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A Guide to San Sebastián

Rohan Vasa, Writer
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It’s not about the museums or the hotels. It’s not even about the natural beauty, but after a weekend here, you are going to want to take a long hike. In San Sebastián, it’s about the food. That’s the main cultural activity. One of the culinary capitals in the world, San Sebastián offers meals that will push your boundaries and blow your mind. Or just make your belly so happy, you’ll dream of Basque cheesecake for the rest of your life. This is the guide to a city that’s yet another excuse to travel to Spain.

Overview

San Sebastián is in the northern Basque Country, and is the culinary capital of Spain. This region is renowned for its unique customs and traditions, and revered by local Spaniards for its ingredients and food. This is not an over exaggeration either. San Sebastián has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per square meter in the world. So no, they’re not messing around here, when it comes to food. 

As for the city itself, San Sebastián has a charming, small town feel, with narrow streets that reach back into a lush hillside. Its two famous beaches, Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta frame the scenic bay front promenade.

Where to Stay

Hotel Maria Cristina is a Luxury Collection hotel that opened in 1912. So yes, there is loads of history and ornate architecture, but thankfully also modern baths and rooms. The hotel has twenty-nine renovated luxury suites designed in a Belle Époque style, and you won’t find a more luxurious hotel right in the center of town. As an added bonus, the best cooking school in San Sebastian, Mimo Cooking School is in residence in the hotel. At Mimo, guests can learn how to prepare Basque cuisine, but more on that later.

If you want to get away from the center of town, Hotel Villa Favorita is a luxury boutique hotel overlooking the bay at Playa de la Concha. The hotel has twenty-three suites and rooms, some of which look out onto the sea. Villa Favorita by Paul Airaudo, their restaurant, has two Michelin stars. The restaurant focuses on seasonal sustainable raw materials and ingredients that are often overlooked. 

Where to Eat

In San Sebastián, people are less interested in bullfighting or flamenco and are more interested in Pintxos. Pintxos are small snacks usually served on bread and eaten with a cocktail stick. These are the Basque take on tapas, where in lieu of receiving a plate of food with your drink like tapas, Pintxos are laid out on the bar, buffet style. Diners can pick and choose what they want, and pay by the “stick”.

Although there are pintxos bars all over San Sebastián, Parte Vieja has the largest concentration. You can, and should spend an entire day exploring the pinxtos bars, preferably on a tour. Your guide can show you the best of the best cheesecake, tortilla and the Gilda, which is the original pintxos.

Of course, when sampling pintxos you’ll need a glass of Txakoli wine. Txakoli is a fruity white wine or cider made exclusively along the shores of Basque country. In addition to the Pintxo bars, there are plenty of food markets and gourmet food shops in town. Yet another reason, San Sebastian is the ultimate culinary experience for foodies.  

Arzak

There are some places, that it’s about a show of respect to a restaurant that was on the frontier of cuisine. Also, the food is darned good. Arzak is a four generation family business that dates back to 1897. Like many great chefs, Juan Mari Arzak learned traditional Basque cooking from his mother in the 1960’s. From those humble beginnings, Juan Mari won one award after another and created a movement known as “New Basque Cuisine.”

Arzak now has worldwide recognition as one of the best restaurants; it’s the elder statesman of cuisine in San Sebastian. At Arzak, you can choose from an la carte menu or try their seven course tasting menu, where you won’t go wrong either way. It just depends if this is your primary meal of the day, or if you’ll be hopping from spot to spot.

Juan Mari has three Michelin stars, and he still continues to cook with his daughter Mari Arzak. Clearly cooking runs in the family, Mari is a celebrated chef in her own right. 

Azurmendi

Azurmendi opened in 2005 and by 2012 received three Michelin stars. The venture, started by chef Eneko Atxa, presents dishes that explore identity, creativity, and sustainability. Atxa’s tasting menu showcases a world of gastronomy that engages the five senses. Located in Larrabetzu, the restaurant is immersed within the hillside and surrounded by nature. It is considered one of the most sustainable restaurants in the world for its architecture, design, and gastronomy. With all his success, Eneko Atxa  has outposts in London, Portugal, Japan, and other regions within Spain. But his Larrabetzu location has all the history and creativity that made Azurmendi a must visit.

Asador Extebarri

Asador Etxebarri is in the foothills of Basque country with stunning views of the mountains and bay. It has been located in the same rustic stone building since the 1990s. The restaurant’s cooking approach focuses on fire with six grills and 750 degree ovens. A staff even specially selects the different coals that cook certain meats. Basque chef Victor Arguinzoniz runs the operation and is well known for his abilities to cook with fire. He received the Estrella Damm Chef’s Choice Award in 2021 and is a revered mentor of chefs around the world. The food focuses on natural flavors and produce found within the region and has a tasting menu.

Ganbara

Ganbara is a Pintxo bar located in Parte Vieja. However,  it’s not just any Pintxo bar. Ganbara also has a stellar restaurant in its basement cellar. This is a much loved haunt in San Sebastián with a family run feel that creates an authentic atmosphere. They are known for the crab tartlet, and meaty mushrooms with egg yolk, but the menu is a treasure trove of well-executed options. The downstairs restaurant space is cozy and has more of a fine dining feel with a selection of Spanish wines. It is a favorite of Juan Mari Arzaks and is located right at the center of everything.

Rekondo

Rekondo is a traditional Basque restaurant by the chef Iñaki Arrieta. It is a rustic property located on the road to Monte Igueldo. Because of its elevation you get some of the best views of the Donostia Bay. In good weather, the terrace has prime seating, along multiple spaces that embrace the landscape. The restaurant uses the highest quality ingredients that come straight from the supplier. But, Rekondo’s super power is its wine cellar, that has won multiple awards. You’ll be challenged to find a cellar that matches the vintages at Rekondo. 

Mugaritz

Mugaritz has two Michelin stars and is expert accounts, one of the world’s most adventurous restaurants. It is headed by the chef, Adoni Luiz Adores, who trained under Ferran Adriá at El Bulli. Adores is Mensa-level creative, and with Mugaritz he aims to open peoples minds to what gastronomy can be. Or leaves you wondering what the heck you’re eating. This controversy is part of what makes it Mugaritz.

At Mugaritz there is a twenty-four course menu that is rolled out over roughly three hours. The presentations and ingredients are stories in themselves and work together to awaken the senses. Located in an old rustic timber building, Mugaritz has outdoor views of the landscape, to enjoy a glass of wine before or after your meal. Be prepared for one of the weirdest but thought provoking  meals of your life.

Mimo Cooking School

We told you we would come back to this.  The Mimo Cooking School is located in The Maria Cristina Hotel. The space inspires you to hang out, and learn to elevate your culinary skills.  There is diverse programing  of culinary events, conferences, tours, dinners, and workshops. Mimo has daily classes that use modern techniques to whip up the secrets of traditional Basque cooking. Some classes specialize in Pintxos while others focus on seafood and seasonal ingredients from the markets. There are even Showcookings where you can watch chefs work and ask get them to divulge their Michelin secrets. This is a fun activity that works for those who can’t boil water, to those who are restaurant level chefs. 

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