Surrounded by warm sunshine, rolling vineyards, coastal beaches, and a welcoming spirit, San Sebastian is known throughout the world as a premier dining destination with a pulsating nightlife.
Also known as Donostia-San Sebastian, the city is the most popular tourist destination in Basque Country, located along the Atlantic Ocean in the north of Spain, bordering France and the western Pyrenees. With its unique setting in the province of Gipuzkoa, Spain, the region boasts influences from Spain, France, and other European countries.
What sets the area apart from the rest of Spain is that it has its own history, tradition, Basque language, cuisine, and Basque culture. For travelers to the Basque Country, this creates an unparalleled travel experience.
Here are some amazing experiences you should not miss in San Sebastian, Spain.
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1. The Hotel Maria Cristina
It’s not often that one is lucky enough to spend some time in a hotel that was actually not just inspired but designed by a queen. The Hotel Maria Cristina is named for the popular Spanish Queen and opened in 1912 to instant raves. She added her own elegant designer touches to the interior of the Hotel Maria Cristina. Imagine the Queen arriving in her carriage, accompanied by her lady-in-waiting during the height of the Belle Epoque.
Since the hotel opened its doors, the 136-room Hotel Maria Cristina has hosted royalty and celebrities from across the globe. How lucky I was to be surrounded by such grandeur and refinement.
Starting from the classic architecture with a gracious atmosphere, attention to detail, and outstanding cuisine, you’ll feel what it’s like to be treated like royalty. Choose from a variety of suites and guest rooms that offer the ultimate comfort and luxury.
As you stand at the top of the grand staircase, you will imagine yourself floating down the steps on your way out for some royal good times.
The location of the Hotel Maria Cristina is also ideal, giving you easy access to all of the most popular San Sebastian sites.
2. Michelin-Starred Restaurants in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is recognized throughout the world for its international as well as Basque cuisine.
Some destinations count Michelin stars as evidence of their superior culinary excellence. Basque Country boasts the greatest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world and San Sebastian can count 11 restaurants that carry that Michelin star distinction.
Some dining recommendations include Akelarre, which holds three Michelin stars, while other noteworthy restaurants include Mugaritz (with its 20-course tasting menu), Arzak, and Amelia. What these chef-inspired menus share is their blending of traditional Basque Country recipes that are steeped in tradition with their own creative Spanish and European touches.
SheBuysTravel Tip: The best way to enjoy these award-winning restaurants is through a tasting menu. Be sure to ask if the restaurant offers that.
3. Pintxos Bars
Throughout Spain, the most popular food of choice is tapas. In the Basque Country, these same tapas are known as pintxos, which are more complex and intricate in construction than tapas in other parts of Spain.
Known for their unique combinations of meats, vegetables, cheeses, and toppings, pintxos are served on a baguette or skewer. They’re usually paired with a tantalizing glass of txakoli wine, a sparkling white wine.
The best way to discover your favorite pintxos is to go pintxo-bar-hopping and try a few at each stop. Antonio’s Bar is known for deep-fried and creamy chicken croquettes pintxos, prawn ravioli, or braised ox cheek. Then head to another pintxos bar for a savory dessert like Basque cheesecake or a torrija, a fried-bread pudding, and ice cream.
Look in the window. Many of the bars feature pre-made pintxos on display when you enter, so it’s easy to decide which pintxos you want. If none of them suit your English fancy, you can order off the menu.
4. La Concha Beach in San Sebastian
The most iconic landscape of San Sebastian is the windswept La Concha Beach, surrounded by Monte Urgull, Monte Igueldo, and Santa Clara Island. La Concha Bay is shaped like a shell and is considered the best playa (beach) in Spain and Europe.
Walk along the soft golden sand on La Concha, go paddleboarding or sailing. Watch the surfers catch a wave. Be sure to see Comb of the Wind, a collection of three massive curved sculptures created by local artist Eduardo Chillida.
Take the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo and look out for spectacular views. Or climb the hill to Mount Urgull, which was used for strategic military operations.
Overlooking La Concha Beach is the Miramar Palace which once served as a summer home for the Spanish Queen Maria Christina, now used as a school.
Near by La Concha Beach is the urban beach, Ondarreta, which is a little wider. Many locals prefer Ondarreta as a playa which offers them more space, especially during high tide.
5. La Parte Vieja (Old Town)
La Parte Vieja, or Old Town, is one of the most popular neighborhoods in San Sebastian with buildings that go as far back as the mid-19th century.
Stroll through these small calles (streets) and alleyways. Stop for a snack at a pintxos bar or two and shop for artisan goods.
Start out at Plaza de la Constitution, the most popular meeting place in San Sebastian, and see the San Vicente Gothic-style church, the oldest in the city. Check out La Bretxa, the open-air market, where you’ll undoubtedly see some of San Sebastian’s top chefs buying ingredients for their Basque Country menus.
Shop like a local and go down the escalator for fresh fish, olive oil, cheeses, and baked goods in Parte Vieja.
