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San Sebastian


San Sebastian or Donostia (Basque) is a city located in the Basque Autonomous Community in northern Spain. It lies at the mouth of the Urumea River on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, twelve miles from the French border. In spite of appearance, both the Basque form Donostia and the Spanish form San Sebastian have the same meaning - Saint Sebastian. In 1930, Spanish republican forces signed up to the Pact of San Sebastian, leading to the Second Spanish Republic. The 1936 military coup was initially defeated by the resistance, led by the Basque Nationalists, but later that same year the province fell to Spanish Nationalist forces during the Northern Campaign. In 1979, the first democratic municipal elections were held, won by the Basque Nationalist Party, who held office until 1991. Today, San Sebastian has a dynamic cultural scene and was selected as European Capital of Culture for 2016. In July, the city hosts the San Sebastian Jazz Festival (Jazzaldia). This is followed by the Musical Fortnight, which features classical music concerts taking place over fifteen days into August. The San Sebastian International Film Festival is held in September. San Sebastian is renowned for its Basque cuisine. The town and surrounding area is home to a high concentration of restaurants with Michelin stars. As well as these restaurants, the city is famous for pintxos (small plate dishes similar to tapas) which are found in the bars of the Old Town and elsewhere in the city. Framed by golden beaches and lush hillsides, San Sebastian has undeniable allure, from its venerable dining scene to its grand architecture.

Begin your adventure in the charming Old Town (Parte Vieja). The Old Town of San Sebastian is tucked between the base of Monte Urgull and the Alameda del Boulevard. It is the heartbeat of the city with lots to see, eat and do. One of the Basque Country's most attractive public squares, the Plaza de la Constitucion was built in 1813 at the heart of the Old Town on the site of an older square. The plaza once hosted bullfights while spectators watched from the rows of balconies above. Notable attractions nearby include the Neoclassical municipal library and the traditional food stalls at the Mercado de la Bretxa, a 19th century covered market hall. Also near the Plaza de la Constitucion is the Iglesia de San Vicente. This striking church is thought to be the oldest building in San Sebastian. Its origins date to the 12th century, but it was rebuilt in its current Gothic form in the early 16th century. The towering facade gives onto an echoing vaulted interior, featuring an elaborate gold altarpiece and a 19th century French organ. Additionally impressive are the stained glass rose windows. Another magnificent holy place is the Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro. The Parte Vieja's most photogenic building is this Baroque basilica, completed in 1774. Its ornate facade depicts Saint Sebastian and the altarpiece is dedicated to the city's other patron saint, Our Lady of the Choir. Note: the New Town cathedral (Catedral del Buen Pastor) lies in a direct line to the south.

One of the best museums in the Basque Country, the San Telmo Museoa has a thought provoking collection that explores Basque history and culture in all its complexity. Exhibitions are spread between a restored convent dating back to the 16th century and a cutting edge newer wing that blends into its plant lined backdrop of Monte Urgull. The collection ranges from historical artifacts to bold fusions of contemporary art. San Telmo also stages some outstanding temporary exhibitions. Among the highlights are historical paintings by El Greco, Cano and Rubens. The Basque artists represented include Ugarte, Zubiaurre and Arteta. Labelling is in Spanish and Basque, but free audio guides are available in English. Note: the museum is closed on Monday. A favorite pastime in the Old Town is strolling the quaint cobblestone streets in search of traditional Basque tapas or pintxos. This lively quarter is filled with authentic pintxo bars and I will discuss my favorite spots later on. Just behind and above the San Telmo Museoa is Monte Urgull. Take the path next to the museum up to the summit of the hill for top notch panoramas of the city and beyond. You will be awed by views of La Concha Bay, the Cantabrian Sea and the rocky shoreline extending to the Urumea River. The hilltop is crowned by the Castillo de la Mota, a formidable 12th century fortress and a grand statue of Christ.

Next, enjoy a leisurely stroll along the promenade of the Playa de la Concha. Fulfilling almost every idea of how the quintessential city beach should be formed, Playa de la Concha (and its westerly extension, Playa de Ondarreta) is easily among the best city beaches in Europe. The picture perfect white sand beach of La Concha is the most iconic sight in San Sebastian. This expansive beach has a wide shoreline and mesmerizing turquoise waters that are safe for swimming. During July and August, rows of blue and white striped parasols make the beach look even more vibrant. La Concha has retained the regal air of its Belle Epoque days. In 1868, Queen Maria Cristina inaugurated the Playa de la Concha as a 'Royal Beach' and established San Sebastian as a prestigious summertime resort. The pedestrian only seafront promenade features decorative railings and elegant street lamps. As you walk west towards Monte Igueldo, notice Isla de Santa Clara. Lying offshore in the middle of the bay, this little island is accessible by ferries that run every half hour from the fishing port in the summer. At low tide the island gains its own tiny beach and you can climb its forested paths to a small lighthouse. For more stunning views of the San Sebastian scenery, head up to Monte Igueldo just beyond the Playa de Ondarreta at the far end of the beach near the Royal Tennis Club. Take the old world funicular railway to the top for commanding views of the town, the Bay of Concha and the rolling hills of the Basque countryside. Be sure to check out the Tower of Monte Igueldo, a fortified lighthouse from the 18th century.

