When I was still back in the states, daydreaming about living in Spain, San Sebastián was on the top of my list of places to visit.
I swore that if I sped through my to-do list (finding a place to live, getting my residency card, opening a bank account, getting a new phone, etc. etc. etc.), I could swing up to San Sebastián and maybe even pop over into Biarritz, France for a little Euro trip to relish my new expat life. Travel baby no more, I would hit two world-famous cities in one jaunt … just because I could.
But it didn’t happen the first week, or the second week, or the third. Reality set in and I was too busy. It was five weeks until I was on a bus with Chris and two other English teachers (Jessica and Samantha), headed for San Sebastían, aka Donastia.
I can’t say I’m that much of a beach-vacay diva. I mean look at me. I can’t go out in the sun without someone asking me if I’m going to get a sunburn. It’s not just that, but I’m usually too stingy to throw down on a luxe beach vacation. Forget the canopied cabanas and boozy frozen drinks with the little umbrellas and pieces of fruit hanging off the side. I’m talking about packing your own sack lunch and swinging by the gas station on the way for a 40 to drink in the sand (not really… but maybe).
My favorite beach in the United States is Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts. Have you heard of it? I didn’t think so. It’s right along the border of New Hampshire. I bet you didn’t even know there were beaches in New Hampshire. Well, there are. And they’re – well, they’re okay. The boardwalks are a little rundown and there isn’t much of a club scene, but there are biker bars with cheap PBRs and you don’t have to put up with a bunch of idiot bros wrestling around in the sand next to you.
So San Sebastián was a little out there for me as a vacation destination. What was I doing lusting after an old beach town, an international hotspot in the País Vasco (Basque Region) that draws people from all over Europe and the United States?
Well, I can tell you why: San Sebastián is beautiful.
And it’s the classiest beach town I’ve ever been to.
It’s the love child of European charm and cerulean seas. It has the turquoise water and ocean spray that you can’t resist in any beach town, coupled with a rich Medieval history, gorgeous architecture, good food and mountain views in the distance.
Here are seven ways I recommend enjoying a trip to San Sebastían, which I found completely lives up to its reputation as a top travel destination.
1. Dip your toes in the Bay of Biscay at the Playa de la Concha
We visited San Sebastián in late October, and the water was still warm enough to wade in – for a few minutes at least. A few brave souls were even swimming in the Bay of Biscay.
Granted, I think we lucked out with the weather. The temperature was in the upper 60’s and 70’s Fahrenheit the entire weekend, with sun on two out of the three days we were there.
Warning: I’ve heard San Sebastián is not known for having stellar weather, but rather hazy cloud-filled skies. So check the forecast before you plan a trip if you’re looking to lay out on the beach. But even if it is cloudy, the town is still beautiful and there’s plenty to do and see.
2. Surveil the surf beach
Playa de Gros is to the East of Playa de la Concha, on the other side of old town and the Rio Urumea. We went on a Saturday morning upon the recommendation of our hostelier. (We stayed at the Downtown River Hostel for 22 Euro each a night.) She suggested we go to Toast for coffee and then watch the surfers.
The beach was empty, but the water was crowded.
I didn’t attempt surfing in San Sebastián, but the hostel where we stayed rented surf boards for something nominal like 15 Euro a day, with lessons for another 10. I recently spoke with another girl who rented a wetsuit and received free lessons from Australians staying in the same hostel. She said it was great.
Maybe next time for me?
No. That’s a lie. I’m not huge on water sports, or being tossed around in the ocean. I’m pretty much the worst pisces. But I did enjoy sitting on the seawall and watching everyone in the water.
3. Climb Monte Urgull
I highly recommend making the trek up Monte Urgull. You can’t miss it – it’s the hill behind the city with the giant Christ statue overlooking the Bay. We found it to be reminiscent of Río de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer – just dwarfed.
By taking a winding path up from behind the aquarium, you’re rewarded with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. And on the way up to the Castille, you pass by crumbling graveyards and nearly hidden statutes that commemorate wars between Spain and both France and England.
