Donostia - San Sebastian Spain
As soon as you are settle in, I’d go straight to the Tourist Office, which is on on the main Blvd, Boulevard Zumardia, which runs all the way from City Hall, east to the base of Mount Ulia, and splits Old Town from Centro, and once it crossed the Zarriola bridge, runs along Zarriola beach. You will use this blvd a lot. Pick up their pocket map. Even with our phones, we used that map more than anything. BUT, if on your way from your hostel to the tourist office, you see good looking pintxo bars, make sure to stop in. That’s how we’ve found some of our favorites. Also, check out what tours they have. Some are cool, although you are like me and are probably better off on your own. But I did take a couple while there on my own and found them informative, and not too long.
Stay in “old town.” It will likely be loud, but it’s worth it.
-Pension Kaixo (on San Juan around Pescadena)– this is where I stayed the first time in DSS and it was great. Very communal, so you’ll meet other travelers. Also, I think they have surf equipment to borrow (or maybe rent.)
-Pension San Jeronimo (On San Jeronimo, near 31 de Agosto)– We stayed here the second time. Shared bathrooms, but fairly private rooms. No communal space, but very centrally located.
-Trains – Donostia – San Sebastian is the train station on the east side of the river is the one that goes to other parts of Spain. Amara is the one on the west side of the river, at the south end of Centro district, and goes to France.
-Cars - you can rent a car at Donostia train station, but they are pricey and parking is expensive.
-Buses – this is how most people get around town, including getting to Bilboa.
Parte Vieja (Old Town) – this is where you’ll do most of your eating and drinking, although we stopped at just about any little bar we found while walking around and found quite a few neat ones out in the other neighborhoods.
Centro – directly south of Old Town. Good shopping and architecture.
Amara Viejo – directly south of Centro – this is where the French train station is. More shops and bars, but they are spread out a bit more.
Gros - this is the neighborhood across the river to the east and is where a ton of the locals live. There are some great bars in there. This is also the neighborhood that boarders the surfing beach –Zarriola.
*My advice is to go into any that look interesting. If you don’t like what you see, don’t stay. You’ll see lists of the most popular, but we found plenty that were great that weren’t on any lists. And usually at the slower ones, you can get bar space and get a better chance of talking with the bartenders and other patrons. That all being said, if you hit this list below, you will get a great feel for DSS. (The town is “Donostia” in Basque and “San Sebastian” in Spanish, so they call it “DSS.” Sorry if I jump around but I tend to use all three.)
*Most pinxto bars are on the honor system. You eat what you want and then tell them how many you had at the end. Some will keep track while you eat, unbeknownst to you, which didn’t bother me, but the ones that want to charge you upfront kind of killed the cool communal vibe, so when we saw that, we went elsewhere.
*The beer in most pintxo bars isn’t anything special, but it worked fine when you consider you don’t want it to overpower the flavors of the pintxos. It’s traditional to either get a glass of beer, cider, or txakoli (pronounced “chalk-o-lee”) when you grab a pintxo. They do small pours because you are meant to have it with a pintxo or two and then move on to the next bar. I prefer the Txakoli, but if you can, get either the one from Katina or Hiruzta as those two are made different than the others. (They use a nitrogen machine to explode the grapes, so the wine is less sour than all the others.) But, that being said, I enjoyed them all as the rest taste pretty similar and that sour flavor, along with the pintxos, is one of the most vivid memories I have of DSS. It’s also cool to watch them pour it. I prefer the Basque name, which is Txakolina, but most bartenders go with Txakoli, but don’t feel bad about being corrected how to say it – everyone seems to say it different, but if you go with the Basque, they seem to appreciate it.
**Quad-Zillas – this is what we call the groups of old Basque men and women who roam from bar to bar for dinner. (They are often a quad.) Follow them and order what they order. I wouldn’t be surprised if they invite you to join them. I’ve never met people more friendly than the Basque. And once they hear you are fighter fighter/paramedic and starting your own brewery, AND are from California, they will go nuts.
*Gilda – this is the traditional Basque pintxo, and by traditional, I mean it is probably the most famous. It is a skewered anchovy, olive and hot pepper and is named after Rita Hayworth, because she was also tall and spicy, or so the story goes.
