Whether it’s from the movies or the Michelin Guide, San Sebastián has no shortage of stars: the beach-lined, beating heart of the Basque Country, famous for its film festival, is also an A-list dining destination with its own distinctive wine.
Perched on the Atlantic Coast near the border with France, flanked by a mountain range, it belongs to ‘Green Spain’ and is quite unlike any place you’ll find further south. Though Bilbao is the biggest Basque city, San Sebastián has always been the most glamorous: in its heyday it was the holiday haunt of the Spanish royal family, whose legacy can be seen in Belle Époque architecture reminiscent of Paris.
San Sebastián boasts the highest concentration of Michelin stars per square kilometre in Europe – there are 19 shared between 11 restaurants within a 25km radius – and booking ahead is essential. However, it’s not all about highfalutin fancy food, as San Sebastián’s pintxo scene is a huge draw – expect regional finger food served with a drink, and best enjoyed on a crawl of the city’s buzzing bars.
It’s also the best place to enjoy the Basque Country’s distinctive, thrillingly fresh, sometimes spritzy white wine: Txakoli. Produced across three appellations surrounding the city, it has enjoyed a real renaissance in recent years and makes the perfect partner at vineyard fine-dining destinations like Hika by Roberto Ruiz.
Things to see and do in San Sebastián
San Sebastián is perfect for promenading. La Concha, meaning ‘the shell’, is the esplanade extraordinaire linking the city with its best vantage point, Monte Igueldo, accessed via a charming – if rickety – funicular railway. There’s not much to do at the top, other than bask in the beguiling views below. The city boasts three sandy beaches and La Concha is the best of them, offering the adventurous an opportunity to swim to Santa Clara, a small island in the bay.
The city is dotted with sculptures, many of them the work of the renowned Basque artist Eduardo Chillida, whose creations are also exhibited at Chillida Leku, an open-air museum on the outskirts.
It’s hard to believe San Sebastián’s bustling Parte Vieja, or old town, was once the epicentre of conspiratorial conversation, as a base of the Basque separatist group ETA. Thanks to the ‘permanent ceasefire’ of 2011, which definitively ended hostilities, these days the only tension comes from trying to get to the bar. The imposing 19th century Neo-Gothic cathedral towers over the old town, while Monte Urgull offers an energising walk to the Rio-esque statue of Christ at the top.
Forget the plain, because the rain in Spain falls mainly on the Basque Country, so if wet weather threatens your itinerary, there’s always La Perla, a smart thalassotherapy complex complete with an underwater gym circuit.
Where to eat and drink in San Sebastián
Where to eat can be a question of where to start, so it’s worth planning ahead. There’s a trio of Three-Star Michelin options – Arzak, Martin Berasategui and Akelarre. The latter, Pedro Subijana’s renowned restaurant, offers a sublime experience, from embossed goat’s butter to squid ink-infused octopus, grilled Iberian pork and a deconstructed gin and tonic dessert. It’s expensive, for sure, but not compared to many other Three-Starred establishments around the world, and it overlooks the Bay of Biscay despite being just a short taxi ride from the centre.
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Once you have blown the bank, it’s time for a sensibly priced pinxto crawl in the old quarter. It’s important to follow the rules – a single drink and snack per bar, then move on – which is straightforward enough, as there are easily a hundred such establishments to choose from. Favourites include family-run Ganbara, with its strict focus on seasonal produce, Itxaropena for the perfect tempura prawn, or 148 Gastroleku on the bustling Plaza de la Constitución for the best croqueta de jamón in San Sebastián. To round off, take a trip to the legendary La Viña to enjoy what must be the world’s most famous Basque cheesecake, washed down with a glass of Pedro Ximénez.
Where to stay in San Sebastián
If you’re happy just out of town, Akelarre is now a restaurant with rooms, boasting sea views to rival the cuisine. In the city itself, Hotel Maria Cristina is a San Sebastián institution that lives up to its top billing. Teeming with Hollywood’s finest during the film festival, if you can’t afford to stay in one of its luxuriously appointed rooms, it’s worth a visit for afternoon tea instead. A good budget option, the Barceló Costa Vasca is much more comfortable than its Brutalist façade might suggest and boasts a seasonal swimming pool.
The ultimate drinking destination
Hika by Roberto Ruiz offers fine dining inside a modern winery, surrounded by vines of Hondarrabi Zuri, from which most Txakoli is produced. The estate is among what’s often referred to as the ‘new wave’ of Txakoli producers.
The wines have a greater focus on texture and complexity that somehow complement the architecture of the modern winery, gently melding into its verdant surroundings. Locally sourced produce makes it onto the menu, and the winery also offers tours and tastings, making it a great place to get to know the Basque Country’s scintillating signature wine and its surrounding terroir.