Why go now?
This glamorous resort-city is European Capital of Culture 2016 (alongside Wroclaw in Poland). The honour boosts the style and appeal of San Sebastian, which has also become a gastronomic hub. In addition, the city known as Donostia in Basque gets its first air link from the UK next month, in the shape of flights from Luton.
Twice a week from 26 July, Air Nostrum (bookable through Iberia, 0870 609 0500; iberia.com) will link Luton with San Sebastian’s dramatically located airport (1), perched beside the river which marks the Franco-Spanish border, 12 miles east of the city. The airport is connected to the city by a number of buses, of which the E21 is the fastest – it takes the autopista into San Sebastian, in less than half an hour for a fare of just €2.45. It arrives at the city’s well-concealed underground bus station (2).
If the timings or fares from Luton don’t work for you, the most direct route is via Biarritz, across the border in France. You can fly from Birmingham with Flybe (0371 700 2000; flybe.com), Gatwick with easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com), from Heathrow with British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) or from Stansted with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com). Pesa buses (00 34 902 101 210; pesa.net) link Biarritz airport (3) with San Sebastian’s bus station (2) about seven times a day, taking around 45 minutes for a fare of €7 (€13.15 return). For a prettier journey, make the 25-minute walk from the airport to Biarritz railway station (4), take the half-hour train ride to the French border station at Hendaye (5) and the narrow-gauge rail line from there to Amara station (6) in San Sebastian; the trip takes around two hours all in and costs under €10.
A third approach is via Bilbao, 60 miles to the west, which is served from Gatwick by Vueling (0905 078 1000; vueling.com), from Heathrow by BA and from Stansted by easyJet. From Bilbao airport (7), Pesa operates hourly buses from 7.45am to 11.45pm to the bus station (1). The trip takes 85 minutes and costs €17.10.
Get your bearings
The corrugated Basque coastline is punctuated by two towering headlands: Monte Igueldo (8) to the west and Monte Urgull (9) to the east. Between them lies the scallop-shaped bay of La Concha (“The Shell”), offering a long, broad, safe and sandy beach. Santa Clara island (10) stands between the shore and the Bay of Biscay. The tightly knitted and slightly skewed grid of streets comprising the Parte Vieja (Old Town) sits beneath Monte Urgull, and extends east to the Urumea river. At the heart of the Old Town is the Plaza de la Constitucion (11) – a lovely square with predictably good coffee opportunities, and numbers on the upper galleries from the days when it was used as a bullring.
Across the river to the east, the Gros district extends inland from Zurriola beach. To the south of the Old Town, Centro is the main commercial district. Between is the wedge-shaped Alameda del Boulevard, with the tourist office (12) located on the north side at number 8 (00 34 943 48 11 66; sansebastianturismo.com). From this week it opens 9am-8pm daily (10am-7pm on Sundays).
The Hotel de Londres y Inglaterra (13) perches haughtily on the seafront at Calle Zubieta 2 (00 34 943 44 07 70; hlondres.com). It was built in 1865 as a summer residence for Queen Isabel II – who had a skin condition that she treated with sea water in San Sebastian. The monarch was chased out in the Glorious Revolution of 1868, leaving the property to serve as casino, hospital and finally a 148-room hotel. It has been upgraded in the past few years and now styles itself a boutique hotel. Advance rates for June are typically €232 double, excluding breakfast. The hotel’s loyalty scheme, which is free to join and gives a 4 per cent discount for direct bookings, is called the Mata Hari Club, after one of the hotel’s past guests. Another famous visitor was Toulouse Lautrec.
The Hostal Alemana (14) occupies part of a large, elegant building at Calle San Martin 53 (00 34 943 462 544; hostalalemana.com), and is clean, friendly and comfortable; furthermore, the peak-season double-room rate is a relative bargain at €150 without breakfast.
For lower budgets, there is a good choice of pensiones and hostales in the Old Town and Centro. When San Sebastian fills up, a good option is to the south of the city beside the football stadium. The Hotel Anoeta (15) at Paseo de Anoeta 30 (00 34 943 45 14 99; hotelanoeta.com) is a well-run and comfortable budget option about a half-hour walk from the Old Town. I paid €121 for a twin room without breakfast.
Take a view
From the north-west corner of the Old Town, beside the fishing port (16), ascend the steps towards Monte Urgull. You reach a path which you follow west to the Paseo de los Curas (17) – an excellent platform for views across La Concha to the city and the hills beyond. Then you can zig-zag up towards the summit. Or continue on a circuit of the headland, passing an old British war cemetery (18) – where some of the servicemen who died in the two-month Siege of San Sebastian in 1813 are buried; the British and Portuguese ejected the French occupiers, but most of the Old Town was destroyed in the aftermath.
