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Since the world started shuttering its borders just over a year ago, Spain has certainly been on my mind. Living in Portugal, I’ve always taken for granted that a short drive will deliver me to the cities, mountains, beaches and culinary gems of Spain – and if there is one destination that effortlessly encompasses all of those, it’s San Sebastián.
Last summer, when restrictions eased, a few of us instantly jumped in the car and nipped over the border towards Seville. For four hours we feasted on dish upon dish of tapas, before raiding the local markets and stocking the car with our favourite Spanish treats and tipples.
That has been about the extent of my ‘pandemic-time’ tourist trips, but those scant moments diving into a delicious menu, supping on glasses of Rioja, and soaking up the lively Spanish conversation in the background satisfied my craving – temporarily.
Since then, our chats have never strayed far from Spain as we plan our post-pandemic adventures, and the question that keeps cropping up is ‘when are we getting back to the Basque country?’ – always to the obvious answer, as soon as possible.
The star of the Spanish Basque Country is undoubtedly San Sebastián (Donostia in the local Basque language Euskara) and it’s hard not to fall under its spell. A city-break can rarely serve up both mountains and beaches, coast and city life so seamlessly, but a weekend in San Sebastián will satisfy all of those cravings and then some.
A culinary hot-spot, visitors swarm to this seaside destination to satisfy their foodie cravings with simple Pintxos (small snacks) or lavish tasting menus. Social clubs here are swapped out for underground communal kitchens, and you’re more likely to go on a bar-crawl for the food than the booze.
More than just being a mecca for those with a good palate though, the Basque Country has a rich and unique culture, and the heritage here is a strong draw. It’s Spain, but with the extra bonuses of all that the Basque Country offers, a region that spans both Spain and France.
The importance of the Basque Country culture is evident in both the local pride and the way it has been protected. Euskara is the oldest language in Europe and is used in day to day life and in the arts, from the tradition of Bertsolaritza (a type of sung poetry slam) to theatre and dance. Perhaps the most simple difference that most tourist will notice though are that tapas is out, and Pintxos are in – and these finger-friendly snacks are reason enough to visit.
Easily accesible from the UK by flight, or ferry from the south of England via nearby Bilbao, it’s the perfect gateaway for a weekend away, or a longer road or train trip through Spain.
So, let’s take a dive into how you can fill a long weekend in San Sebastián, and for those wise enough to stay in the Basque Country for at least a week, a few of my other favourite places in the region you should visit.
Beaches framed by verdant hills and mountains
San Sebastián sits along the Bay of Biscay, and the shimmering waters can turn from blues to greens, to sand-whipped frenzies on a windy day. In the distance, rolling hills turn to verdant mountains, and framing either side of the main beach are green spaces with incredible views.
A city that can boast three urban beaches on its doorstep, a culinary scene hard to rival, and plenty of nature and hiking up mountains or through vineyards, is a rare thing, and likely what continues to make a weekend in San Sebastián so appealing.
The three beaches of San Sebastián all offer soft light golden sands, with La Concha and Ondarreta almost blending into one on the curved bay, broken up by a jutting out green groin in front of the English style Miramar Royal Palace. On the other side of the Urgull hill, sits a third beach, Playa de Zurriola.
Cyclists and joggers run along the boardwalk that links the higher points of Urgull and Igueldo on either side of the bay, whilst the waters and spacious beach provide ample space to swim or sunbathe. The waves aren’t the most dramatic you’ll find in Spain, yet it’s still a fairly popular spot for surfing.
The bay lends itself to most water sports thanks to not being overwhelming, with Kayaks and occasional stand-up paddleboards sighted. For the brave, you can kayak out to the uninhabited island of Santa Clara in the middle of the bay, and enjoy the views from the restaurant there. For the lazier among us, a tourist boat can ferry you over instead.
The port isn’t overbearing or packed with giant mega yachts, which makes it feel far more relaxed and tranquil than the likes of Monaco with its concrete moorings and mega-yachts. Peaceful and serene, the waters and beaches of San Sebastián perfectly compliment the old-town.
On one side of the Bay is Monte Igueldo, a green-clad hill that offers the best views of San Sebastian. Burn off all those Pintxos by climbing the path to the top, or jump on board the red vintage funicular instead, and enjoy the relaxed walk back down.
The sunset is a delight from up here, and there is also a restaurant and souvenir shops that are attached to the amusement park, which is a bit of a novelty and while it may be entertaining for kids, you might want to find your preferred vantage point to enjoy the view away from the noise.
