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San Sebastian is widely recognized as the gateway to Basque Country. Sitting on the northern coast of Spain, the town of San Sebastian, or Donostia in Basque, offers visitors a glimpse into a unique culture somewhat different from what you may find in Madrid or Barcelona.

The Basques were both farmers and seafarers. They are not so much into the traditional and iconic Spanish cultural activities of bull-fighting and flamenco but rather enjoy the good life of socializing with friends amid glasses of sparkling wine and their version of tapas (called pintxos). In San Sebastián Spanish is still the predominant language however many of the town’s residents are bilingual, that is speaking both Basque (officially dubbed Euskara) and Spanish.

But the Basque culture that permeates the area is just a part of what makes the city and surrounding areas of San Sebastián so inviting. The white sandy beaches, colorful seaside promenade and superb, world-renown eateries and vibrant nightlife make San Sebastián one of the most exciting destinations and best kept secrets of Spain.

Glitz, Glamour and Glorious Beaches

San Sebastián is known as a sophisticated resort for wealthy beach-goers today just as it was in the 19th century when Queen Maria Cristina established her royal summer house there. All throughout the city you’ll find homage paid to the glamorous reputation honed over the centuries.

La Concha is said to be the most beautiful urban beach in Europe. Luxury beachside mansions serve to underscore that distinction. The world-renowned spa and sports center, La Perla, takes full advantage of its soul-soothing beachfront location to promote relaxation and wellbeing. But you needn’t be a billionaire to access the soothing atmosphere of La Concha.

The ornately white-railed promenade that skirts the beachfront is a treasure in itself. Teeming with visitors and locals alike at all hours of the day the promenade offers a great place to people watch or take in the magnificent views of this crescent shaped bay.

San Sebastián boasts two additional beaches that are popular albeit less posh than La Concha. They are the laid back Ondarreta and Zurriola, a surfer's haven. Surfing is a popular pastime for locals and visitors alike. In fact the beaches of Spain in general are a favorite among surfers across the globe.

Old Town San Sebastián or Parte Vieja

The Parte Viejo (“old part” in Spanish) is a maze of cobblestone streets and lively bars and restaurants. Although the old town dates back to Medieval times a fire devastated most of the area in 1813. Since then much of Parte Viejo has been rebuilt and the architecture is fabulous.

Some of the more popular places to visit are the Gothic style church of St. Vincente, Municipal Museum San Telmo, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro a Baroque style beauty and the remarkable Plaza de la Constitución, which boasts impressive loggias and balconies that call to mind scenes out of an opera or classic tale.

Of course one of the main draws to the Parte Vieja is the area's recognition of having the highest concentration of bars in the world. These bars feature the Basque-style tapas, called pintxos. Feast on such specialties of the region as deep fried seafood, especially cold,  marinated anchovies, tortilla de patatas and hand made croquettes. Of course each bar has its own specialty and the pintxos menu is typically displayed on a chalkboard near the front. The pintxos change daily.

How to Best Enjoy Pintxos in San Sebastián

If you’ve never experienced pintxos before, get ready for a truly fun time. There are two ways to order at any bar. The chilled pintxos are displayed on the bar and you simply ask the attendant or bartender for the ones you wish to try. They will plate them for you or offer for you to plate them yourself.

The made-to-order pintxos are usually those that are served hot such as the fried fish and seafood dishes. As with Tapas you are meant to get a few samples of the things you desire and then move on to the next bar and do the same. If you fill up at one spot you’ll miss out on the various specialties of the others.

You are expected to enjoy a beverage with your pintxos and the typical offerings are beer, Rioja or a similar red wine, Sidra, a traditional Basque cider and Txakoli (pronounced chakoli) a regionally favorite sparkling dry white wine. Of course there are non-alcoholic beverages as well.

Outstanding Culinary Scene

In recent years San Sebastián has been recognized for their outstanding culinary offerings. In fact the city of San Sebastián boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the world, second only to Tokyo. So how many Michelin stars are scattered throughout San Sebastián? 14 of them among six different restaurants, three restaurants claiming the highest honor of three stars.

Of course, given San Sebastian’s location on the Bay of Biscay, you would expect the seafood to be fresh and impressive. And it is! But there’s so much more to enjoy as a foodie in San Sebastián. As farmers and agriculture experts the Basque have perfected the smoky and delicious Idiazabal cheese and an aged grass-fed beef from which the famed Txuleta steaks are created. Both of these are must-try menu items when in San Sebastian.

Given the focus on outstanding food the markets are a great place to find high quality produce, wines and cheeses. You’ll also want to sample the delicious pastries and desserts of the region. The Basque specialties of Pastel Vasco, a sponge cake like pastry filled with a luscious vanilla or almond cream and sometimes cherries, and Pantxineta a flaky puff pastry filled with custard and topped with almonds. Both are excellent examples of Basque-style sweets.

Those are just some of the highlights of the multifaceted jewel that is San Sebastián. You really need to discover this amazing destination for yourself.

San Sebastian Spain