*Steak, Baccala (bauk-a-lau), and hake cheeks – Basque steak is incredibly good, Baccala is their white fish (very traditional), and hake cheeks, are a fish cheek. They should all be tried at least once.
#3 – Dakara – great pintxos (their hot menu is great!) – very nice Argentinian owner (lady.)
#8 – Gandarias – one of the most popular pintxo bars in DSS, and for good reason. We kept returning over and over again. And this place is under Pension San Jeronimo, where we stayed.
#9 – Bar Sport – a great one – I think their hot menu steak item was what we went for.
#10 – Gott Bar - one of the only places open in the morning. Good spot for coffee and breakfast pintxos. It sits on Constitution Square so it’s great for people watching during the day and evening too, but in the morning you get to see all the little trucks come in for deliveries.
#11 – Atari – another great one – tons of selection and in a great location to hit other spots.
#12 – Bar Martinez – another great one
#13 – Bar Nestor – excellent pintxos
#14 – Tamboril – very authentic feeling, right on the corner of Constitution Square.
#15 – La Cepa – great selection of charcuterie. This is the place to go to try meats and cheeses.
#16 – Aita Mari – a bit off the beaten path, but a very cool bar down near the Marina. Quieter, so we got a chance to visit with locals and the bar tenders, who like everywhere, are super friendly.
#17 – Casa Alcalde – this is kind of a dive bar, but usually has locals, and has tons of bull fighting posters. It’s right across the street from Atari.
#18 – Bar Txalupa – this is the very first pinxto bar I ever went to, and is one that shows up in a lot of magazine. Huge selection of pinxtos and friendly staff. I think they even had barcodes on the labels so you could read about them on your phone.
#20 – La Vina – pintxo bar but these guys also have a local type of cheesecake that is worth getting.
(If you go to a restaurant, definitely get their tasting menu, with wine pairing, if that’s offered. You’ll taste food and wine you’ve never had before and they pair so well together.)
CUPS OF MELTED CHOCOLATE
#6 – Churreria Chocolatoria – hard to call this place a restaurant, but they aren’t a bar, so figured this was the spot for them. This is the place with “American” breakfasts, along with the great cups of melted chocolate (which the Spaniards eat with churros for breakfast.) It’s also just kind of funny to see this place, with all its microwaves and cafeteria setting in the middle of such a culinary haven.
THE REAL RESTAURANTS
**I’d say try to hit the first three, but with your limited time, the pintxo bars are more authentic of an experience. But if you do hit one regular restaurant, and I would highly recommend at least one, I’d say Mirador de Ulia. It’s simply incredible. It might actually be the best dining experience for the money we’ve ever had. But if money or time it tight, Alejandro or Ni Neu are great choices, are cheaper, and closer to where you will be staying and are a bit more casual. If you can squeeze in one more in addition to Mirador, try, because both Alejandro and Ni Neu are great, although we have a soft spot for Alejandro because we’ve been there both times Drea and Paul were with me.
As far as dress code, I’d at least wear a colored shirt. Mirador is very nice, but they expect tourists and aren’t stuffy about it. Alejandro and Ni Neu are more casual and modern, but I’d still go with a collared shirt.
#2 – Bodega Alejandro (tasting menu – $52) – pretty authentic, yet fancied up Basque. We go every time we are there.
## - Ni Neu (tasting menu –$45) sits on the river’s side of the Opera House (the big cube building at the beach just over the bridge from Old Town – it’s called “Kusaal”) on the east bank of the river right at the beach. It is owned by the same company that owns Bodega Alejandro but has a different enough menu that we’ll visit both on every trip we take to DSS. It’s more modern than Alejandro, but just as good, and unlike the cozy basement ambiance at Alejandro, Ni Neu is great for people watching and has a nice outdoor patio, if the weather is nice.
## - Mirador de Ulia (tasting menu $100) is one of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had. Awesome food and a view like no other. This is the one with the Chef who has something like 9 Michelin stars, yet it is quite affordable.
## - Arzak (very pricey – roughly $200-$300) is the best restaurant in Donostia, and is one of the top restaurants in the world. It’s very expensive, and is probably better left until your next trek, once your convinced that Basque food is, in fact as good as everyone has been telling you.
#1 – Riviolina - Gelato – if they have the wild cherry, that’s the one.