A symbol of the city, the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb) sculpture, which lies at the far western end of the Bahia de la Concha, below Monte Igueldo, is the work of the famous Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida and architect Luis Pena Ganchegui. Installed in 1977, the artwork is made of giant iron shapes anchored by pink granite and is spread across three nearby sites. Its powerful but mysterious forms look all the more striking against the wave battered coastline. Back near the Old Town, and one of the most attractive and enjoyable little outdoor spaces in San Sebastian, the Parque de Alderdi Eder is actually more of an elongated plaza shaded by trees, dotted with benches and busy with children and families enjoying the old fashioned carousel and numerous street performers. Brilliant views unfold over Playa de la Concha. Nearby, the cultural space Tabakalera occupies a beautifully reconfigured tobacco factory dating from 1913. It's a hub for the arts and design, as well as cultural enterprises such as the Basque Film Archive, the Kutxa Foundation and various galleries. For visitors, there's also an exhibition hall, a cinema and a regular line up of seminars, workshops and discussions.

From there, make your way to the spirited Gros neighborhood. There are several bridges that span the narrow Urumea River from the city center (New Town) to Gros - the most impressive by far is the Puente de Maria Cristina. Opened in 1905, this Belle Epoque structure is most notable for its four golden statue crowned obelisks, two of which guard the entrance on each side. Located in Gros is the totally awesome Kursaal. Designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 1999, the Kursaal is one of the city's most striking buildings. Consisting of two cubes made of translucent glass with LED lights (the largest such facade in Spain and one of the biggest in the world), the edifice, which serves as San Sebastian's cultural and conference center, was designed to represent two beached rocks. A lively array of musical and cultural events takes place here year round. Adjacent to Kursaal is the popular Playa de la Zurriola. 'Zurri' as it's known locally, has some excellent waves that draw surfers from near and far. It is a superb place to hang out and take in the local scene of volleyball, football (soccer) and surf action. One last spot to visit in Gros is the Parque de Cristina Enea. Created by the Duke of Mandas in honor of his wife, this formal park is a favorite escape for locals. The most attractive green space in the city, it contains ornamental plants, ducks and peacocks, and open lawns. Its wooded paths make for a scenic stroll, past towering red sequoias and a magnificent Lebanese cedar.

Conclude your tour of San Sebastian with a little shopping. The city has a number of outstanding gourmet and boutique shops. Everywhere I travel I seek out the top chocolate shop in town. In San Sebastian it's Chocolates de Mendaro, located in the city center (New Town) at Calle de Etxaide 6. It's all but impossible to walk past this fabulous old chocolate shop and resist the temptation to step inside. The famed chocolatier has been around since 1850 and is still run by the Saint Gerons family. Not far away at Paseo de la Republica Argentina 4, inside the Hotel Maria Cristina, is Mimo Gourmet. This is where those with a real appreciation of fine food and wine come to do their shopping. The shop offers a wide selection of edible souvenirs and gourmet gifts. Nearby at Calle Elkano 1 is Elkano 1 Gaztagune. Over 40 different artisan cheeses fill this aromatic little timber lined shop. Most are from the Basque Country, including the owner's own Idiazabal (pressed sheep's milk cheese); there are also a handful of varieties from France, Italy, the Netherlands and Scotland. Found at Calle de Narrica 4 in the Old Town is Casa Ponsol. In business since 1838, this hat shop evokes the elegance of a bygone era. It is the place to acquire an iconic Basque beret. For a huge range of travel books, guides and maps in English, Spanish and French, try the travel bookshop Elkar at Calle de Fermin Calbeton 30. Finish up at Beltza Records, located at Calle de San Juan 9. Browse for CDs and vinyl from the Basque Country and beyond at this checkerboard tiled record shop.


