San Sebastian: The Jewel of Northern Spain

San Sebastian

I had been longing to go explore Europe’s most western and oft ignored Iberian peninsula neighbor of Spain for years. I absolutely love traveling Europe by train and often use seat61.com to plan most of our train travel during our trips. It was through this site that I  discovered there was an overnight train service that linked Northern Spain with Portugal so we decided to start our Portugal holiday in another locale we have always wanted to visit, the Basque city of San Sebastian!

The city, along with Wroclaw in Poland was elected as the European Capital of Culture for 2016. So seeking some warmer weather for the Easter holidays we packed our bags and caught an early morning flight into Bilbao and then from there we took an hour long shuttle bus east into San Sebastian. Our hotel was perfectly situated among the streets of the Parte Vieja, the Old Town, for wandering the cobblestone streets lined with stores and little restaurants and bars.

The food in San Sebastian is top notch and home to a very high concentration of Michelin stars. Pintxos hopping is the name of the game here for locals. Pintxos are similar to tapas and the idea is to eat one or two of what each bar makes best before moving to the next place. Being that is was a holiday weekend, it seemed every bar near our hotel was packed to the gills with locals and other tourists and since we were new to the pintxos game it was quite intimidating and overwhelming to swarm the bar like everyone else and figure out how to get our hands on these delicious bites.

We decided to make our way further down the street until we made our way to the bar Aita Mari which was a little less crowded and had a kind lady behind the bar who gave us a wonderful introduction to the ways and means of the pintxos cultures; 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. Easy peasy once you know what to do! The ham and cheese croquettes were my favorite.

San Sebastian

After filling up on pintxos and wine we decided to wind our way along the boardwalk of La Concha bay toward Ondarreta Beach to see the Peine del Viento steel sculptures. 

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

Afterwards, we hopped aboard the funicular (Dan and I just took to calling them “fun-cars” which is far easier to say!) up to Monte Igueldo for a birds eye view of San Sebastian and to check out the little amusement park they have up there complete with a roller coaster and a water log ride.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

We followed up our evening with a light dinner of local cheeses and quince paste at Alai just a bit down the mountain. As we were finishing up dinner, gray clouds started to gather on the horizon and a light drizzle made an appearance so we called it an early night and headed back to the hotel after our 430am start that morning.

San Sebastian

The next morning we awoke to intermittent rain so decided to take in the newly refurbished San Telmo Museum to learn more about Basque society. They had a most interesting Japanese Garden temporary exhibit that we checked out first. Loved the clean, neutral lines of the space juxtaposed with the vibrant colors of the “garden”.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

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.

At lunch, we were introduced to 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 was wonderfully acidic and quite delicious!

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

After all that day drinking, we did as the locals do and whiled away the afternoon with a long siesta to rest up for a night of more pintxos hopping now that we had become old hands at it. After gorging ourselves yet again, we went out to stroll the nighttime streets of San Sebastian, snapping pictures of the Cathedral del Buen Pastor all lit up before settling in at Museo del Whiskey for some of the fanciest whiskey sours I’ve ever enjoyed.

The following morning we thankfully awoke to sunshine and fair skies and after checking out of the hotel we made our way up the steep switchback trail 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 afforded fantastic 360 degree views of the city and the Bay of Biscay.

After our uphill trek, we ambled back down toward the water for a late lunch followed by an afternoon of reading and cocktails at the Museo del Whiskey (I just couldn’t stay away from those whiskey sours!)

Museo del Whisky
At 7pm we boarded the overnight train, the Sud Express bound for Lisbon to continue our adventure. Check out our next escapade in Portugal!

*Check out my handy printable travel guide here to plan your own Provence roadtrip getaway! 

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