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.
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: tabakalera.eu
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: astoria7hotel.com
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 late September visit to the city could coincide with the San Sebastian film festival.
Between September 22nd and 30th, San Sebastian proudly hosts its world famous film festival when it showcases Spanish films, including five from first-time directors, as a launch pad for international selection. It will also see the premiere of “Michelin Stars – Tales From The Kitchen”, a documentary about the much coveted star rating culture.
It will close with "The Wife" starring six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, who will both be in attendance.
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 www.travelcookeat.com.