San Sebastian is one of the top food destinations on the planet. This small seaside city packs a massive culinary punch. Considered the food capital of Spain thanks to its exceptionally fresh seafood, glittering Michelin starred restaurants, legendary pintxos (pronounced peenchos) and dreamy cheesecake, foodies from across the world pilgrimage here to eat their way around the town. First, start your day with a killer cup of coffee and a pastry. My favorite spot in town is Syra Coffee, located at Calle de San Jeronimo 8 in the Old Town. You can't go wrong with a cafe con leche paired with a yummy Napolitana de chocolate. Note: Syra has additional locations in the city center (New Town) and Gros.

Pintxos are delicious little snacks rather than a full meal and are served in abundance with plenty of variety. These tantalizing delicacies range from deep fried cod and marinated anchovies to crisp handmade croquettes. Sampling pintxos is a Basque culinary adventure. There are hundreds of pintxo bars in San Sebastian and choosing which ones to visit can be challenging. I would now like to share my favorite pintxo bars in town. I will organize them based on their neighborhood and location - Old Town, New Town and Gros. Let's begin in the Parte Vieja (Old Town). Casa Urola can be found at Calle de Fermin Calbeton 20. Founded in 1956, this classic spot has hefty stone walls, hams hanging above the bar and a blackboard menu chalking up the day's pintxos. Join the lunch and evening crowds flocking for perfectly turned out bites, such as grilled white asparagus, foie gras with white beans, grilled scallops with garlic, and mushroom and Idiazabal cheese pie. Down the street at Fermin Calbeton 12 is Borda Berri. This old school pintxo bar has black and white checkerboard floors and mustard colored walls hung with old photos and strands of garlic. Hungry diners crowd in for house specials such as braised veal cheeks in wine, mushroom and Idiazabal sheep's cheese risotto, and beef rib kebabs. Next door at Fermin Calbeton 10 is Bar Sport. Go with the grilled squid and foie gras. Wash it all down with a glass of Txakoli (pronounced chacoli), a slightly sparkling dry white wine produced in the Basque Country.

Around the corner at Calle de Arrandegi 11 is Bar Nestor. This wonderfully eccentric place has a cult following for its tortillas made with green peppers (just one tortilla is cooked at lunch and at dinner; put your name on the list for a portion - in person only - one hour prior to service), and its grilled T bone steaks (advance reservations are possible by phone, otherwise arrive early as seating is limited). A few doors down at Pescaderia 5 is Bar Txepetxa. The humble antxoa (anchovy) is elevated to royal status at this old fashioned, wood paneled local favorite. You can order it in over a dozen different ways, topped with everything from salmon roe to spider crab cream sauce. Don't forget a glass of Txakoli. Nearby at Calle de San Jeronimo 21 is my most favorite spot in the Old Town. Opened in 1984, the family run Bar Ganbara is where San Sebastian’s gastro aristocracy goes on its day off for a crab pie, a stuffed croissant or my personal number one, a gilda - a guindilla pepper, a Cantabrian anchovy and a manzanilla olive together on a toothpick. Ganbara is also a pilgrimage site for lovers of wild mushrooms: the plate of fresh boletus a la plancha with free range egg yolk is a fast track route to foodie ecstasy.

Staying in the Parte Vieja, be sure to visit Bar Martinez at Calle 31 de Agosto 13. This character laden place with its many dusty bottles of wine has been around since the 1940s. House favorites include the award winning morros de bacalao (slices of cod balanced atop a piece of bread) and brocheta de pulpo (octopus skewers). The pimiento relleno de salsa tartara (stuffed pepper with tartar sauce) is also delightful. Down the road at 31 de Agosto 7 is La Cepa De Bernardo. This old school institution is well known for its in house cured hams. I destroyed several gavillas (a delicious croquette containing cured ham, cheese and creamy bechamel sauce). Also try the mini de jamon (Iberian ham toast). Next door at 31 de Agosto 3 is the very popular and crowded La Vina. The bar of this landmark spot displays a wonderful array of fishy pintxos and delectable snacks, but the real highlight is the burnt Basque cheesecake. Prepared daily according to a special recipe and left to stand on shelves over the bar, it's ideal for a midmorning snack, afternoon dessert or really any time.

Let's make our way to the city center (New Town). Located at Calle de Bergara 3 is Bar Antonio. This snug spot does a spectacular Spanish omelet, and a prawn and oxtail ravioli. Antonio stays pleasantly busy at all hours, with locals passing through for a quick pintxo before lunch or dinner. Not far away at Calle de San Martzial 48 is La Espiga. This well liked place opened in 1928 and is currently run by the fourth generation of the founding family. It is usually packed with both locals and tourists who all have a glass of wine in one hand and a pintxo in the other. Be sure to order the house specialty - la delicia, a toast of cured anchovy with hard boiled egg, vinegary onions and a dollop of mayonnaise. Also try one of the fried bites, like veal with cheese or the meat stuffed peppers. Once again, remember to pair it all with a refreshing glass of Txakoli.