On the other side of the bay is Urgull, a second green hill dotted with trees and old fortress parts, and a castle amongst it. Enjoy the shaded walks around here for great views back down onto the port, and the old town.
Heritage and history around the Old Town
Parte Vieja, the old town of San Sebastián is a delightful and compact mix of Pintxo bar lined streets and shops, and is found between La Concha beach and Playa de Zurriola, with bridges linking the two sides of the town over the river.
Packed into this area are plenty of places to enjoy Basque culture, such as the Victoria Eugenia Antzokia Theatre, or the San Telmo Museum, which is dedicated to Basque culture in all its form.
If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with the film festival in September, or a chance to watch the Bertsolaritza ‘poetry’ slams at the championships or general competitions.
When you aren’t preoccupied picking Pitxos off a bar top, there’s some delightful architecture to admire in the city, ranging from Renaissance to modernist, with the Belle Epoque facades particularly enjoyable.
Don’t miss admiring Donostiako Udala, the city hall which is particularly pretty at night, or the inside of the impressive 18th-century Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilica.
Pintxos: social dining at its best
When people describe Pintxos, they sometimes confuse them with being just tapas but from the Basque region, but there is more to their story than that.
Tapas, small little dishes that are served up throughout Spain, are in their most simple form little bites of food that are served complimentary with drinks. It comes from the verb ‘tapar’ which means to cover, and these little plates were originally saucers placed on peoples drinks to keep flies away, which grew into the tradition of adding morsels of food on top of the saucer.
Over the years, the tapas scene has evolved in Spain, and while in certain places, such as Granada, the free tapas with drinks still flows, in other places, tapas has become more of an order and pay from the menu type situation.
In San Sebastián and the Basque Country, Pintxos are instead of tapas, but don’t expect these to be free – however, the often loaded small bites and plates are well worthy of parting with your pennies for.
Pintxos are so lauded in fact, that the reason I visited San Sebastián was on assignment for Lonely Planet who had recently named Pintxos in San Sebastián as the top food experience worth travelling for – in the world!
Pintxo bars themselves are lively places, bartenders pour the local sparkling wine Txakoli dramatically from a great height into tumblers, whilst patrons eat standing, often spilling out onto the street.
The bar-top isn’t a place to rest your pint, instead, it’s stacked high with various Pintxos. From simple skewers of olive, anchovy and pepper known as the ‘Gilda’, to chunky crusts of bread adorned with cured meats, fishes or cheese, Pintxos are presented in various forms.
Simply grab a plate and pick out whichever ones look most appealing to you. Pricing is usually done by the number you have (keep the toothpicks) or by plate, and don’t miss the blackboards of specials often behind the bar, these are fresh and warm Pintxos and plates that are made to order.
Pintxo bars offer some of the most social and fun dining experiences you can have and hopping between different bars, often each one having their own specialities, makes the evening a fun and extended experience, sipping, nibbling and catching up with friends. The night often starts around 9 pm and continues until the early hours.
Culinary clubs in a city consumed by cuinise
Mouthwatering goodness in San Sebastián is certainly not limited to Pintxos though, as it has a giant gastronomy scene to be proud of – from affordable morsels to award-winning restaurants and an almost secret-to-tourists underground world of culinary clubs.
At the last tally, San Sebastián can boast more Michelin stars than any other city per square metre, so for those who want to splurge on the finer things in life, you are well catered for.
My interest however was piqued by the Sociedades Gastronómicas, which are gastronomic social clubs, most of which are underground, and that only the members have the keys for.
Historically, these societies were just for men, but in recent years they have modernised and started to become more accepting and diverse in their memberships. For members, they have 24/7 access to these dining rooms, complete with spacious and well-equipped kitchens, and provide a social space to enjoy what San Sebastian residents love so much – food!
Born out of small apartments and flats with little social space, these communal areas allow for larger gatherings of friends and family with enough space to cater and entertain the group. You might have one household boiling some fish in white wine on one side of the kitchen, whilst across the ktichen meat is roasted by another group – sampling and sharing between society members is a bonus
As part of my Intrepid Travel food tour we were lucky enough to get access to one of these clubs, thanks to local Chef Ben who took us to the society for a cooking class of local treats, from Pintxos to perfectly fresh seafood.
Our day started in the La Brexta market, where Ben gathered the ingredients (I’d say we assisted, but that would be a lie) from the various counters. At each stage, whether it was the fishmonger or the grocer, friendly greetings were shared between this community so linked by cuisine.
