San Sebastian – Food, Culture, and the Coast

August 16th, 2019

San Sebastian is a sophisticated city framed by alluring gold-sand beaches and verdant hillsides of the Iberian Peninsula decorated with shimmering architecture, historic homes, and views overlooking the turquoise waters of the Balearic Sea. The city embodies the beauty, significance, history, and heritage of the Basque region in Spain etched into the colorful facades of the Belle Époque buildings and preserved identities of the Basque of language and people emerging from the streets of the regional capital. The cosmopolitan wonderland remains renowned for the captivating promenade along the coast and the mouthwatering gastronomy ranging from famous bars serving renowned pintxos, small plates focusing on traditional recipes, to grand Michelin-starred restaurants symbolizing an endless celebration of nature, art, gastronomy, design, and culture.   

The views from Monte Igueldo offer you a sweeping panorama of the glistening waters below and the plains of the mountain’s interior as the rows of stately structures in the historic quarter unfold. The beaches adding to the luster of San Sebastian’s sophisticated ambiance spread across the Bay of Biscay each offering a specific atmosphere, from family-friendly to currently trendy, a hot-spot for surfing to romantic glow of gold sands and translucent blue waters. Whether finding charm in the Castillo de la Mota or prestige in San Vincente Church, indulging in the aromas of fresh foie gras or the aged grass-fed beef known as txuleta, you can settle into the inviting comforts and sensational splendor of San Sebastian at methodical pace opening up the intimate wonders of the city and greater Basque region.

1. Bay of Concha

The serene beaches of Concha Bay 

The white sands and shades of turquoise waters at the Bay of Concha have become the iconic image of San Sebastian embodying small crashing waves with chic beachgoers lounging on towels or beneath colorful umbrellas, and the resplendent skyline of the historic city rising above the edge of the sea in the near distance. However, the sands of the Bay of Concha actually extend over a half a mile long with the most prominent section of the beach known as La Perla, which promises calm and gentle waters great for swimming to its placement on the bay. When not relaxing on the sands to the casual, lulling sounds of the splashing waves, you can also stroll beneath the shading trees of the Alameda del Boulevard where a thoroughfare of shops, restaurants, and cafes carry the authentic slice of life in San Sebastian’s Old Town.

2. Old Town

The detailed architecture of Old Town 

Old Town San Sebastian hides in the shadow of Monte Urgull tucked between the quiet foothills and the lively the walkways of Alameda del Boulevard. The central Plaza de la Constitucion once hosted bullfights with spectators calling out to the matador from the balconies lining the buildings. The municipal library shimmers with a façade highlighting the importance of Neoclassical design amid the Belle Époque surroundings.

The 16th-century Gothic architecture of San Vicente Church remains the oldest building in the city having surviving the 19th-century fire set by Napoleon’s troops. The strong and imposing structure was built over a 7th-century Romanesque church but possesses little details of its former incarnation with embellishments correlated mainly to the magnificent flying buttresses or circular pillars accentuated by a Baroque portico. Most visitors and locals pass time by wandering through the charming cobblestone streets and alleyways enjoying the window displays of chic shops and the aromas of traditional Basque restaurants serving pintxos or perfecting typical local recipes.

3. Michelin Star Restaurants

Massive wok filled with traditional Spanish paella 

San Sebastian is a culinary heart for gastronomes, foodies, and the Epicurious with more Michelin-starred restaurants than any city in the world other than Kyoto, Japan. San Sebastian has the equivalent of more than one Michelin-starred restaurant per four square miles or about one Michelin Star per square meter including the possessing 11 restaurants with three Michelin stars and an accumulated of 18 Michelin Stars with approximately a 15-mile radius. Some of the most notable restaurants you can indulge in during your visit to San Sebastian are Mugaritz, ranked the third best restaurants in the world since 2006, and Arzak, consistently one of the world’s top 10 best restaurants since 2010.

4. Pintxos

Variety of delicious Spanish pintxos waiting to be tasted

The Basque pintxo is similar to the famous Spanish tapas but focuses on smaller bites and traditional local recipes based on the regional, seasonal ingredients. San Sebastian retains its culinary culture with a variety of classic, traditional restaurants and innovative gastronomy bars serving the renowned dishes offering familiar flavors in the form of ingredients such as ham, prawns, anchovies, cheeses, wild mushrooms, and chorizo while adding their particular spin on a recipe drawn from the culinary heritage. Many typical pintxos include salt cod, fish cheeks, and whole roasted hake or sole. The most common cheese at a pintxo plate includes the Idiazabal cheese which derives from local farmers curing their cheese slowly in smoke for a delicate flavor and deliciously creamy texture.

5. Cider Houses

The birth of fresh cider in a sagardotegi 

One of the best-kept secrets of San Sebastian and the Basque region is the cider houses known as sagardotegi. The traditional Basque cider house acts as a bastion of Basque culture as seen through the cuisine with chefs focusing on the customary dishes accompanied by the delicious traditional drink of cider made from apples. It is most often not carbonated but poured from a distance or a particular height in order to produce a delightful effervescence before drinking. The tradition of cider houses in the Basque region dates back around the 11 and 12th centuries when crafting cider for fishermen and whalers who needed nutrients when at sea.

The typical cider house in San Sebastian offers a menu focusing on familiar dishes like the aged local grass-fed beef known as txuleta or salt cod served with roasted red peppers. The simple and clean cider consists of fermented apples with now added sugars or carbonation. Part of the allure of ordering a glass at a cider house is watching other patrons approach the barrel of their choice and holding their cups as low as possible until nearly touching the floor before the cider flows from the barrel aerating as it hits the glass.

6. San Telmo Museum

The San Telmo Museum preserving the Basque culture within its walls 

The San Telmo Museum in San Sebastian is one of the best displays of the Basque culture with thought-provoking collections showcasing the history and culture of the region without shying away from its richness or complexities. The exhibitions are located in a 16th-century convent with an interior restored for a more cutting-edge design featuring a living plant wall blending in with the lush and lavish backdrop of the rising Mount Urgull. When wandering through the collection of the San Telmo Museum, you can find a bold fusion of contemporary artwork with historical artifacts defining the artistic and cultural evolution of the region and its place in a united Spain. 

7. The Bohemian Quarter

Old Town Harbor 

Gros in San Sebastian is a neighborhood connected to the Old Town by two main bridges spanning the Urumea River. The charming, walkable, and easily bikeable neighborhood lines the boulevards and riverbeds with a more youthful ambiance inside the old classic city often deriving from a bohemian ambiance filled with several of San Sebastian’s most popular pintxo bars. The expressive district boasts some of the city’s most impressive art galleries including Tabakalera, a former tobacco factory turned International Center for Contemporary Culture, as well as three of San Sebastian’s main beaches including Zurriola, where surfers catch the impressive wave breaks and passersby enjoy the view.

8. Aquarium-Sea Palace

Become one with the underwater creatures in the transparent Aquarium-Sea Palace tunnel

The fantastic aquarium in San Sebastian combines the culture of the city with its historic draw to the water making the beach and classic architecture merge into one unforgettable attraction featuring 31 aquatic habitats. The Oceanographic Museum within the aquarium displays hip models and historic navigational instruments while the heart-stopping clear tunnel offers a 360-view of the passing fish, paddling sea turtles, and breathtaking sharks speeding through the waters. Glass panes resembling a theater screen reflects the abundance of colorful and magnificent marine world living often unnoticed revealing the vibrant coral reefs or deep-ocean wonders including the spellbinding orange glow of the fluro jellyfish.