#4 – Zaporejai - The butcher shop that I told you about with the blue Tiffany-esqe bags. They sell meat, cheese, and Txokalina. We got some of each and had a picnic on the benches down near the marina, which is on the west side of old town.
#5 – Galparsoro - This bakery has great croissants, which we had just about every morning. Also, there was something about the ceiling looking like a boat, or something like that. I remember there being something that caught my eye – maybe it was minor, but it stuck with me.
#7 – La Bretxa (pronounced “Bresha”) is a underground market which is a must-visit. DSS sits up above a lower level of the town, which mostly houses parking, but also has things like La Bretxa. You’ll get a whole bunch of meat samples there. Look for the one story glass encased building between the two monolithic La Bretxa buildings in old town for the entrance. You’ll find the escalator either on the east side or south-east corner of that building. It’s easy to find on a map, or just ask – everyone knows La Bretxa.
#19 - Bar Etxeberria – this is the place we went to with “microbrews” with the balding dude who took a picture with my hat on and kept calling me “J.R.” from Dallas. It is on Inigo, between Narrica and San Juan. They also had great food too.
## - In the block or two across the street from the Opera House in Gros, there is a pretty big pub looking pintxo bar. I remember Paul getting some good beer there. The place sits on Zurriola Hiribidea street (the same Blvd that runs all the way west to city hall) and faces Zarriola beach.
## - Drea says there is a brewery named something like Basque Brew Project that was put together by three Americans. Sounds like your kind of place.
-Pedritegi Cider House – This is probably a $10-$15 cab ride away from downtown and is the cider district. If they are running their cider diner, I HIGHLY recommend it, along with a tour. But, if you are going to do one of the restaurants, I’d maybe save Pedritegi until next time, so you don’t miss too much pinxto-ing this time around.
-Churches - The two cathedrals in Old Town (Santa Maria and San Bizente Eliza (one of my favorites in Europe), along with the one in Del Buen Pastor Plaza (Artzain Onaren Katedrala), which sits at the other end of Hernani Kalea, are all worth seeing, at least from the outside, and are good spots to get out of the heat if you want to see the insides. They aren’t well known around Europe, but to be honest, I found them as beautiful as any I saw throughout the rest of Europe.
-La Brexta (Old Town) – you’ll see this one a lot as you’ll be walking by about 10 times a day.
-Constitution Square (Old Town) – you’ll go through this one multiple times so no need to search it out. Check out the numbers above the doors on the upper floors. Those used to be the luxury boxes when the square was a bull fighting arena.
-City Hall (Old Town) – used to be a casino. It sits at the west end of Boulevard Zumardia.
-City Hall park (Centro) – overlooks La Concha beach.
-Del Buen Pastor Plaza (Centro) – this is where the third church is.
-Post Office (Centro) – it’s behind Del Buen Pastor Plaza.
-De Bilbao Plaza (Centro) – just east of Del Buen Pastor Plaza. Cool fountain with a nice pintxo bar on the north side. Great place to sit and relax.
-Gipuzkoa Plaza (Centro) – kind of a cool spot to grab a drink/snack and see regular Basque folks doing their thing. I think there is government building there which is interesting.
**I’d suggest walking the street from Santa Maria church in Old Town to Del Buen Pastor Plaza, as that gets you into the Centro neighborhood, which is cool to see. Then turn east to hit De Bilbao Plaza, then north on Getaria Kalea, which will head you back towards Old Town and will take you by Gipuzkoa Plaza. The walk itself only takes about a half hour, but if you stop at all the bars like we did, it can take a few hours, at a minimum.
-The Bridges – I’d check out all the ones along the river, which start with Puente Zurriola (closest to the ocean), and continue through Puente Santa Catalina, Puente Maria Cristina (a replica of the Alexander the Great bridge in Paris (I think – I know it’s a replica but the Paris bridge might be called something else), and finally the Puente Lehendakari Agirre, which is the modern looking one with low white arches and mosaic tiles. It’s a good thing to do while on a run as that path will lead you further up the river, which has a running/bike path quite a ways.
-Parque Cristina Enea is a park along that same running route and is worth a walk/run through, if just to see all the families enjoying the space.