Once back in the Sociedade, we spent the following hours slowly turning these ingredients into Basque dishes, all washed down by the lightly sparkling local wine, Txakoli, or the local Basque cider.
To visit one of these culinary societies yourself, you will need to arrange it in a tour in advance. Either on the multi-day food trip, I did, or I found a few different options for one-day cooking classes which you can see here and here.
Where else to visit in the Basque Country from San Sebastián?
San Sebastián is a great place to base yourself for exploring more of the Spanish Basque Country, and you could easily spend a week in San Sebastián taking day trips, or enjoy a road-trip around the region spending nights in different towns so you can soak up the evening magic of all the wine and dining options.
Where to stay in San Sebastián?
Sercotel Hotel Europa – This is where I stayed, and it’s a very clean, modern hotel with really lovely staff. Located just back from the beach, it does not have sea-views and thus is a little more affordable than some other offerings whilst being very close to everything, breakfast was great. – See Hotel
Zenit Convento San Martin – If you want a bit of history during your San Sebastián stay, then this converted convent is sure to appeal. The inside of the hotel is spectacular, with arched ceilings and colourful blue and red fresco style decoration. Some of the rooms are very modern, whilst others retain those traditional elements. It’s moments from the beach, and has a pool for the warmer months. – See Hotel
Lasala Plaza Hotel – For beautiful views of the bay and looking back on San Sebastián and the beach this is a great pick, the pool isn’t large, but from the water and the deck you can enjoy great views of the bay, and there are a range of rooms, with the premium options offering sea-views. – See Hotel
Places such as the regional capital Vitoria-Gasteiz (the Cathedral of Santa Maria is a highlight), Hondarribia (a coastal historic town on the French Border) or Mundaka (popular for surfing on the Bay of Biscay) all offer different sides to the Basque Country, but the two I’ve written about below are, Bilbao and Laguardia were my favourites, and are in my opinion, must visits.
Dive into the art and culture of Bilbao
My first visit to Bilboa was far from succesful. In my early twenties I scraped together all my money, booked a ferry, and took my partner on a bucketlist trip to visit the Guggenheim Museum.
Feeling like I’d really excelled with this romantic escape, things quickly turned to disaster when I discovered on our one-night visit that the Guggenheim is closed every Monday, and we wouldn’t even get to visit the museum during out stay. A bout of sea sickness sealed the fate of that trip as one I don’t often look back on.
Whilst that relationship didn’t last, my desire to visit this impressive gallery did, and so I’m super pleased that many years later I got to step inside this futuristic looking titanium building and appreciate the array of contempoary art inside.
The two main things I took away from that first visit though are 1. Don’t try to visit the Guggenheim on a Monday, and 2. There’s a lot more to Bilbao than just the museum.
While I think a lot of the tourism chatter about Bilbao focuses on the gallery, in part because the port-city with it’s tower-block centre is larger and less charming than San Sebastián, there’s plenty still to enjoy here. The Guggenheim didn’t just bring a new museum to the city, it brought a new lease of life.
You’ll find all the usual suspects in Bilboa; bars dishing out Pintxos, terraces packed with cafe tables, markets with plenty of local flavours, but there are also some uniquely Bilbao attractions to enjoy.
Start the day with some snacks at the trendy Ribera Market, before walking around the old streets towards the Plaza Nueva. From here, head to the Baroque San Nikolas church, a good point to start the riverside walk along to the Guggenheim. The river has become a central point of life in the city, and you’l be able to enjoy the range of architecture (including the bridges) before heading into the Museum.
In the streets behind the museum, heading towards the Moyua Plaza, you’ll find more fascinating architecture, such as the Azkuna Zentroa cultural centre, and even the exterior of the football stadium at San Mames.
Strolling through the small streets you’ll find galleries and crafts stores dedicated to local Basque artists, which offer further insight into the specialities of this region, and the long unique heritage that the Basque community are so proud of.
Visit the medieval walled wine land of Laguardia
Laguardia has a truly special atmosphere, and while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, it’s easy to say it’s one of my favourite places in the whole of Spain.
Perhaps it’s the lack of vehicles allowed to drive the historic streets of the hill-top walled hamlet which make it so charming. At first glance, you might think that cars are banned due to the narrow roads, but the truth is far more fascinating.
Underneath these historic streets are some 240-odd tunnels, many of which now house cask upon cask of the areas most prized product, Rioja. Quite simply, if vehicles started driving up and down these streets they would very likely collapse.
