San Sebastián, the pearl of the Cantabrian. The city widely regarded as the most refined in Spain’s often rugged North, and a place that has really taken care of itself over the years, maybe thanks in part to the fact that this was the beloved spa retreat of the Spanish royals at the end of the 19th century.
This city of 190,000 inhabitants owes much of its charm to a sense of prettiness that will make even the most hard-hearted of visitors swoon while taking a stroll down the Miraconcha promenade alongside the emblematic Concha beach. Anybody who is anybody has taken a conspicuous stroll through this particular part of town at one time or another and, as the Financial Times recently pointed out, this is the most expensive place in Spain to buy a house.
La Concha is a traditional meeting point for San Sebastian locals. At one end, the beach connects with the Casco Vieja (old town), where highlights include the Plaza de la Constitución, the church of San Vicente and the Calle 31 de Agosto. This part of town is a particularly good place to try out some pintxos, the traditional Basque snack beloved of neighbourhood bars and haute cuisine devotees alike, and consisting of tiny nibbles of tapas on slices of thick, crusty bread.
It is also worth visiting the English Cemetery for a reminder of the time when the Basque Country was the jumping-off point for some of the world’s most famous mariners – the admiral Blas de Lezo (the man who thwarted English expansion into South America) and Juan Sebastian Elcano (the first man to circumnavigate the globe) among them. The cemetery is on Monte Urgull, the 123m hill that sits pleasantly on the seafront at the heart of the city, and contains the remains of many of the combatants from the great naval battle fought between the English and French just off the coast of San Sebastian during the Napoleonic Wars (known in Spain as the Guerra de Independencia).
The neighbourhood of Gros
Just next to the old town is the neighbourhood of Gros, reached by heading away from the Concha and crossing a bridge over the river Urumea. This area of the city has enjoyed something of a revival in its fortunes since the widening of its beach in the 1990s, and is now considered the youngest and hippest part of town. The beach here, ‘La Zurriola’, is the hangout of choice for surfers and in-the-know visitors.
Thanks to the regeneration of the area, Gros’ culinary offer has swollen to match that of its well-heeled neighbour the Casco Viejo. Our friend Fernando recommends La Guinda as a modern restaurant with a good menú del día, the Ondarra and La Consentida as places for a drink and a nibble, and Bar Zabaleta, a traditional bar to try the tortilla de patatas and chipirones. Across the river in the old town, try La Viña for its famous cheesecake. Of course, if you want something a bit more flash, San Sebastian has Michellin stars to spare estrellas Michelin: try the classic Arzak or new kid on the block Mugaritz.
Further to the west, the city’s limit is marked by the Playa de Ondarreta beach and Mount Igeldo. In Ondarreta we recommend visiting palacio de Miramar, with its fantastic views over the city and pristine gardens. The rocky, headland at Peine de los Vientos is a good place to have a quiet moment watching the waves among works by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
For those nostalgic hearts among us, take the funicular (€3.10 return) up to the hundred year old theme park on Mount Igeldo. The sound of the wooden rollercoaster wheels alongside the views over beautiful San Sebastian bay make this one of the world’s most spectacular rides.
The 10 best places to stay in San Sebastián, via The Guardian
Cover photo: Flickr / Yusaini Usulludin
Other phots: Flickr / Visitingeu
Flickr / Manuel Delgado Tenorio