San Sebastian, a beach resort located along the Bay of Biscay and bordering the south of France, is an area of north Spain called The Basque Autonomous Community. In other words, an age old struggle for independence from Spain. A conundrum too tangled to even try to relate.
What is clear is that this area of stunning natural beauty has become an acclaimed international destination with major events including the International Film Festival, the Jazz Festival and August’s Semana Grande (Big Week). A spectacular fireworks display and contest are held over the bay each night with parades of giants and big heads each afternoon.
You won’t find many old buildings in San Sebastian. A devastating fire in 1813 destroyed most of the city. In 1845, Queen Isabella II was sent by her doctor to the sea to cure skin problems. The beautiful people and members of the court began to follow, and by 1900 wealthy Spaniards were flocking to this lovely bay and rebuilt city for summer holidays. Soon Queen Maria Cristina made it her summer residence, and in 1912 a hotel fit for a queen opened bearing her name.
Today Hotel Maria Cristina, situated in the center of the city, is still fit for a queen with soaring columns, opulent chandeliers and rich silk brocades. Nearby is another queenly hotel option, Villa Soro, a lovely renovated 19th century villa.
Attractions not to be missed are the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, built in 1897 in Neo-Gothic style; the modern Kursaal, creatively lit at night; the Miramar Palace; the Aquarium, where you’ll scamper in fear through a glass tunnel with sharks on all sides; Museo de San Telmo, paintings in a former 16th century monastery; Monte Igueldo, gorgeous views from the summit, accessed by funicular railway; and Monte Urgull, where you can walk to the top and be rewarded with breathtaking views and an up-close look at the imposing 12-meter-high Christ statue dominating the landscape of the bay.
Known for its Basque cuisine, San Sebastian boasts the most Michelin stars per square foot in the world. So let’s head for the cocinas (kitchens).
Located in Parte Vieja (Old Town), the traditional core of the city, are the cocinas turning out the best, most creative flavors. Imagine a big, rowdy cocktail party with unlimited guests crowding into pubs on both sides of narrow cobblestone alleys. Basically bar-hopping, this tradition is called Txiquiteo (Chi-kee-TAY-oh). Delicious snacks, similar to tapas, called pintxos (PEEN-chos) are being offered everywhere. Anchovies and olives, foie gras and carmelized onions, crab and salmon, all held together by toothpicks — toothpicks counted as you leave to tally your bill.
Be sure to try Bar Martinez, Atari Gastroteka, Bar Ondara and La Cuchera de San Telmo. For a more civilized, sit-down experience, there’s Arzak, one of the top 10 restaurants in the world; Mugaritz, another best in the world; Bar Nestor, for a great bar; and Raviolina for family dining.
After all the pintxos grazing, how about a hike? A glorious half-day hike along St. James Way, over the Ulia Mountain from San Sebastian to the charming fishing village of Pasaia. Once there, you can cross the picturesque inlet by boat and stop at the seafront Txulotxo restaurant for grilled fish dishes or a local favorite, Casa Camara.
The golden sands of La Concha, Zurriola and Ondarreta beaches create a unique promenade and are enveloped by deep blue seas and lush green mountains. Queens Isabel and Maria discovered a slice of heaven more than 100 years ago. You will, too.