This is where you can find anything and everything about one of our absolute favourite cities San Sebastián and its surrounding regions. Come and get amongst it in 2021 for some world class waves, food so good it’ll ruin your mum’s cooking forever, and a bunch of weird new mates who you’ll probably never want to leave.
Where is San Sebastián?
Alright, so first things first. San Sebastián is in the north-west of Spain. Well, strictly speaking, you’re actually in the Basque Country, an autonomous region of Spain, that also dips into France. Remember this if you want to make friends with any of the locals.
A lot of what we love about San Seb (as we’ve affectionately abbreviated it, because we’re lazy fuckers) stems from the fact that it’s a seaside city, with the river Urumea running directly through the middle, separating the Parte Vieja and the neighbourhood known as Gros (trust us, it’s way better than the name suggests). The coastal city boasts three different beaches, one of which, Playa de la Zurriola, is a surfing hotspot pretty much all year round.
Why go to San Sebastián?
So if you’ve never heard of San Sebastián, there’s a good chance that you are an uncultured swine. But that’s okay – life is about discovering new things. If you have heard of San Sebastián, chances are it will have been for one of two reasons; 1) the food or 2) the surf.
Whilst it may have recently lost its moniker as the capital of European gastronomy (*flips the bird to Paris*) there’s no doubting that the food here will have your tastebuds doing somersaults on every street corner, with the general quality of eateries across the city being ridiculously high. That’s in no small part the reason that, when speaking of San Sebastián, the late, great Anthony Bourdain declared that there are “more outrageously good restaurants per square mile than just about anywhere in Europe – even the bad restaurants are good”.
But while Bourdain may have suggested that his sole purpose in visiting the city was for the food, he’s missing out on the other key draw-card – the waves. While all three beaches in central San Sebastián are surfable, the one that really gets us drooling is Playa de la Zurriola. Situated smack bang in front of the Gros barrio, Zurriola is far and away the superior beach for surfing in San Sebastián, and as such draws in some of the world’s most renowned surfers to catch some of Europe’s best waves.
And although San Sebastián as a city is the crowning jewel of the province of Gipuzkoa, the surrounding areas boast incredible food and consistent waves, all year long – you just have to know where to find them.
So as we’ve already discussed, Playa de la Zurriola is a fantastic spot to surf. The only problem is it can get very crowded in the peak of summer – not ideal if you’re just starting out. So we’ve put together a list of a few other spots in the surrounding area.
Playa de Zarautz
Arguably the best beach break in the whole of the Basque Country, Playa de Zarautz is a 2.5km stretch of beach about a 20 minute drive (or half an hour train ride) west of San Sebastián, and the preferred beach of choice for our very own San Sebastián Surf Camp. During the height of summer, Zarautz is perfect for beginner surfers to get to grips with the basics whilst soaking up a bit of sun.
That’s not to say Zarautz is only for newbies and groms – surfers from around the world flock here during the shoulder seasons, as well as June and September, and surf comps like the Duct Tape Invitational and the Pro Zarautz comp for the WSL have been held here in recent years. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch Stoke Travel’s very own Mundaka Pro Series.
Playa de Zumaia
If we go a bit further west, you’ll find Playa de Zumaia. If you haven’t heard of it, you might recognise this beach as Dragonstone from some of the later seasons of Game of Thrones. It’s got some pretty spectacular cliffs either side of this beach, and while it’s way smaller than Zarautz, it still has a bunch of waves perfect for those of us with a little bit more experience. We say that, because of the big fuck off rocks that tend to stick out either side of the relatively small expanse of beach. If you’re sneaky, you can paddle out to the caves where Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen get freaky, but you’ll have to watch out for the lifeguards, since they’re kind of not into it (probably because of the aforementioned big fuck off rocks).
Playa de Mundaka
Not quite as reliable as the other beaches we’ve mentioned, Mundaka is a river mouth wave that is usually best surfed outside of the summer season. But when it’s on, by God is it on, making it another favourite for surfers searching for the wave of a lifetime. Mundaka is a fair way away from San Sebastián, around an hour and a half’s drive, and a lot closer to neighbouring Bilbao, but we just couldn’t leave it off the list. Namesake of the infamous Stoke event (and surfboard) The Mundaka Pro Series.
