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San Sebastian: Basque in beaches, culture and food

Sun-kissed beaches watched over by a statue of Christ on a hill? A funicular railway running up a mountain with breathtaking views? A lively scene of dining revelry? No, it’s not Rio de Janeiro. You are in San Sebastian, Spain (aka Donostia in Basque), a vibrant, coastal metropolis known worldwide for its Michelin-starred restaurants and a European Capital of Culture for 2016.

The view

First stop, take the funicular up Monte Igueldo
Photo Credit: iStock

First stop, take the funicular up Monte Igueldo for a sweeping vista framed by the sea on one side and the mountainous interior on the other. Below you, the modern city unfolds as tidy rows of stately buildings, leading to the oldest district, Parte Vieja, nestled against Monte Urgull with its statue of Christ of the Sacred Heart.

The beaches

Though a seaside town, San Sebastian's vibe is
Photo Credit: San Sebastian Turismo

Though a seaside town, San Sebastian's vibe is sophisticated and buzzing. Three beaches meet the Bay of Biscay, each offering a different vibe. Classic La Concha stretches west from Parte Vieja, its long paseo the see-and-be-seen spot for an evening stroll. Beyond the Miramar Palace, a 19th-century palace open for house tours, Ondarreta teems with families. On the other side of the river, across from the old town, compact Zurriola (pictured) attracts surfers from around the world. The iconic Kursaal sits adjacent to the beach, its translucent glass walls glowing warmly with light in the evening as concertgoers flock to its recital hall.

The culture

As a designated European Capital of Culture for
Photo Credit: Tabakalera Donostia via Facebook

As a designated European Capital of Culture for 2016, the city will attract an influx of visitors this year as cultural exhibits, competitions and events flood every corner. A series of 12 concerts highlighting the local independent music scene will take place in non-traditional venues throughout the year, while the city's seven museums will welcome artists to create new works in public.

The city's new cultural center, Tabakalera (Duque de Mandas, 52, tabakalera.eu/en), pictured, has been fashioned out of a former tobacco warehouse in the Egia District -- about a 10-minute walk from the city center. Contemporary culture is the focus here with films, plays and audio visual exhibits on the agenda, many of them free. Later this year, a restaurant and hotel will open in the complex.

For a taste of Basque history, visit the San Telmo Museum (closed Mondays, admission 6 euros, free on Tuesdays; Plaza Zuloaga 1, santelmomuseoa.com), a 16th-century Dominican monastery in the old town that houses the Museum of Basque Society. A witness to history both tragic and transformative, the building itself was one of the few to survive an 1813 siege by British forces, when nearly the entire city was burned to the ground. Exhibits cover fine arts, Basque heritage and the transformation of society from rural to industrialization.

The food

At night, Parte Vieja bursts to life
Photo Credit: Michael Tulipan

At night, Parte Vieja bursts to life as pintxo bars overflow onto the narrow streets. Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, are found everywhere, and a crawl is de rigeur. Start at La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28, lacucharadesantelmo.com), if you can sandwich your way inside the tiny space. Mushroom fans must also stop at Ganbara (San Jeronimo, 21, www.ganbarajatetxea.com), where mounds of locally foraged treasures arrive a la plancha or in hearty scrambled eggs. At each stop, wash your pintxos down with a local Basque cider.

For a more serene dining experience, make reservations early in advance at one of the city's Michelin-starred restaurants. The legendary Spanish chef Juan Mari Arzak still oversees his namesake, three-Michelin-starred restaurant (Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, 273, arzak.info), along with his daughter Elena, an accomplished chef herself. The tiny bi-level space buzzes with activity as multi-course tasting menus unfold. Just outside town, where the city gives way to rolling hills, chef Andoni Aduriz of the two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz (open April 13-Dec. 11 for 2016; Aldura Aldea, 20, mugaritz.com) spins modern takes on tradition.

And not to be missed is Rekondo (Paseo de Igeldo, 57, rekondo.com). Located partway up Monte Igueldo, the restaurant boasts one of the finest wine cellars in the world, with row upon row of old Rioja wines, many available on the list at remarkably reasonable prices. Order a massive grilled entrecote steak (pictured) to accompany your Rioja and toast to the vibrancy of Europe's newest cultural capital.

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