, Chiringuito de la isla Santa Clara, where we ordered glasses of wine and found a seat on the terrace to enjoy the day. Sunlight reflected off schools of fish passing by in the water and people could be seen swimming from the beach to the island, which is a heck of a swim. While exploring the island, we found a stone path lined with benches and picnic tables and encased in the shadows of nearby trees. The path leads you to the highest point on the island where the lighthouse lives.
We also came across some interesting graffiti --Tourist go home -- at the top of the hill on the island. I can't really blame the graffiti artist for this sentiment. The magical combination of geographic location and tradition makes San Sebastián what it is; a special place not to be changed culturally to accommodate tourists.
Not wanting to be categorized as tourists, but rather as travelers, we learned and did our best to use key phrases of Spanish, we explored with a genuine interest in the culture, and spent our money locally, to keep the money local. Everyone we interacted with was helpful and welcoming to us, and during our time in San Sebastián, even when I managed to get us completely lost in the old town, I always felt safe.
A Few Things I learned from this Trip
If you rent an apartment for your trip, pay attention to this: On your last night in the apartment, consuming all the food or drinks you still have might seem like a good idea, but it's not.
We learned this travel tip the hard way. The night before we left Bordeaux for San Sebastián, we happily drank up all the wine and cooked up a mess; making it even harder to clean and pack. Plus. -- I'll admit it -- when I woke up at five a.m. to catch the bus, I wasn't feeling so great.
Here's one more tip for you: when making reservations for a bus ride, its worth paying a little extra for an assigned seat. We reserved the front seats, so even though I was packing a hangover, I still enjoyed the four hour bus ride. WIN