Ten superb reasons why you need to visit San Sebastián

Travel journalist Marti Kilpatrick gives the local a tour around her adopted home of San Sebastián, the European Capital of Culture 2016.

Ten superb reasons why you need to visit San Sebastián
San Sebastián is the European Capital of Culture 2016. Photo: Photo: Keta/Wikimedia
San Sebastián, Spain has a long list of attractions in its favour: cityside beaches, amazing food, nearby mountains and nature. But somehow it has remained off the radar until recent years. Well, now the secret is out, and in 2016 this Basque town wears the European Capital of Culture crown. Meaning it’s the perfect year to visit.

Photo: AFP
1. If you only do one thing in San Sebastián, it should be eat. The most famous (and accessible) part of the foodie culture is pintxos. The Basque version of tapas, they are often ridiculously elaborate and make for a fun, dynamic mealtime. Just remember – to do it right it’s one or two pintxos and a drink per bar, then on to the next one.

La Concha beach. Photo: dynamosquito/Flickr 
2. The beaches of San Sebastián are famed: La Concha for its beauty and the Zurriola for the surf scene. Sunbathers occupy every square inch in summer, though, so opt for a new view of the city from the tiny coves of the Isla de Santa Clara. Ferries leave a couple of times an hour in the summer for the picturesque island.

The Tabakalera in San Sebastián. Photo:
3. The newly re-opened Tabakalera, a former cigarette factor turned Contemporary International Culture Center, is a snazzy building packed with exhibitions, cafés, small businesses, and soon a hotel and restaurant. It’s a great stop on any cultural agenda, if only for the incredible views from the top floor. For a peek into the local music scene, head next door to the more underground club, Dabadaba.

4. Restaurants abound in this Michelin-starred city. Rekondo, however, tucked into the skirt of Monte Igeldo, is more than just menu del día:  their wine list is a couple of hundred pages long, and their bodega has been called one of the top five in Europe. Raise a glass of 1964 Rioja to that.

Head to San Sebastián's Old Town for some delicious pintxos. Photo: RStacker
5. For a first-time visitor to San Sebastián, it’s best to stick to the Old Part for pintxos. These are the greatest hits, the ones you’d never forgive yourself for missing. Start off at Txepetxa, with fresh vinegar-cured anchovies on toast. Stop into Zeruko, down the street, for haute cuisine in miniature. And make sure you stop off at Borda Berri, where everything is good and the beef cheek is so good it flies out of the kitchen. 

San Sebastián Film Festival. Photo: thierry llansades/Flickr 
6. San Sebastián knows how to put on a show, and the numerous festivals of the city are the perfect example. From Jazzaldi (July) to Gastronomika (October), there’s something for everyone; but Zinemaldi (September), the international film festival, is perhaps the most enjoyable to attend, with stars invading the city and movies premiering at every turn.

A Meryl Streep-themed room at Astoria 7. Photo:
7. Sleeping in San Sebastián can be complicated. A dearth of hotels means Airbnb is the choice of many; however, if you want starred service along with a fun tie-in to the film festival, sleep at Astoria 7.  Their cinema-themed rooms are comfortable and well-equipped, and they launched a brand new bar downstairs with award-winning mixologist Patxi Troitino at the helm.

Cristina Enea park. Photo: mertxe iturrioz/Flickr 
8. A mid-summer trip to San Sebastián means you will coincide with one of the most intriguing offerings of the European Capital of Culture 2016 Programme: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed as an al fresco dinner theater in one of the city’s most beautiful parks, Cristina Enea, throughout the entire summer.

Photo: GonzaloIza/Flickr 
9. The views from Monte Igeldo are unanimously declared as the most beautiful in the entire city. The fact that they are taken in from a charmingly decayed theme park is a bonus.  Don’t miss the roller coaster, frightening more for its cliffside routes than its daring drops.