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6. San Sebastian International Film Festival
Since 1953, San Sebastian has welcomed the San Sebastian International Film Festival, every September. Film industry celebrities like Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, Quentin Tarantino, and Bette Davis have come to San Sebastian. In fact, the Hotel Maria Cristina even has a Bette Davis suite where you can stay and recreate her glamorous memories.
Without question, this event brings more visitors to the city than any other single event. At this film festival, more than 150 films are screened in cinemas throughout the city.
7. Traditional Cider Bars
One of the most unusual dining choices you can have in San Sebastian is to visit a cider bar, which represents a traditional Basque Country experience. At a cider bar, you’ll discover a blend of history, culture, and cuisine that combine for unforgettable gastronomy.
The cider is considered still, without carbonation, and has a tart, vinegary taste and about 4 percent alcohol.
Made from several varieties of apples, production has been taking place for more than 600 years. Take a tour and learn how this traditional drink is made.
Try it and then stay for an authentic cider house lunch or dinner menu where you dine while sitting at long tables. You’ll feast on a cod omelet, premium steak, nuts, quince and cheese, and unlimited cider from the gigantic wood barrels. The challenging part is positioning your glass at just the right angle to catch the cider as it falls from the spigot.
The Alorrenea Cider House is one recommended venue to savor the cider.
8. Mimo Cooking School
Discover the secrets of traditional Basque cuisine with a demonstration or hands-on experience at Mimo Cooking School, located right next to the Hotel Maria Cristina.
Watch as the chefs skillfully prepare a six-course menu right in front of you and learn about the ingredients, recipes, and techniques — and then you get to taste it. You’ll feel like you’re in the company of good friends cooking in their own home.
Additional offerings include a trip to the market with the chef to buy fresh ingredients before preparation, a walking food tour, and a wine and tapas tour.
Culturally in Basque Country, it is customary to enjoy a leisurely lunch at 2 p.m. and dinner later in the evening. Traditionally, Basques believe meals are meant to be shared and enjoyed with family or friends, not rushed.
Another culinary experience is to attend at event at the Basque Culinary Center which offers programs like Culinary Zinema, World Forum on Basque Country Gastronomy, and Wine Days. Check out the Basque Culinary Center website for more information.
9. Museums In San Sebastian, Spain
Chillida Leku Museum
One of San Sebastian’s favorite sons, Eduardo Chillida, became an artist and sculptor of world renown, creating works in the abstract. Chillida Leku is both an indoor and outdoor museum, where nature and art come together.
Visit the gardens and see inside the Zabalaga Country House, which features more than 100 of his small works in alabaster, iron, murals, and collages. What you’ll discover as you walk through the outdoor sculptures is the peacefulness and serenity that greets you.
San Telmo Museum
This two-part museum is housed in both a 16th-century convent and a contemporary architectural extension situated right next to each other. Together, the San Telmo Museum tells the fascinating history of the Basque people in the heart of Old Town.
Learn about the Basque culture, challenges, and how their civilization adapted from a rural way of life to a more industrialized society. See more than 100 years of Basque art. Through paintings, artifacts, and audio-visual presentations, you’ll come away with a better understanding of what makes Basque Country so unique. Check out the tombstones, coat of arms, and special exhibits.
The best way to get the most out of your visit to the San Telmo Museum is to download the San Telmo Museum app. Choose from a 1- or 2-hour guide through the museum’s permanent collection and learn more about San Sebastian from your cell phone.
10. Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum In Nearby Getaria
“Who are you wearing” is usually asked at Hollywood award ceremonies. At this museum, you can answer with the exquisite works of fashion designers, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum.
Discover his contributions to the creation of haute couture in the 20th century. See his elegant evening wear as well as more casual suits and dresses on display that captured the industry for more than 5 decades. His techniques and dedication to perfection made Christian Dior call Balenciaga the “master of us all.”
While you’re in Getaria, stop in the most famous gelato place in Basque Country, called Dona Doni for their award-winning mango with espelette (pepper). Enjoy a refreshing and delicious taste with just a slight bit of kick.
11. Wine Regions in Basque Country
The warm, dry climate is perfect for growing grapes and you’ll find many regions specializing in the production of award-winning vintages. If you’ve ever dreamed of sleeping in a winery, the 5-star Hotel Marques de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry is also the oldest and largest winery in Basque Country. Check out their wine-lovers package that includes a tour of the winery, and chef-inspired meals in 1860 Tradition. Another wine region is in Rioja, a province in Spain that produces both red and white varieties.
Notes about Basque Country
The San Sebastian Airport is located about 12 miles from the city and provides easy access to other Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid as well as other cities in Europe. Another flight option is to fly to Biarritz Airport in France and take a shuttle to San Sebastian. The average temperature ranges from 50 degrees to 88 degrees.
No matter what you discover in San Sebastian or Donostiarra, you’re sure to bask in the glory of northern Spain!