San Sebastián Favorites: Sun, Shopping, and Pintxos

The good thing about #slowblogging is that the buzz of the trip has died down in my mind, and the highlights stand out against the blur of my memory. I don’t remember why I wasn’t excited about visiting San Sebastian when I planned my trip to Spanish Basque Country, but I am glad that I decided to stay two nights instead of making it a lightning-quick trip from Bilbao.

Maybe I thought it would be overrun with tourists in August, but in retrospect I don’t think that I actually loathe high season as much as I think I do – I loved Barcelona in July and San Sebastian and Santander in August, and does it get any more high season than that? It was certainly crowded, but not more so than any big city, and there was room for one more at the beach, so what does it matter?

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I suppose if I had been waiting in line for major attractions instead of wandering around looking for food and spots to soak up the sun, I would feel differently. (Got any high season hell stories? Where should we not go in the summer?)

In any case, my two and a half days in San Sebastian were so lovely that I’ve almost forgotten that I was sick with a nasty cold the whole time I was there. I felt crappy at the time, but now I just look back and remember the perfect weather, beautiful views, and charming little city on the coast of northern Spain. A few highlights from my short trip –

My Airbnb

I was so grateful to have my own room when I came down with a miserable cold on my first day in San Sebastian. I had been staying in hostels in Bilbao (probably where I got the damn cold in the first place!) and it was really nice to have my own space for a couple days.

The rest of the apartment was shared, but it didn’t feel like close quarters. I remember the host Josse fondly – he was a friendly, round-faced, very tan Spanish man who made me feel really welcome. He rents out three rooms in his apartment as a business, and has a whole wall signed by guests in several languages.

I particularly appreciated that I could lock the door of my room from the inside and the outside, which not all shared Airbnbs offer. It was a few minutes walk from Playa de la Concha, maybe seven minutes from the old town, and about a ten to fifteen minute walk from the bus station (I got around on Alsa buses while I was there, which was easy and cheap.) When I first arrived, I suddenly realized the important distinction of being able to get yourself to an address, and being able to get in – I had to turn on my 3G to get Josse’s number (or stand on the sidewalk and ask passers-by if they knew Josse.)

You can see Josse’s Airbnb listings here (and if you are one of the remaining people who had never used Airbnb and you’d like to try it out, you can get a discount here.)

Wandering

One of my favorite things about traveling alone is that I can wander freely and aimlessly without worrying about where someone else wants to go. I got lost in the old town (literally – those narrow streets all look the same!) and window-shopped and ate pastries in the “new town”. I wandered past groups of teenagers sprawled on the ground near the harbor, and watched the sunset at the edge of the bay (it takes a surprisingly long time for the sun to actually sink down below the horizon, fyi.)

There’s no mistaking that this is Basque Country – red and green and words with x are everywhere. I should note that I’m using the Spanish words here (more recognizable for English speakers, much easier for me!) but San Sebastián is also called Donostia, and the Basque language is prevalent in the city.

Pintxos and Cider at Borda Berri

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I picked a pintxos bar at random on my first night, and it was mediocre enough that I didn’t make the same mistake twice. Borda Berri was top-notch and shockingly cheap, which are my favorite things. It was definitely not a secret spot – it was so crowded that many people were eating standing up in any corner they could find, and you had to elbow your way to the bar to order. Since I was alone and in a good mood, the bustle just added to the ambiance, but I can appreciate that it’s not how everyone wants to dine. Two (mouth-watering, un-stingy) tapas plates and a glass of cider ran me just over seven euros. SEVEN EUROS. It was so cheap for what I got that I told him he must have made a mistake.

(Other pintxos bars that were recommended but that I didn’t get a chance to try: Ganbara, Bar Bergara, A Fuego Negro, Bar Tamboril, Ni Neu, and Bar Nestor, famous for its tortilla española. Lots has been written about the culinary scene in San Sebastián, but just like anywhere, that doesn’t mean every single restaurant is good, so it’s a good idea to plot out a quick list of top choices before you are starving and lost in the Parte Vieja.)

Shopping

On my first afternoon in San Sebastian, I intended to stroll around a little, find food, and then go to the beach, but I promptly got derailed by D Closet as soon as I walked into the old town. You know when you just want to buy everything in the store? They carry unique, feminine brands like Grace & Mila and Andy & Lucy (…which of course, are both made in Paris, but never mind.) There’s no shortage of shopping in San Sebastián, but I didn’t see many other affordable boutiques like this one – right smack in the center of town, no less!

I also brought back some chorizo and salchichón from Pantori and my only regret is that I didn’t buy more. (I’ve just discovered that you can shop online at their website, so I had to close out of that window pretty fast to avoid drowning my keyboard in drool.)

Beach, please!

Obviously, I went to the beach! Playa de la Concha is one of those picturesque scenes that always pops up on Pinterest and Most Beautiful Beaches lists. It did not disappoint – I loved walking along the pedestrian path that curved all the way along the bay from the old town to the Miramar Palace. It was crowded, but I’ve seen worse. And I was really surprised that Playa de Zurriola, a huge beach just on the other side of the old town, wasn’t the least bit crowded.

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Playa de la Concha
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Playa de Zurriola

Sometimes going to the beach by yourself sucks, but I listen to podcasts or read to occupy myself while baking on tan lines, and I just carry my little bag over my head when I dip in the water (I don’t like to swim anyway. I hate water up my nose and in my ears, and I have bad memories of blue kickboards from swim class.)

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I also spent a rainy morning at the San Telmo Museum (on Josse’s recommendation) which is free on Tuesdays. The temporary exhibit, Pasolini Roma, was mostly in Italian and featured the creative career of Italian filmmaker, poet, writer, and intellectual (what didn’t this guy do?) Pier Paolo Pasolini, who I’m sure I would have heard of if I were well-versed in that sort of Italian film-poetry-intellectualism.

By the last day I was starting to feel a little lonely. I wished Hugo was there to walk along the beach with me in the warm night air and watch the lights twinkling on the smooth water. (He was back in Lyon working at his new job!) It would have been nice to have a friend to get pintxos with – at night, everyone spilled out of the bars into the cobblestone streets with their tapas and drinks, which was so convivial, but I would have felt awkward standing in the street by myself. And honestly, I don’t usually mind dining alone in the least, but the bars in San Sebastián were so social that I did feel a little out of place on my lonesome. But at that moment in the summer, my choice was to go alone or not go, and hell if I’m going to stay home just because I don’t want to go somewhere by myself!

And it was worth it.

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Have you been to San Sebastián before? What did you love (or not) about it?

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9 thoughts on “San Sebastián Favorites: Sun, Shopping, and Pintxos

  1. Looks like it was a great trip, with lots of sun! We swung through San Sebastian one morning in November a few years ago. Even at 10:30 am the pintxos were out in all their glory, and delicious. We didn’t sunbathe because it was obviously too chilly but we did watch the surfers.

    1. Wow, I remember reading about your trip and you squeezed a lot into one day! I wish I had gone up to the top of the hill on the bay like you did, I stayed near the center of the city pretty much the whole time. I liked it a lot more than I expected to.

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