How to Spend 3 Days in San Sebastian

San Sebastian/Donostia, Basque Country, Spain
••• Nigel's Europe & beyond/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
  • 01 of 07

    Get the Most out of Spain's Capital of Gastronomy

    A view of San Sebastian from across the bay
    ••• Miguel Ángel García

    The number one reason for visiting the city of San Sebastian, in Spain's Basque Country region, is to sample its fantastic cuisine. Basque gastronomy has gained its fame largely for two quite different areas of the culinary world: pintxos (the Basque word for 'tapas') and Michelin star restaurants. But that's not all San Sebastian has to offer. 

    Where Is San Sebastian?

    San Sebastian is in the Basque Country on the north coast of Spain, close to the French border.

    • From Bilbao: 101km. By car: 1h15, by bus: 1h30; 2h30 by train. 
    • From Madrid: 464km. By car: 4h45m;  by train: 6h45m; by plane 1h. 
    • From Barcelona:  561km; By car: 5h30m; By train: 8h  By plane: 1h. 
    • From Malaga: 999km; By car: 9h45; no train or bus; By plane: 1h
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  • 02 of 07

    Day 1 Lunch: Pintxos in San Sebastian

    Pinxtos
    ••• Nicolas Vollmer/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-2.0

    After checking in to your hotel, you'll probably want to head straight out to eat.

    San Sebastian's biggest draw is its pintxos bars, with a great selection of places in the compact old town. Start on Calle 31 de Agosto and check out some of the bars there. We'd suggest getting there around 1 pm (or a little before) to beat the crowds. 

    • Go at it alone. Pintxos in San Sebastian are a great way to sample some of the most fantastic cuisines in the world, cheaply and risk-free. With portions small, prices low and service quick, even if you don't speak Spanish or are a particularly fussy eater, you can order pretty much at random and move on to the next one if what you ordered isn't to your fancy. Plus, many bars have food on the bar-top that you can either help yourself to or point to. 
    • Independent, semi-guided tour. A three-day guided tour of San Sebastian includes a guide to San Sebastian pintxos that includes eight pintxos at the bars of your choice. But if you don't...MORE want to take that tour, check out the Pintxo Passport, a great way to get some expert guidance while exploring San Sebastian food independently. The Pintxo Passport is a small booklet that gets you a tapas or two and a drink in a series of bars around the city. All you need to do is show the bar the passport and hand in a token - no need for trying to shout your order in Spanish over thirty noisy fellow diners. 
    • Guided tour. The classic approach where you, a professional tour guide and (sometimes) some other tourists visit three pintxo bars and have a drink and a bite to each in each.
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  • 03 of 07

    Day 1 Afternoon: Explore the Old Town

    San Sebastian, Spain - old town
    ••• Grayskullduggery/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    On your first day in San Sebastian, after you've gone for a few pintxos, you should explore the city a little.

    • San Sebastian Old Town: Also known as the Parte Vieja (old part), you'll already have seen much of this on your tapas crawl. One of the most iconic sights in this area is the  
    • Concha Beach: The best city beach in Europe? Quite possibly. If you ate too much at lunchtime, here's a great spot to let your food digest. However, I'd recommend using your first day for exploring the city and saving your last day for lazing on the beach once you know the city a little better.
    • Monte Urgull: San Sebastian's Bay is straddled by two large hills, with both offering fantastic views of the city. At the top, there is a small museum, the ​Casa de la Historia.
    • Monte Igueldo: The other hill in San Sebastian, at the other end of the beach from central San Sebastian. Monte Igueldo is home to the sculpture.
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  • 04 of 07

    Day 1 Evening: A Basque Cider House

    ••• jose a. del moral/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    For dinner, visit a Basque cider house. Basque cider is much like the better-known Asturian cider, a sour virtually-flat alcoholic drink that is usually poured from up high into your glass before being downed in one go (if you don't, the acidity starts to return). At a Basque cider house, the cider comes straight out of a large barrel, forced out at pressure and squirted into your glass ten feet away! 

    The food is always the same - an excellent medium-rare steak (don't try asking for 'well done'), some cod and a few sides. It's a fantastic experience and, along with pintxos and Michelin-star restaurants, completes your Basque gastronomical experience.

