Basque Summer Holiday: San Sebastian

Posted on August 27, 2012


The Lonely Planet starts with some cheesy line about how no one goes to San Sebastian without falling in love. God they were right. And it’s cheap to boot (around half Paris prices).

I was on a bit of an epic Basque adventure with two girlfriends. It’s the longest holiday I’ve taken in a long time so there’s been a lot of build up. We started with a champagne breakfast on the 5hr train ride to Handaye. Here we crossed the car park changed to a local Spanish train, costing just a few euros, to take us the last half an hour to San Sebastian.

San Sebastian is on the coast and there are three beaches along a 4 mile stretch. At around 5pm, after work, the largest of the three, La Concha (the shell), starts filling up with locals. We stayed just off Zurriola, the surfer beach, where we also found more locals than tourists, even during the day. One thing we noticed and loved is the mix of people in San Sebastian, on the beaches and out in the evening you find Spaniards of all shapes, sizes and ages enjoying life together. It’s a wonderful atmosphere (if you can cope with the incessant noise that goes with it!)

We started with a walk along the beach to dip our toes in the sea, and then headed to the pintxo bars of the Parte Vieja, stopping longest at Munto. After living in Spain I quickly filled up on the things I missed most: vermut (vermouth),  jamon (ham), morcilla (a light cumin flavoured black pudding made with rice) and pimientos de padron (small green peppers grilled or fried).

The first morning we decided to get healthy and ran along La Concha to the end of the path, then back around the headland past the port and the aquarium. It’s a beautiful trip and well worth the walk, as is the short hike up the hill to the Christ for a wonderful view of the bay.

After the exercise we had a well deserved massage at the incredible La Perla spa right on the beach, around 50euros for 40 minutes and well worth it. At the bar on the terrace you can get well made sangria for 3.70euros per glass and a good sized burger for 5euros.

Another short trip well worth the effort is taking the funicular up the hill to Monte Igueldo Funfair Pleasure Park – funicular to top of hill for the view. Old fashioned fun fair. The view is incredible and we loved the old fashioned rides, especially the rickety roller coaster whe we screamed more than the 5year olds, and the mini boat ride taking you around one side of the hill.

I had wanted to hire kayaks or paddle boards to go over the island in the bay (there is also a regular boat for the less adventurous) but we didn’t get around to it. Kayaks can be hired on Ondaretta beach, for about €7 per hour.

As we stayed in an apartment next to Zurriola we made Ni Neu (Avenida de Zurriola 1; 34-943-003-162), under the conference centre  Kursaal, our local, stopping each day for a coffee con hielo (an espresso served with a glass containing a few ice cubes to make your own iced coffee – one of my favourite things on a hot day). We didn’t eat there but the restaurant had a good write up in the New York Times and the food looked delicious.

One evening we tried Narru, it’s sister restaurant set back from La Concha (Calle de Zubieta 56; 34-943-423-349), which has. 28euro 3 course during the day and serves a la carte in the evening. The meat is tender and rich – try the suckling lamb or pig, a couple of Spain’s specialities, or their Iberian Secret which is served wit basque apples. Dinner for three (including wine) was 150 euros.

Michelin Starred Arzak which is one of the top few restaurants of the year should be booked ahead. We didn’t manage it but I’ve heard numerous accounts of wonderful food.

The New York Times 36 hours article on San Sebastian suggests avoiding the cheesy beachfront discos but we had a great night at Bataplan on the beach where we were served gin and tonic in pint glasses. Admittedly the clientele were young and the music thumping but buoyant nonetheless.  We tried out the NYT suggested  Ondarra (Avenida de Zurriola 16) just behind Zurriola beach. Starting out on the terrace is ideal and the  moving down to the cosy spanish filled club, 16 bis. We happened to arrive on a jam night and which have us a mix of rock and some great entertainment.

On our last night we went to another recommended restaurant in the old town: Bodegón Alejandro (Calle de Fermín Calbetón 4; 34-943-427-158) which takes you down a staircase away from the hustle and bustle to a calm restaurant in keeping with Basque traditions. We opted for the six-course tasting menu and matching wines, amazingly cheap at 60 euros and were not disappointed. My favourite course was the squid stuffed to ate on a bed of risotto infused with cuttlefish oil and Idiazábal cheese.

It’s also possible to get to Bilbao by bus, which although not my favourite place in the world is worth the trip to see the Gugenheim alone.

San Sebastian is a hidden gem and in my top five destinations. Make sure you get there at some time, it has something for everyone.