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San Sebastián’s setting recalls Rio de Janeiro ‘s topography, if not its climate: this Bay of Biscay municipality sits amid rounded, bosky peaks and cockle-shaped beaches. Inland, gently swelling green hills and pastureland resemble Switzerland. And, architecturally, it recalls Paris, or the old-world air of the French resort of Biarritz, 50 km (31 miles) to the north.

Belle Époque mansions and hotels still speak of San Sebastián’s fin-de-siècle glory days, when Queen Isabella II of Spain bathed here. Following her visit, Donostia (to use its Basque name) quickly became the de-facto summer residence of the Spanish (and other European) royals. Where they led, the glitterati followed.

There’s a good reason why San Sebastián’s beaches and food have attracted people for more than a century. But, I also enjoy the genteel Victorian architecture, where you can really see the city’s British influence. 

Spain & Portugal specialist Kevin

Things to see and do in San Sebastián

Gastronomy and pintxos 

For a small city, San Sebastián boasts the densest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita. Good food is deeply ingrained in its heritage beginning with the summer influx of royals and nobility during the 19th century. Many brought their own French chefs to rustle up high-end cuisine and so established the city as a culinary pacesetter. In turn, these chefs helped bring about the advent of nouvelle cuisine: French-style cooking, but lighter and less reliant on the use of butter.

Pintxos, BilbaoAll these influences trickled down into the city’s cooking and became fused in turn with Basque culinary traditions. The classic local dish is pintxos — bite-sized morsels of bread topped with a variety of fresh ingredients (anything from red and green pimientos stuffed with salt cod to morcilla (black pudding) and oil-flecked Iberian ham). Each bite is held together with a pincho (toothpick), hence the name. Unlike their Spanish cousin, tapas, traditional pintxos aren’t really meant for sharing.

You might also see a bit of clever artistic trickery in pinxtos bars: pinxtos creators are known for disguising dishes to look like other foods. A lemon dessert might be served in the form of an egg, or a beef pie dressed up to resemble a chocolate brownie.

For the best introduction, simply walk into one of the musty, unassuming pintxos bars that are crammed into every nook and cranny of the city, especially in the old town. They should have legs of jamón (ham) hanging from the ceiling rafters and a floor littered with discarded napkins — it’s customary to throw yours on the floor after eating. Different bars also have their own signature pintxos or house specials.

We recommend taking a tour with a guide, who’ll sneak you into their most beloved (and the most authentic) bars.

Today, all over the city (and in the Basque Country as a whole), groups of friends meet to cook for each other in the local ‘sociedad gastronómica’ (gastronomic societies): it’s even possible to attend one of these exclusive gourmet gatherings yourself.

Drinks-wise, San Sebastián’s classic tipples include zurito (a small pouring of Spanish Basque beer), txikitos (cider), txakoli (a piquant apple wine), vermouth, and a cocktail made with dry ice.

Old town

San Sebastián’s old town (the Parte Vieja) sits between the foot of Monte Urgull, one of the forested hills that stand sentry either side of the city, and the Urumea River. It’s a cluster of narrow passages — many pedestrian-only — overlooked by iron French balconies. Pintxos bars, ice-cream places and family-owned businesses line the streets.

At its heart is the Plaza de la Constitución, a one-time bullring that’s now an airy square fringed with al fresco restaurants. The plaza is also the venue for annual feast-day celebrations, which traditionally begin and end with the raising and lowering of the city’s flag.

The Parte Vieja is also home to several notable buildings. One of the most prominent is the ayuntamiento (city hall), a grand old bayside building of buttery-yellow stone built in 1882 whose first incarnation was as a casino. The modernist-looking glass façade of the Museo San Telmo, a museum devoted to Basque society and citizenship, occupies a handsome Dominican convent with preserved Renaissance-style cloisters. While the original market building is no longer used for this purpose, you can head underground to see the new modern structure below, filled with a host of excellent local delicacies and fresh produce.

You’ll also find the city’s most handsome church in this district. Santa María del Coro (Our Lady of the Choir) has a busy Churrigueresque frontage topped with a statue of the city’s arrow-pierced patron saint.

Beaches

The city’s most prominent beach, La Concha, sweeps from the Parte Vieja to the hill of Monte Igueldo in the west. Its sands are fine-grained, soft underfoot and honey-gold. Spanish queens would bathe here (the royal bathhouse, the Casa Real de Baños, still overlooks the ocean).

A long promenade (sometimes lined with temporary public art installations) borders Zurriola Beach, which lies to the northeast of La Concha. The waves are rougher on this more exposed beach, making it popular with local surfers.

The smallest beach, Ondarreta, is flanked by a promenade, gardens and the wooded hump of Monte Igueldo. It looks onto the green islet of Santa Clara and plays host, at one end, to a sculpture by artist Eduardo Chillida named Peine del Viento (Wind Comb). Visit on a blustery day, and you might hear its interlinked iron rings producing all kinds of sounds when buffeted by the wind and waves.

Aquarium

Standing on the same spot since 1928, San Sebastián’s aquarium was built by the Gipuzkoa Oceanographic Society for their laboratory research — it was, in fact, Spain’s first natural science museum.

It has since been extensively revamped, and is now one of the most sophisticated aquariums in the country, with a large underwater tunnel bisecting its oceanarium section. Bull sharks and stingrays waft overhead as you walk through.

You can also study different geographically themed tanks, and there’s a children’s touch pool and an area devoted to the history of whaling on Spain’s Atlantic coast.

Best time to visit San Sebastián

San Sebastián can be visited almost all year round. The town is at its busiest between May and September, but the excellent weather during this period means you can enjoy the beaches as well as the local gastronomy. Winter (December to February) can be rainy, but the majority of restaurants and pintxos bars stay open year round.

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