La Grande Plage, Biarritz
Going the opposite direction up into France, we like to hit up Biarritz. A swanky little beach town, Biarritz has five beaches in total, but it’s most famous is easily La Grande Plage. Much like La Zurriola, it can be super busy in summer, swarming with locals and beginners alike. But it does also sit right in front of the fancy-pants Biarritz promenade, and makes for quite the picture. Biarritz still maintains its reputation as a getaway for the rich and the famous, which stretches back to the roaring twenties, when it became known as a hub of hedonism and debauchery, attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill.
Where are the best places to eat in San Sebastián?
Having previously held the record for the most Michelin star restaurants per capita in the world, fine dining in San Sebastián is amongst the best you’ll find. However, let’s be realistic – none of us can afford that shite. But that doesn’t mean your tastebuds will be missing out.
We’ve all heard of the humble tapas, right? Small plate Spanish cuisine, either a snack or appetizer, that when accumulated and combined with a couple of shandies can create one hell of a night out? Well the Basque’s don’t do tapas – they do pintxos. It’s essentially the same thing.
A pintxo can be anything from a simple slice of jamon on bread, to a full on gourmet slow-braised beef cheek – served for one. Prices will depend on where you go, and what you’re getting, but expect to shell out around €1-3 for your classics or €4-6 for your fancier fare. Check out our list of best pintxo spots here.
Alternately, if you’re wanting more of a sit-down meal, we’d suggest heading just inland to Astigarraga for a meal at a traditional Basque Cider House – about as much fun as you can have while keeping your pants on (and even then, sometimes we don’t). Astigarraga has over a dozen different sidrerias, but you’ll find these cider houses dotted all over the Basque country. If you wanna get the low-down on what goes on in one of these heavenly saloons, check out our guide here. Prefer a quick run down? Seafood, steaks and a metric shit-ton of cider.
What to drink in San Sebastián
Like the Asturians and the Cantabrians to the west, the Basques are famed for their traditional tipple, sidra. A dangerously delectable drop, Basque sidra shares very little resemblance to your more common Magners or Old Mout (the drink, you dirty bastards). Made solely using fermented apples, sidra is a lot more sour than what you’d usually expect from a cider, and is completely uncarbonated. As such, you need to learn the ways of a Basque sidra pour.
How to pour Basque Cider:
- Hold the bottle from the bottom with your dominant hand (not from the neck – you’re not a pirate) and the glass with your other hand
- Keep the glass level, and start to pour, whilst raising the height from which you’re pouring, so there’s a good distance in between the neck of the bottle and the rim of the glass. The more your practise, the further you can get.
- Fill only around a gulps worth, “txotx” ya mate, and neck it back.
As the Basques say, “drink little, and often”. The distance is key, so as to aerate the cider, as is the smaller servings, to get the best taste out of your beverage. So don’t be greedy and overdo it with the serving sizes – not only will you look like a silly bastard in front of all your new Basque mates, but your bevy will also taste like piss.
The other typical Basque drink is Txakoli. Txakoli is a tasty little white wine number – a little dry, slightly sparkling, and a tiny bit fancy. It’s relatively low in alcohol for a wine, sitting at 11%, but don’t let that fool you – a bottle or two of these will put you on your arse without you even realising you were drunk. That being said, it’s our tipple of choice if we’re dressing to impress or, you know, if mum’s in town. And even when we wanna party. Speaking of which…
Where to party in San Sebastián
While Ibiza, or Barcelona may well get the party plaudits when it comes to Spain, the Basques certainly know a thing or two about how to throw a shindig and clean up the dance floor. There’s a good selection of clubs across the city that (pandemic notwithstanding) go off, and even more local fiestas that happen throughout the year. We’ve picked out some of our favourites:
Best Nightlife in San Sebastián
The go-to spot for live music in San Sebastián, Dabadaba has played host to some big names over the years, as well as the legendary Stoke Travel 4th of July Party, previously headlined by Art vs. Science and the Dune Rats.
