From where to eat the best pintxos to the most beautiful city views, this San Sebastian itinerary is the perfect introduction to the city.
Question: do you have a bucket list? That list of places that you hope to visit one day in your life.
One thing I love about a bucket list is that they’re 100% personal. A place that’s top of my list might not be somewhere you’ve ever dreamt of travelling to, and vice-versa. As a foodie, there were seven cities I’ve always wanted to eat my way around: Tokyo, Bologna, Lyon, Singapore, Montreal, New Orleans and San Sebastian.
Over the last few years I’ve eaten fresh sushi in Tokyo, sampled rich Lyonnaise cuisine in Lyon, cracked some crawfish in New Orleans, and just weeks ago I feasted on fresh tortellini in Bologna. There was only one dream foodie city left on my foodie bucket list, and it turns out I might have saved the best until last!
San Sebastian is renowned for its amazing food scene. Every year, many people visit this city in northern Spain for a wining and dining experience like no other. It’s hardly surprising, after all San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque Country has the most Michelin-starred eateries per capita in Europe. In fact, there are more in this one city per capita than in London, and that’s really saying something!
There are two sides to eating out in San Sebastian. You can opt for high-end cuisine, enjoying Michelin starred tasting menus, or eat the local way with dish after dish of pintxos.
Pintxos are small dishes, often placed on a slice of bread or a skewer, providing tasty flavour experiences. They’re usually devoured in a few mouthfuls, so the best way to immerse yourself in the food scene is to bar hop around the old town, enjoying a little bite and a drink at several spots. Basically, it’s time to go on your very own pintxos tour!
While the excellent cuisine might be the main reason for your visit, it turns out San Sebastian is a beautiful city with plenty to do. There are pretty walks, great viewpoints, historic landmarks, great shops and plenty more on offer. Lucky really, as if you’re really going to get the most out of your city break in San Sebastian, you’ll need to walk off a few pintxos to make room for the next round!
While the top-notch cuisine might be the main reason for your visit, it turns out San Sebastian is also a really beautiful city with plenty to do. I’ve always loved cities by the ocean (Barcelona, Nice, Split to name a few) so I had a feeling I’d like it in San Sebastian. There are pretty walks, pretty viewpoints, historic landmarks, quirky shops and plenty more. Pretty lucky really, as if you’re really going to truly this city, you’ll need to walk off a few pintxos to make room for the next round!
If you’re just starting to plan your San Sebastian itinerary, I’ve packed this guide full of travel tips, so you can make the most of every single second!
Travelling with Original Travel
Our trip was organised by Original Travel, who specialise in luxury tailor-made holidays. They believe that as no two travellers are the same, no two itineraries would ever be identical either. Their team took care of all the hard work, so that all we had to do was relax and enjoy ourselves.
We spoke to the team and outlined the kind of trip we’d be interested in doing, how many days we had available and what our interests are. They then plotted out an itinerary with a mix of guided and self-guided elements, plus travel and accommodation.
One of my favourite things about this trip was the ‘meet and assist’ service at Gatwick Airport. I’m a frequent traveller, so why would I need help checking in and going through security? Well, I don’t but wow does it have perks! We were met from our train by Paul, who then fast-tracked us to the premier check in desk, then whizzed us through the fast-track security to a fancy lounge. He collected us just before our flight and waved us off! What a luxury service, and something that’d be ideal for anxious or elderly travellers, or those with children. It really did make the airport experience stress-free.
Original Travel also included three tours on our San Sebastian itinerary: a pintxos tour, a wine tour and a cookery class. Each was the ideal fit for our interests. There was even an app and a personal concierge service, meaning we could call or text someone on the ground in Spain, who would help sort any queries during the holiday.
The accommodation that was selected for us was also a great match for our travel style. We were thoroughly impressed with the service by Original Travel and would definitely recommend the company if you’re looking for a stress-free personalised luxury holiday. While we tested out one of their Spain holidays, they can organise trips worldwide, so I’d recommend taking a look at the website here for more information.
So, back to the itinerary. Are you ready to dive in and find out my top tips for visiting San Sebastian? Vamos!
The Ultimate San Sebastian Itinerary
Go on a Pintxos tour in San Sebastian old town
It can be a bit of a minefield knowing where to eat in a new city, so I was so happy that Original Travel found a great food tour for our first evening. Our guide Veronica was passionate about food, storytelling and the history of the city. Over the course of three hours we ate our way around the pretty streets of the Parte Vieja (Old Town).
We learned all about the pintxos culture, what to order, how to order and where to find the tastiest morsels in town! Oh, and of course we needed a drink to go with each dish, so we were pretty merry by the end, sampling numerous local wines throughout the evening!
I’d 100% recommend adding a food tour to your San Sebastian itinerary. Yes, you could easily bar hop on your own, but you’ll appreciate the ingredients, the dishes and the Basque Country cuisine a whole lot more with a bit of insider knowledge.
