San Sebastian, Spain
... throughout the meal people yell “TXOTX!” This is a signal to get thee to the barrel room where you fill your cup from spigots that shoot the cider 5+ feet out of one of the barrels that is the size of a car. I’m not making this up. Sound fun? It is.
- More about your oliver guide: Cully Wiginton
- Trip type: Family, Beach
- Activity level: easy
- Ideal length of trip: FIVE DAYS TO A WEEK IS PROBABLY A GOOD SWEET SPOT TO RELAX AND SOAK UP THE CULTURE.IF YOU ARE SPRINTING AROUND EUROPE, YOU CAN "SEE" MOST OF SAN SEBASTIAN IN TWO DAYS. WE WERE ON AN EXTENDED TRIP AND STAYED FOR A MONTH AND COULD HAVE STAYED MUCH LONGER!
to & from
- The closest major airports are Bilbao, Spain and Biarritz, France. We flew into Bilbao and had a car service take us to San Sebastian (about $200 US).
- San Sebastian is a very walkable city and a rental car is not needed/advised, unless you want one for excursions to other nearby towns/areas.
Where to Stay
- I highly recommend the Old Town or City Center/Area Romantica in terms of location. Both are conveniently located in between the two main beaches: Playa de la Concha and Playa de la Zurriola.
- We stayed in an airbnb in Old Town, which was wonderful and just a block away from the pedestrian area with its endless array of pintxo bars.
- Staying near the beachfront in Playa de la Concha would also be great.
- Staying beachfront in the Gros area also puts you right on an amazing beach with awesome surf, but the restaurants and shopping are a little less spectacular in this area.
Where to Eat and Drink
The food scene in San Sebastian is amazing. An often quoted factoid is that San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world, but you could never set foot in one of those establishments and still eat like a king. Basque food is its own unique beast, and at the heart of the cuisine is the Pintxo – the local version of tapas, served at the many pintxo bars and restaurants in this town.
Locals rarely spend a day without at least one trip to a pintxo bar, to socialize with friends, grab a quick snack or meal, and take a break from the day. While you are there you should do the same! The program can be a little daunting at first, but even those with little command of Spanish can get by fairly easily (English is pretty prevalent):
- First, you start by either grabbing a plate off the bar or asking a bartender for one.
- Next, start loading your plate from the cornucopia of options laid before you on the bar.
- You then get the attention of a bartender to: (A) show your plate so he can make a mental tab of what you’ve eaten, (B) order any hot pintxos from the menu board (don’t neglect these – they’re great), and (C) order your drink of choice.
- Finally: Eat. Imbibe. Move to the next Pintxo bar. Repeat. The pintxo options are endlessly varied in this town!
While the pintxo bars are the heart of San Sebastian dining, there are also many sit down restaurants as well. Reservations are common, especially for those of the Michelin-starred variety.
Another can’t miss experience while in town is a visit to one of the many Sidrerias that sit just outside of San Sebastian. These cider-houses have centuries of experience making giant barrels of alcoholic cider for both seafarers and tourists alike. The program involves a set menu multi-course meal: an omelette, salt cod, sauteed peppers and onions, and a giant bone-in, blood-rare steak. Seating is generally family-style, and throughout the meal people yell “TXOTX!” This is a signal to get thee to the barrel room where you fill your cup from spigots that shoot the cider 5+ feet out of one of the barrels that is the size of a car. I’m not making this up. Sound fun? It is. Peak sidreria festivities happen in the spring, but there are many that are open year round and even have transportation included from the center of town. This is the one we visited, Petritegi Sagardotegia.
Also not to be missed while in town is Txakoli, an almost effervescent white wine that is a delicacy in these parts and grown in the surrounding hills. Watch the bartenders pour your glass from a good 2 feet above your glass – it is an impressive skill! We didn’t make it out to a winery, but heard that these tours are also fun.
