After the Spanish royal family declared San Sebastián their summer home, the Basque city became a major destination for the arts, gastronomy, and festivals. Plan ahead to get in on the action from April to July
by Nubia DuVall Wilson
If someone were to ask which city in the world has the most Michelin stars per square mile, it’s likely one in Spain would not top the list. Well, San Sebastián not only owns that distinction (with 16 stars), but is also home to two of the world’s best restaurants (Arzak and Mugaritz). Travelers visit year-round to also experience its white sand beaches, culture, and shopping. And, aside from its culinary fame, world-renowned fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga was born here.
This northern coastal city is 12 miles from France’s border, and lies in the Basque Country to the west of the Pyrenees Mountains. Within the Country are three provinces—San Sebastián is the capital of the smallest, Gipuzkoa, where Queen María Cristina of Spain fell in love with La Concha beach at the end of the 19th century, declared the city the summer capitol of Europe, and moved the Court there from June through August.
Know Before You Go
This resort city of 186,126 has mild weather all year long, but the best time to visit is from late spring to mid-summer, which avoids Europe’s overcrowded tourism season in August. Perfect beach weather begins in July (the driest month of the year), with temperatures reaching the 80s on average. Basque and Spanish are the local languages (but English is spoken everywhere), and soldiering through a few Basque phrases like kaixo (“hello”) and eskerrik asko (“thank you”) will yield bonus points. The smart urban layout and short distances between major attractions make getting around on foot a breeze, with bike-friendly lanes and promenades hugging the beaches.
The city is divided into four main areas, punctuated by multiple bridges across the Urumea River. Lively Parte Vieja (Old Town) lies across the neck of Monte Urgull, Concha Bay’s eastern headland, which is where the most popular pintxo (tapas) bars are located. Further south is the commercial and shopping district Área Romántica, where late 19thcentury buildings rise behind Concha Beach. Ondarreta is a high-end district known as “Millionaires’ Belt” because of its posh homes, and on the east side of the river is the Gros district.
Where To Stay
Hotel Maria Cristina,
There are a handful of luxury hotels in the city, including this five-star gem, part of the Starwood Luxury Collection. The landmark hotel opened in 1912 as an impressive Belle Époque building filled with marble and chandeliers. It is situated in the historic city center and overlooks the river, just a short walk from Concha Beach. There are 136 rooms, three restaurants and lounges, private car services, outdoor terrace suites, and the Hydra Wellness Center & Spa specializing in hydrotherapy. Its new San Sebastián Food Cooking School offers a wide range of classes and workshops for guests and locals. We suggest the Bette Davis Suite, which honors the famed actress. (She stayed in the room during the city’s 1989 International Film Festival where she received an award.) Iconic photos of Davis adorn the walls of the 840-squarefoot modern accommodation, which also offers guests her film collection.
Hotel de Londres y De Inglaterra
A luxury boutique hotel in a historic building in the city center, this beachfront property is more than 100 years old. There are two restaurants: La Brasserie Mari Galant, which specializes in seafood, and Bar Swing next to La Concha Bay, with terrace seating and casual fare. Upper floor accommodations include balconies, and luxury suites are available, including the Mata Hari, named after the exotic Dutch dancer who stayed there in 1916 and with décor inspired by her, expansive views of the bay, a large living room, marble bathroom, and king bedroom.
Villa Soro, villasoro.es/en $$
One of the most sought-after lodgings owing to its idyllic 19th-century country house architecture and an ideal, peaceful location within walking distance from Old Town and Zurriola Beach. With only 25 rooms, the recently renovated boutique hotel has the qualities of a luxury accommodation, matched with old world charm. Choose from deluxe villa rooms with courtyard views, terraces, or private patios in the main building. Services and amenities include complimentary beach towels, bicycles, a fully equipped gym, airport transfers, and a restaurant and bar. It is surrounded by some of the city’s best dining options, too, including Michel instarred Arzak.
Molecular gastronomy is an art in San Sebastián in both conception and research—the city seeks the world’s best ingredients and indulges a passion for experiential cuisine. Three of the seven three-Michelin-star restaurants (the highest rating) in Spain are here, though we recommend making just about any reservations well in advance of your trip.
