San Sebastián is a gem off the northern coast of Spain – a seaside escape, foodie paradise, and charming historic city all melted into one. After spending a few days in Barcelona and another couple of days in the Spanish countryside, EZ, GS, NR, and I passed through hours of stunning scenery in our rental car before finally reaching this picturesque little town.
We entered San Sebastián through Centro Romántico,the newer part of the city. While Centro Romántico still possessed a captivating turn-of the-century aura with its stately architecture, I was surprised by how modern it felt. Rows of popular retail stores and other city staples lined the floor level to make up a bustling commercial and shopping district. Still, the contemporary culture was kept clean and compact, with none of the Big City grime and grit. And a hint of the salty sea laced the air.
A public bus chugged by, touting free Wi-Fi, and we whipped out our phones to try and catch some internet. We scoured the streets for parking near our Airbnb lodging and finally settled on a temporary underground spot beneath a market.
Our Airbnb lodging looked like it was sponsored by IKEA –all black and white with red accents, clean lines and basic geometry. The cylindrical bathroom with circular mirrors seemed futuristic, like some portal that would beam you up. The lodging was advertised as a “beach cave,” and now we could see why – not only was it minutes from the beach, but it was partially underground…which meant that when we turned off all the brilliant white lights, everything was cloaked in pitch-blackness. It was a pretty cool space with decent amenities, but it seemed to lack true personality, somehow. And I’m not sure I was entirely comfortable with cave living. Perhaps a treehouse would suit me better…
After we got settled in and the boys moved our rental car to a less costly parking spot, we got ready for our first night of foodie heaven in San Sebastián. You see, San Sebastián is world-renowned for its mouthwatering cuisine; many of its restaurants glitter with Michelin stars, granting San Sebastián the notable distinction of holding the second-highest Michelin stars per capita in the world. The city is particularly famous for its pintxos, which are small plates (or tapas) in the Basque tradition.
Side note – San Sebastián is located in the Basque region of Spain; the Basques are an indigenous ethnic group that inhabits this region, and they tend to overzealously employ the letter “X” in Basque language…hence, “pintxos.” The letters “TX” together make the “CH” sound, so “pintxos” is pronounced “pinchos.”
Our group set out into the cobblestone alleyways of San Sebastián’s Parte Vieja (Old Town), where most of the popular pintxos bars lay in wait for us. We were lucky to have visited during the off-season, so we didn’t have to contend with massive crowds of tourists. Most of the tourists that were there seemed to be European, especially French, as San Sebastián is a mere 12 miles from the French border.
We strolled from bar to bar in the mild night air. Among our epicurean stops were Zeruko, Borda Berri, and Atari, plus a handful of others whose names I’ve forgotten. At each place, we ordered beer or wine, accompanied by an assortment of pintxos for sharing. Many of these pintxos were divinely crafted, with unexpected pairings of ingredients. I don’t even know how to begin to describe them, so I’ll let the photos do the talking.
To our pleasant surprise, our gourmet gastronomic fare was actually quite affordable. These same dishes in America would have cost a small fortune!
NR and I followed up our parade of pintxos with dessert – cheesecake for her, and chocolate soufflé for me! Yum…
After such a feast, our group needed to “walk it off.” We wandered around Old Town a bit and admired the architecture. NR felt an empty plaza beckon to her – so, of course, she immediately frolicked into the center of it.
We continued walking until we found ourselves overlooking the beach. The dark waters ebbed and flowed with a gentle shushing sound, circled by a string of golden lights from the shoreline. Our eyelids begin to droop.
Soon, we headed back to our lodging and got ready for bed. We looked forward to seeing the beach in its full glory the next day.
Remember I mentioned how pitch-black our “cave” lodging became when the lights were off? Well, this deep darkness caused our group to oversleep the next morning, since it still looked like night when we first opened our eyes. By the time we realized the deception of the dark, the clock had already struck noon.
Luckily, San Sebastián was not so much a city for sight-seeing as it was an escape for leisure. So we didn’t have to rush to a museum or landmark. Instead, we took our time getting ready and ambled down to a little café, where we enjoyed some ravioli and pintxos on the sunny patio.
We also enjoyed reading a certain item that was “lost in translation” on the menu…see if you can spot it! Definitely chuckle-worthy.
After lunch, our group continued to walk around the city, taking in the gorgeous canal and pristine streets.
We made our way to Playa de Gros, also known as Zurriola beach, which is bookended by two lush, green hills. Nestled against the hill on the left (Mount Ulía) were a cluster of buildings, including the Kursaal Conference Centre, along with a striking peninsula of large, cubic rocks.
Zurriola beach is claimed by the locals, who love to surf its waters and sunbathe upon its sands. I did a double-take as I realized that most of the sunbathers were topless…and that most of these topless sunbathers were older women! How nice, to have such a positive body image at all ages and in all shapes…
Our group was drawn like magnets to the large cubic rocks, which looked so bizarre and interesting against the natural landscape…it was as though we had stumbled upon some alien terrain.