Finally, a trip to Spain would not be complete without sampling the Iberico ham, which is an amazing cured pork product that is not to be missed.
- La Cuchara De San Telmo - the braised beef cheeks are a highlight.
- Bar Sport - classic pinxto bar.
- Gandarias Jatetxea - steak is the specialty here.
- San Marcial - very old school, hearty meals, filled with locals.
- Atari Gastroteka - hip spot with outdoor seating, cocktails (not super common) and amazing food. Don't miss the giant octopus leg!
- Arzak - unfortunately, we couldn't swing it. But if you can get a reservation, this is one of the great restaurants in the world.
What to Do
- Playa de La Concha - probably the more famous of the two beaches in town. This one is sheltered and has tiny waves that are pretty easy for kids to navigate. The surface area of the beach changes by a factor of 4 or 5 based on whether the tide, so make note if the tide is coming in so your prime time spot doesn't go underwater.
- Playa Zurriola - this is the bigger of the two beaches, and being less protected has a pretty big swell that is great for surfing. Pukas Surf is just across the road and has rentals and does lessons. There are also a few outfits right on the beach.
- Cooking Class and/or Pintxo Tours through basquebites.com - we took a cooking class with Gregory Schaeffer, an American ex-pat living in San Sebastian, and it was a hoot. Very fun and interesting guy, and we had a great time making Basque specialties together. He also does pinxto tours, which some friends did and loved. Highly recommended!
- Spanish classes - depending on how long you are in town, we enjoyed taking Spanish classes at El Aula Azul. Centrally located, and a very friendly staff!
- Mount Igueldo / Amusement Park - If you want a different kid-friendly activity, you can take the funicular up Mount Igueldo and then do some of the rides at the amusement park at the top. It's no Disneyland and it keeps odd hours, but there are great views back towards La Concha and it is a fun little excursion for the kids.
- Urgull - It's just a moderate little hike up this hill to great views of the city. We did it with a 7 and 5 year old, no problem. If you want less climbing, take a stroll around the peninsula for great views.
- Hondarribia - quaint little Basque town with that is about a 45 minute bus ride away. Fun on Sundays when the whole town comes out for lunch on the main street. You can see France from the pier.
- Rioja - wine country is about 1.5 hours away driving. La Rioja Alta is a great winery in Haro, and there are also several other top wineries in walking distance.
- Bilbao - the town itself was a bit underwhelming after San Sebastian, but the museum is an amazing work of art and a must-see for art and/or architecture lovers. We spent a few hours there before catching our flight out.
Pinxto bars with kids? – The thought of pintxo bars can be a little daunting with kids. While kids are welcome at any of these establishments, we figured out a program that worked well for our family in the evenings in the Old Town:
- Feed the kids at an earlier hour at the apartment -or- take them for a slice of pizza or a sandwich. Although the meal times here start a little later than we are accustomed to in the U.S., it is nothing like the late start times of Southern Spain.
- We would feed the kids around 6:30 and then head to the pintxo bars with kids fed and in tow around 7:30 or 8pm. If a sit-down table is not available at the pintxo bar (many of them have few to none), grab a standing table outside on the pedestrian street.
- Our kids had lots of fun running around the street or playing with trinkets we picked up at one of the little dollar stores while we stood and ate and had a glass of wine.
- Afterwards we would all grab ice cream at one of the many spots in the Old Town.
- Pintxo Pote - Thursday nights many bars have a drink and a pintxo combo for 2 Euros (yes, two Euros!). The Gros area is a little less touristy and is a particularly happening epicenter for this party. Join all the locals and try one of the deals at the many pintxo bars in that area. Extra bonus, there's also a pretty big playground in the area for the kids to run around.
- Grocery store - the Super Amara in the Mercado San Martin is by far the best grocery store we found while in Spain. Recommended if stocking up an apartment.
- Jazz Festival - for music lovers, the jazz festival in July is a great event with tons of good music. Headliners play free shows right on Playa Zurriola.