Oh, San Sebastian, my first Spanish love. I spent about two weeks in San Sebastian this summer, which added to the love affair I’ve had with the Basque beauty since 2007. I’ve spoken about my favourite food in the city before, but now I want to show that there’s more to San Sebastian than pintxos.
Right. So how do I get there?
The best way to get to San Sebastian by air is via Bilbao Airport, about an hour away from the city. Once in Bilbao, there is an hourly bus that connects the airport to San Sebastian which costs €15,70.
If you’re already on the continent, it’s probably still best to fly as plenty of low cost carriers serve Bilbao. Trains connect San Sebastian with Barcelona and Madrid, and there’s an overnight train from Paris to the Spanish border town of Irun; a change there will see you in San Sebastian fifteen minutes later.
Buses, however, are the main way of reaching Basque Country and ALSA and PESA are the main companies which serve the area. Prices are usually half of that of trains and times are comparable. Most have free wifi these days, too.
Please note that the Basque name for San Sebastian is Donostia, which is often used instead of San Sebastian when in Basque Country. In terms buying tickets, it’s good to be aware that there’s also a Saint Sebastien in France and a San Sebastian de los Reyes near Madrid. You probably don’t want to go to either of these places.
So, what’s the deal?
San Sebastian isn’t just any Spanish beach town. In fact, it’s about as far as you can get from Ibiza, Majorca and the Costa del Sol and still be in Spain. It’s little wonder that San Sebastian was first put on the map when the Spanish royalty chose it as their beachside resort in the nineteenth century.
Probably the most important thing to understand about San Sebastian is its location within Basque Country. Yes, San Sebastian may be technically part of Spain, but in the hearts of many locals it belongs to a different nation, that of the Basques. This is going to take all of my abilities as a history student to explain this clearly and simply, but hey, I’ll give it a go.
The Basques are totally different to the Spanish. Their historic region is situated in that little nook where Spain and France meet at the Bay of Biscany. On one side of Basque Country is the Atlantic, and on the other side there’s a whole bunch of mountains, with the most well-known being the Pyrenees.
What did that mean? Well, the Basques were isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries. The Romans and the Moors didn’t touch them; they actually crossed the mountains, were absolutely buggered when they got there, and saw that the Basques weren’t really bothering them and subsequently left them alone. As a result, a completely different culture developed as the rest of Spain went through centuries of different invasions and rulers.
The biggest reminder of this isolation is the Basque language. You can see it on menus, street signs and the like in San Sebastian, and it looks completely different from Spanish. In fact, it looks completely different from any other language in the world; in terms of language families, Basque is an orphan with no relatives. When you’d say hola to say hello in Spain, in Basque Country it’s kaixo. Thinking of saying gracias to say thankyou? Here it’s eskerrik asko. Almost all people in San Sebastian speak Castillian Spanish, but keep in mind that for many, it’s their second language after Basque.
Under Franco’s dictatorship, the Basque language and culture was oppressed and today, though many wish for the region to be its own country, it is still a part of Spain. Residents all have different opinions on the matter and be prepared to see the Basque flag and a sprinkling of Basque political graffiti around town.
When do I go?
Here’s the thing. San Sebastian’s weather isn’t exactly the best thing it’s got going for it. Because of the mountain range surrounding the area, expect the city to be a good ten degrees cooler than Madrid and anything further south. It can also rain… a hell of a lot.
If you’re coming for the food and the beach, the best time to visit is roughly May to October. It’s good to be aware that many of the best pintxos bars close or have drastically shorter opening hours outside summer. At the same time, the shoulder seasons can be a good choice as autumn and winter can be quite mild.
If you’re not up for insane crowds, avoid 6-14 July. San Fermin, the annual Running of the Bulls festival, is held in nearby Pamplona and San Sebastian is completely chockers for a good couple of weeks. It can also get pretty busy in September, when the city plays host to the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Where can I shack up?
I’ve stayed at two hostels in San Sebastian; the first was the smaller guesthouse-style David Quinn Alai-Berri and the second is Lolo’s Urban House (also called Enjoy EU). Both are in the Old Town and just like all hostels in town, they are housed in apartment blocks rather than purpose-built. David Quinn Alai-Berri is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at; in fact, last year I named it as the second-best hostel I’ve ever come across. Book early as it’s tiny.
