The Basque Country remains as one of the largest nations in the world without a state. You can feel it here. Look around the ancient streets in any of the cities, large of small, and you can see graffiti, signs and symbols referring to the Basque independence and the importance of the movement. The Basque people are proud of their heritage and would hate to be mistaken as anything Spanish.
They have their own food culture, own language, own traditions and most importantly, way of life. The Basque country extends all the way to Santander in the west and to southern France in the east, with Vitoria as its de facto capital. The country itself is stickingly beautiful, dotted with rolling grassy hills, the beginning of the pyrenees mountains as well as rivers, vineyards and other excellent natural wonders.
I spent a total of one month in the Basque country living and operating out of San Sebastian, a gorgeous city of 100,000 people perched gloriously upon the Atlantic. San Sebastian is characterized by its beaches, by its old town and most importantly, by its importance to New Basque Cuisine, becoming the city with the most Michelin stars in the world per capita besides Tokyo.
San Sebastian first and foremost is a surfing town with one of the best surfing beaches on the Iberian peninsula. People come from all over the world to surf Playa Zurriola and it is a tradition that has enveloped the residents of San Sebasitan with the laid back lifestyle that surfing embodies.
Historically, San Sebastian was the old summer getaway for Spanish royalty and you can really see it in the larger tourist beach to the west, Playa de la Concha. The beach is characterized by a main promenade that extends for about two kilometers, wrapping around the coastline. Kalea La Contxa (Shell Street) is adorned with massive hotels, summer homes and palaces sitting high above it all, creating a majestic dichotomy of natural and architectural beauty.
What to Eat
In San Seb, Pintxos are king. They serve not only being any welcome accompaniment to a vino tinto but also a part of the lifestyle. The Basque and Spanish in general are a going out culture. Every night you will see people of all ages, all walks of life converging in small restaurants in the old town for cheap drinks and tasty bites. Pintxos range in preparation but many other them are a tostada with a topping. San Sebastian is known for their fish so you will see anchovies, salmon, crab and squid as a recurring theme on an Pintxo bar. Along side the fish there are tortillas, croquets, jamon, mushrooms and other Mystical treats all excellently prepared. You can’t go wrong with any of the pintxos but the Txangurro (spider crab) is a local favorite.
- Bocadillos are more or less baguette sandwiches filled with spanish favorites such as jamon, tortilla de patate or queso de cabra (goats cheese). They are cheap, omnipresent and well loved.
- Sidra is a Spanish apple cider very different than the kinds you may be accustomed to. It is opaque, unaged and tart while being extremely drinkable at 11 percent ABV. You can tell someone has ordered a sidra when the bartender is pouring the bottle nearly 3 feet above the glass. It’s tradition.
- The steak in San Seb is legendary and served best with fresh Basque Country tomatoes and green peppers. They do thick cuts and show you at the table before grilling it rare and topping it with sea salt.
- A San Seb staple and their proudest beer achievement, Keler is something like I have never had before. Creamy on top like a guiness while crisp throughout like a pilsner. I simply couln’t get enough.
Foie a la Plancha
- A goose liver, fried quickly on the grill and topped with sea salt. Should I say more?
Uhmami- Great local sandwich joint
Borda Berri- Great made to order Pintxo place. Try the veal cheeks with red wine sauce
La Chuchara San Telmo- Small join packed with tons of people and big flavors. Hectic getting your food but worth the wait. Get the Lomo, that’s aged beef.
Sirimiri- Modern take on Pintxos but incredibly satisfying
Bar Nestor- Best steak in town, hands down
Where to Stay
San Seb is certainly a seasonal place so hostels are expensive and full in the summer and autumn. Stay at Surfing Etxea. Its in the In Gros district of San Seb near the main surfing beach. Laid back vibes, quiet at night with an excellent bar downstairs. Feels much like a shared flat and may be the cleanest place I have ever stayed in outside of a private hotel room.
What to Do
The best view of the city can be seen from Castillo del Mota which is perched majestically atop Monte Urgull, a large mount near the old town. The top of Monte Urgull gives the only view of both Playa de la Concha and Playa Zurriola and take about 20 minutes to climb up.
Take a stroll on La Concha, the largest beach in San Sebastian
Surf with the crowds at Zurriola
Take a 3 hour coastal hike to Pasaia and find the quiantest Basque village at the end
Wander the chaos that is Parte Vieja and its 250 restaurants and bars
Watch a soccer game at Estadio Anoeta and cheer on Real Sociedad
Learn about Basque history at Museo San Telmo
Watch the sunset and have a beer with locals at El Muro
My time in San Sebastian meant a lot to me. It is not your typical city to spend a month in but the more time you spend, the more things you find to love about a place. I would say it is hands down the best food city I have ever been to. The food has permeatated all parts of the culture and it seems that everyone and their brother takes it incredibly seriously. They have a strong culture and they are proud of it, and don’t you dare call them Spanish. I would avoid San Seb in November because of the rain but it is a wonderful place to spend any amount of time year round. Strikingly beautiful but not in an “in your face” way such as Prague. Small city with a lot to offer, you gotta get there!