It is hard to overstate the mythological allure of the so-called ‘city of water’. Tucked in the Bay of Biscay, on the edge of a natural double harbour, and divided by the mouth of a pulsating tidal river, with a backdrop of Spain’s dramatic, mountainous Basque country, it breathes romance and legends through its narrow streets and open boulevards, it sweats blood and salt through its strident maritime history, its ocean will drench you and sweep you off your feet – thrilling and terrifying like a sea monster from the Odyssey, its food is the milk and honey of Mount Olympus.
From its early beginnings as a strategic fort, to a theatre of war enduring succession battles between France and Spain culminating in 1813 when it was burnt to the ground by the British and Portuguese (with the exception of one street in the old town aptly called 31 de Agosto calle, the fateful day of mayhem and destruction), via metamorphosis into glamorous seaside resort as result of royal patronage in the 19th century a la Biarritz, to Hemingway’s hard characters chilling out in the 20th century, a world famous film festival founded in the ‘50s, spectacular public art and turbulent political history of separatism, San Sebastian has all the ingredients of an epic novel, and that is before you have been seduced by the sheer physical drama of the place.
How to get there
The easiest way is to fly to Biarritz where you can take in half a day’s seaside promenading, rifling through old poster shops, exquisite local fresh food and fish market (get there before 1pm) and lunch overlooking the port. Hire a car, swing through St Jean de Luz en route for a cup of tea and a freshly baked macaroon, and you’ll be in San Sebastian in just over half an hour. Alternatively you can fly to Bilbao and pay homage to Frank Gehry’s world famous Guggenheim Museum, stopping off at El Museo de Balenciaga in Guetaria as you head east, and arrive an hour later. Either way, the treats of visiting San Sebastian begin before you even get there.
Where to Stay
San Sebastian is mercifully devoid of hip hotels. The best places to stay are old school and have been around for ages. The grandest is the 1912 Maria Cristina, designed by Charles Mewes, the French architect who created the Ritz hotels in Paris and Madrid. Overlooking the Urumea River which cuts through town before opening out onto the Atlantic and next door to the Baroque wedding cake Victoria Eugenia Theatre, the hotel has opulent rooms and suites, a stunning marble-columned dining room and a classy wood-panelled bar. This is where the A list stays during the annual San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Stepping down a fraction of a grade, the Hotel de Londres built in 1887 is not quite as grand but enjoys a stellar location on the four-mile sweep of the famous La Concha beach.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, you can stay in some excellent private apartments through Air BnB, which have become numerous and popular particularly as San Sebastian enjoys centre stage as the ‘European Capital of Culture’ such as the chic, uber modern converted factory on Calle Pescadaria, in the heart of the old town for 100 per night.
What to Do
San Sebastian is perfectly sized for a long weekend. It is sufficiently small to cover in a few days, though easily interesting enough to merit a week’s stay, taking in some of the Basque region’s most famous highlights.
A must on everyone’s list is to walk the theatrical Concha Bay by night, and take in the spectacular length and breadth of the city twinkling in harmony with the reflected which lights illuminate the waterfront. With its white wrought- iron balustrade, and well-dressed families, romantic couples and solitary travellers wending their way dreamily along the esplanade, it is hard not to smile spontaneously at this simple and surreal pleasure. By day the walkway is humming with activity, from street musicians to performing artists, and early evening is the golden hour for the habitual Spanish paseo, a rhythmic, lilting of human bodies surging to and fro’ amidst children, dogs and panama hats.
Summer sees this famous beach teaming with crowds, but even in winter the place is full of vitality, with eccentric bathers bracing themselves for an icy dip, early morning joggers stretching their legs and surfers riding into the bay on the Atlantic waves, like Aphrodite sailing into the shore on her conch.
Take a stroll through the New Town and enjoy its remarkable architecture which dates back to the 1800s. Enchanting building sprout towers and turrets, domes and steeples and gravity-defying glassed-in miradors, balconies that command fabulous views of the town below. Styles range from columned neoclassical to mansard-roofed French Revival to Art Nouveau. The new town is in addition the commercial hub of the city, where shoppers stroll down boulevards lined with the familiar Spanish fashion brands – Zara, Massimo Dutti, Mango – stopping periodically for coffee or to sample a refreshing ice cream.
The Old Town bursts with human activity, ancient tales, cavernous cafes, historical landmarks, and thrilling pintxos bars. It is worth booking a 2-hour walking tour at the tourist office to get a potted history of this the proud, beating heart of the ancient city. Romantic tours and gastro tours are also on offer.
For a breathtaking panoramic vista of the environs climb to the top of Monte Urgull on the edge of the Old Town. It is topped by the low castle walls of the Castillo de la Mota and a grand statue of Christ. You can take a path from Plaza de Zuloaga or from behind the aquarium on the Paseo Nuevo. It is a steep climb, but a welcome retreat from the bustle of the city and well worth the view once you get to the top. It’s a half hour hike if you are fit, a bit longer if you want to meander up.