We continued our exploration in a nearby neighborhood, where EZ was accosted by a weird girl in a white mask. She was a part of a group of masked girls engaging in performance art on the sidewalk, hugging strangers and pantomiming indecipherable messages.
Once past the crew of masked misfits, we popped into a “Made in China” store (a small shop crammed with all sorts of plastic items). Since my sunglasses had fallen down a well in Parc Guell back in Barcelona, I bought a pair of cheap “Ru-Bu” sunglasses (Ray-Ban knockoffs) to tide me over for the rest of the trip. We passed some more stores, including an adorable chorizo shop, and stopped by a market to pick up some cherries.
As we approached the promenade near the other popular beach, Playa de la Concha, we were met with resort hotels, well-marked bike paths, meticulously manicured green spaces, and peculiar-looking trees springing up from the pavement of the plaza (they looked like some strange cousin of the Joshua or yucca tree).
After getting a taste of Playa de la Concha from the promenade, our group decided that this was the beach for us – it was so peaceful and relatively vacant, although it was known to fill up with huge crowds of partying tourists when in season. We headed back to our cave to change into swimsuits and grab towels, then popped into the nearby market to pick up savory puff pastries, thinly sliced salchichon, and wine to go with the cherries we’d already bought.
Playa de la Concha was one of the loveliest beaches I’ve ever seen. The coastline was a perfect, sweeping curve of froth-tipped cerulean sea and silky sand against verdant hills tiered with beautiful buildings. The other side of Mount Ulía was also visible from this vantage point.
We lay down on our towels and just let our worries melt away, sharing the wine and food between us. EZ listened to a podcast on his headphones and I lost myself in a book while GS and NR tanned and napped. At some point, EZ and GS got up and wandered into the ocean for a dip before returning to the warmth of their towels. In the distance, we could hear the sound of exotic percussion as street performers drummed out a rhythm that felt tropical and rousing at first, but then grew repetitive. After a while, I got up and enjoyed a walk along the shore (while EZ, unbeknownst to me, acted as my paparazzi).
After a few sweet hours of relaxation in paradise, our group returned to the lodging to clean up and get ready for another night of fine wining-and-dining. On the way into Old Town, we encountered a beautiful little public garden-park, Plaza de Gipuzkoa. The garden was landscaped with a grassy area, glistening jade pond, clusters of violet and yellow flowers, and an assortment of other fetching plants. Elegant, white swans glided atop the pond. Not one sign of litter or vandalism was in sight, although this garden area was open to all in the middle of a city block.
On the other side of the park, a round patch of yellow flowers doubled as a giant clock. Our group approached this clock at precisely the right time, witnessing with wonder as the big hand shifted left to strike 7:30, sparking a flurry of bell tolls. Upon further inspection, we learned the temple-shaped structure behind the flower-clock acted as a weather station.
We continued onward as our stomachs began to grumble. Our first foodie stop for the night was actually not a pintxo place, but a San Sebastián staple we’d been eying with temptation the night before: Bar Nestor, known for its txuleta (beef chops) and tomato salad. We ordered both, along with a plate of smoked peppers and some wine. The server came to our table holding two cuts of raw meat and asked which one we wanted. We pointed, he nodded, and that was that. EZ, who was so famished he couldn’t wait for the food to be prepared, slipped away to a nearby kabob stand for a quick “snack” (he can’t resist kabob). But when he returned to Bar Nestor and our shareable meal arrived, he still managed to show a healthy appetite.
The food was delicious and, again, quite reasonably priced. Because we were a bit full, our next few stops were for wine, sans the pintxos. At A Fuego Negro, we enjoyed a few drinks amid an artsy, rocker ambiance. A red-hot neon sign glowed on the back brick wall; one side-wall was papered with posters for rock bands, while the other side-wall featured framed drawings of pintxos rendered as famous monsters (like Slimer from Ghostbusters).
As we continued to walk through Old Town in search of our next stop, we came upon a strange piece of modern artwork installed on a historic church. The looping, milky-white creation looked out of place against the old stone of the church. EZ was mesmerized by it. He stood gazing at the art piece (called “The Harmony of Sound”) for a few minutes in contemplation before snapping some photos.
Our group capped off the night by walking into a completely empty dance club and tearing it up on the floor. Nearly all of the songs were current American chart-toppers, with a few Latin-pop hits thrown in for good measure. GS bust out his professional ballroom dance moves while the rest of us tried to keep up. Neon green flecks of light swirled across the walls as we all two-stepped and waltzed and twirled and dipped. The bartender watched us warily, cleaning a glass with a towel.
Finally, once we were all worn out and the club was shutting down, we made our way back to the cave. It had been a fantastic day in San Sebastián. And early tomorrow morning, we would be en route to Bilbao!
To be continued…
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