If you’re visiting the city for a foodie break too, I’d recommend reading my guide to the best pintxos in San Sebastian. This post includes a really handy map to make eating your way around the city even easier!
Catch the Monte Igueldo Funicular
San Sebastian city centre is nestled between some small mountains, with lush, green undulating scenery all around. One of my favourite activities in San Sebastian is to catch the old funicular up to the top of Monte Igueldo. I loved hopping on board the ancient carriages of the bright red funicular (built in 1912) and watching as the views expanded below. It takes you up around 350m, which would be pretty painful to walk!
Once at the top you’ll have one of the best views of San Sebastian, stretching right along La Concha beach to the old town and Monte Urgull. It’s spectacular! If you’ve seen photos of the city, with Santa Clara Island in the centre, most likely they were taken from this spot.
Sadly, during our visit, the famous fairground at the top was closed. In peak season though you can enjoy stepping back in time on the vintage fairground rides, which include a wooden rollercoaster, a haunted house and a traditional carousel.
Book a cookery class in San Sebastian
I’ve already mentioned how visiting pintxos bars with a local gave me a greater understanding of the Basque culture. But, shopping for ingredients in the local markets and cooking with a chef gave me a whole new appreciation for the regional cuisine. Original Travel organised a five-hour cookery experience with a top chef from Mimo, focused on fresh fish and seafood.
We started the day at a marisqueria (fish market) in the centre of the city, learning about all of the interesting sea creatures caught close by. We also went to Mercado de la Bretxa, the city’s main market to pick up more ingredients, including some tasty Basque cheeses. Seeing the locals go about their daily shopping, interacting with market stall owners and sampling the fresh produce gave us lots of guidance, but also the confidence to return on our own!
Back in the kitchen at Mimo we created several dishes with the help of skilled chef Pato. These included gooseneck barnacles, a raw prawn carpaccio, cod jowl with green tear peas and red mullet in a dashi broth with smoky aubergine. It’s fair to say we made some gourmet dishes, but most were with ingredients I’d never worked with before. What a great introduction to modern Basque cuisine!
Trek to the top of Monte Urgull
In between all the feasting, you’ll no doubt be looking for a few places for some exercise! I mean you need to burn off a few pintxos to make room for your next plate! One of my favourite scenic hikes was from next to the San Telmo Museum up to the top of Monte Urgull. There are several options of trails, and the one we picked offered a lovely mix of coastal views and woodland.
At the top you’ll find the 12m Sagrado Corazón statue, Castillo de la Mota, a chapel and the English Cemetery. The views over La Concha and the coast are stunning, especially if you visit on a sunny day.
If you get thirsty, I’d recommend stopping at Urgulleko Polboriña. This small café bar is perched on the edge of Monte Urgull and offers one of the best views in the entire city. For a couple of Euros, you can relax with that epic view as a backdrop – heavenly!
Sample some of San Sebastian’s most famous dishes
While I’d definitely recommend booking a pintxos tour for your trip to San Sebastian, there are a few bars that are pretty legendary, for all the right reasons. They’ve been serving great food for a long time, are mentioned in all the guides, and they’re busy because they’re good!
So what would I recommend? Well, you simply have to try San Sebastian’s most famous pintxos: the Gilda. This is a skewer stacked with three pickled peppers, two olives and one anchovy. It’s salty, spicy and pickley all in one.
I’d recommend visiting Bar Nestor or La Viña for the city’s famous txuleta – a rib steak that’s usually enormous and served pink with a tasty crack of salt over the top. Order sides of tomato salad and pimientos (fried padron peppers) to go with it. YUM!
To finish? You have to try the famous San Sebastian cheesecake at La Viña! It’s a baked cheesecake, with a smooth, creamy middle and a burnt caramelised outside. I can confirm, after two portions (!!) it’s absolutely delicious!
Relax on La Concha
How about spending the day on San Sebastian’s most famous beach? La Concha is often regarded as one of the best urban beaches in Europe. The large bay is just under a mile long and has glorious golden sand, a chic promenade and is topped with a scattering of bars and restaurants. Set behind you’ll be able to spot the vast Miramar Palace, a late 19th-century palace built for the Spanish Royal Family.
Choose your patch of sand, enjoy a spot of sunbathing or take a refreshing dip in the water. The water here is sheltered by the peninsulas of Mount Urgull and Mount Igueldo, as well as Santa Clara Island. It’s also a lovely place to go stand up paddle boarding or kayaking.
Learn about Txakoli on a wine tour
Before our pintxos tour in San Sebastian, I’d never heard of Txakoli. It’s a variety of wine produced in this region of Spain, that’s dry and lightly sparkling. I quickly learned how delicious it was, and had several glasses on our city break!