Arzak, arzak.info $$$$
Rooted in history, the restaurant was first built in 1897 by the Arzak family as the local village’s wine cellar and tavern. Now more than 100 years later, the three-star Michelin restaurant has made a name for itself on a global scale by serving multisensory meals in a relaxed environment, with Chef Juan Mari and his daughter Elena applying modern techniques to traditional Basque cuisine. A tasting menu might include rockfish mousse wrapped in fried noodles, a shot of apple-laced red bean soup, and spears of anchovies with strawberries containing highly concentrated berry flavor.
Akelare, akelarre.net $$$$
Akelare is member of Relais & Chateaux, a global network of restaurants established in France in 1954 that offers patrons the best in the culinary arts. Helmed by Chef Subijana, the 35-year-old destination is located on the side of Mount Igueldo, offering picturesque views of Biscay Bay from its floor-to-ceiling windows. These grand vistas pale in comparison to the innovation on the table, however, with plates like “porous” foiegras that melts in your mouth and “mackerel burgers” that resemble macaroons.
Mugaritz, mugaritz.com $$$$
Surrounded by a beautiful mountainside and forest on the outskirts of town (well worth the thirty-minute taxi ride), this two star eatery is owned by world-renowned chef Andoni Luis Adurizis, and offers a gastronomic voyage with 24 modern seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes influenced by traditional Basque cuisine. Past entrees include lobster wrapped in sprouted chia seeds and duck neck-wrapped herbs served in a special platter carved out of wood.
A visit to San Sebastián is incomplete without savoring pintxos, or skewered snacks. Originally a slice of baguette piled with food of any kind and held in place with a cocktail stick, these Basque tapas have evolved into miniature haute cuisine. Also set aside time to bar crawl in Old Town at places like Bar La Cepa and Bartolo. For a Mediterranean fusion experience, go to Mil Catas next to Zurriola beach; drink like a local and order a glass of Txakoli (pronounced “chock-oh-lee”), a fizzy, fruity white wine poured into a tumbler from a dramatic height.
City and sea meet in perfect harmony in San Sebastián, which has three beaches to choose from along the Concha Bay, the most famous being La Concha (named after its shell shape). Across the mile-long beach, sunbathers take in views of nearby mountains and the calm turquoise water of the sheltered bay. Near Palacio Miramar Gardens is Ondaretta, a slightly smaller and quieter beach that is popular with families. Surfers and local youngsters frequent Zurriola in the Gros district for bigger waves. Santa Clara Island, barely 100 feet long, is accessible by jetty from the city harbor. This quaint sandy strip has a bar, terrace, and natural seawater swimming pool. Access is available by boat every 30 minutes from the harbor.
Capital of Culture
Europe actually awarded the seaside city this impressive status for 2016, and it’s easy to see why, with San Sebastián’s year-round festivals, multiple museums, centuries-old architecture, performance spaces, art galleries…even horse racing. Most recently came the Tabakalera, the International Centre for Contemporary Culture, which showcases film and art and offers workshops and interactive series across various disciplines. Music lovers visit in late July for the International Jazz Festival by the sea, which this year will include singers Diana Krall, Gloria Gaynor, and Branford Marsalis. In September the International Film Festival attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees and awards both up-and-coming and established actors and other film professionals from around the world.
Art aficionados and history buffs should check out the San Telmo Museum, housed in a 16th-century building that was formerly a Dominican convent. Its fine art collection is composed of 6,400 paintings, sculptures, and prints from European artists, with a focus on Basque greats.
Just outside of the city is the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum, where one can learn about the master couturier’s critical role in the fashion and design world. Situated in a new annex adjacent to the majestic hilltop villa Palacio Adlamar, the museum houses the most extensive collection of the designer’s creations in the world—more than 1,600 items, featuring donations from avid collectors such as Bunny Mellon, Mona von Bismarck, and Hubert de Givenchy.
Where to shop
Fashionable travelers seeking haute couture will be spoiled for choices in San Sebastián, famed for its luxury boutiques. The main shopping area is in Old Town on Avenida de la Libertad, where you’ll find major international and Spanish brand stores. Stroll along San Martin street and the side streets of Askatasunaren Hinbidea for exclusive shops that offer labels such as Chanel, Gucci, and Armani…or hit the Gros district with its diverse selection of art galleries, antique shops, and stores selling surfer and mountain gear. (San Martin market also offers wide selection of fine local produce.) Typical store hours are from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., then closed for lunch and open again from 4:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.