-The Mountains - I highly recommend checking out all three mountains that encompass DSS. The one to the west is Igeldo and you take a funicular up to the amusement park, hotel, and castle on the top, where you can get a great view of the city and the coastline. Urgull is topped by the old fort (and the Jesus statue – Basques are by and large Catholic) and has four or five great spots where you can view the city, both of the beaches, and the ocean. It has a lot of cool nooks and crannies. The mountain to the east is Ulia and is where Mirador de Ulia is and where the trail from Pasia comes in to Donostia.
-The Pearl is the hotel and spa that sits at the center of La Concha beach. We didn’t get a chance to enjoy our free passes, but check out the pics online of the very cool hot tub that overlooks the beach. It also has a very pleasant outside bar that sits at street level. We never walked by without stopping for a beer.
-Horse races, bull fighting, football, and opera house - We’ve never been there at the right time, but they have all of these so check schedules if you want.
***Hendeye/Irun/Pasia/Camino de Santiago/Mirador de Ulia –I’d recommend at least a morning trip to the first town in France, which is Hendeye. (Of note, that train platform is the one where Hitler met with General to let him know he wanted Spain to sit in reserve for the war. (Hitler knew that Spain would be a drain on Nazi resources because the General wasn’t a very good general.)) If you cross the street from the train station and walk about a block north, you’ll come to a bakery that makes excellent fruit-filled pastries. If you are pressed for time, you could save this for your trip out, as you will likely have a stop-over at this station on your way out of the country. If not, I’d at least take the train ride in for a pastry and then head back.
But if you have time, our half-day Pasai trip was pretty cool. The second time we did this excursion to Hendeye, we walked back to Irun (first town in Spain), over a bridge known for smuggling during the WWII. (A lot of downed airman, spies, and political refugees were smuggled through Basque country to the British consulate in Bilboa for transport to Great Britain.) From Irun, we took the train to Lezo (which has a tiny little downtown), and then walked to Pasai Donibane which is a very charming tiny town that sits along the water of the deep-water port. (There are a bunch of Pasai’s all bordering this deep-water port, but each has a “last name”, although the main “Pasai”, which is where you are heading, is usually referred to as just “Pasai.”) You take a tiny ferry across to the other side (Pasia San Pedro) and then it’s about a two hour hike along the Camino trail back into Donostia. If you time it right, you could make lunch or dinner reservations at Mirador de Ulia, which is the phenomenal restaurant with the unreal view.
*only the very old and under 40 year olds speak Basque, and the bigger the city, the less so. So, with some things, like the word for beer, some bartenders aren’t going to know it in Basque, but rest assured that another one standing down the bar, or a local sitting next to you will, and will be impressed that you tried. Also, don’t be afraid to have this list with you. They were impressed that we were trying, even if from notes. Also, have a pen at the ready, because they will help you. Ask them how to say things and they will be thrilled to teach you.
Hello – Kaixo (pronounced “cash-o”…well, kind of. You’ll hear it and learn.)
Goodbye – Agur (ah-oor)
Please – Mesedez (mesh-eh-des)
Thank you – Eskerrik asko (ash-cari-gash-co)
Thank you very much – Mila Esker (Me-la-scare) (*this one is easier to say)
Excuse me – Barkatu (bar-ca-two)
Very Good – Ona oso (Own-no-os-oh) (*tell a server this and they’ll light up.)
Water - Ura
Beer – Garagardoa (gar-ah-guard-oo-ah – they all use “cerveza” too, but if you can say Garagardoa, the old timers will be impressed.
Can I have the bill please – Ezin dut faktura, mesedez (this one will blow them away.)
Hot – Beroa
Cold - Hotzeri
One – Bat (Baht)
Two – Bi (Bee)
Three – Hiru (Ear-oo)
Four – Lau
Five – Bost (boast)
Bathroom - Bainugela
Hostel - Ostatua
Train station – Trena Geltokian
Bank – Bankua
*If you walk into a bar and order “Bat Cerveza, Bi Txokalina” (“one beer, two Txakoli”) expect them to ask you to repeat yourself, simply because they won’t be expecting to hear Basque out of you, but one they get it, they’ll be impressed. Don’t be surprised if they laugh at your pronunciation though, but when they call down some other bar tenders to have you say it again, it’s because they are impressed that an American would try to learn their language. It’s a great ice breaker. (I hold up my fingers when I say a number, so they are clued in to what I’m doing.)