I wish someone had told me – San Sebastián

San Sebastián – a coastal city located in the Basque Autonomous Community, Spain. It lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, 20 km’s from the French border.

Lonely Planet sums this little gem up perfectly: It’s impossible to lay eyes on stunning San Sebastián (Basque: Donostia) and not fall madly in love. This city is cool and happening by night, charming and well mannered by day. It’s a city filled with people that love to indulge – and with Michelin stars apparently falling from the heavens onto its restaurants, not to mention pintxo (tapas) culture almost unmatched anywhere else in Spain, San Sebastián frequently tops lists of the world’s best places to eat.

San Sebastián - a place with many a beautiful view.

San Sebastián – a place with many a beautiful view.

I first heard about San Sebastián through a travel operator who organised surfing excursions to the seaside town. Needless to say, I immediately added “surf in San Sebastián” to my bucket list. When hubby and I were planning a trip to Spain (which we took earlier this year) it seemed ideal to add it to our itinerary.
Here are a few (pretty damn useful) things I wish someone had told me about San Sebastián (SS.)

  • There are very few flights into and out of SS, and you will pay a pretty penny for these flights. Being a total amateur in booking flights to “not-Barcelona-or-Madrid-touristy-areas-in-Spain” I Googled “flights from Barcelona to San Sebastian” and came across Vueling (a Spanish low cost airline; the equivalent to a Mango or Kulula in SA.) They had one (maybe two) flights into SS each day, and one flight out. So we booked flights with them. What no one told us, though, was that the area surrounding the SS airport is prone to bad weather and winds, which, often results in flights being cancelled. Add to this the fact that there may only be one flight in and out of SS each day, and you can see why this is not particularly helpful. A friend of ours who lives in a town next door to SS gave us the best SS travel hack which will be incredibly helpful if you’re planning a trip to this beautiful seaside town: there are many other small airports surround the San Sebastian area. Rome2Rio has a really handy list of five airports near SS. Consider booking flights into and out of one of these alternative airports.
  • If you go the San Sebastian airport route:
    • It’s important to know that the airport is tiny (don’t expect a Costa Coffee on arrival), and also does not have wifi. The wifi bit is particularly important, because if you, like me, arrive there thinking “I’ll just Google ‘how to get hotel ABC’ when we land” – you will be stuck. Make sure you know where you need to go, and how you’re going to get there, beforehand. (Lucky for us there was a bus stop outside of the airport which had a map outlining various bus routes to different points around SS.)
    • You have a few different options for getting from the SS airport to the actual coastal side of the town. You can hail a taxi (which is not the cheapest option); hire a car (which you should organise before you arrive in SS); or hop onto the bus. We went the bus route (because we didn’t do our homework and made the rookie mistake I outlined above: thought we’d navigate our way to the hotel/coastal area of SS using the airport wifi on arrival.) As mentioned above, the route map at the bus stop was pretty easy to read – provided you know which “area” of SS you need to head to. Again, make sure you do your homework. If you go the bus route, you can buy a ticket on the bus – and it’s probably the most affordable option of getting from the airport to the coastal area.
  • Pack rollerblades. The seaside area of SS has the most breathtaking promenade I have ever seen, that stretches for miles! Best seen on a pair of rollerblades – or on a bike.
  • Renting a bike in SS is so easy. They have a bunch of “do-it-yourself bike rental pit stops” scattered throughout the city. All you need is your passport number, credit card, and ta-da! You’ve rented a bike.
Dagan, my hubby, exploring San Sebastián by bike.

Dagan, my hubby, exploring San Sebastián by bike.

  • SS is probably most famous for its pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”) – a small snack, typically eaten in bars, traditional in northern Spain and especially popular in the Basque country. SS has many, and I mean MANY pintxos bars and hot spots. Figuring out where to start can be overwhelming. TripAdvisor and Google will be your best friend in navigating the world of SS pintxos. Most places around SS have wifi, so you’ll be able to connect from anywhere in the city and search for your next pintxos experience.
San Sebastian 4

A typical pintxos setup in San Sebastián.

  • With pintxos, be prepared to experiment and go out of your comfort zone. If you’re like me (in that you could quite easily get by on cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and not one to get excited at trying adventurous foods) you will be pushed far out of your comfort zone. Veal cheeks, crispy pigs ear, fried octopus, crab ravioli, squid risotto. That was my first experience with pintxos. Bucket list stuff? Most definitely!
  • SS is a pretty small place, with not much to explore or do. Three or four full days is an ideal time to spend there.
  • Don’t refer to pintxos as tapas. It’s apparently incredibly insulting to the locals.
  • Be sure to try Txakoli (pronounced Chakoli) – a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content produced in the Spanish provinces of the Basque Country. It is amazing paired with pintxos.
  • SS is not a budget-friendly place. Sure, you can get by on not spending a fortune there and not returning home to debt up to your eyeballs, but don’t expect to get by on supermarket snacks and on-the-go-food. Heading out and experiencing all SS has to offer will require you to splash out a little – be it on coffee, bike rental or food (particularly the pintxos and the experience associated with it.) SS is one destination where it’s all about the experience, and trust me, you won’t be sorry for spending a few days here. If you’re going to penny pinch and have anxiety about spending money on even the smallest experiences, probably best to not add this city to your bucket list.
  • If “surfing in San Sebastian” is on your bucket list, again, do your homework. We visited SS in March, which was not ideal for surfing because it was cold. And I mean cold. The cold was a good thing for us in that the city was not overcrowded with tourists, but it meant I couldn’t try my hand at surfing. Heading to SS in Summer may be an ideal time to surf, but remember, you’ll likely be fighting through hordes of tourists during this time too.
  • The word Donostia which you will see all over SS and often associated with SS, means San Sebastián in Basque! Fun fact for the day.
Coffee and croissants at a sidewalk café in San Sebastián.

Coffee and croissants at a sidewalk café in San Sebastián.