Beyond the beach you’ll find surf favourite San Sebastian is also home to cracking festivals, sublime snacks, San Sebstian cider and a whole lot more.
Beaches and surf are what first springs to mind when San Sebastian is mentioned and the northern Spanish city, overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, has plenty to boast about in those departments – La Concha is regularly labelled Europe’s best city beach, while Zuriola is the stuff of legend among serious surfers and fans.
Bronzed beauties and boards aside, there’s far more to San Sebastian than simply hanging out half naked. As unbelievable as it may sound, this is one town where keeping your clothes on is as much fun as whipping them off. Well, almost.
With food, culture and after-dark scenes to match just about any other small city on the continent, it’s no surprise this coastal getaway has been handed the European Capital of Culture crown for 2016. It’s the perfect time to discover the town with beaches to rival those in Rio De Janeiro.
A Spain in the arse
First things first, careful who you call Spanish. San Sebastian is in the heart of Basque country, the western Pyrenees region that straddles the border with France and includes the likes of Pamplona, Bilbao and Biarritz. Similar to the Catalans over in Barcelona, it’s an area where people are passionately proud of their own language and culture, while harbouring a general desire to be separate from Spain.
Many San Sebastian locals, or donostiarras as they’re known, would say they share more with their Basque brothers in French towns like Biarritz than their colonial overlords in the Spanish capital Madrid. Locals speak Spanish but prefer to banter in Basque. If you’re keen to learn the basics and earn some solidarity high fives, just remember the golden rule – every word needs to contain at least one ‘x’.
However, one similarity to the Spanish that even the most diehard separatist couldn’t deny is that San Sebastian loves a fiesta. Time your visit to coincide with one of the city’s many annual festivals and you’ll come across plenty of the old traditions – from pelota games (basically outdoors squash) to stone throwing contests (ouch), via drumming and period dress wearing, all accompanied with copious amounts of cider. Try to catch the fishing boat regattas on the first two Sundays in September, plus the Fair of Santo Tomas, on December 21. A word of caution - if you end up visiting in January, you might want to book a hostel or hotel out of the old town. It's home to Spain’s loudest festival, the 24 hour La Tamborrada. The festival takes place every year on the 20 January at the Plaza de la Constitution. Once the mayor raises the flag, drums are played for 24 hours non stop. You have been warned.
Basque in the glory
If A-list celebrities are more your thing, make sure you’re in town for one of Europe’s most glamorous cinematic feasts – the San Sebastian International Film Festival. Widely considered the biggest movie event in the Spanish-speaking world, the festival has hosted the European premieres for big-hitters as varied as Star Wars and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
It’s back for its 64th year, from September 16-24, with a guaranteed outstanding line-up.
San Sebastian is a magnet to the sort of sweeping, exaggerated statements which are normally written off as marketing talk or lazy journalism. The difference with this Basque beauty, however, is that it beats the easy hype. The beaches really are that good. And the film festival truly is damn cool. But here’s a third one for you, the biggest of the lot: San Sebastian is the best place to eat in Europe.
There, it’s said. We know, it sounds ridiculous, but here are the facts. For starters, check out any list of the world’s top restaurants. Keep your eyes to the skies and you’ll likely spot Donostia (the town’s Basque name) eateries Arzak and Mugaritz in the top 10. Better yet, forget Tokyo or Paris, if you’re after the city with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world, look no further than here.
But so what, we hear you cry. What if you don’t want to cripple your credit card on a meal that will probably leave you hungry? Well, the best bit about eating out in San Sebastian is that it actually makes no sense to spend a fortune on the top restaurants – the cheap stuff is just so good. The local delicacy – pintxos – cost around £2.00 each and can be found on just about every street corner.
Basically the Basque version of tapas, pintxos (spot the ‘x’) are more often than not small pieces of bread generally topped with mushrooms, cheese or seafood, as well as a scrumptious sauce. From classic staples like tortilla to more decadent dining experiences, such as spider crab tarts or braised pig’s ears, pintxos tick every box on the holiday eating wishlist – delicious, reasonably priced and unique.
So make like a local and hop from bar to bar, gorging on pintxos while washing them down with txakoli, the local fizzy green wine.
It can be a little daunting as these places are busy and loud, especially as the work crowds’ escape and get ready to party. A great way to navigate from one place to another and make sure that you don’t miss some of the best things like San Sebastian cider, is to book a pintxo tasting tour with the San Sebastian Food company.
If you’re not sure where to go to satisfy your alcoholic appetites, a good bet is always to head into the Parte Vieja, San Sebastian’s characterful old town.
Some claim these atmospheric alleys are home to more bars per square metre than anywhere else in the world, but a lot of places make that claim. What matters is that you’ll find the lively little lanes packed with people grazing on pintxos and chugging the region’s best beverages, wine, cider and gin cocktails. Calle Fermin Calbeton is often the liveliest street, with many drinkers hanging around waiting for the all-nighter train.
It’s easy to escape the boozy buzz for those wanting to find something more romantically charming. Either way, in typical Iberian style, don’t expect the action to really get going until the early hours, so try not to hit your first bar before 10pm.