The pearl of the Cantabrian. Populated by pristine beaches, amazing restaurants, green hills, and pintxos up the wazoo. This is where the wealthy tanned and tucked population of Northern Spain go for their mini-breaks. It’s where we went for our mini-break to Basque country, as part of a larger tour of Northern Spain (here and here and here and here and here)
By plane: Many flights fly into San Sebastian airport or the neighbouring Biarritz airport.
By train: Easy connections from all over Spain and the south of France as well.
- Weather: Though it’s a beach town, San Sebastian is famous for it’s light drizzle which occurs frequently, even in summer months. A light rain jacket is advised!
- Cuisine: You cannot stop in San Sebastian without savouring the local food scene – it’s famous for it. However, being the town-which-caters-to-rich-tourists, it comes at a price. Scout some of the higher end restaurants beforehand and go for their lunch menu – many offer fantastic multi-course meals at a fraction of the cost of the evening menu.
- Detox to Retox: Itzalian, Xarma
- Fit Food: Mercado San Martin
This was an easy spot to find a running route. For miles and miles along the gorgeous coast is a promenade, well maintained and giving unrivalled views of the sea and beyond. Within two minutes of leaving the hotel, I was making my way along the white sand and rugged rocks. Drizzle was falling, a common form of precipitation here, but the fresh sea air was too tempting to deter me. Eventually, I turned around and retraced my steps to our charming little hotel, where the charming staff provide the most comprehensive list of tapas bars you can imagine.
For the active people out there, San Sebastian is a gold mine of activity. Opt for a surfing lesson or a kayaking tour to Santa Clara Island, just opposite La Concha beach.
For the lazier people out there, Monte Igueldo hosts a funicular to take you up to some amazing views of the coast. Or, for those craving more fresh sea air, climb up the lush and green Mont Urgull. At the top, a 12 meter tall Jesus Christ statue stands watch over the bay.
Descending around 1 pm, we were starving and ready for some of the famous seafood from the region. The port area is lined with boats on one side and restaurants on the other, all with covered patios overlooking the water. Each spot tempts you with their Menu del dia, a steal at lunch hour and perfect way to eat local for less. Choosing the 19 euro three course menu at Itzalian, we settled into our chairs and looked out at the water, the salty sea air closer than ever.
Make friends with the waiter and you might just get a full bottle of wine for two people instead of the two glasses advertised 😉 Appetizers of steamed mussels and green salad paled in comparison to the main event, “Chipirones a la Plancha”. Grilled squid, dressed simply in oil, garlic, and lemon. Mopping up the remains with crusty bread, the plates could not have been cleaner.
Leche frito (fried milk) arrived next, the specialty of the house. A crunchy batter gives way to an oozing lava-like vanilla-scented interior.
Now would be the opportune time for a nap, but we perused the old town, even more densely populated with pintxos bars than Bilbao. With a gap in the rain it was the perfect time for a bike ride, made easy via Bici Rental bikes. Bici rental bikes offers cruiser bikes for 5 euros an hour, the ideal vessel for exploring the boardwalk along the water. Along the length of the beach, across the Bridge of Maria Cristina and past the old town, we marvelled at the gorgeous architecture on one side and lapping waves on the other. A pretty idyllic setting to say the least.
A quick pick-me-up espresso at Mercado San Martin was just the ticket after an active day of running, hiking, and biking.
The day arrived grey and drizzly again, the perfect excuse to lounge long in bed. And we had indoor plans anyways – a lunch reservation at Xarma. As mentioned in my post about Bilbao, Basque country is literally swimming with fine food and Michelin star restaurants. You can go for the blow-out option and make a reservation (well ahead of time!) at any of the starred restaurants. Our option was a little more economical. Xarma (see reviews here) has just 10 tables and really feels like a homey experience. We go for the “Menu Mercado”, continuously changing depending on the fresh ingredients of the season. Three courses, a bottle of wine per two guests, bread, and taxes for 25.50 euro per person. A considerable steal in any country.
From the start we were in for something special. An amuse-bouche of foie gras truffle served with apple and crostini.
Appetizers were a slow-cooked farm egg with crispy rice and mushroom soup (sadly no photo), and white asparagus with lemon couscous. Two very different choices, the former being earthy and rich and the latter fresh and lemony.
The main events were cod, cooked to utter perfection, served with piquillo pepper puree. The pork tenderloin served with apple was traditional and superb.
For the finale – fresh strawberries, grilled with a touch of balsamic vinegar and served with lemon Chantilly. Simple, but quickly deemed as possibly “the best dessert I´ve ever had”. Fruit transformed, a touch savoury and cut by the citrus Chantilly cream. Licking plates is not allowed in such establishments, but I was tempted.
A slow stroll back to the Old Town was a pitiful attempt to aid digestion. We wandered past La Concha beach and the absolutely gorgeous Church of Santa Maria del Coro on the way to the San Telmo museum.
For a historical look at the Basque culture, the San Telmo museum is the ticket, not to mention it’s beautiful works of art – two of my favourites below.
A quiet night in was the rest we needed to embark on a marathon pintxo adventure the next day – post coming soon!