Great getaways: San Sebastian, Culinary Capital of the Basque Country
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It’s easy to see why Anthony Bourdain called San Sebastian one of his favorite places in the world to eat. Gastronomic capital of the Basque Country, an autonomous community in northern Spain, the seaside resort is where food and drink are undoubtedly a way of life.
Also known as Donostia in Basque, the ancient Basque language, San Sebastian is an extraordinary destination that collects more Michelin stars per square mile than gastronomic centers like Paris, London and New York. Its culinary prowess is also evident in the bold flavors of pintxos (or tapas) decorating the tops of bars in the city as in award-winning restaurants with white tablecloths offering tastings of several dishes.
A procession of bars dot a maze of cobbled streets in the Parte Viejo (old town), where the Basques crawl every evening from one establishment to another. Grazing on pintxos like sardines, Iberian ham, crab-stuffed peppers, among other delicious specialties, locals wash down every bite with a sip of Basque cider or Txakoli, a sparkling white wine made from native grapes.
Perched just 19 kilometers from the French border, the city is full of natural beauty. This coastal getaway embraces the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian mountain range, offering sweeping panoramas. Between feasts, visitors take the time to explore the city’s rugged coastline, sugar-sand beaches, public squares and the bay esplanade.
Overlooking La Concha Harbor and Beach, Lasala Plaza Hotel embodies the city’s coastal scenery, art and culture. Rooms feature the tranquil and changing blue hues of the bay and include rainfall showers and underfloor heating. The roof and the solarium on the 7th floor offer stunning views and a swimming pool.
The opulent Hotel Maria Cristina, A Luxury Collection Hotel, has been serving guests since 1912. This five-star property is a restored monument and namesake of María Cristina Borbón, Queen Consort of Spain from 1829 to 1833. Ornate furnishings, chandeliers Elegant and 19th-century art marks interiors inspired by the Belle Epoque, while the rooms offer breathtaking views of the Urumea River and the Cantabrian Sea.
Located on Plaza Gipuzkoa designed by Pierre Ducasse, a lush garden inspired by an English forest, Room Mate Gorka is a trendy four-star boutique hotel. The staff go above and beyond here, providing directions, honoring special requests, and suggesting pintxo bars to try. While Gorka doesn’t offer water views, its convenient location makes up for it. The hotel is about a block from Parte Viejo.
The large open space of the Plaza de la Constitución represents the heart of the old town. Dating back to 1813, the square was once an arena – the numbers above the windows encircling the square signify ticket holders’ boxes – but the main structure with its wide arches was the town hall until the 1940s. nowadays the square is the site of alfresco dining and annual celebrations, including Santo Tomás and Tamborrada (drum festival).
It’s hard to imagine a pristine stretch of sand in the heart of a city, but Playa de la Concha wins the award for one of Europe’s most alluring urban beaches. Named after its shell shape, it is wonderful for sunbathing and swimming. La Concha and Playa de Ondarreta, the western extension of the beach, connect to a beautiful esplanade by the bay, one of the best places in town for walking or jogging. For surfers and their observers, Playa Zurriola is the beach of choice. Across Mount Urgull, in the less touristy neighborhood of Gros, this part of the coast is where the waves rise to six feet and above.
Opposite the Town Hall and La Concha is Alderdi Eder – which translates to ‘beautiful place’ in Basque – one of the most elegant parks in San Sebastian with a carousel. Like the city itself, the green space has evolved over the years, but it is still one of the city’s treasures, awash in colorful flowers, palm trees and sculptural tamarisk trees.
One of the most respected restaurants in the old town is Casa Urola, a restaurant with fine dining upstairs and pintxos downstairs. Launched in 1956 and run by chef Pablo Loureiro Rodil since 2012, this spot offers seasonal dishes and classics. The half-cooked Foie gras (half-cooked), grilled octopus with Iberian bacon and potato soup, and Vieira scallops are fan favorites here, and the wine selections – from Ribera del Duero to La Rioja – are also excellent. .
Three minutes from Casa Urola, next to the Museo San Telmo, a museum dedicated to Basque culture, is La Cuchara de San Telmo, arguably one of the best restaurants in town. The queues grow longer as the evening wears on, but hungry guests happily line up for crunchy pig ears, sweet knives, and beef cheeks floating on a chickpea ganache. Seating isn’t always available, so be prepared to stay in the tight space while ordering from the board menu.
Across the Santa Catalina and Kursaal Bridges in Gros, Geralds Bar is perhaps the least Basque name on the city’s restaurant list. With Australian roots – the owner opened his first outpost in Melbourne – this quaint tavern serves local beers, wines, and a signature Bloody Mary, among other libations to accompany his daily menu. Around the corner, Bodega Donastiarra Gros is as local as it gets, dating back to 1928. Order the octopus here, too, along with the tuna and tender pulled beef, all served with the usual side of pintxos: a basket of bread crisp white.
While Basques often drink locally produced wine, beer and cider, gin and tonic is often their drink of choice. At La Gintoneria Donostiarra the gin selection is varied as the bar offers rare and exclusive bottles. Blending some of San Sebastian’s most delicious libations, the salon’s expert bartenders incorporate fruits, herbs, flowers, and dry ice for a unique cocktail experience.
If there is one restaurant to visit, it’s Arzak, one of the most popular in the world. Led by Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak, a third and fourth generation father-daughter team, the three-star Michelin restaurant honors New Basque Cuisine, the culinary movement that Mr. Arzak started alongside Pedro Subijana in the 1970s. In a charming century-old house, the Arzaks offer an innovative and seasonal tasting menu with optional food and wine pairings, dish after dish of astute dishes, reflecting Basque ingredients and heritage.
The author’s plane ticket was courtesy of Ruta del Vino de Rioja Alavesa