If you’ve been following along with me for the past few months, you know that earlier this summer, Zach and I had the opportunity to travel to Europe to explore a place neither of us had ever been-Spain! If you are an avid reader here (thank you, by the way!) you know that the reason we ended up in España was because it was very high on Zach’s bucket list to run with the bulls (read more about that insane/epic/heart-pumping experience here!) But, in the midst of our planning, we realized that Pamplona (the city where the run is held) is actually a bit difficult to get to. So instead of making it a super quick day trip, we took a few days and decided to stay in the picturesque seaside town of San Sebastian.
If you’ve never been to, or heard of, San Sebastián, let me give you a quick rundown. San Sebastián (or Donostia) sits very close to the border of France, and the influence of the French can be seen in every nook and cranny of this postcard city. It’s referred to as a “mini-Paris” quite frequently, which could be why I was so swept up in it’s charm.
As you know, I have zero shame about my obsession with Paris. Particularly, this influence can be viewed in the downtown area where the influence of La Belle Epoque is visible in the architecture along the coastal promenade, including one of the most gorgeous carousels you’ll ever lay eyes on. San Sebastián lies in Basque country, and let me tell you, the Basque are a proud people and are particularly proud of the renowned cuisine that this region is known for. I have wanted to visit this coastal town for years, ever since Anthony Bourdain introduced me to a land where you can hop from place to place to experience magical bites known as pinxtos (pronounced peen-chos) that were everything my seafood dreams have been made of.
When we discovered that San Sebastián was incredibly close to Pamplona (about an hour drive) we knew we had to stay there. From serving as a beachside getaway for the bourgeoisie set of yesteryear, to a city brimming with incredible cuisine, there’s something for everyone here. If you find yourself in this beautiful beachside town, here are a few can’t miss places that will leave you missing it’s charm long after you’ve gone.
Whenever we go to a new place, Zach and I each have our “isms” that we love to do. Mine is to typically find an adorable café, get a glass of wine or espresso, and watch the world go by. His, is to get somewhere high and check out the best view of the city. In San Sebastian, there is no better view than the top of Monte Urgull. We did this hike (which you can easily do..people were running up the mountain. No thank you, but I mean, good for you guys.)
Anywho, this hike was easily one of the coolest and most memorable things we did while visiting Donostia (remember…Donostia=San Sebastian. Same same.) You’ll have sweeping views of the entire area (including every incredible beach you could possibly imagine!) You’ll also be privvy to an up close view of San Sebastian’s answer to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. The statue of Jesus Christ sits atop this hillside paradise and is quite breathtaking to see up close. We did this hike twice, once in the afternoon, and once at sunset. Plus, on the way up, you’ll find some pretty epic architecture. Which leads me to my next can’t miss pit-stop: Castillo de la Mota.
Castillo de la Mota
Before you get to the tippy top of Mont Urgell, you’ll stumble across a little place known as Castillo de la Mota. Construction on this piece of history started in about 1150 (!!) and has seen many transitions over the years as it’s played guard to the battles that San Sebastián has seen throughout time. Nowhere is the city’s military history more prominent than on Monte Urgull, and particularly, Castillo de la Mota.
You’ll still be able to see where soldiers hid out, and the holdings for cannons and arrows used in defense. However, my favorite part of this particular piece of history was coming up here for sunset. We were lucky to be the only ones around for our last night in this beautiful town, and hiked up to enjoy some bubbly and bites for our last evening there. I’m a huge fan of picnicking outside if weather permits while traveling, and this was the perfect spot to do so. We had just survived the running of the bulls, after all, we needed to celebrate! As you’ll see, we also forgot cups, so, bubbly from the bottle it was! This was one of the most serene moments of our entire trip, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.
While we were sitting up there, a gentleman was paragliding in front of us, and kept dipping down quite close to our cliffside picnic. Close enough that were were able to say hello to him, in fact! It was such a wonderful moment to just be present in. As the majority of the city will be pinxto hopping in Old Town, take some time out of your evening and make your way up to this ancient castle. You won’t regret it.
The Beaches: Playa de la Concha
The beaches, the beaches, oh the beaches! The beaches of San Sebastian truly exemplify the european lifestyle and were a true treat to experience. From the dreamy striped umbrellas and daybeds everywhere you looked, to dipping our toes into the salty sea, it was simply a dream. The beaches of San Sebastian are all worth a visit, but Playa de la Concha has everything you’d ever need, and is right in the center of town. The boardwalk you’ll journey across is straight out of a Hemingway novel and is filled with shops, bars, and restaurants to fulfill your every desire. You’ll also stumble upon the most swoonworthy carousel you’ll ever lay your eyes on. But don’t take it from me, have a look for yourself!
Pinxto Hopping in Old Town
I do have a habit of saving the best for last, and this was absolutely no exception. San Sebastián is known for one thing above the rest: their incredible food scene. There are more Michelin star restaurants in the area of San Sebastián than most places in the world. But don’t worry if you’re not up for a michelen-esque meal, because San Sebastián is known for something else: pinxtos. Pinxtos are essentially like tapas, and the majority are focused primarily on seafood. And not just any seafood. This stuff is more fresh than any seafood you’ve ever tasted, you’ll see the fisherman bringing it in for the day while you’re strolling the promenade we talked about earlier!
There’s one place you can’t miss when you go pinxto hopping: Old Town. Old Town is unbelievably charming, and has restaurants, bars and café’s on every corner and crevice of the place. As you’ll see, it definitely is reminiscent of the french culture that influenced it’s architecture. While you’re out exploring, don’t miss Constitution Square (the yellow building you’ll see below) You’ll undoubtedly run into street performers, protests, song and dance, and tons of great new food to experience. The best part about this pinxto culture is that the whole city is out and about, the tradition of pinxto’s runs deep. And they’re not just out until the evening, these folks stay out until long past midnight. From little ones to grandparents, everyone is out and about enjoying that ultimate Basque lifestyle. A lifestyle I can definitely see myself getting on board with. Don’t worry about going to specific places, you really just walk in anywhere, pick a few pinxto’s that look interesting to you, and test the waters! Don’t fill up in one place, keep hopping to find your favorites! Some of my most cherished memories were experimenting with the unique dishes we tried while exploring every unique alley way of Old Town. My advice? Skip the sit down meals, and do as the Basque’s do: pinxto!
Have you ever been to San Sebastián? What were some of your favorite stops? Share with me below, or over on Instagram! You can follow my journeys right here, @thelyonbadger. I’m already aching to go back again!