Dorm beds are quite cheap in San Sebastian; the only time they should be over about fifteen euro a night is during San Fermin in July. Small, independent hotels are also plentiful and generally good value from what I’ve heard from my passengers.
What photos do I need to take?
San Sebastian is simply beautiful; though it’s a Spanish city is looks more French in its broad avenues, stately apartment blocks and decorated bridges over the river. Even its train station was designed by Gustave Eiffel.
You can easily spend a half a day simply walking around the Old Town, New Town and nearby Zurriola and admiring the chic-ness of it all. San Sebastian is a rich city, and you can tell by the cleanliness, the design and simply the air. I love it to bits.
The main attraction of San Sebastian though, the bit they put on all the postcards, is Playa de la Concha; the main city beach. The beach is a nice one, but it’s the surrounds that are special; two large hills called Monte Igeldo and Monte Urgell frame the bay and there’s even a little island called Santa Clara (that you can swim or catch a boat to) in the middle. Head up Monte Igeldo via a funicular for an old-school funfair, or climb Monte Urgell to say hello to the massive Jesus statue at the top. The climb takes about twenty minutes and offers some nice views of Playa de la Concha at the top.
If you’re a surfer, you’re not going to find any waves at the city beach but you’ll be able to find plenty at Playa de la Zurriola over on the other side of the river, behind the aquarium. You can hire surfboards right on the beach and if you’re staying at Lolo’s Urban House, they rent them out at reception.
Is there anything else around worth seeing?
The closest city to San Sebastian is Bilbao, about an hour away by bus (don’t get the train, it takes two and a half hours). Bilbao’s an exceptionally pretty city that feels in parts like Paris, but for me the highlight is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum.
The museum isn’t the attraction, rather its the building in which the collection is housed. It’s well-regarded as one of the most impressive buildings of the last decade.
You can also get excellent pintxos in Bilbao; the tourist office next to the Guggenheim has a free map with all of the best pintxos bars marked.
If you’re up for something closer, and you’ve got some proper walking shoes, you can definitely find some hiking trails along the coast. San Sebastian is one of the towns along the northern El Camino Santiago (the Way of Saint James) pilgrimage route. Follow the route eastward along the coast to find the villages San Juan and Fuenterrabia, for example. Walking takes about three hours and you can opt to catch the local bus back to San Sebastian.
What can I get Mum?
Shops in San Sebastian tend to be quite high-end and you can find lovely clothes and jewellery, particularly in the Old Town. The main shopping district however is situated in the New Town, and most major brands are represented. In terms of general Spanish souvenirs (flamenco dresses, things with bulls on them), they can be found but they aren’t particularly representative of the region.
How do I stop my tummy rumbling?
You’ve come to the right place. San Sebastian is home to the most Michelin starred restaurants per capita in the world, and its the third most expensive place to open a restaurant after Paris and New York. You can blow an entire paycheck on a meal at Arzak, Akelare or Martin Berasategui, but I can’t tell you about them as I’ve never gotten inside their doors.
Instead, I’ve become obsessed with the city’s pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, particularly at Astalena, A Fuego Negro and Borda Berri. It’s affordable and the best food you’ll ever find, hand’s down. Pintxos bars tend to open for lunch and many close in the mid-afternoon, opening again for the dinner crowd from about seven.
If you’re keen for something a bit more structured, consider a trip out to a Basque cider house. I visited Petritegi but there’s more than a dozen, all hidden away about five kilometres out of the city in the surrounding hills. A five course set meal plus unlimited cider sets you back around thirty euro.
Where’s the pub?
Pintxos bars all serve alcohol; txakoli (local carbonated white wine) and kalimotxo (red wine and cola) are the popular local drinks here. Basque cider is also a winner in my eyes, but is a bit more tart than the British version and is not to everyone’s taste. Bars can be found throughout the Old Town, and also in the New Town, with most clubs situated along the city beach. Most charge entrance fees which typically include one (very strong) drink and often open well after midnight. Hey, at least there’s one reminder of Spain here.