Word of Mouth: San Sebastian
Word of Mouth: San Sebastian
Europe's best city beach, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum, pintxo bars and designer boutiques
This summer saw all kinds of action in San Sebastian, Spain, and those festivities aren't over yet. With July's International Jazz Festival, the Semana Grande with parties, bullfights and fireworks, and the Zinemaldia International Film Festival later in September, the city keeps summer alive for as long as possible. But it's actually best to go during quieter months—in the fall—when you can discreetly observe the giant appetite for life San Sebastians' have. Food and drink, natural outdoors, walking, beaches and beauty—no matter how many swells of people descend upon the city through the summer months, San Sebastian keeps cozy and unique. It's a city and a people dedicated to enjoying life's luxuries.
San Sebastian is often listed as one of the top cities for surfing for its consistent waves and moderate year-round weather. Although falls and winters see the best waves—up to 18 feet—surfers can ride the waters all year long. Locals head to Zurriola Beach for a morning of surf, which is within walking distance of the old town; Mundaka and Playa Gris are other neighboring popular surf spots. But at the center of it all remains Pukas Surf, a family-started company founded in 1979 by Iñigo Letamendia to create the best high-performance surfboards in Europe. His wife Marian Azpiroz started their clothing line by sewing custom bikinis out of curtains. With surf shops, surfing contests, major surf factory Olatu (the biggest in Europe), and Spain's longest running surf school, Pukas Surf Eskola, Pukas Surf is the master of its own Basque surf culture and lifestyle.
You could spend all day in Noventa Grados—a designer boutique with an amazing shoe selection, beauty shop and ongoing art exhibition. Everything on sale could find a spot in a museum, from colorful Mawi jewelry to Idole Eau de Parfum. But the real reason to go there is for the hairdressers. If you're really itching for a new look, and want something nobody has back home, sit in one of their plush vinyl chairs and let them have their way with you.
A Fuego Negro
Nothing is more important to San Sebastians than food (the city has one McDonald's, which only just managed to open despite heavy protesting from locals.) There are plenty of Michelin-rated restaurants featuring some of Europe's best chefs, including the world-famous Arzak. But the vibe of San Sebastian is more about a relaxed night of bar-hopping or a private dinner at the number of gastronomic clubs where members cook for friends and lucky invited guests. The bars of the old town offer an incredible assortment of pintxos, gourmet tapas, where guests pick one pintxo or two at each bar before moving on to the next for the ultimate variety in fine dining. Our favorite hub is A Fuego Negro, a modern, black interior bar founded by two former hip-hop DJs. Try the pickled pork ear with frozen mole or the cheese with tongue and polenta. They've even created a CD-book Pintxatu, featuring music, pintxo recipes and illustrations by David Navascues.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum
San Sebastian is centrally located within the Basque region, making day trips to nearby Bilbao or Vitoria-Gasteiz a breeze. We recommend Getaria, a 40 minute bus ride from San Sebastian, to see the newly opened Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum. In this unobtrusive fishing town, the place of Balenciaga's birth, stands a giant monument to Spain's most famous fashion designer, who learned the couture craft in San Sebastian. The building is composed of two parts—a 19th Century Aldamar Palace and a new building, an icy steel trapezoid, which is the work of Cuban architect Julián Argilagos. Home to over 1,200 original fashion items, the museum selectively displays small portions of the collection at a time, paying tribute to the man who revolutionized the female silhouette through his creation of various trends throughout the 1950s, including the balloon skirt, the tunic dress, the sack dress and the baby-doll dress. The museum split into sections devoted to various periods of his life—it's a time capsule of fashion.
Hotel Maria Cristina
At the center of the city is the Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, and undoubtedly the place to stay to truly experience the San Sebastian way of life. With a traditional Spanish restaurant, some Chinese cuisine, and the best bar in the city—the Dry Martini Bar San Sebastian, where Bette Davis famously smoked her last cigarette—the hotel has it all. It also has a view of the beach and is just a three-minute walk to the old town for a night of pintxo-hopping or a quick taxi to any one of the area's many Michelin-starred establishments. The hotel combines an understated luxury with an overindulgence in the good life. Try the Carnyvore, a cocktail made with Szechuan buttons and Shiso leaves served in a carnivorous flower.
One needs little excuse to visit San Sebastian, but the $25 million renovation of the 100-year-old Belle Époque style Hotel Maria Cristina, is as good a reason as any. The King of Spain built the hotel in 1912 for his mother, Queen Maria Cristina, as a summer residence for the royal court. A theater, casino, spa and funicular were constructed in the same year, offering a coastal city to rival any on the French Riviera. During the Spanish Civil War, the hotel headquartered allied troops, and the façade still has the bullet holes to prove it. Today it is known as the glamorous backdrop of the San Sebastian Film Festival, which has welcomed red carpet elites every September since 1953. The scores of female celebrities who have stayed overnight are honored in portrait galleries throughout the hotel, each floor representing a different era in screen siren history.
Hotel Maria Cristina's Bars and Restaurants
Breakfast is served at Easo, which offers a mix of local specialties like buttery Basque cake and Idiazabal cheese alongside British staples like eggs, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes. Strong coffee and pots of tea are served at the table. At night, Tse Yang offers high-end Chinese food, with dishes like pigeon in coriander and steamed Norway lobster. Dry Martini Bar San Sebastian, a local outpost of Javier de las Muelas' famed Barcelona joint serves afternoon tea and pintxos well into the evening. Inspired by Bette Davis, thick blue drapes, powder blue leather chairs, and a giant crystal chandelier with wall mirrors evoke the glamour of the 1950s. Cocktails range from large and fruity to perfectly dry, drawing in a nightly crowd of locals.
Pukas Surf image courtesy of Pukas Surf, Noventa Grados image courtesy of Noventa Grados, all others by Ariston Anderson