Welcome to Basque Country, located in the northern part of Spain along the Atlantic Ocean bordering France and the western Pyrenees. This region has its own history, language, traditions, and culinary delights, offering visitors a range of distinctive, unique, and memorable travel experiences.
San Sebastian — known to locals as Donostia-San Sebastián — is considered the most popular tourist destination in Basque Country. You can sense the impact of both Spanish and French influences in every aspect of Basque Country culture and cuisine. Blessed with gorgeous mountains, sparkling blue beaches, and rolling vineyards, San Sebastian will win you over with her many charms.
Here are some amazing experiences you should not miss in San Sebastian.
I was a guest of the Spanish Office of Tourism, Chicago, but my opinions are my own.
1. The Hotel Maria Cristina
The jewel of San Sebastian is the Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel named after the popular Spanish queen. Opened in 1912, the hotel was actually inaugurated by the queen herself who overlooked the construction of the great building and added some of the finishing touches. The Queen also launched the new property, arriving in an elegant carriage with her lady-in-waiting.
Since the hotel opened, the 136-room Maria Cristina has played host to royalty and high society in San Sebastian. When I told a friend I would be staying there, she told me it was her favorite hotel in the world. After being a guest here, I tend to agree.
An opulent design coupled with a gracious atmosphere, outstanding service, over-the-top cuisine, and attention to detail make this a decadent stay. You’ll know you’ve arrived somewhere special when you stand in awe of the grand staircase and imagine yourself floating down the steps, heading to the opera during the Belle Epoch period.
Situated right next to the River Urumea, the hotel has a great location with easy access to all of the heralded tourist sites.
Did I tell you about the cushy linens that made my bed a welcome destination after a day of touring? With a variety of suites and guest rooms to choose from, the hotel will more than exceed your expectations.
2. Michelin-Starred Restaurants
Some people come to Basque Country for its extensive culinary table. Why? Because Basque Country boasts the greatest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. San Sebastian has 11 of its own. Restaurant Magazine also lists many of San Sebastian’s fine restaurants in the “50 Best Restaurants in the World.” Akelarre holds three Michelin stars, while other noteworthy restaurants include Mugaritz (with its 20-course tasting menu), Azark, and Amelia. Their innovative chefs blend traditional Basque recipes that have been handed down over generations with fresh, local ingredients to create dishes that engage all of the senses.
Pro Tip: Many of these award-winning restaurants offer tasting menus, so be sure to ask.
3. Pintxos Bars
The authentic taste of Basque Country is pintxos, more complex and intricate 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, a sparkling white wine. Pintxos bar-hopping is the way to go. Stop at Antonio’s Bar for a few pintxos like their deep-fried and creamy chicken croquettes, prawn ravioli, or braised ox cheek served with a crispy wonton. Then head to another bar for a heavenly dessert like Basque cheesecake or a torrija, a fried-bread pudding and ice cream.
Pro Tip: Many of the bars feature pre-made pintxos on display when you enter, so it’s easy just to point and say, “one of those, one of these, etc.” Or, you can also order off the menu board.
4. La Concha Beach
The most famous icon of San Sebastian is the windswept La Concha Beach, surrounded by Monte Urgull, Monte Igueldo, and Santa Clara Island. Considered the best beach in Spain and Europe, La Concha is shaped like a shell, which gives the beach its lovely name. Walk along the soft golden sand, or go paddleboarding, surfing, or sailing. Be on the lookout for Comb of the Wind, a collection of three massive curved sculptures by local artist Eduardo Chillida. Take the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo for spectacular views for miles. Admire the architecture of Miramar Palace overlooking the beach, once the home of Queen Maria Christina, now used as a school. And yes, this is the same La Concha Beach mentioned in Ernest Hemingway’s classic, The Sun Also Rises.
5. La Parte Vieja (Old Town)
La Parte Vieja, or Old Town, is one of the most popular neighborhoods in San Sebastian with buildings dating back to the mid-19th century. Navigate these small 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 center of all the action, 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 the day’s meals. Go down the escalator and discover the fresh fish, olive oil, cheeses, and baked goods that the locals shop for.
6. San Sebastian International Film Festival
Every September, since 1953, San Sebastian has hosted the San Sebastian International Film Festival, welcoming such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, Quentin Tarantino, and Bette Davis. In fact, the Hotel Maria Cristina even has a Bette Davis suite where you can stay and recreate the glamor. Every year, this event brings more visitors to the city than any single event. Usually, more than 150 films are screened in cinemas throughout the city. The opening and closing nights feature the same red-carpet excitement.
7. Traditional Cider Bars
When you’re in San Sebastian, one must-visit is a cider bar to enjoy the most traditional of Basque drinks. At a cider bar, you’ll discover where history, culture, and culinary expertise come together for a fabulous gastronomical experience. 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. Learn how this traditional drink is made, then enjoy a typical cider house lunch or dinner menu which could include: a cod omelet, premium steak, nuts, quince and cheese, and unlimited cider from the gigantic wood barrels. The really fun part is learning to position your glass at just the right angle to catch the cider as it falls from the spigot. Alorrenea Cider House is a recommended spot to enjoy some cider.
8. Mimo Cooking School
Discover the secrets of traditional Basque cuisine with a demonstration or hands-on experience at Mimo’s Cooking School, next to the Hotel Maria Cristina. Our group watched as the two chefs prepared a six-course menu right in front of our eyes. They told us about the ingredients, recipes, and techniques — and then we got to taste it for ourselves. The entire experience felt like cooking at someone’s home together with family and friends. 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.
Pro Tip: Culturally in Basque Country, it is customary to have lunch at 2 p.m. and dinner later in the evening. They believe meals are meant to be savored and enjoyed with family or friends, not rushed.
9. Museums In San Sebastian
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 a unique museum, both indoors and out, 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 gets you as you walk through this lovely sculpture park is how truly peaceful it is.
Explore The 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 their 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 so unique. Check out the tombstones, coat of arms, and special exhibits.
Pro Tip: Download the San Telmo Museum app and choose from a 1- or 2-hour guide through the museum’s permanent collection.
Bonus: Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum In Nearby Getaria
The only museum in the world dedicated to a fashion designer, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum showcases the genius of 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). It was refreshing and delicious with just a slight bit of kick.
Pro Tip: For the latest information on how to get around San Sebastian using public transportation, download this app.
No matter what you discover in San Sebastian, you’re sure to bask in the glory of northern Spain!
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