There’s never been a better time to visit San Sebastian, the vibrant Atlantic-side enclave in the heart of Spain’s Basque country. Its designation as European Capital of Culture 2016 brings a full schedule of events throughout the year, adding considerable excitement to what is already one of the top culinary and beach cities in the world.
Known as Donostia in the local lingua, Spanish royalty have long been drawn here to its temperate climate and three beaches. The best is La Concha, a mile-long, golden stretch of sand that runs along a stunning crescent-shaped bay and is backed up by one of the more lively promenades in Europe. For the more adventurous, a thriving surfing scene congregates further from the center, on Zurriola Beach, where some of the best waves in Europe come in.
Photo Credit: Martín Berasategui
The rolling green hills of the area also offer exceptional hiking opportunities, especially on the coastal trails north of town, where you’ll find unparalleled panoramas that extend all the way to the French border, about 10 miles away.
Eating is at the top of the agenda for many visitors and there are plenty of local options. San Sebastian boasts the second highest number of Michelin stars per capita of any city in the world, behind Kyoto. Three of Spain’s eight, three-star restaurants are in the immediate area (Arzak, Martín Berasategui and Akelarre) and the near-religious approach to food has filtered down to even the bottom establishments.
Photo Credit: Basque Culinary Center
Culinary delights are a central theme throughout the town and region, and the impossibility of finding a bad meal is frequently discussed. Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, which many argue to be far superior, are ubiquitous. Pintxos-hopping through the bars of the old quarter is one of the most popular activities in town. Whichever way you go, three-star restaurant or Pintox-hopping, or somewhere in between, you’re sure to be won over. One pinxtos bar, La Viña, serves what many claim to be the best cheesecake in the world.
Several people have credited their visit to San Sebastian as the tipping point when they decided to become chefs. Should you find yourself so inspired, the Basque Culinary Center is a serious academic institution where you can drop in for half-day or multiple-day cooking lessons from renowned chefs in the area.
Photo Credit: Hotel Maria Cristina
But the main focus this year is on culture, and the official program of the European Capital of Culture 2016, a distinction it shares with Wroclaw, Poland, runs more than 100 pages. Lectures, performances and exhibitions take place daily and cover a broad range of theater, dance, music and the visual arts. One of the bigger highlights is a lavish, four-week production (beginning June 21) of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Cristina Enea, the city’s largest park, and coincides with the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death.
San Sebastian also hosts the largest film festival in Spain each September. Most visitors fly into either Bilbao or Biarritz and hop on an airport bus, which takes about an hour from either destination. If you want opulent digs, the five-star Hotel Maria Cristina is a Belle Époque masterpiece perfectly situated between La Concha and Zurriola beaches.