What to Do in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

After a week of incredible sunshine in Galicia and Asturias we arrived in Donostia-San Sebastián on a rainy weekend. The belle epoch seaside resort town oozes charm even in the rain, which doesn’t seem to deter its many visitors from having a good time.

Sights

San Sebastián is about the setting and food and doesn’t have many other attractions.

This coastal city has a number of wide soft sand beaches, the longest of which runs out from the harbor near old town – about 2 miles with a wide promenade above. There is also a promenade around the peninsula just north of old town that encircles Mont Urgull. Even on a rainy Saturday morning the path was busy with walkers. You can also climb the hill to the castle.

In addition to the seaside strolls are the neighborhoods to explore. Old town is an obvious choice, full of restaurants, bars and shops. Across the river to the east is Gros, with grand belle epoch buildings and a quieter vibe where locals sip coffee and smoke cigarettes at sidewalk cafes. It also has numerous pastry shops.

Despite the beauty of the city and the setting the real attraction of San Sebastián is the food. Per capita San Sebastián is touted as having the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world. It’s not, however, just the high-end restaurants that make it special. It’s everything, starting with the myriad pintxo bars that line old town with patrons spilling out into the street creating a lively scene of people enjoying friends and food.

Pintxos

If you really like good food and are not just going to pintxo bars for the atmosphere it’s worth being particular on which ones you try. Some places have much better food than others. The ones that make the pintxos to order generally have better quality.

We first tried the popular Txepetxa, a pintxo bar that specializes in everything anchovy. If you like anchovies it is wonderful. They have some crazy combinations such as anchovy and blueberry which is surprisingly tasty. The pintxos they have on the counter are just models with everything being made to order and coming out of the kitchen relatively quickly. While it is small and busy the spaces at the bar and tables turn over relatively quickly.

Our second stop was not as successful. We chose a busy place at random with a long bar of pre-made pintxos. We tried a couple of them but really they tasted like buffet food, which it was, and not worth our time or money. Interestingly, the pre-made place was much more expensive that Txepetxa.

Indoor Activities

Mercado

The city mercado is at the east end of old town down an escalator in a glass building. On a Saturday morning the market was active but not super busy. While it didn’t have the number of purveyors or patrons as the market in Sanitago de Compostela, it still had quality offerings with a wide selection of meat and fish, some beautifully displayed.

The Aquarium

The aquarium is a great rainy day activity if you like boats or fish. I love watching fish but am not that interested in boats. The top two floors have numerous displays of all types of boats covering Spain’s maritime history while the bottom floor is all fish aquariums. The aquarium features mostly Cantabrian Sea species in various tanks. Some are large enough to include sharks, rays and other large fish. One of the tanks has a tunnel you can walk through where the fish including sharks swim above your head and under your feet. They also have specialty tanks with more exotic creatures such as sea horses and various tropical fish.

Sleeping and Dining

SANSEbay Hotel

Wonderfully located on a quiet corner on the harbor side of old town, SANSEbay Hotel is a great upscale boutique hotel. The hotel is minutes from the beach, harbor and old town.

While our urban comfort room did not have harbor views it did have a window that let in fresh air and light. The room was bigger than I was expecting with plenty of room around the comfortable king sized bed, a small storage area with a safe and a couple of small chairs. The bathroom is moderately sized with a good shower, counter space around the sink and a hair dryer. There is no coffee and tea service in the room but the café in the lobby opens early.  There were 6 outlets plus a USB port for charging electronics. The Wi-Fi connection was generally good but did cut out on us one day.

Parking, although pricey at 30€ a night, is super easy. They send you a video on how to reach the hotel and once there they park your car for you and you don’t have to fuss with it until you leave.

Breakfast is not included in the price but they do have a café that offers coffee, pastry and a few savory breakfast options such as avocado toast and eggs with bacon. Coffee is made individually and bought by the cup. No free refills.

Kofradia – Itsas Extea

Kofradia – Itsas Extea, a fish restaurant owned and operated by Basque fisherman, is located on the harbor just outside of old town. If you love well-cooked fish this is a good choice. The modern dining area is a maze of smaller and larger rooms separated by glass walls. Our table, with views of the harbor, was in a hallway between a bigger main dining area and a back room with a table set for one large group. The open kitchen is just off the dining areas so you can watch them grill up the perfectly cooked fish.

With so many great looking fish choices we ordered the fried anchovies, raw red tuna and grilled peppers to start followed by red mullet and white tuna for mains with a side of green salad. All the fish dishes were wonderfully fresh and beautifully cooked. Mains are served on a bed of sliced potatoes. Our only disappointment with the food was the green salad – lovely fresh greens and onions in way too much vinegar and salt. Service was friendly and efficient. This place really knows fish but stay away from the greens.

Bodegón Alajandro

Bodegón Alajandro, a chic casual restaurant located in boisterous old town is below street level with multiple dining rooms. We were seated in a traditionally decorated room with a contemporary twist. Colorful Spanish tiles on the walls with the upper half painted a deep sea green, and a full length landscape, lit from behind on the back wall. The room had about 15 tables with only 2 and 4 tops. A nice size for feeling like you are dining in a busy restaurant without the noisy large groups.

The short menu offers traditional Basque dishes with a modern flair including a number of daily specials. They also have a set tasting menu. We ordered the marinated sardines and the tomato salad to start. Both dishes were simple, beautifully done and generous portions to share. For mains we ordered the salt cod in pil pil sauce and the squid stew – squid in a squid ink sauce. Again the dishes were simple and perfectly cooked. One of the best pieces of salt cod we’ve had in our 4 weeks in Spain and Portugal. My only complaint, and it really is a matter of preference, is that their flavors tend to be subtle rather than bold. The pil pil sauce, for example tasted more like a béchamel than garlic and pepper.

Service is friendly and efficient. This is a delightful restaurant if you like subtle flavors and want to get away from the noisy pinxto bar ambiance for an hour or two.

Breakfast at La Churreria Santa Lucia

For no frills basic breakfast La Churreria Santa Lucia, a large eatery, offers eggs, bacon, fries and salad in various combinations. You can also get churros.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Spain page.

September 23-26, 2022