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  • 05 of 07

    Day 2: San Sebastian Day Trips

    Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Biscay, Spain, July 2010
    ••• Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0

    A visit to San Sebastian wouldn't be complete without a day trip. If you are in San Sebastian for three days, we'd suggest on one day you get out of the city. Then, in the evening, go to one of the city's three-star Michelin restaurants. Here are a few suggestions.

    The Rioja Wine Region

    Rioja is one of the best-known wine regions in the world, renowned for its excellent and good value reds. 

    Laguardia is one of the best towns in the region for exploring the local wines. Enjoy a meal in a wine cellar. Unfortunately, public transport connections are poor, so if you don't take a tour, you'll need a car with a designated driver.

    Visit Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum

    Bilbao, just an hour away from San Sebastian by train, is home to Guggenheim Museum, one of the best modern art galleries in Europe. The exterior of the building itself, designed by Frank Gehry, is a sight in itself. 

    Bilbao is an easy day trip from San Sebastian - the bus station in San Sebastian is pretty...MORE central, and there is a tram from Bilbao bus station directly to the Guggenheim and then on to the city center. 

    Hondarribia

    One of the most beautiful villages in the Basque Country. Hondarribia lies just on the Spanish side of the border with France and is surrounded by a city wall, the only remaining such fortifications in the region. There are excellent pintxo bars and restaurants around the marina.

    The E21 bus from the Ekialde bus company runs every hour from San Sebastian to Hondarribia.

    Getaria

    A small fishing village, where the bars have open grills in the street to cook fresh catches in time for lunch. Street food like it used to be, before the hipsters hijacked the word!

    Wine Tasting Day Trips From San Sebastian

    The Basque Country has great wine of its own: Txakoli, a slightly sparkling white wine that has improved over recent years. It used to be made in pretty, shall we say, rustic way, designed to be drunk much like Basque cider - poured from a height to aerate it and so reduce the acidity - but more recently the standard of production, particularly those made by Elkano has improved greatly. Some of our favorite white wine in the world is Txakoli.

    But, of course, no wine lover can visit Spain without going to the La Rioja region, where Rioja wine comes from. La Rioja is not far from San Sebastian and makes a good day trip. Unfortunately, public transport to the vineyards isn't great, so you'll need to either hire a car and have a designated driver, or take a guided tour.

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  • 06 of 07

    Day 2 Evening: Visit a Michelin Star Restaurant

    Arzak
    ••• Kent Wang/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    For dinner, if your budget allows, visit one of San Sebastian's Michelin restaurants. By 'Michelin restaurants', we're talking about those that have received three stars. And there are three such restaurants in San Sebastian, the most for any city in Spain. In fact, San Sebastian probably has the best Michelin-star-per-head ratio in the world!

    Of course, reservations are essential. Book as far ahead as you can. You have three restaurants with the highest number of Michelin stars.

    Akelarre

    • Address: Paseo Padre Orcoloaga, 56, 20008 San Sebastian, España‎ - 943 311 209
    • Reservations: Akelarre website

    Arzak

    • Address: Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegi / Jose Elosegi Alkatearen Hiribidea, 273, 20015 Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain. Tel +34 943 278 465‎
    • Reservations: Arzak website

    Martin Berasategui

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  • 07 of 07

    Day 3: Get Active in San Sebastian

    Surfing
    ••• Laura Peña/Flickr/CC-BY-SA-3.0

    So you've explored the old town and taken a day trip. You've sampled two or three of San Sebastian's most famous areas of cuisine: pintxos, a cider house and perhaps a Michelin restaurant. What's left?

    Water Sports Near San Sebastian

    Mundaka, just outside San Sebastian, has one of the best left-hand waves in the world for surfing and the ASP World Surfing Championships used to have around here. 

    Enjoy a or visit the Mundaka Surf Shop for information about rentals. 

    If surfing sounds a bit intense, there are other water sports in San Sebastian.

    If your trip so far has tired you out (and if the weather permits), there's always the beaches to enjoy. Don't forget to climb one of the two hills either side of the beach (as described on day 1 of this suggested itinerary).