The historic wall which surrounds the hamlet dates back to the 15th century, however, the tunnels and caves came before the Laguardia you can see today. Originally intended as a defence, over the years they became the resting place of wine before it was released into the world for our enjoyment. Sadly much of the wall was destroyed in more recent wars, however, but tunnels remain very much intact.
Whilst wandering these delightful streets and filling up your whole camera roll is a joy, to really get to know Laguardia you need to venture underground.
There are plenty of wineries to pick from, but as part of our Spain Food Tour, we visited the Bodega El Fabulista, which provided a really great oversight into the history and tunnels of Laguardia, and of course some delicious wines.
Doorway deception is to be expected in Laguardia, as the bulk of the magic is seven metres underneath the palace which houses the entrance at ground level. You’ll see traditional machinery and harvesting methods in the briefing room, as this is one of the few winemakers still opting to use traditional methods even now, before heading into the caves – some of the largest in Laguardia.
After seeing the four different rooms where the wine is stored before bottling, it’s time to sample the delicious wines (Los dos amigos y el Oso was my favourite) alongside local cheeses and chorizo. With the palace above having been home to the famed writer Félix María de Samaniego, there are plenty of links to fables (short stories) throughout the winery, including one linked to each wine.
Above ground, you’ll find a plethora of dining options, from window style cafes handing little dishes to standing patrons, right through to culinary geniuses dishing out multi-course tasting menus in fine establishments.
One thing all of these dining options have in common regardless of their size is a vast wine list, and while it might be tempting to stick with the rich Rioja reds which mainly come from the Tempranillo grape, don’t miss out on sampling the whites which have become harder to source internationally as their popularity ebbed.
Just outside the medieval walls you’ll find Villa Lucía Espacio Gastronómico, set amongst vineyards this grand restaurant serves up a fantastic lunch tasting menu, and is a wonderful spot to soak up all the wine you’ve tasted with some local dishes.
Where to stay in Laguardia?
The hill-top town of Laguardia is fairly compact, so you have a few options within the walls, or could opt to stay on a vineyard amongst the surrounding nature, two hotels really stand out to me.
Hotel Eguren Ugarte – Set in a winery against a hilly backdrop, this delightful boutique offering has breathtaking views from the wooden ceiling rooms, a vast underground wine cave, fantastic restaurant, and even a tower. Strangely, for such a special offering it’s ranked as a 1* hotel which makes no sense, so if you have filters on your hotel search you would miss it. – See Hotel
Hospederia de los Parajes – Located within the old medieval town, this historic pick of course has a 15th century wine cellar. The charming interior has lots of surprises, with a Turkish bath cave room, exposed brickwork, and a good balance of modern amenities in the bedroom, whilst keeping a traditional feel throughout the property. – See Hotel
Continue your journey to Logroño
Laguardia essentially marks the border of the Basque Region, as the fields of vines blend into the La Rioja region.
A short journey from Laguardia will bring you to Logroño, and if you have the time then a night-out here is well worth scheduling in. The medieval centre is packed with tapas bars, and a tapas-crawl (where the food takes priority over the beer, or more likely the Rioja in this region) is the perfect way to sample multiple taperias and flavours as the locals do.
Working your way down the popular Calle Laurel street will take your taste-buds on a journey. The atmosphere on the night I was there was buzzing thanks to a local event, and the streets were packed with people in high spirits, but I imagine on most evenings you’ll still find a great energy here, as people spill onto terraces from the little restaurants.
Logroño itself has a few grand buildings and attractions to visit, specifically the Cathedral as it is also part of a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
From Logroño it’s easy enough to take a train and head to the other coast (Barcelona) or return back to San Sebastián to round off your trip, perfectly charmed by the Basque Region and all the delicious treats it has in store for you.
I’m sure it won’t be long after your return that you’ll also find yourself asking the question, when can I get back to the Basque Country?
Take the ‘Northern Spain Food Adventure’
My visit to San Sebastián (all the above mentioned places) was part of the Intrepid Travel Northern Spain Food Tour, which took us from cooking in local houses in Barcelona, through the Rioja wine region, and into underground dining clubs in San Sebastián before continuing through little villages in the mountains for cider and cheese visits. The tour ends in the famous pilgrimage spot of Santiago de Compostela. A fantastic 10-day experience, it was amazing not just to see beautiful places (and plenty of lesser visited spots) but to really get to know Spain through its culinary heritage.
This article is part of the #SpainOnMyMind project with the Spanish Tourism Board and iambassador which highlights the diversity of amazing experiences and destinations in Spain, all opinions are as always my own and based on my travels to the Basque Country in 2018 and 2009.