Brave souls take a plunge any time of year — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Despite the fact that gray-skied drizzle and sluggish jet lag marked my first day in San Sebastián, I instantaneously - excitedly - fell under its spell.
The drab weather didn’t stop locals from gathering at tiled-sidewalk tables, leisurely sipping wine and cappuccinos along wide boulevards boasting grand architecture and a uniquely Buenos Aires-meets-seaside-English-village feel.
Along the turquoise coast, surfers still plunged into the chilly waves as daring swimmers eased their way in, wearing snug suits and caps.
Explore the lively and lovely Parte Vieja — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
In San Sebastián (or "Donostia" in the local Euskara language), an elegant and prosperous Basque town on Spain's northern coast, a stream of shoppers, tourists, business folks, dog walkers and well-coiffed residents steadily file down picturesque streets, and yet a mellow hum pervades even the busiest intersections.
Colorful produce and enticing pastries beckon from cafe windows, while alluring aromas waft down the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Parte Vieja (Old Town).
As the city with the second highest Michelin stars per capita in the world, San Sebastián has gained global buzz for its gastronomical riches–and rightly so. Yet, you'll discover a bounty of treasures here that extend well beyond the palate.
Stroll the beach near San Sebastián's Old Town — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Whether you land here by serendipitous accident or as part of a carefully-hatched plan, chances are you'll swiftly elevate this welcoming destination to the top of your list. And we're not the only ones who've taken notice, as San Sebastián has been designated European Capital of Culture 2016.
Find below some ideas on how to best enjoy this Spanish gem - relishing highlights ranging from savory to sweet and sassy to sleek.
In its guest rooms and downstairs viewing room, Astoria7 pays homage to the annual San Sebastián International Film Festival — Photo courtesy of Astoria7
1) Stay like a star. As any seasoned traveler knows, getting oneself properly situated carries great importance. Hotel Astoria7 boasts a conveniently walkable address in a nice part of town, landing guests just minutes from the bus station. (San Sebastián-Donostia is about an hour-long bus ride from the Bilbao airport.)
The sleek boutique hotel offers 102 rooms that pay homage to actors and directors who've graced the spotlight of the annual International Film Festival of San Sebastián. Aside from the hotel's quirky and creative ambiance, guests enjoy top-notch amenities, friendly service and its prime location.
Stay in film-centric style at a charming boutique hotel–Astoria7 — Photo courtesy of Astoria7
During the pleasant walk into the city center and charming Old Town (a 20 to 25-minute stroll), grab breakfast at one of countless bakeries where San Sebastián's proximity to France becomes deliciously evident.
At casual cafes like Ogi Berri, grab a croissant, coffee and zumo (fresh juice) for just a few Euro; closer to the hotel, pick up local delicacies at gorgeous, upscale market Don Serapio Kultura Gastronomia (think cheeses, meats, fresh produce, chocolate, etc.)
Grab a quick cafe breakfast that's affordable and scrumptious — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
2) Do the (tapas) crawl. After all, isn't this the main reason you've come? Make the rounds to enjoy delectable, bite-sized pintxos (Basque-style tapas). Of the many venues we visited, the old-school, traditional bars proved some of our favorites.
We quickly became entranced by narrow, lively spaces marked by minimal decor flair, no-nonsense servers behind the bar (who slowly warmed, revealing easy laughs and subtle kindness) and tiled floors dotted with toothpicks and crumpled napkins.
An alluring lineup takes over ever restaurant bar — Photo courtesy of San Sebastián Turismo
At Paco Bueno, Paco’s nephew delivered tasty fried prawns complemented by Basque cider; at Borda Berra, stand-outs proved the veal cheeks, orzo risotto with mushrooms and grilled octopus.
Inside the bustling scene at Atari, happy patrons snacked on piparrak (Basque peppers) and croquettes, among other tasty gems, while other revelers took their beverages alfresco to be enjoyed on the cathedral steps outside.
Tip: To get even more adventurous, consider ordering "off-piste," veering away from items listed on the menu posted on the wall.