Not to mention that when you get to the top, you get amazing views of San Sebastián’s seashell-shaped beach and the Montes Vasco framing the perimeter of the city.
There’s also a museum where you can learn about the battles and some of San Sebastián’s history for free!
4. Drink a G&T at the top of Monte Igueldo
The Spaniards love their gin and tonics. Apparently, the Basque love them even more. And they take them very seriously.
Unlike in the United States, where the best treatment a gin and tonic receives is a lime-garnish on the side of the glass, these cocktails are crafted with care. Maybe it was surprising only because the way I’m used to seeing bartenders make the drink is this:
- Grab a tumbler
- Fill it with ice
- Pour four counts of gin onto the ice with one hand
- With the other, use a soda gun to fill the rest with tonic water
- Add a straw
- Stick a lime to the side
Voila! $5-$8 later, you’re enjoying your drink.
Here, it involves a goblet that’s first filled with a heavy pour of gin. Then add about 5-6 large ice cubes with metal tongs. Next, crack a open tiny bottle of Schweppes tonic water. Pour the entire contents into the goblet. Grab a lemon, and slice off a two-inch ribbon of rind. With one metal tong in each hand, do this maneuver that looks something like a crab pinching the lemon rind back and forth with both of its claws (I think to sprinkle around the juice?). With one tong, rub the ruffled-up rind around the rim for maximum lemon scent. Toss in a couple of things that look like peppercorns, and voila! Fancy gin and tonic.
My favorite place to drink one is on Monte Igueldo, a hill to the west of the city. In addition to being one of the best spots to watch a sunset, it is also home to a janky amusement park. You can take the funicular up, or drive to the top of the mountain, to have a handmade gin and tonic on the terrace of a bar that overlooks the beach.
5 . Partake in the pinchos
The Basque region is also famous for its pinchos – the tapas of the North. Like most of Spain, the selection is pork-heavy. But San Sebastián also has many pinchos that feature fish.
Here’s a sampling of what I’ve tried when I visited:
- Crab salad on bread, topped with a salmon slice (this had WAY too much mayonnaise for me)
- Salmon salad on bread, topped with a tomato slice and covered with oregano (This, I found to be pretty awful. Don’t try it)
- Mini hamburguesas
- Cheese mountain on bread (Tasted like Alouette spread and was delicious)
- Pimiento relleno con bacalao (Tiny roasted red pepper stuffed with bacalao – a fish – salad, on a toasted baguette slice. Also awesome)
- Miniature lobster roll (Pretty sure it’s not lobster – but tasted like good shellfish)
- Fried artichoke heart wrapped in jamón and topped with shrimp.
My review is obviously amateur, but I recommend:
- Tarberna Aralar Restaurante. We had to fight our way back into the dining area and squeeze into a table, but it was worth it. The food was great, there was a wide selection and the prices were decent.
- Bar Atari. It’s a bit pricier and trendier than the other one, but the pinchos are excellent and the wine is cheap.
6. Visit the painters on the pier
On Saturday afternoon, we walked down the pier of San Sebastián toward the aquarium, and were happy to discover it was dotted with painters. You can stroll past and peek at their easels from behind to see what each is working on – some recreating the seaside houses, others using photos as inspiration.
There was even a gathering of young artists at the end of the pier near this statue. I’m gonna be honest – their paintings were pretty damn good.
7. Admire the architecture in old town
And of course, my favorite part of any trip: The architecture. San Sebastián did NOT disappoint in this arena.
Above is pictured the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Coro, in the heart of old town. It actually runs right into Bar Atari, so you can sip on a G&T while you bask in this Basque achievement. (See what I just did there?) It has some beautiful detail work in the portal.
A few blocks away is the Catedral del Buen Pastor de San Sebastián. And the Ayuntamiento de San Sebastián is an ornate building sandwiched between the waterfront and old town. Apparently it was once a casino, but was later repurposed into the city’s town hall building after gambling was made illegal in the 20th century. As a government building, it makes a pretty strong statement about the Basque region.
Ya know, San Sebastián likes to keep it classy.