Wood chopping is a Basque sport. Photo: Emilio del Prado/Flickr 
10.  The Basque culture remains one of the least understood, most mysterious in the Western hemisphere. When visiting San Sebastián, check the city’s agenda for various, unique Basque cultural touchstones: aizkolaris (wood chopping is a Basque sport), bertsolaris (Basque poetry slammers), and pelota (Basque hand ball, aka jai alai).
Marti Buckley Kilpatrick is a food and travel journalist and cook based in San Sebastián. She is a co-founder of the International Society for the Preservation of Vermut, a global initiative to promote vermouth. Her award-winning blog is
You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

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Has the Covid-19 pandemic killed Spain’s pintxos and tapas culture?

What impact has the ongoing pandemic and health crisis in Spain had on the culture of sharing tapas and pintxos? Esme Fox explores how crowding around bars laden with uncovered food is not the done thing anymore.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic killed Spain's pintxos and tapas culture?
Nicolas Vigier/Flickr

Spain is of course known throughout the world for its excellent and unique cuisine, and besides the paella, it’s the tapas and the pintxos that everyone raves about.

But how has Spain’s tapas culture changed since Covid-19? Can it adapt and change in order to survive?

Nowhere in Spain is this more evident right now than the Basque Country, where the culture is the Basque version of tapas – pintxos. Pintxos are small pieces of bread, topped with all types of ingredients, from fried peppers and anchovies to goat’s cheese and fig, all held together with a stick.  

Before the pandemic, pintxos bars in the likes of San Sebastián and Bilbao were groaning with mini bites all laid out in front of you. The idea was to jostle to the front of the bar between the crowds and grab a pintxo or two to put on your plate. At the end of the night, the bar person would simply count the number of sticks you have and you’d pay accordingly.

In this new world, however, the idea of crowding up with customers to a bar laden with uncovered food and taking them with your hands is simply unthinkable.


Pintxos before the pandemic | Image by takedahrs from Pixabay

According to an article in El Pais, Covid-19 has completely changed the feel of the Basque taverns. People must now social distance and only a certain number are allowed up to the bar at one time.

Where sometimes bars used to have up to 200 different types of pintxos, now they might have around 40 types because there’s fewer people; residents and tourists alike.  

In San Sebastián, the city council has ordered that all pintxos must now be completely covered at the front and sides and the case must be translucent so that customers can see what they’re ordering. Any bar not complying with these measures can be fined.

This means of course that the number of plates of pintxos that can easily fit onto a bar has now been reduced because extra space is needed for the coverings and containers.

The main difference to the pintxo scene however is that customers are no longer allowed to touch the pintxos, meaning that a large part of pintxo culture is missing. Now customers just point to what they want and are served by the bar person, much like in many bars across the world. Will this destroy the Basque Country’s unique pintxo culture?

Journalist Marti Buckley who lives in the Basque Country said: “Coronavirus is probably the worst type of pandemic possible when it comes the pintxo bar way of eating. Food at a sneeze's length, where it sits all day in front of hundreds of people, smashed in a bar like sardines, elbow to elbow. Glass cases, masks, and limited entry has really changed the experience. However, most measures I am seeing appear to be temporary, so if this ever ends I hope the bars will go back to how they were”. 

olive pintxos

Stuffed olive pintxos | Image by elcodigodebarras from Pixabay

The Basque Country is striving for a fast recovery however, and many visitors to the region have told The Local that the pintxos bars almost felt back to normal.

Travel writer James Taylor who went to San Sebastián post lockdown said: “I didn’t notice much had changed. The main difference was that you couldn’t grab the pintxos yourself. Everything was covered and you had to pay straight away”. This may change the way that people used to graze on pintxos, going up for more when they felt like it, but it doesn’t seem to have killed the culture completely.

Bilbao has even run its first pintxo competition since the Covid-19 outbreak. Aitor Olazabalaga from Bar Fermín who participated in the competition told local Basque news website Deia: “It’s important that we encourage consumption of pintxos again. We had a bit of a shake, but we must all come together to make sure that life in the Old Town recovers”.

In other parts of Spain such as Barcelona for example, tapas culture doesn’t seem to have changed too much. People do seem to be going out in smaller groups and eat out less often though. Friends are still sharing plates of Padrón peppers and ham croquetas, but are being more careful. Double dipping brava sauce with your potato for example is definitely a big no no.