It turns out some of the vineyards are just 20-minutes from the city centre making this one of the best day trips from San Sebastian. Isn’t that amazing? Original Travel organised for us to visit Hirutza for a wine tour and tasting. I was in awe of the scenery! Big mountains, sweeping valleys and rows of vines lay before us. It really is the most spectacular location!
After touring the winery and learning about the production of Txakoli, we sat down in the sunshine and enjoyed three wines paired with tasty pintxos. This was one of the highlights of our San Sebastian itinerary! Sitting there enjoying the natural beauty of northern Spain while sipping on light and elegant wines – what’s not to love?!
Go shopping in San Sebastian Old Town
It’s a given that you’ll spend a lot of your evenings in San Sebastian old town, but I’d recommend making time to visit the skinny streets during the daytime too. While some of the tapas bars will be closed, you’ll discover a maze of independent stores selling stylish clothing, homewares and foods. I particularly liked the surfer shops, selling cute and colourful beachwear.
Many tourist city centres are filled with souvenir stores, but the heart of San Sebastian doesn’t seem to have that. You really can have an enjoyable and authentic shopping experience.
Catch some surf on Zurriola Beach
One of the things we enjoyed about the location of our accommodation was that it was a few minutes’ walk from La Zurriola. This beach is popular with surfers and is a great place for people watching. From complete beginners having their first lessons, to pros tearing up the waves, you’ll find people of all abilities here.
There are several restaurants and cafes across the road in the Gros neighbourhood too. This district is pretty hip and cool, and has a younger feel than the old town.
Walk or run along Paseo Nuevo
I love it when a destination has a proper promenade along the coast, and in San Sebastian there’s Paseo Nuevo. This ‘new promenade’ surrounds the base of Mount Urgull and provides a great route for walkers, joggers, dog walkers and cyclists who love to get close to the ocean!
I loved my early morning run along here. With the sea breeze in my hair and sounds of the crashing waves – it definitely made a change to my London park runs!
Enjoy a Michelin-Starred meal
There are 11 Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian, so if you’re visiting for a foodie-themed trip, I’d recommend booking one special meal. Yes, they’re expensive, but they offer a chance to try some of the best food on the planet. This is a city filled with top chefs, expressing their creativity through food. How exciting is that?!
The top ranking of three stars goes to Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui, while Mugaritz and Amelia have two Michelin stars. I dream of visiting one of these one day, but we decided to start with one star restaurant Mirador de Ulia. This is a restaurant offering a gastronomic experience packed full of Basque Country flavours and ingredients, with the most incredible view. It’s located in the hill overlooking Zurriola Beach, so from your table you’ll have sweeping panoramas of the entire city.
We enjoyed an 11-course tasting menu, which featured duck, artichoke, pork tartar, fish and clams. One of my favourite dishes looked just like an apple, but actually contained a cider granita! It really played with my mind! There were also some fun moments of theatre as clams were set on fire by the table and a crepe suzette was scorched with a blow torch.
Get to know the Gros neighbourhood
Looking for the trendy side of San Sebastian? Leave the old town behind and head to the Gros neighbourhood. This youthful part of the city has La Zurriola surf beach at the front, followed by several streets of lively pintxos bars, hipster cafes and clothing stores.
Looking for somewhere to eat? Don’t miss Bergara, Bar Ricardo, Pagadi, Matalauva, The Loaf bakery and the ever-popular Bodega Donostiarra Gros. For a gastronomic (and very photogenic) food experience check out the tasting menu at Galerna Jan Edan. In terms of shops, don’t mix Six Store on the seafront and Oh Lala.
Where to stay in San Sebastian
We stayed at Hotel Villa Soro, a boutique luxury hotel with a country-house feel, selected by Original Travel. Once a large family home, this smart villa oozes charm and sophistication with its high ceilings, vast lobby and grand staircase. We stayed in one of the best rooms (13). It was once the master’s bedroom and has a wide balcony overlooking the lawn.
This hotel is just a fifteen-minute walk to the old town, and five minutes from La Zurriola Beach. If the walk feels like too much effort, the hotel offers free bikes, making it easy to get around and see the sights.
Service was exceptional, and while it’s a bit further out than many of the city’s hotels, you get a wonderful feeling of tranquillity by not being right in the hustle and bustle.
How to get to San Sebastian
If you’re looking for international flights to San Sebastian Airport, you’ll be disappointed! The city has a commercial airport (in Hondarriba) but it’s mainly for internal flights. Most people fly to Bilbao, which is around one hour away by taxi or bus.
A big thanks to Original Travel for organising our dream foodie holiday to San Sebastian. It really was a big bucket list tick! You can find out more about travelling to Spain with Original Travel here. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Don’t forget to check out my guide to the best pintxos in San Sebastian, which includes a really handy map of all the best pintxos bars.
If you’re looking for other ultimate foodie breaks, I’d recommend reading my guides to Bologna and Valencia. Or for other travel tips for this region of Spain, check out my Northern Spain road trip itinerary.