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Top 5 Ways to Explore the Cuisine and Culture of San Sebastián

Tucked away on the Atlantic coast in the far north of Spain, San Sebastián, also known as Donostia, is a prominent city in the Basque Country. This famed area spans France and Spain and has cultivated its own language, traditions, and cuisine. The charming city of San Sebastián has golden sandy beaches perfect for both surfing and swimming, a high density of Michelin-starred restaurants, and elegant architecture. It has been put on the map as a culinary destination by famous fans like Anthony Bourdain.

Boasting mountains just a short drive away and proximity to Biarritz, Bilbao, and Santander, San Sebastián makes a great base to explore the Basque region. Here are five fun ways to discover what this charming culinary and cultural city has to offer.

Taste the city’s most delicious bites on a tour of San Sebastian’s best Pintxo bars.

San Sebastián’s old town and new town are lined with busy bars serving “pintxos,” tempting bar snacks offered alongside local drinks like Basque cider, txakoli sparkling wine, vermouth, and beer. Pintxos range from simple bread with toppings like fresh crab, ham, and cheese to fried fish, squid cooked in its own ink, ox cheeks, and rich tortilla (omelet with potatoes). Each bar has its own specialty and it is customary to move from one to another to discover the best bites on offer. But perhaps the best way to learn the city’s culinary secrets is to join a walking food tour, which will either take you through the top spots in the busy and popular old town or help you discover hidden gems in a quieter neighborhood away from the tourist crowds.

Ride a funicular railway to discover a vintage theme park.

San Sebastián’s famous La Concha beach is flanked by two large hills. To the south of the beach, at the foot of Monte Igueldo, an early 20th-century building holds an unusual railway station. Red railcars with wooden seating climb the green hillside, bringing visitors to a panoramic viewing terrace looking over the beach and town. The hill is crested by a tower, built in 1855, which visitors can explore. But the key attraction is the vintage theme park dating from 1912, with bumper cars, a wooden rollercoaster, and carousels, all restored to their original glory. 

Discover Basque culture in a beautiful former convent.

In the heart of San Sebastián’s beautiful old town, a former Dominican convent has been given a 21st-century makeover. The updates have added a new wing, clad in grey metal, with sharp geometry that contrasts with the curves and flourishes of the older golden-stone building. This interesting piece of architecture is home to the San Telmo Museum, a one-of-a-kind destination that celebrates Basque culture, both ancient and modern.

In the older building, the walls of the main church are adorned with a series of stunning early 20th-century frescoes. By Barcelona artist José María Sert, these large-scale artworks portray important events in Basque history—many connected to the sea. The vast canvases are displayed in near darkness, each one gently illuminated by a warm glow.

Other rooms in the museum are dedicated to traditional dress, local food, agriculture, transport, and handicrafts. A large section of the new wing houses Basque painting and sculpture through the ages.

Hike up a mountain through a forest and see the city from a 360-degree perspective.

At the northern end of San Sebastián’s coastline is a leafy hill, Monte Urgull. Hikers can choose from several shaded footpaths that wind through a young forest and past stone gateways, walls, and small buildings to reach its summit at just over 400 feet. Viewing points along the way allow visitors to pause and take in the 360-degree view across the rooftops of the city and the sands of La Concha beach. Pro tip: It’s a great photo spot.

This hill was part of the city’s defense system as early as the 12th century due to its vantage point over the harbor, sea, and land. It remained an important stronghold until the early 20th century. Towards the top, barracks, storehouses, and a chapel make up the small fortress of Castillo de la Mota with imposing canons lining the walls.

Perhaps the most interesting feature, a 40-foot statue of Jesus Christ is perched on the top of the hill, watching over the town. This is a relatively modern addition, dating to 1950.

Learn to make classic Basque dishes at a cooking class in the old town.

If the pintxo tour leaves you wanting more, how about taking a Basque cooking class so you can recreate San Sebastián’s delicious dishes after you leave the city? In a professional kitchen, right in the center of the old town, a local chef (along with a translator) will guide you through some of the region’s classics.

Learn the secrets behind the tortilla, a tasty comfort food made from eggs and potatoes with a melty, delicious middle. Try your hand at burnt Basque cheesecake, an absolute dairy bomb of cream, cream cheese, and hard cheese, with a caramelized exterior and silky center made famous by local pintxo bar La Viña. Experiment with famous local products like salted cod and top-quality Txuleta (beef steak). And it’s not all hard work—students get to eat their creations, which are paired with a glass of something local and delicious.

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