The city of San Sebastián in northern Spain curls along the edge of a semicircular bay that forms part of the Bay of Biscay—itself a sort of gruff, spitting chunk of the Atlantic Ocean that rewards sailors just by letting them survive. Whereas the city center facing the ocean is mostly flat, the outskirts look attractively pastoral—where sheep flocks graze along green slopes beside wooden farmhouses that appear Tyrolean.
To appreciate this city of almost 190,000 residents, begin by walking. Coastal stretches, harbor walls and trails curling around a peak invite exploration. Old town—at the base of Mount Urgull—is similar to Italy’s Genoa in being both charming and architecturally alluring, yet also sometimes mildly gritty and graffiti splashed. It includes intriguing views of cobbled alleys or churches around any corner—keeping visitors alert. (Genoa and San Sebastián were jointly declared ‘European Capitals of Christmas’ in December by an international jury and former president of the European Parliament.)
During late afternoons—after 4 p.m.—city residents often pour outside for exercise and fresh air and perhaps final errands, shopping and cocktails. They roam on foot and bicycle and scooters with shopping bags and surf boards and yapping terriers. You may see a grandpa wearing an ash-colored beret pushing a baby stroller, or a couple bantering on a park bench. Locals are emotionally expressive, and animated discourse is a kind of sport here.
Sunlight is both balm and tonic to locals, who appear to be more denizens than residents along this gorgeous bay with its quick gusts and deep purple waves. July is the sunniest and driest month in San Sebastián, but even the coldest month of January is accommodating—with an average temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 Celsius).
As you wander to explore, walk down Mollaberria Kalea harbor wall as sailors pull off covers from moored harbor boats and parents amble with children. Or, pace down Boulevard Zumardia between old town and city center—an attractive amble that includes a sidewalk dozens of feet wide. It leads, brilliantly, toward gorgeous coastal views.
The city includes ample stalls, stores and markets selling food—which is ubiquitous and international. On the waterfront road of Zurriola Hiribidea at a store called the Loaf you can buy a Spanish bocadillo (baguette sandwich) or focaccia (Italian flat bread) or even more American ‘blonde brownie.’ At the black marble exterior or Pastelleria Otaegui, peer at displays of cherry dabbed cookies and small bathtub sized cakes called turron. Seafood is obviously abundant: mosey down San Juan street with its open-air fruit and vegetable and fish stalls where you can buy oysters, crabs, Madagascar langoustines, or local mussels (mejillón gallego).
San Sebastián includes distinct elements that, collectively, differentiate it from other Spanish cities.
While pacing, you may hear pedestrians on cell phones repeating the Spanish words vale, venga, and ahora (‘okay,’ ‘come,’ and ‘now’)—referring to sympathy, movement and time—key pillars of awareness for the Basque people. This is because San Sebastián is part of Basque country (the city is named Donostia in the local Euskara language). The Basque have historically been considered a hardy lot (Roman legionnaires avoided them) with a language (seen on signposts and spoken by many residents) with thoroughly mysterious origins.
Another distinct element of San Sabastián is its deep and often rugged maritime history.
Almost five centuries ago, Basque sailors began traversing the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland to catch cod and whales. Fishing provided nutritional and economic sustenance, and helped forge San Sebastián’s maritime identity.
Yet seafaring was a challenge.
If you enter Vasco Maritime Museum (Museo Maritimo Vasco, or Euskal Itsas Museoa) along the San Sebastián waterfront, there is an exhibit highlighting onboard conditions for 16th century sailors. In the year 1542, for example, Ruy López de Villalobos—a renowned Spanish explorer who sailed the Pacific and named the Philippines—provided instructions to captains regarding crew members with the responsibility to keep guard, or ‘watch.’
‘Who sleeps on watch and is found asleep … if he holds rank, shall lose that rank … and should he fall asleep again, then he shall be thrown into the sea …’
(Villalobos died of fever while languishing in a tropical island prison.)
Shipboard conditions for sailors could be cold and dank. Hunger was rife. Scholar and explorer Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed with Magellan, wrote in the early 16th century that ‘even the rats, so repugnant to man, came to be such an expensive delicacy, each one being paid for at half a ducat …’
These brutal sailing conditions have vanished within the Bay of Biscay. Today, even in deep winter, dozens of young children regularly take sailing lessons along the Bay of La Concha during weekends—for sport rather than as any requisite training for a lifestyle.
A third distinct facet of San Sebastián is the city’s reputation for cuisine. There are 11 Michelin starred restaurants in the city—a high concentration. These can be pricey within a generally inexpensive urban center—resulting in a somewhat incongruous local culinary economy, where dining prices range from surprisingly low to sky high. Slip into Kantoi café for a milky coffee costing less than two Euros and you begin to understand that this city is not only inspiring, but eminently affordable.
However, and attractively, there is often little spatial division between eateries, regardless of their reputation for quality or cost. In the alley (or ‘kalea’) of Fermín Calbetón you’ll find Michelin starred Bodegon Alejandro clustered with multiple other restaurants—known as Jatexea in the Basque language—such as Jose Mari or Zumeltzegi. Select your budget and choose—it is difficult to be disappointed with food choices and quality here.
To better understand the local culinary culture, begin with staples. Try eating pinxtos and drinking txakoli. Pinxtos are hot or cold snacks similar to large tapas—sizable enough to hold in one hand, but with enough food that you’ll also need a napkin.
In his book Famous Pinxtos if Donostia – San Sebastián, Josema Azpeitia lists characteristics of each: a pinxto is an independent culinary preparation, and not part of a larger serving such as an omlette; it is an ‘individual concoction with various ingredients, tastefully put together to provide a specific sensation in the mouth. It is a miniature dish.’
Also—you should be able to eat a pinxto in two or three bites; it is skewered by a toothpick, and is paid for (not free, as are tapas).
Txakoli is an acidic, low-alcohol and sometimes fizzy white wine that is usually poured from a bottle held high—like mint tea poured from a pot in a Morocco—to aerate the juice. This attractive sounding wine is made from sonorously named grapes—Hondurrabi Zuri and Hondurrabi Beltza. Both ‘pinxtos ‘and ‘txakoli’ include the letter ‘x’ because of its prevalence in the local Euskara language, itself topic enough for a book.
Choose from any of multiple pinxto bars to visit on, say, Plaza de Bilbao. One may include octopus and potatoes, and another ham and pimiento pepper. At a bar named Ambrosio, the ‘El Matrimonio’ (the marriage) pinxto includes white and dark anchovies, garlic and black pepper. There is also the original ‘Gilda’ pinxto—named after the 1946 Rita Hayworth movie—that includes an olive, pickled green chili peppers and a salted anchovy.
This city with an expansive bay highlights exploration and cuisine. It rewards—constantly and with surprises—the joy of wandering. I first visited and wrote about this city five years ago, ending the piece with the words: ‘This is a city to return to.’