San Sebastián proves a feast for the eyes (and all senses) — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
3) Arrive hungry and thirsty. These people know how to celebrate the good things in life. Savor the drinks of the region, from local wines to txakolí (cha-koh-LEE) - the local sparkling, white wine. Bartenders pour the high-acid, low-alcohol beverage from a theatrically-high height, allegedly forcing air into the wine and creating a light froth on top, revitalizing the wine.
Pinxtos is the name of the game in this city — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
4) Surf's up. Check out another of this town’s surprising identities: surf Mecca. Wander over to Zurriola Beach to watch the pros - or try the sport for yourself with lessons.
Explore the areas of Sagüés, on the Paseo de la Zurriola, and the district of Gros, packed with bars, pubs, restaurants and shops geared toward the surfing crowd.
Directly across from the beach, grab a drink (hot or cold) from Khaki Campbell, a chic coffee shop-meets-wine bar. Think mellow music, sleek, dark woods and modern, industrial touches plus a menu that includes quiches, wraps and beverages from lattes to local beers.
The aquarium's tank measures measures 30 meters long and 16 meters wide — Photo courtesy of San Sebastián Turismo
5) Maritime memories. Chances are you didn't come to San Sebastián for its aquarium, but it turns out this town has a great one.
En route to the waterside venue–part traditional aquarium, part maritime-focused museum–wander past the charismatic homes (with laundry dangling between shuttered windows) and colorful wooden boats that enliven the town's old port.
Learn about Basque whaling and boatbuilding traditions, and wander through an aquarium tunnel as local fish and tiger sharks swim overhead.
Moody blues mark this beautiful destination — Photo courtesy of San Sebastián Turismo
6) Treat Yourself. If you've come to indulge, you’re in the right place. True foodies will be thrilled to learn that–of the seven 3-Michelin star restaurants in Spain–three can be found in San Sebastián: Akelarre, Arzak and Martín Berasategui.
For upscale pinxtos, Bar Zeruko ranks high on the “wow” factor, thanks to beautifully-crafted creations that are as beautiful to ogle as they are to eat.
Indulge in dramatic dining at Ni Neu, which means “I Myself” in Basque, and is located inside the Kursaa.
For a special nightcap, sip a cocktail at the Maria Christina, where even the simple gin and tonic is allegedly out of this world.
Art meets function on the pinxtos scene — Photo courtesy of San Sebastián Turismo
7) Bust a move. Offset some of those delightful calories you've ingested by joining in on this active city's love for the Great Outdoors.
Take advantage of citywide cycling lanes, seaside running paths and cliffside hiking trails, or soak in San Sebastián's hosted sporting events throughout the year that range from marathons and horse races to trainera regattas (involving rowing boats originally used for fishing).
Folks stay on the move in this active city — Photo courtesy of San Sebastián Turismo
8) A perfect playa. Walk along the golden sands of the downtown beach, bookended by twin peaks, watching hearty swimmers push off into the turquoise waters of the bay of La Concha.
Stroll the elegant promenade, gelato in hand, or relax by the spinning carousel.
Grab a table at beachside Café de la Concha, or truly unwind at La Perla del Oceano, a health center and spa that makes use of seawater to offer "the best [relaxing] therapies and body toning programmes."
Grab a seat in the plaza, and simply take it all in — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
9) Culture HQ. Plan ahead to enjoy events celebrating San Sebastián's designation as European Capital of Culture 2016.
The city regularly hosts annual events honoring the arts - from the International Jazz Festival and Quincena Musical to the Surf Film Festival and, of course, the San Sebastián International Film Festival, considered the most important such event in the Spanish-speaking world.
San Sebastián's architecture mixes old with the new — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
10) Field trips. Sure, you could spend countless days exploring the pinxtos circuit here, or - if you're in the region long enough - consider renting a car or joining an organized tour to explore beyond city limits.
Enjoy an agrotourism adventure by staying in a traditional caserio (country house), get acquainted with the delicious wines of the Rioja Alaversa region, savor the stupendous art on display at The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, or pop over to Biarritz (less than an hour by car) to spend an afternoon in France.
No matter how you choose to explore this tremendous town, we promise you'll leave feeling relaxed, content and fully sated–though still hungry for more of this beautiful Basque way of life.