On the other side of the Urumea River is la playa de Zurriola. Surf shops and cafes line the main drag, whilst a narrow walkway lined with a chaotic, monolithic rocks chopped into squares like giant liquorice divide the beach from the river. The beach underneath these rocks is an excellent spot for a picnic, sheltered from the wind yet thrillingly close to where the waves from the Atlantic explode against the wall.
San Sebastian is paradise for public art lovers. Eduardo Chillada’s famous Peine de los Vientos or ‘Comb of the Wind’ rises from the rocks at the far end of the Bay of Biscay, staggered in three monumental parts. On the opposite side of the bay is another iconic sculpture – Jorge Oteiza’s Construccion Vacia or ‘Empty Construction’. Located on the Paseo Nuevo, the work is a frame through which you can see the waves breaking against the sea wall. In winter this is particularly dramatic, as crowds gather to witness the unbridled force of the sea crashing over the barriers and pumping spray onto intrepid spectators.
Beyond public art, there is culture aplenty. In the heart of the Old Town the San Telmo Museum is a fitting symbol of San Sebastian’s desire to combine tradition and modernity. The original building is a 16th century Dominican convent, on which an annex has been recently built with a thoroughly modern facade. It is worth visiting the vast frescoes by Catalan painter and decorator Joseph Maria-Sert, as well as the exhibition celebrating 50 years of the ‘Gaur’ movement – a constellation of Basque artists who formed in the 1960s in protest at the hostile context of freedom of political and creative expression under the fascist dictatorship.
This year San Sebastian will, in addition to its vast repertoire of artistic intrigues, stage a chain of bold projects in celebration of its status of European Capital of Culture. Amongst these will feature choral groups in the open and ‘Waves of Energy’ bringing to life a surge of ideas suggested by the public. Central to the thinking around how this year’s events will be staged is the question: how do you overcome conflicts? An inevitable theme for the Spanish city that suffered most during the sporadic murderous campaigns of the separatist terrorists of ETA. On a more epicurean theme, some of this year’s celebrations will inevitably draw on the city’s extraordinary gastronomic reputation.
Where to Eat
How to pace yourself is perhaps the fitting question to begin with when planning to eat in San Sebastian. Food here is quite simply a reason to visit in and of itself. It would be easy to spend a week simply sampling food, and not get bored. The pintxos culture – of grazing as one idles from one bar to the next – lends itself perfectly to this. Every bar will produce a mesmerising display of its own original creations and the trick is to suck it and see. Make sure you don’t miss what’s on the menu of hot pintxos, as these are often the best. From miniature steak with caramelised onion and chips, to wafer-thin crepes enclosing prawns and pork, tuna taco or cylinders of beef cheeks, bacalao seared on your own homemade griddle and legendary grilled octopus salad, there are no bounds to the eating adventure. As you point to the most mouth-watering looking samples, waiters will hand you a plate and pour you txakoli – the local white wine – in the traditional manner of holding the bottle three feet above the glass. You eat standing up and be prepared to jostle for a place at the bar – but the serenity and perfection of these exquisitely presented dishes will induce a deep and powerful pleasure. Bar Zeruko is high on the list of favourite experimental pinxtos hang outs, as is A Fuego Negro and Gandarias.
San Sebastian has Michelin stars falling out of the sky, so for a more formal eating experience, book a table at its most renowned dining room Arzak (three Michelin stars). With just 10 tables in a simple dining room, this is not as intimidating an experience as it might seem. The taster menu is a safe way to go. Zuberoa, a little way out from town is another gem. Occupying a 15th century country house it has 2 private sections as well as a rustic but elegant dining room (one Michelin star).
When to Go
San Sebastian is a city of festivals, so there is almost a guaranteed local event that will bring added panache to your stay. High season is June – September. The city hosts the oldest and most prestigious of Spain’s Jazz Festivals in July, the annual festival of traditional Basque music and dance in August, and its world famous international Film Festival in September. In December the Santo Tomas Fair takes place to celebrate a tradition of agricultural produce and livestock – of which the highlights are undoubtedly txistorra (fresh chorizo like sausage) and cider. In January the locals take to the streets for the annual Tamborrada Festival emanating from the Plaza de la Constitucion- a homage to the men and women who mocked French platoons as they patrolled the town under French occupation until 1813. Easter and autumn are civilised and uncrowded and it is as possible to enjoy sunshine and 25 degrees as it is for the heavens to open.
Don’t leave without
A good pair of walking shoes,
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Empty stomach (you’ll do a lot of eating)
The Accordionist Son – Bernando Atxaga