I was already in the south of France for my nephew’s christening in Toulouse, so I decided to take the opportunity to get myself to the Atlantic Coast for much needed surf. I was deciding between Biarritz and Hossegor (where I went last year to watch a WSL Pro competition), but due to lack of hostel opportunities, I decided to check out south of the border and landed on San Sebastián in Spain (Donostia in Basque).
I didn’t have any expectations for this trip but I’m pretty sure that was not the only reason I loved it there. Perhaps it was the weather or being near the ocean or being somewhere new, but whatever it was, I fell in love with the city the moment I stepped on its streets. While some people spend a day or two in this small city, I was there for a week and this was my experience in this city designated as the European Capital of Culture.
The city is the administrative capital of Gipuzkoa, and is one of the three provinces making up the Basque Autonomous Community. It is about 30 minutes from the French border city of Hendaye in Southern France. The city has its own airport but serves only domestic flights. From Toulouse, I took the Ouibus to the city (with stopovers in Biarritz airport and Hendaye, among others). Another traveling option (apart from driving or taking a car pool) is taking the train; although from France, there is a need to change from the SNCF rail network in Hendaye to the Euskotren (technically still in Hendaye but across the border into Spain).
I stayed for a week in a hostel in the old town before giving myself special treatment and spending it in a hotel across the river. On hindsight, I should have stayed in Gros area for the most of the week (where the surfing and yoga were) and spent the last night in the old town next to the big swimming beach. I booked the Hostel San Fermin in the old town from Monday to Friday and the lovely Okako Boutique Hotel on Friday night. I booked both accommodations thru Booking.com, use this link to get 10% off your stay.
I did not know what pintxos were at the start of this trip, so I was a little overwhelmed about entering the tapas bars on my own the night I arrived. Pintxos (pronounced pin-chos) were “originally a slice of baguette bread piled high with food of any kind. To hold it in place, a cocktail stick, or ‘pintxo’ was used. But that traditional idea has evolved until becoming today’s miniature haute cuisine, flavours elaborated and concentrated into tiny, mouth-watering experiences…” People were drinking and socializing over buffet tables of bite sized food, while I preferred to eat in small, uncrowded restaurants and cafes, at least in the beginning. As a city with one of the most highest concentrations of Michelin star restaurants, there is no shortage of good places to eat; although I had been disappointed by a couple of restaurants (and I will not mention those here). So here are some of the places I enjoyed in San Sebastian:
The Good Burger – I was craving a burger after a vinyasa yoga and surf session back to back and this place did not disappoint. They serve more than the regular burger with cheese and fries; I tried the bacon jam burger and I was in love (and I wanted to put bacon jam in everything)! They also serve a variety of beer and I tried the server’s favorite, beer with lemon, that actually went really well with my meal.
La Comidare – This place was less full than most bars perhaps because they serve meals “racions” rather than pintxos style. I tried the nachos with guacamole and the paella (one of the places I’ve seen that serve it for one person). They also have special offers for apero on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.
Xiri Donosti – One of the small places that are full at night but empty on lunch hours. I tried the pintxos from their menu with a glass of wine. This place is quite popular with the locals, I have seen people come and go all of lunch time to grab a glass of wine or coffee.
Kursaal – A pintxos bar that serves txuleta (steak pintxos) and good tasting anchovy pintxos (I came back for them). They also have really good tacos that are free if you buy a glass of beer on Thursdays (apparently on Thursdays, all bars give one free pintxos with every glass of beer or drink). They are also open on lunch times and are less crowded than the usual bars.
Sakona Coffee Roasters – Sakona Coffee Roasters is a coffee shop owned by a five time Barista Champion of Spain. The coffee shop serves specialty coffee and food during brunch and some pastries after those times.
Green Korner Takeaway and Bio Shop – my favorite apres-yoga (and pre-surf) hang out. This place serves vegan meals and snacks and great smoothies.
Taula Street Food – A place that serves cava (Spanish sparkling wine) by the glass (yaay!). Instead of getting the regular menu, the server suggested I tried their street food menu, which changes, I suppose. I had a chicken wrap, which wasn’t really the best, but I loved their gyozas.
Casa Aramendia – A Spanish pastry shop with good sweets choices, but we (I bought one for le hubby) were honestly blown away by their ‘pastel vasco’ (or gateau basque in French). They also serve ice cream. With branches around the San Sebastian area.
Hogar Dolce Hogar – A restaurant serving baked goods and brunch in the Gros area near Playa Zurriola. As with France (and perhaps all of Europe), they serve lunch late (12:30 PM) so I had to settle for brunch and a pastry instead of a heavier meal. They also have ice cream and baked goods for take out.
The city is rich in both history, culture, and not to mention beautiful buildings. I explored the buildings, squares, and parks of the Old Town, City Center, and Gros, and visited religious buildings. The Basilica of Santa Maria is a beautiful Baroque church that is worth the 3€ entrance fee. I skipped the museums but the San Telmo Museum, Aquarium, and the Christopher Balenciaga Museums should be worth one’s time. You can take the city hop on/ hop off bus for convenience or the mini train ride for a quick tour of the city.
Surf at Playa Zurriola – I was in San Sebastián primarily for the surfing. The city is probably one of the easier cities to learn surfing: it is literally in the city (like in Biarritz, but the beach is bigger), the waves are good for beginners to experts (depending on which side of the beach, as in Bondi beach in Australia), the waves breaks over sand, and there are numerous surf schools to learn surfing from. I took lessons from Zurriola Surf Eskola and I recommend them for their teacher-student ratio. One week of classes, Monday to Friday and 1 hour and 15 minutes per session, is at 85€. Other surf schools include Pukas Surf Eskola and the Bluemotion Surf & Bodyboard Academy.
Take a Yoga Class – Finding a yoga studio in the city was one of the main reasons I actually chose to stay in San Sebastian. There are a few yoga schools in the city (and one that does lessons by the beach) but I decided to choose 802 Yoga Studio for the availability of classes. The hatha and yin yoga classes helped my body recover from all the surfing I did, while the vinyasa classes woke my muscles up from months of inactivity. A drop in class costs 15€ while one week of classes is worth 45€.
Climb up Mt. Urgull – It’s not really climbing as opposed to trekking up several paths to the top of Mt. Urgull. There is one trail that is suggested by the tourism office of San Sebastián and I recommend it as it is essentially going around the mountain and seeing all of the spots. When you get to the top, don’t hesitate to enter the free heritage museum to check out the history of the city (in Spanish but there are free audio guides in other languages) and get to the foot of the statue of Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart).
Walk around the city – The city has several areas that are worth exploring and wandering in. I mostly walked around the Old Town and Center to admire the beauty of the city and its buildings as well as sample the food in the many bars and restaurants.
Go to one of the Beaches – San Sebastián’s beaches are one of the greatest summer attractions. Take your pick in the activities that can be done: from basking under the sun in one of the four lovely beaches, swimming and SUP in Playa La Concha and Ondarreta, take a boat to explore and swim in the beaches of Santa Clara island, or surf in Playa Zurriola.
Shop – There are a lot shopping choices in San Sebastian: a mix of both high street brands like Zara and Mango, local shops that sell clothes and jewelry, as well as shops selling vintage clothes, and of course, the surf shops.