The first time was love at first sight. The second, and most recent trip to San Sebastián, was like reliving a past affair with an old flame.
Donostia-San Sebastián is small enough to be done in a day, but to appreciate it for what it is, two to three does it perfectly. This is a city that boasts a setting of mountains and seaside. It’s also a city with sweeping sandy beaches, gorgeous Belle Époque architecture, a whole lot of elegance and a top-notch food scene.
Ideal affair material.
The city’s main attraction is its historic Alde Zaharra (Old Part), a compact grid of pedestrian streets brimming with things to see, touch, taste and buy. It’s also heaving with tourists, so one can only expect to have a ‘communal affair’ with this beloved town. Unless, of course, you’re there early before the day-trippers arrive.
Staying in the thick of the old town, as we did, comes with its conveniences. It also comes with a fair whack of noise, especially if you’re staying above or opposite a bar or restaurant. Those voices sure do echo up and down the cute laneways, right into the early hours!
Room 278 – Larramendi Kalea, 7
It pays to take your time exploring this town. After you’ve walked around Playa de la Concha, done the walk up Mount Urgull to see the statue of Christ and the funicular up Mount Igueldo to its west, why not waft about Alde Zaharra.
This is the oldest part of Donostia-San Sebastián which, before 1863, was surrounded by fortified walls. These were since demolished and replaced with the sweeping Boulevard Zumardia that’s lined with mature trees, colourful flowers, cafés and grand old buildings.
More than enough tourist stores fill the narrow streets, but they’re balanced out with tiny boutiques, traditional restaurants and bars, ice cream stores, food stores and so much more.
The Loaf – Erregina Erregentearen Kalea, 4
Superbaratz Frutadenda – Etxague Jenerala Kalea, 3
Be sure to check out Room 278, a cosy store dripping in designer delights. Pantone cushions, a variety of prints, photography and quirky homewares.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are never too far away thanks to the abundance of vendors and shops on virtually every city block. We may not have had a kitchen to cook anything, but at least we could grab fresh fruit to fuel us with snacks each day. Our favourite was Superbaratz Frutadenda, as it also stocked some beautiful whole spices and a variety of marinated olives.
For some of the best bread in town, The Loaf knows how to show its wares. These guys specialise in artisan bread at their small store close to Puente Del Kursaal, and the brownies they make are top notch. Head past the Kursaal and you’ll come across their larger bakery set-up, just near the beach.
Head underground to Mercado La Brexta to check out the many butchers, seafood mongers and delicatessens. Pick up a paper cone filled with delicious ribbons of thinly sliced jamón and nibble your way around the aisles. There’s even a convenient Lidi supermarket down there; a set-up much like the Aldi stores we get back in Oz.
Sakona Coffee Roasters – Paseo de Ramón María Lili, 2
Our favourite café in town, and our favourite coffee, is none other than Sakona Coffee Roasters. Find them just over Puente Del Kursaal and be impressed by their knowledgeable and professional approach to the bean.
The breakfast choice is lean, but excellent, with dished like smashed avo on toast with a 65° egg, wholesome muesli or chia pudding with red fruits. Plus a few others. Nice-looking sandwiches, too.
Seeing we’re on the east side of Río Urumea in Gros now, take a walk down the riverfront walkway towards the main train station. Here you’ll find artisan and craft market stalls beneath the trees by the river. Yes, the candles smell pretty, but all of those stunning breads, traditional cakes, cheeses and small-goods got my attention immediately.
Situated in the Gros district is Bodega Donostiarra, a traditional restaurant and pintxos bar that’s busy at any time of the day. You can sit outside on the restaurant-lined street, or battle for a table inside or stand at the pintxos bar. The grilled octopus looks fab, as does anything meaty, but I went for simplicity and chowed on their tasty chorizo a la brasa bocadillo (5).
At the other end of the dining spectrum is The Good Burger, just opposite the Kursaal. Expect the obvious, plus nachos, hot dogs and salads at this licenced fast food hot-spot for teenagers. Expect to pay around €4-€5 for a burger and leave any high expectations at the door before entering.
Bodega Donostiarra – Peña & Goñi Kalea, 13
The Good Burger – Avenida Zurriola, 4
Seeing we were staying in the alde zaharra part of town, it was a given that we spent most of our time sussing it out. Discovering Café de Finca was a bit of a bonus, especially since the coffee was pretty decent.
Aside from caffeine, this little spot has just about everything – vino, chocolate, preserves, boho clothing, trinkets and many other gifty type objects. Take in the jazzy tunes as you browse its wares, and even tuck into some cake or snacks.
Café de Finca – Abuztuaren 32 Kalea, 3
Loco Polo – Corner Fermin Calbeton Kalea & Narrika Kalea
If chomping into something icy is in need, then Loco Polo is the place to try. It’s a simple set-up with many popsicle flavours and varieties available. Give the boozy gin & tonic one a burl. And yes, it does contain booze.
It’s a bit of a hit and miss affair at Cai Kebab, a budget-friendly hole-in-the-wall fast food joint. Fill up on booze, don’t have high expectations, and you just may enjoy this version of Turkish food. Expect a good drenching of sauces on your falafel plate (6), or go for the dish that comes with high praises – the kebab.
Cai Kebab – Calle Esterlines Kalea, 14
Maiatza Bar – Enbeltran Kalea, 1
Places to kickstart your drinking buzz are aplenty in the old town. We never quite made it to the menu at Maiatza, but instead found ourselves perched at one of two coveted tables outside. Perfect spot to catch the breeze and people watch, sipping on glasses of local vino.
If food does make the agenda, they’re open for breakfast and also do burgers, wraps, salads and coffee.
Taberna Dakara Bi – 31 de Agosto Kalea, 27
Visiting Donostia-San Sebastian and not trying at least one pintxos bar is a wasted exercise in food-travel, Honestly, you may as well just keep on moving. The city is filled with these bars, heaving with people loitering around counters laden with plates and platters of incredible pintxos.
What’s pintxos? It’s basically the Basque equivalent of tapas, and you know you’re onto a good place when you basically have to shove your way to the counter to make your selection. So much to try!
Once the belly is almost full, pay up and head over to La Viña for dessert. Or if you’ve already been filling up on pintxos there, slide around to the right-side of the counter and order a slice of their baked cheesecake. The popularity of this light and fluffy marvel is evident in the sheer quantity of them sitting on the counter.
La Viña – 31 de Agosto Kalea, 3