San Sebastian City Guide: The Highlights

San Sebastian city guide

Getting there:

Either fly straight into San Sebastian or nearby Bilbao which is often cheaper and services more flight options. If you arrive in Bilbao there is a convenient airport shuttle bus to San Sebastian that you can hop on right outside the airport. The shuttle ride takes a little over an hour and costs €16.50 each way. Another option is to fly into nearby Biarritz in France, which also offers an airport shuttle connection into San Sebastian.

Go for a walk

Set off on an urban walk of the old part of the city, the Parte Vieja, and wander the cobblestone streets lined with stores and little restaurants and bars. Check out the 18th century Baroque façade of Iglesia Santa María on Calle Mayor as well as the Plaza de la Constitución where the windows still have seat numbers from when the square was used as a bullring.

Eat and drink like the locals do

Pintxos hopping is the name of the game here for locals. Similar to tapas, the idea is to eat one or two of what each bar makes best before moving to the next place. While on your urban hike, pop into a few and get introduced to the ways and means of the pintxos cultures.

It can be a bit confusing and intimidating at first so follow these simple steps: 1st) ask the bartender for a plate, 2nd) select whatever your stomach desires from the often huge buffet that lines the bar and put it on your plate, they will heat up the hot items for you and also don’t forget to check out the hot made to order menu items as well usually listed on a chalkboard behind the bar, (the mushroom risotto we ordered was amazing!), and 3rd) they will charge you per pintxos you have put on your plate.

While you’re at order a glass of txakoli, a young white wine grown in the Basque Country that is served extremely cold and poured from a height with a special pour spout to force fizz into the liquid. It’s wonderfully acidic and quite delicious!

Get cultured: 

Check out the newly refurbished San Telmo Museum to learn more about Basque society. The museum used to be a convent and the original church and cloisters still occupy the space. Basque people for centuries have maintained the death and worship rites of their ancestors and the museum holds one of the most extensive collection of steles, or funerary stones. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10-8pm with a €6 admission fee.

Grab a drink: 

If you’re in the mood for a scotch neat or a whiskey sour head to Museo del Whisky, purportedly the best collection of whiskies in the world. The elegant dark wooden panels and elaborately frosted window give this two level bar an air of coziness and sophistication. The 2700 whiskies available fill every spare inch of the walls and bar top with other oddities such as the world’s smallest cocktail shaker. The drinks are top notch and just the space itself is worth a look.

Hit the beach: 

Stroll along the shell-shaped aptly named Concha Beach to Ondarreta Beach to see the seafront ‘Peine del Viento’ (Comb of the Wind) steel sculptures. Consisting of three nine-ton pieces of steel anchored into the rocks it is one of the best-known works by the sculptor Eduardo Chillida.

Go for a ride: 

After checking out ‘Peine del Viento’, take the 100 year old funicular train up to nearby Monte Igueldo for views of the bay and the rugged coastline to the west. The summit also hosts an amusement park so you can channel your inner child (4-830pm). If you get hungry, wander down the hill and grab a table out on the terrace of Alai to enjoy a glass of wine with views of the city. The funicular runs from 10-9pm daily and the ride will set you back €3.15 for a round trip ticket.

Take a hike: 

Make your way up the steep switchback trail from the Parte Vieja up to Monte Urgull, a defense point dating to the city’s 12th century foundation still containing military structures and a 12 meter tall statue of Jesus Christ installed in 1950. The summit affords fantastic 360 degree views of the city and the Bay of Biscay.

Where to Eat:

A few restaurant recommendations on behalf of my lovely friend Martha: In the Parte Vieja stop in at Casa Urola, La Muralla, La Fabrica, Bodegon Alejandro, and Taberna Gandarias; all of which offer a great pre-fix lunch. For the Puente Zurriola area, head to Ni Neu and Viento Sur, and for the La Concha beach area, check out Narru.

*All admission fees and operating hours current as of August 2015