View outside our window at Hotel Londres: Playa de la Concha, a popular spot for soccer at low tide
View of the Old Town (Parte Vieja) and Bahia/Playa de la Concha from the top of Monte Urgull
Early evening, high-tide stroll along the Paseo de la Concha before our dinner at Martin Bersategui
Walking the Parte Vieja at night
Charming seaside town of Lekeitio, our lunch stop between Santander airport and San Sebastian
Now THAT’s what I call a local place...the local men seemed to be having a nice boozy lunch at Restaurante Zapirain, Lekeitio
R Zapirain's owner was a jai alai fanatic - random!
Richard Serra installation at Museo Bilbao
Stay & Play: San Sebastian
Playa de la Concha (Shell Beach)
Flanked by Monte Igueldo to the west and Monte Urgull to the east, this golden, crescent-shaped beach is the most popular place in town. It’s a top local choice for swimming and sunbathing during the day, then unhurried strolls in the evening.
It’s worth making your way to the foot of Monte Igueldo to see esteemed abstract Spanish Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s (1924–2002) sculpture series El peine del viento (Wind Combs).
Wandering around the Parte Vieja (Old Town)
This pedestrianized zone is a must for any visitor to San Seb, for its infinite pintxos bars (especially along Calle 31 de Agosto) and historic architecture (though most buildings post-date 1813 when the entire city, EXCEPT for the oldest street in the city - Calle 31 de Agosto - was ravaged by a fire). In the center of the Parte Vieja is the Plaza de la Constitucion (or “La Consti”), a popular photo opp where many of the cities’ main festivals still take place.
At the eastern end of Playa de la Concha, a moderately steep hike takes you through pine-wooded, crumbling battlements and an old war veterans graveyard to the large Christ sculpture at the top, offering spectacular views of Playa de la Concha and San Sebastian.
Inaugurated in 1912, the old-fashioned funicular transports visitors to the top of Monte Igueldo, the short 3-4 minute journey ending up at 160m above sea level. Affording spectacular, some say the best, views over San Sebastian and Bahia de la Concha, there’s also an old-school “Fun Fair” featuring ton of kid-friendly activities like a roller coaster, carousel, pony rides, river rides and games.
*Note: Panoramic terraces open throughout the year, while the Fun Fair is open everyday from June 1-Sept 15 and during Easter, but only on the weekends and holidays throughout the rest of the year.
Hit the surf at Playa de la Zurriola (aka “Gros”)
Webcam and wind/wave info: www.lazurriola.com
This sandy beach to the east of the Parte Vieja across the Urumea River is a popular surf destination and has hosted annual surfing competitions in the past (unclear whether this is still going on), with the best waves reaching up to 6 ft high in September. Apparently, Cafe de la Playa is a popular surfer pitstop for salads and sandwiches.
The Kursaal Convention Center
The main exhibition and events center in town, this modern translucent glass cube building by renowned architect Rafael Moneo is wedged between the Urumea River and Zurriola Beach.
Mercado de la Bretxa
Bretxa Plaza, 1 (along Calle de Aldemar/Kalea Aldemar, near corner of Calle del General Etxague). +34 943 430 076. www.la-bretxa.com
If you love food markets, this underground fresh fish, meat and produce market has all the best seasonal, regional stuff on display.
San Sebastián Gastronomika (late November)
An annual gathering of many of the world’s best chefs, featuring demonstrations and competitions held mainly at the Kursaal. Highlights for 2009 include an exploration of Japan’s “infinite cuisine” with lectures on sushi, fritters and tuna butchery from Japan’s most respected culinary experts. The associated “Off Gastronomika” program features an in-depth looked at meats from around the world and the much-anticipated finals of the annual Gipuzkoa pintxos competition (www.campeonatodeeuskalherriadepintxos.com).
International Jazz Festival (end of July)
This annual event features 6 days of live performances, most of which are based at the Kursaal but are scheduled at places throughout the city, including free entry to the stage set up on Zurriola beach. Highlights from 2009 included Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, Carla Bley and Jamie Cullum.
San Sebastian Film Festival (end of September)
Annual festival featuring the best of the Spanish and international film industries. Among the highlights of the 2009 event highlights were an opening day presentation of Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt and closing day appearances of director Rodrigo García with actresses Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington for their film Mother and Child.