One of two saucy seaside discotheques that San Sebastián has to offer, Bataplan looks out over La Concha beach where you can find drunken revelers dancing in the moonlight after a big night on the sauce. Popular with surfers, students and a generally younger crowd, Bataplan’s only downside is that it’s a bit fancy, meaning shorts and flip-flops aren’t gonna cut it, and you’ll likely have to pay a door charge. But once you’re in, it’s on!
A bar on a boat – who doesn’t love that? GU is another spot with a cracker view of La Concha, with an outdoor seated area on the hull of the boat and an upstairs dance floor for when you wanna rip up the floorboards with your shit hot moves. Again, an entry fee is usually required unless you get in early doors, but the price of admission usually includes a drink or two.
A little deeper into town, you have more live music in Bar Victoria. Good for bands and DJ sets, the downstairs area goes off of a weekend, and the upstairs outdoor area is right next to the illustrious Hotel Maria Cristina.
Best Festivals in San Sebastián
Semana Grande – last week of August
Semana Grande, literally translates to “big week”, and a big week indeed it is. Pop up bars, live music, parties and events spring up around the city throughout the week, and each night is an international fireworks competition that lights up the city. Like all fiestas across the Basque Country and Spain, don’t expect to get too much sleep.
Fiestas de Basque – second Monday in September
Based just over in Zarautz, Fiestas de Basque is one of our local favourites, celebrating all things Basque. Young and old, the people of Zarautz dress in traditional Basque outfits to celebrate their heritage; ornate dresses for the ladies, and for the fellas, a traditional shirt, belt and Basque txupela (beret). Slightly less customary is what goes one whilst wearing said outfit.
A long-established yet slightly less conventional tradition is for the local youngsters to acquire (hint: steal) a shopping trolley, and pimp the shit out of it. We’re talking speakers, flags, decorations, umbrellas – one year there was a trolley with an entire tiki-bar attached. Once you’ve made it look the part, you then wrap the inside of the trolley with a tarp, fill it with ice and then load it with bottles of sidra. You then proceed to get very, very drunk.
Fiestas de Aia – first week of August
Okay, so maybe we’re a bit biased on this one. This is the annual festival of our local village at the San Sebastián Surf Camp and it’s the event of the year for many of the locals here – and for good reason. The sleepy town square is transformed into a concert space, with bands performing throughout the week. It’s not uncommon for the music to start at around 10pm, and kick on until the wee hours of the next morning. Quite the feat, considering the average age of the village is probably around 50. The Basque Olympics and the paella competition on the opening day are two highlights, as well as the am-dram theatre performance, where they seem to take great delight in taking the piss out of Chris Hemsworth (his girlfriend is Basque).
Bandera de la Concha Regatta – first two Sundays of September
The Bandera de la Concha is not just a rowing regatta, but a whole event in the city of San Sebastián, second only to Semana Grande, and even then it’s a close one. Over two weekends, the local rowing teams from each barrio of Gipuzkoa compete in a fiercely contested rowing regatta. The streets are filled with rural communities, from tiny towns and villages, there to support their local team. And of course, beer, sidra and txakoli soak the streets as celebrations ensue for the winners, while the rest drown their sorrows. An event not to be missed.
San Sebastián International Film Festival – mid-late September
Whilst not out and out a fantastic time to party, the SSIFF at the beginning of September is a real event in the film festival circuit, and has brought the likes of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz to its shores in recent years. Not only is it an opportunity to see some world class flicks with their stars and directors present, but the whole city has that festival vibe to it, and there’s a real buzz about the place fizzing through the streets.
The San Sebastian Surf House is open for an extended summer season – from Easter until early October! Lock your spot in now for a measly €1 deposit. We sold out in 2020, and with the pandemic hopefully easing we’re sure the house will fill up fast in 2021!