Warning: This is an eating itinerary! San Sebastian in Northern Spain is one of the world’s great cities for food. Not only are there more Michelin Star Restaurants in the vicinity than anywhere else in the world, this is also the place to indulge in pintxos, the Basque Country’s equivalent to tapas. My friend Robert and I had been scheming and dreaming about going to San Sebastian for years, and we finally went last April with our spouses tagging along.

Tripper Tips:

The San Telmo Museum is the flagship museum of San Sebastian, housed in a historical building by the old port.

San Sebastian Food is located in the lobby of the Maria Christina and offers organized tours if you want someone to take you on a guided pintxo tour. Take a cooking class at the Basque Culinary Center Many restaurants and pintxo bars are closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Friday Check In: Hotel Maria Christina. This grand dame dates back to 1912, but was tastefully renovated a few years ago.  Elegant, yet stylish and hip, plus in a perfectly situated location—I loved this hotel! This is the place to splurge on a top floor balcony room; the terrace is impressively large with two lounge chairs and great views of the river, city and ocean. 

Lunch: A few blocks away from the Maria Christina is the Parte Vieja, the old town. This is a small area and not difficult to navigate. (Also true for the city as a whole.) Wander up and down the streets, in and out of the many pintxos bars, and see what appeals to you. (The concierge at the hotel has a very good map with their suggestions.) Our group was on a mission to sample a few specific places some foodie friends told us to try, but it was just as much fun discovering ones on our own. Although the displayed pintxos at each restaurant are tempting, we found that the specialties of the house, cooked to order, were far superior. (Check the chalkboard, ask the bartender, or look around and see what everyone else is ordering.) For the full experience of the Pintxo crawl you must try at least one glass of Txakoli, the local fizzy, fruity white wine. 

Here are some of our favorites:

  • Ganbara: fresh wild mushrooms and sausage in puff pastry
  • Goiz-Argi: prawn brochette
  • La Cuchara de San Telmo: grilled foie gras and braised veal cheek
  • Borda Beri: calamari on the plancha and risotto of mushrooms
  • La Vina: Spanish classics—jamon, tortilla, octopus salad
  • Zeruko and A Fuego Negro: inventive modern pintxos (A friend described these new wave pintxos as “tapas gone crazy”.)

Explore: The best way to see the beautiful seaside city of San Sebastian is to walk around. From the old town it’s only a few blocks to La Concha, a beautiful crescent shaped beach framed by the bookends of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo. Stroll along the pedestrian promenade admiring the beautiful Belle-Époque buildings.  Stop for coffee at one of the beachside cafes. Then hike or take the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo to get a beautiful panoramic view of the city. To the right of Monte Urgull is Zurriola beach, the surf beach, but as it was April it was quiet with only a few hardy surfers. (I can’t wait to return to San Sebastian during the summer months to see the beach in action.) 

Shop:  San Sebastian is a stylish city, and the streets behind the Maria Christina have some very nice high end stores that carry international and local Spanish designers. There are also some beautiful interior design stores and some shops with Basque craftwork and textiles. Stop in one of the food emporiums to bring back some saffron, white anchovies and Basque espelette pepper. 

Dinner: We came for the pintxos and Friday night is a great time to do a Pinxto crawl, to fully experience the spectacle of people going from one bar to the next, spilling out onto the narrow streets, eating, drinking and socializing with friends.  It is so much fun, a true food marathon! After making a few stops for a bite here and there we wound up at Bar Nestor, which is famous for its tortilla. Nestor’s wife makes only two a day at 1 pm and 8 pm and it sells out fast. (we could only admire what was left on someone’s plate.) Bar Nestor’s menu is limited--chopped tomatoes with olive oil and salt, jamon, grilled padron peppers and its famous chuleton, a monster t-bone steak. All simple, but so good. We all agreed it might have been the best steak we ever had.  The space is cramped, we ate standing up at the bar, yet this is one of those special places. Trust me you will leave friends with Nestor and his staff, sharing brandy shots on the house, talking about the NY Yankees, and posing for group photos. 


Morning Exercise: The hotel has a small gym, but if the weather is good, why stay indoors? Go for a run or walk on the beach or along the promenade. Finish by climbing Monte Urgull, there are a series of paths that lead to the top and the ruins of an old castle and an enormous stone statue of Christ. The hike is a good morning workout and you are rewarded with stunning views of San Sebastian. 

The Coast: There are many great day trips from San Sebastian--Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz in France are one hour north, Bilbao and the Guggenheim just one hour south. We drove about 40 minutes to the small fishing village of Getaria, to explore the coast, and to be honest eat lunch at Elkano.  This under the radar restaurant is where all the chefs go for what is considered some of the finest seafood in the world.  Elkano is famous for its Kokotxa, throat of the hake, and its whole grilled Turbot, which is cooking on the charcoal grill in front of the restaurant when you arrive.  Our meal did not disappoint. The room is small and elegant, and was filled to capacity with mostly local families enjoying Saturday lunch. And the turbot was perfect--simple, fresh, unadorned, it lived up to it’s hype! 

After Lunch: Stroll around Getaria’s cobblestone streets and down to the small port. There is a picturesque walk from the port along the coast to the top of San Anton. At the highest point, past the lighthouse, the views of the Basque coast are spectacular. 

Don’t Miss: Getaria is home to the small charming Cristobal Balenciaga Museum, the famous couturier who was born in Getaria. You won’t need much more than an hour here, but it is worth visiting, even if you’re not into fashion. 

Dinner: The choices are overwhelming of where to eat - Martin Berasategui, Akelarre, Arzak, Ibai to name a few - but we decided, this time, to try Mugaritz, the renowned restaurant of Chef Andoni Luiz Aduriz.  Located in Gipuzkoa, about 20 minutes from downtown San Sebastian, the experience starts as soon as you arrive. The farmhouse and the location are beautiful, and our evening started with a tour of the extremely impressive and spotless kitchen.  Watching the orchestra of chefs artfully at work was truly a special moment. Dinner at Mugaritz is an event: there is one set menu of 24 dishes, and they suggest you allow three hours for dinner.  Yet, it didn’t feel long, and the food was modern and playful. (One dish arrived in a mortar and pestle that you had to stand up and pound.) While some dishes were better than others, this was a true food experience: delicious, creative, and memorable. 

Sunday: After working out to compensate for last nights dinner, have breakfast at the hotel’s lovely buffet before heading home or on to your next location in Spain.

 - A Daytripper itinerary 10.16.14

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