San Sebastián – A great weekend getaway
I’ve always had a certain attraction to Spain. I have been to Mallorca several times as a kid and studied Spanish in school. But I haven’t really seen that much more of Spain actually. Two years ago I went on a solo trip to Málaga which was great. This spring it was time to try the northern part of the country with San Sebastián and its famous pintxos.
The people in the area don’t really refer to themselves as Spanish, but Basques. Donostia (which is the Basque name of the city) is part of the Basque country. The Basque country is home for the Basque people and is a large cultural region. It has a long interesting history of wars and revolutions. The people here work hard to keep their Basque identity and preserve their culture. The television is in Basque and the kids are learning it in school and so on. The Basque country also refers to the autonomous community which is part of the bigger region.
San Sebastián is the third biggest city in the Basque Country and the 18th biggest in Spain with 393 000 people (source). It lies in the northern parts of Spain, very close to the French border. It is located in a bay surrounded by mountains and has beautiful beaches. The city is divided into different neighbourhoods with the most popular ones called the Old town, Centro and Gros. And of course the beautiful beach called La Concha.
The Old town
As the name says and similar to many other cities this is the old part of the town. This is also where most of the pintxo bars are. I was staying at an Airbnb here and I thought it was very good to stay in the centre close to the bars. But if you are a light sleeper and easily get disturbed by noises, I’d recommend staying somewhere else, the houses are old with thin walls, and the bars are open long in to the night.
San Sebastián is actually a pretty modern city. In the part of the town called Centro you’ll find a walking street with many shops like Zara, Stradivarius and so on. There are also some shopping centres and small parks.
Gros is just across the river from Old town and has become the hip place to hang out in. Here is another beautiful beach, popular for surfers, and of course some pintxo bars.
And of course along La Concha bay we have La Concha beach. People come here to sunbathe, swim in the ocean, walk with their dogs and just hang out. Along the beach there’s a nice promenade and lots of things to look at.
The culinary capital of Spain
For many years the city of San Sebastián has attracted foodies from all over the world. It actually has the highest concentration of Michelin restaurants in the world. The history of cooking in the area is very big and it shows. With all the fine dining restaurants and hundreds of pintxos bars you will never go hungry in this city. The food culture is really strong in this region.
But that isn’t all, there also are many Gastronomy Clubs in the city. Historically the clubs were secret, exclusive and very hard to join. Some of the clubs were so exclusive the membership had to be inherited from father to son, or bought after approval from all the members of the club. And yes, traditionally it was a men’s club only. During the meetings the men would meet in someone’s kitchen and cook food and eat together. Nowadays some of the clubs have opened up for women to join too, but some still have the men’s only rule. As a tourist it’s very hard to get in to these secret clubs, but there are some companies that offers tours to them.
Tapas and Pintxos are not the same thing
This is very important! For the inexperienced, like me, I thought it was kinda the same thing, but really it’s a big difference. Tapas is big in other parts of Spain and it’s this cuisine that I feel has spread to other countries.
Tapas in normally something you share with friends for dinner. You order a number of plates with different food, normally a selection of hams, cheese and much more and share it sitting down for dinner. Pintxos on the order hand I would like to describe as a small dish. The ingredients are carefully composed to enhance each other for the best flavour experience, normally on a base of bread and put together with a toothpick. The pintxos are displayed on the bar so it looks like a buffet.
So, how do you eat the pintxos? For tourists the most common way to eat is just like a buffet. First you go up to the bar and ask for a plate. You then pick the pintxos you think look good and want to eat and head to the register. Then you just tell the bartender what you want to drink and pay for everything. Normally the pintxos costs the same thing on a range from 1,5-3 euros. Don’t forget to check the menu for the warm pintxos that aren’t displayed, only the cold pintxos are on the bar.
But, according to the guide I had the tourists are all doing it “wrong”. Of course you can do however you want, but the San Sebastián people go to the bar, grab a glass of wine and a pintxo to go with it. The culture in Basque Country says it’s not really okey to drink alcohol without any food. So they go out for a drink of wine, have a pintxos and eat and drink standing by the bar or the tables outside. After this, they go out to meet their friends and family for dinner at a restaurant.
On my first night in the city I visited the popular pintxos bar and restaurant Atari. This lies next to Basílica de Santa María del Coro. At first I was a bit confused on how to do, but I saw how everyone else was doing it so I made my way to the bar and grabbed a plate. It was a lot of people there so I did like everyone else and ate my tapas on the stairs to the basilica like many other guests.
Take a food tour!
I recommend taking a food tour when you are in this famous culinary city. There are tours that combine history walks and food tasting at the pintxo bars and tours that take you to good restaurants so you can learn how to cook. I took a very good tour through Airbnb. First I got to know some history about the city and then we walked to five different pintxo bars. At every bar the guide chose a special pintxo and combined it with the right drink so the flavours would come to its right. It was a bit awkward at first since it was just me and the guide, I wanted to take a tour to meet some people, but no one else showed up.
But the tour was very good though, the food was nice and I tried some stuff I never would have bought myself. I learnt that you should eat your pintxo standing and leaning a bit forward so you don’t mess up your shirt. Many bars look a bit dirty with receipts and napkins on the floor, but that’s actually intentional. The guests just leave their waste on the floor – this shows it’s a popular bar!
Which pintxo bar is the best?
Are you wondering which pintxo bar to go to? Well, there are pintxo bars all over the old town so just walk around and take one you think look good. Some of the bars are really popular cause they have gotten good reviews in travel guides. And of course they are really good, but in some cases the bar just across the street is just as good – it just wasn’t the bar the food critic visited.
I think San Sebastián is a very good location for a weekend getaway. You get the culture, the good food, the beach, the views and also some shopping if you’re in to that. The town is very modern but with the special culture very present. It’s a cosy little town and I really recommend a visit. More tips on what to do, and what I did when I was there for three days, you can read about in my previous post Things to do in San Sebastián.
The easiest way to get to San Sebastián is go fly to Bilbao or Biarritz in France. I flew to Bilbao, and from there I took a bus to San Sebastián. The bus takes around 75 minutes and departs just outside the airport. Everything was very easy and the bus arrives in the middle of town. Read more here.