Known as the pearl of the Cantabrian, San Sebastian is the holiday seaside destination for the wealthy tanned and tucked population of Northern Spain. However, despite its pristine beaches, amazing restaurants, and high-end shopping, it still maintains a bit of grunge and soul.
If you have grey and drizzly weather like we did, don´t let that stop you from exploring the beautiful coastline of San Sebastian. For adventure lovers, the ocean here is a great spot to take a surfing lesson, with the waves neither too small nor too intimidating. You can also opt to take a kayaking tour to Santa Clara Island, just opposite La Concha beach. This was something we would have loved to do but fate was not on our side weather-wise.
Monte Igueldo hosts a funicular to take you up to some amazing views of the coast. We chose instead to climb up Monte Urgull, a beautiful walk through lush green vegetation, with rewarding views and a 12 meter-high statue of Jesus Christ at the top.
Snaking along the entire length of the hill and beaches on either side is a modern boardwalk – the perfect spot for a bike ride, jog, or stroll. Descending around 1 pm, we were starving and ready for some of the famous seafood from the region. The port area of San Sebastian is lined with boats on one side and seafood restaurants on the other, all with covered patios looking out at the water. Itzalian offers a three course lunch menu for 19 euro, including a glass of wine, bread, and tax included. Our kindly waiter took a liking to us and placed a bottle of wine on the table rather than a glass each. Sometimes, despite all attempts to be reasonable, fate deals you a bottle of wine at noon 🙂 We had steamed mussels, green salad, and “Chipirones a la Plancha” – grilled squid, dressed simply in oil, garlic, and lemon. Our plates could not have been cleaner. Dessert was leche frito (fried milk) – a specialty of the house. Though it sounds strange, it´s more like a vanilla pudding, coated in crunchy batter and deep friend, resulting in a crunchy and gooey masterpiece.
Full of food and wine, we wandered through the old town, even more densely populated with pintxos bars than Bilbao. With a gap in the rain it was the perfect time for a bike ride, made easy via Bici Rental bikes. Bici rental bikes offers cruiser bikes for 5 euros an hour, the ideal vessel for exploring the boardwalk along the water. We rode the entire length of the beach along the city, across the Bridge of Maria Cristina and past the old town, marveling at the gorgeous architecture on one side and the lapping waves on the other. A pretty idyllic setting to say the least.
After returning the bikes, we made a stop in the gorgeous city hall building, and a quick pick-me-up espresso at Mercado San Martin, across the street from our apartment and a great spot for fresh and local groceries.
The next morning arrived grey and drizzly again, but luckily we had indoor plans – a lunch reservation at Xarma. As mentioned in my post about Bilbao, Basque country is literally swimming with fine food and Michelin star restaurants. You can go for the blow-out option and make a reservation (well ahead of time!) at any of the starred restaurants. We went for a more casual and definitely more economical option. Xarma (see reviews here) with just 10 tables, making you feel like you are really a “guest”. A good trick when heading for fine food is to check the lunch options – often high-end restaurants offer a smoking-good deal at lunch, to attract customers at an otherwise non-peak hour. The “Menu Mercado” at Xarma, continuously changing depending on the fresh ingredients of the season, includes three courses, a bottle of wine per two guests, wine, bread, and taxes for 25.50 euro per person. As two Canadians, coming from a land where a bottle of wine ALONE would be impossible to find in ANY restaurant for 25 euros, this was really a red-letter day for us.
We were started off with an amuse-bouche of foie gras truffle served with apple and crostini. Despite my best attempts (OK, twice in my life) I do not like foie gras, and don’t quite get the hype surrounding it.
Appetizers were a slow-cooked farm egg with crispy rice and mushroom soup (sadly no photo), and white asparagus with lemon couscous. Two very different choices, the former being earthy and rich and the latter fresh and lemony.
The main events were cod, cooked to utter perfection, served with piquillo pepper puree. The pork tenderloin served with apple was traditional and perfectly executed.
For dessert with both chose the fresh strawberries, grilled with a touch of balsamic vinegar and served with lemon Chantilly. Sounds simple, but to quote my friend, “this may be the best dessert I´ve ever had”. It was all at once light and fruity, but with a ton of richness and flavour from the syrup and Chantilly. Again, our plates could not have been cleaner. San Sebastian was certainly living up to its reputation as a foodie heaven.
We took a slow stroll back to Old Town in the hopes to aid digestion, and headed to the San Telmo Museum, passing past La Concha beach and the absolutely gorgeous Church of Santa Maria del Coro on the way.
The San Telmo museum gives a great overview of the history of the Basque people and culture, as well as housing some beautiful works of art – two of my favorites below.
A quiet night in was the rest we needed to embark on a marathon pintxo adventure the next day – post coming soon!