Take a hike
At 11am each morning (weekends only in winter), an English-language guided walk called San Sebastian Esencial departs from the tourist office (9), price €10. The fascinating two-hour tour focuses on the Old Town and includes a sneak preview of the San Telmo Museoa (19) (see Cultural Afternoon below).
Out to lunch
Just along from the tourist office (9), the historic Brexta market (20) has dozens of stalls selling local produce, from which you could assemble a picnic. Or pull up a stool at the curving counter of the market’s Bar Azkena if you prefer someone else to prepare your lunch. You could have your first taste of pintxos (like tapas, but more substantial) or just order a slice of the excellent tortilla.
Retail central comprises the southernmost three blocks of Calle Loyola, the parallel Calle Fuenterrabia and the perpendicular Calle San Martzial. To reach the area from Alameda, follow Calle de Hernani and its continuation, Loyola, towards the soaring, neo-gothic Catedral del Buen Pastor. Stop at the Mercado San Martin (21), a 21st-century replacement for the old 19th-century market, with a curious mix of major European brands such as Zara and Fnac alongside stalls selling Basque gastronomic delicacies.
A decade ago, the San Telmo Museoa (19) occupied a cloistered 16th-century Dominican convent snuggling up to the base of Monte Urgull at Plaza de Zuloaga 1 (00 34 943 48 15 80; santelmomuseoa.com). Today, it still does – but it has expanded dramatically into a 21st-century exposition of Basque culture. It opens 10am-8pm daily except Mondays, admission €6 (free on Tuesdays).
You could spend a fortnight in San Sebastian and never go out for a proper dinner, thanks to the variety – and value – of pintxos. Calle 31 de Agosto is the street with the highest concentration of options.
On the corner of Calle Mayor, Atari (22) offers the option of standing at the bar and picking from the pre-prepared plates, or ordering from waiters. Specialities include home-cured (smoked) salmon (€3.50) and cod confit with Basque peppers (€4). To drink, try an aerated glass of txakoli, a very dry, young Basque white wine.
The bar with the densest crowds – attracted by new Basque cuisine – is La Cuchara de San Telmo (23), tucked slightly around the corner on Calle Santa Corda. Through the jostle, try to catch the eye of the bar staff to order bites of steak or tuna in heavenly sauces. Wash it down with a glass of the rough-edged local cider, sagardoa.
Dine with the locals
Back on Calle 31 de Agosto at number 31 is the fiercely red-and-black A Fuego Negro (24) (00 34 650 135 373; afuegonegro.com). The €40 tasting menu – which will generously feed two or three – includes olives with vermouth, crab with avocado and liquorice, and octopus with green apple and violet potato.
Sunday morning: go to church
The gothic Iglesia San Vicente (25) is the oldest surviving building in San Sebastian – mainly 16th-century, with 12th-century origins. Age is etched on its sandstone exterior, while inside the altar, wood carvings and stained glass are impressive. Bilingual Basque/Spanish masses take place at 10.30am on Sundays.
Out to brunch
Few places in the Parte Vieja open before noon on a Sunday; one of the exceptions is the Maiatza Cafe (26) at Calle Embeltran 3 (00 34 943 43 06 00), which dishes up excellent coffee and tortillas from 9am. If you prefer to be by the water, the Cafe de la Concha (27) on the seafront (00 34 943 473 600) has some outdoor tables and an appetising morning menu.
Take a ride
Bus E01 runs half-hourly on Sundays (more frequently during the rest of the week) from a stop on the Alameda close to the tourist office (12) out to Pasai Donibane (28), a remarkable Basque village that clings to a ribbon of flat land beside a fine natural harbour. Besides viewing some impressive architecture, you can visit the one-time home of Victor Hugo, who lived here in 1743; his house is now a museum (00 34 943 341 556), open 9am-2pm and 4-7pm daily (July and August; shorter hours at other times), admission free.
A walk in the hills
Take the small ferry that shuttles across the harbour mouth to Pasai San Pedro (29). Turn right and follow the well-marked trail across the hills to San Sebastian – a journey of about five miles that takes two to three hours. It is a stretch of the Camino de Santiago, which takes pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. This portion begins with a steep climb but soon settles into an invigorating ramble through muscular scenery, punctuated with structures such as a lighthouse and a watchtower used to spot whales. The final stretch reveals great views of San Sebastian.
The icing on the cake
You could cool off at the end the walk by plunging into the sea from Zurriola Beach – but if San Sebastian’s unpredictable weather is inclement, you can watch some swimming rather than taking part. Continue to the Aquarium (30) beside the fishing port at Plaza Carlos Blasco de Imaz (00 34 943 440 099; aquariumss.com). From turtles to sharks, some of the seafood that is not consumed in the city’s restaurants is on display in a handsome 1928 structure. The highlight is a walk-through sub-aqua tunnel. The aquarium opens 10am-8pm daily (opening and closing an hour later at weekends), admission €13.