It is now time to head over the Urumea River and finish up our pintxo bar hopping extravaganza in the Gros neighborhood. Found at Calle de Pena y Goni 13 is Bodega Donostiarra. The whitewashed stone walls, framed prints, and black and white photos give this place a quirky charm, though the crowds can be so thick that you might not even notice during prime time. Bodega has some of the best pintxos this side of the Urumea: seared mackerel with salmon roe, black pudding with sweet red peppers, tuna and anchovy sandwich or grilled chorizo and octopus skewers. From there, walk through Plaza Cataluna on your way to Bar Bergara at Calle de General Artetxe 8. This classic spot is one of Gros' most highly regarded pintxo bars and has a mouth watering array of delights piled on the bar counter, as well as others chalked on the board. You can't go wrong, whether you opt for its anchovy tortilla, chupito (spider crab mousse served in a shot glass) or rich foie gras with mango jam. An additional house favorite is the txalupa - a puff pastry in the form of a txalupa (small fishing boat), topped with mushrooms, prawns and chives. Special Note: be sure to check the websites for the opening and closing times as each pintxo bar has its own unique days and hours of operation.

San Sebastian is a bucket list destination for anyone serious about the restaurant scene. It is a gastronomic paradise with more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world (there are 11 in an area of less than 200000 people - including a trio of three starred restaurants). I had the extreme pleasure of dining at a few of these special places. Restaurant Arzak can be found at Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273. With three shining Michelin stars, acclaimed chef Juan Mari Arzak is king when it comes to Basque nouvelle cuisine and his restaurant, two miles east of San Sebastian, is considered one of the best in the world. Juan Mari is now assisted by his daughter Elena and they never cease to innovate with their creative tasting menus. Boundary pushing dishes such as cured sweetbreads with prawn flavored corn chips, or gingerbread topped with crab and sea grapes, are conceived in research and development kitchen 'the lab', which draws on over 1000 ingredients to create ingenious creations. The unrivaled wine list runs over 50 pages. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday.

Another three starred beauty is Restaurant Akelare, located at Paseo Padre Orcolaga 56, four miles west of the city in the suburb of Igeldo. This is where chef Pedro Subijana creates cuisine that is a feast for all five senses. As with most of the region's top nueva cocina vasca restaurants, the emphasis here is on using fresh, local produce and turning it into something totally unexpected. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Perched high up in the bucolic hills at Aldura Aldea 20 in the suburb of Errenteria, 6 miles southeast of San Sebastian, twin Michelin starred Mugaritz' calling card is chef Andoni Luis Aduriz' avant garde cuisine incorporating produce foraged in the surrounding forest and gastronomic trickery - such as lemon shaped oysters, edible river stones and even edible cutlery. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Also, it closes for the winter (November to March), when the chef and his brigade come up with the new year's creations. Last but not least, there is Rekondo, found at Igeldo Pasealekua 57. This place has several aces up its sleeve. One is the setting, in a former farmhouse on the way up to Monte Igueldo with views of La Concha Bay. Another is the wine cellar, long recognized as San Sebastian’s finest, overseen by world class sommelier Martin Flea and featuring one of the world’s great collections of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. A third is Inaki Arrieta, a chef whose talents are discreetly taking Rekondo’s upscale Basque cuisine to a higher level. Note: the restaurant is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Special Note: be sure to book well in advance for the restaurants mentioned above.


San Sebastian offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Maria Cristina, located at Paseo de la Republica Argentina 4. Overlooking the Urumea River, this grand Belle Epoque hotel dating from 1912 is a short walk from both the Gros neighborhood and the Old Town. Refined rooms feature free WiFi, flat screen TVs and minibars, plus marble bathrooms. Upgraded quarters add living areas, rainfall showers and river views. There's a posh restaurant and a sophisticated bar, as well as a culinary school.

A second option is Hotel Villa Favorita, located at Calle de Zubieta 26. Situated on La Concha beachfront promenade, this boutique adults only hotel has the bay at its doorstep and is only a brief stroll from the Old Town. Stylish rooms offer complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs, minibars and coffeemakers. Upgrades add living areas, sundecks and beach views. Other perks include an upscale restaurant and a bar, as well as a terrace.

San Sebastian is sure to please with its natural beauty, vibrant culture, impressive architecture and superb cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning. Until next time, eskerrik asko Donostia.


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