For the past decade, I’ve always wanted to visit the Basque Country, specifically San Sebastian. I’ve heard and read so many great things about the city – thanks in part to Anthony Bourdain (who just happened to recently air an episode on San Sebastian on his show “Parts Unknown”). So I looked up flights one day and found some flights from Chicago to Bilbao on United Airlines for about $1,000/ticket. I told Charlie about it and we both agreed that Basque Country should be our spring 2017 trip!
Everything I’ve heard about San Sebastian was that the food is one of the best in the world. So I knew that we would be spending most of our time eating.In planning for our trip, I found a great website – Esko Guide, which was a comprehensive guide about Basque Country and San Sebastian.
We flew into Bilbao and rented a car and drove to San Sebastian. Upon driving into the city, we were in awe of the city’s architecture. It’s simply beautiful! The beach (La Concha) is so grand. Luke could not wait to go to the beach. We did more than just eat in Sebastian! We tried to take in everything the city has to offer – the culture, neighborhoods, architecture, and scenery.
In the next few posts, I’ll be sharing the other parts of the Basque Country that we visited but my first post of this trip is all about San Sebastian. I hope you enjoy!
WHAT WE ATE – PINXTOS
Can I talk about the food there?! If you’re a foodie or just enjoy eating food, I think San Sebastian is worth a visit just to eat your heart out. In Basque Country, they serve “pinxtos” (called “tapas” in other parts of Spain). Pinxtos are usually sliced baguette bread topped with different and appetizing food or miniature culinary creations. Most of the pinxtos bars in San Sebastian are located in Old Town and located near one another where you can can hop from one bar to another.
You can stand at the bar or find a table in the bar. We always opted for a table because Luke did not enjoy standing at the bar since he could’t see everything. If you stand at the bar, you can order from the food on the bar or something from their menu (usually written on a board). You can order one pinxtos or more if you like. If you want more than just one pinxto, ask for a plate and pick your pinxtos and then give the plate to to the bartender (as some of your pinxtos will need to be heated and the bartender needs to count how many you got). Then enjoy your food! When you’re done, let the bartender when you are ready to pay (for some talented reason, these bartenders can remember how much you ate). Most importantly, do not put your used napkins on the table/bar, throw them on the floor.
We normally ordered Txakoli to drink with our food. It’s young white wine that the bartender has a long pour to aerate the wine. I loved it as it was perfect with our pinxtos. Charlie opted for the cider beer.
Some of my favorite pinxtos were the foie gras pinxto from Bar Sport (which was divine…thank you @wanderwonders for the recommendation) and the langoustines from Bar Zeruko. I’m still dreaming about those dishes and my stomach is growling as I am writing this and editing the pictures. You really can’t go wrong with eating anywhere in San Sebastian. The food was consistently good and reasonably priced. Our average tab at a pinxtos bar (3-4 pinxtos and 2 drinks) was about 12 euros. I used this guide from the Savored Journeys blog to help me navigate around the pintxos bars. I’m still bummed we didn’t get to try the steak at Bar Nestor.
WHAT WE DID
When we are not eating, we were walking around sightseeing. The city is the perfect size for walking around. You don’t need to use public transportation or a car to go from place to place. We were so excited to bring Luke’s scooter on this trip that we forgot his stroller and boy did we miss it because he did get tired a few times that we wished we had a stroller.
Explored the Quaint Streets in Parte Vieja (Old Town)
This is where most of the pinxto bars are located. What we loved was that it was mostly pedistrian only streets. It was easy to navigate as the streets are in a grid like system. Luke was able to zip around in his scooter and we were able to peak our heads into some shops.
Ran Around Plaza de la Constitucion
This is the main square in Old Town where bullfights used to be held. I loved seeing the details of the homes – numbering on the doors, which used to be seats numbers to watch bullfights. We walked into a concert here one afternoon and the next, we ran around the plaza in the rain.
Wandered the Bretxa Public Market
On a rainy morning, we wandered to the market to see all the fresh flowers and produce. It made me want to live in San Sebastian so I can buy all of the market items to bring home to cook.
Strolled Along La Concha Beach and the Promenade
We walked along the promenade to get to Mount Igueldo and took in the views of the city at each stop. The beach is about two miles long and we got to see a variety of sanbathers along the way.
Rode the Funicular Up to Mount Igueldo
We took the funicular up to Monte Igueldo to the amusement park only find out it was closed during the weekday. But we ended up eating at the cafe up there and enjoyed the views of city.
PlayED AT the Beach
Luke’s favorite activity was spending time at the beach (La Concha). The water was a bit chilly while we were there but I don’t think he cared. He was just happy he had some beach time.
Played AT the Playground
Luke loved the playground by near the Playa de Concha with a beautiful carousel. It was our first activity when we got there and our last activity when we left.
WENT WINDOW SHOPPING
My goal in San Sebastian was to eat. There was little room for shopping but it was nice to just window shop. Between our Airbnb and Old Town, you can find some really good shopping. Next time, I will have to include shopping in my budget.
WHERE WE STAYED – AIRBNB
We booked the Airbnb in the Larramendi district (aka “the romantic district” due to its Parisian-like architecture). At first I thought was far away from Old Town but San Sebastian is a fairly small town that it wasn’t a far walk from anywhere. We chose to stay in the Airbnb over a hotel because the rate was less and there was more room for all three of us. We are glad we booked the Airbnb as it was located behind the Buen Pastor Cathedral with lots of restaurants right outside our door. We really felt like we were staying where all the locals lived. One of our favorite thing to do was going to the pastry shop across the street for coffee and breakfast, which was about 7 euros for all three of us each morning. The only drawback of staying at our Airbnb was that we had to pay for parking in a lot, which was not only pricey but was about two blocks away.
Our Airbnb was situated near the Buen Pastor Cathedral, which had pedestrian lined streets around it. He really enjoyed zipping his scooter around the square. This was the first trip that we took Luke’s scooter on a trip. We are so glad we brought the scooter because there were so many pedestrian only streets for him to zip his way around.
THINGS WE LEARNED ABOUT SAN SEBASTIAN
- San Sebastian has one of the highest number of Michelin-star restaurants per square meter in the world (behind Kyoto, Japan but ahead of Paris and Lyon). I had every intention to go to at least one Michelin-star restaurant but did not go. We figured Luke may not have the patience for the meal and the length of the meal. But I intend to go the next time we go back.
- The official language in Basque Country is Euskara or Basque. There is no relation to the Spanish language, although most people in San Sebastian speak Spanish and not a lot of English, which was great! We had to immerse ourselves in the culture and language and I was able to use my Spanish speaking skills that I learned in high school and college (which still needs a lot of work).
- The weather was not consistent while we were there. One day it was hot and sunny, the next it was cold and rainy. This area of the world definitely gets a lot of rain.
- You don’t need a car or take public transportation in San Sebastian. The city is small enough to walk. We only rented a car to do day trips to other parts of the Basque Country.
- The people of San Sebastian are so good to kids. Everywhere we went, they treated Luke so well. Always having a treat for him.
- Besides the Michelin-star restaurants, we found the food in San Sebastian to be very affordable. Our average tab at pinxtos bar was about 12 euros for all three of us. Charlie thought he ordered a 12 euro glass of wine at a restaurant, which turned out to be a 12 euro bottle of wine. My interpretation is that good food is available to all, which is the way food should be. I don’t think you will have a bad meal in San Sebastian.