WHERE TO STAY
The ideal area to stay is near (perhaps not in, since it can be noisy) the Parte Vieja (Old Town), where you’ll find the highest concentration of pintxos bars and is close to the main beach, Playa de la Concha.
If you’re on a budget and like to be in the center of the action, there are tons of hostels/pensiones and B&B’s smack in the middle of the Old Town and are easy enough to check out and book online. As for us, we stayed at the Hotel Londres, right nearby along the Playa de la Concha (see below).
Note: Generally, low season runs from October-April; mid season is May; then high season is from June through September and Christmas, and around the major festivals noted above.
Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (“Hotel Londres”)
Zubieta, 2. +34 943 44 07 70. www.hlondres.com
A bit of an old-fashioned, rambling place with lots of history (built in 1865, it was the former Casino and has hosted such celebrities as Toulouse-Lautrec and spy Mata Hari), it’s well-maintained and ideally located right near the Parte Vieja (Old Town). We had one of the many rooms with balconies looking right out over Playa de la Concha, great for people watching especially when the beach becomes a football pitch at low tide. Rates for a double from €115/night.
Hotel Maria Cristina
Paseo Republica Argentina, 4. +34 943 437 600. www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=86
A Starwood property, this is considered to be the classiest stay in town. Since opening in 1912, this classic Belle Epoque hotel has had a rich history from surviving multiple wars to hosting some of the world’s most famous politicians and movie stars. Located alongside the Urumea River, it’s a short walk to all the pintxos bars in the Parte Vieja (and, just across the river, Bergara and Alona Berri in Barrio Gros), as well as the Playa de la Concha. The wide range of rooms are all decadently appointed with traditional furnishings and rich fabrics. Rates from €106-445/night for a king room.
Zubieta, 56. +34 943 42 66 63. www.hotelniza.com/ingles/
A popular stay for its simple, clean accommodation and beachside accommodation. Doubles start from €123-145/night.
Hotel Astoria 7
Sagrada Familia, 1 (corner of Sancho El Sabio). + 34 943 445 000. www.astoria7hotel.com
Opened in 2009, the city’s first modern boutique hotel is housed in the historic Astoria Cinema. Owned by two film experts, the decor is unsurprisingly cinematic in nature, with all 102 rooms uniquely decked with photographs of movie stars attending the annual film festival since 1953. Promotional rates for a double room from €110/night, including buffet breakfast, complimentary WiFi and other spiffy amenities like flat screen TVs and laptop-sized safes.
Avenida Ategorrieta, 61. +34 943 297 970. www.villasoro.com
Housed in a 19th century villa, this boutique (25 rooms only) hotel has loads of charm from the elegantly appointed rooms and its tranquil, leafy setting in a suburb worlds away from the bustling Parte Vieja. It’s a 5-minute walk to the surfer’s Zurriola beach and Michelin-starred Arzak. Doubles from €125-260/night.
Pension Bellas Artes
Urbieta, 64. +34 943 474 905. www.pension-bellasartes.com
Winner of Tripadvisor’s 2009 Traveler’s Choice for “Best Bargain”, reviews highlight the good location, warm hospitality and cleanliness. Rates from €59-79/night.
HOW TO GET THERE
San Sebastian Airport (EAS) is the closest airport (20 mins drive) with domestic connections via Madrid and Barcelona.
For international arrivals, the nearest airports are Biarritz, France (BIA) and Bilbao, Spain (BIO), 40 mins and 1 hr drives, respectively.
Ryanair operates flights into Santander (SDR), which offers a very pleasant 3-4 hour coastal drive to San Seb (with a top pitstop at Lekeitio’s Zapirain, above).
We were glad to have our car and finding parking was no major drama (and our hotel had a lot on site), but getting around San Sebastian is easy enough by foot or taxi.
While it can be a bit buggy (the Bar Guide section wasn’t loading so no information on the specified bars themselves), this “everything pintxos” website features mouthwatering pictures of dozens of different independently-recommended tapas which are definitely worth a look. Alona Berri is conspicuously missing from the site, though.
Main tourist website for San Sebastian, best for up-to-date information on seasonal attractions. English, French, Castellano and Basque.