The northern coast of Spain, in the Basque region, a short hop from France’s southwestern border.
The food, primarily: it’s the best in Spain, with a constellation of Michelin stars to prove it. Add a string of sparkling beaches, a picturesque Old Town, plus stylish visitors and easy-going locals, and its appeal is pretty clear.
From Madrid and Barcelona, several daily flights to nearby Fuenterrabía serve San Sebastián. By train, it’s about 7 hours from Madrid and 9 hours from Barcelona.
The film and jazz festivals (held in mid-September and late July, respectively) get most of the international attention, but for a more local experience, consider visiting during Aste Nagusia. The mid-August event is a festive celebration of traditional Basque music and dance, with cooking competitions to boot.
Ask any Spaniard where to find the best food in Spain and they’ll answer San Sebastián, a smart little city of under 200,000 people on the country’s northern coast. While neighboring Bilbao, an hour or so away by car or train, has the highly touted Guggenheim, it’s the Basque country’s second city that’s home to sixteen Michelin stars and, according to the influential Pellegrino list, two of the fifty best restaurants in the world: Mugaritz and Arzak.
To concentrate only on fine dining, however, would be to miss the point of the culinary pilgrimage to San Sebastián. Understanding the city’s love affair with food requires going beyond the radical tasting menus and visiting some of the local pintxo bars, where tapas are treated with more culinary respect than the relatively humble surroundings would suggest.
On any given night, the city’s Parte Vieja (old quarter) and the Gros district are brimming with good-humored souls strolling from bar to bar. Try Txepetxa, a favorite of Mugaritz chef-owner Andoni Aduriz. It’s the winner of countless prizes for its creative creations around one key ingredient: Cantabrian anchovies. Or check out Borda Berri, a tapas bar where the pig’s ear, slowly braised then grilled to crunchy perfection and slathered with chimichurri sauce, is the stuff of legends.
In this city of serious eaters, even the hotels are led by their stomachs. Astoria7 is a stylish converted cinema where chef Iñigo Palma updates market staples with creative pizzazz — like wild mushroom ravioli in chickpea broth and roast hake on a pistachio meunière. Then there’s Hotel Villa Soro, smack in the middle of Gros, which puts you on the doorstep of the top pintxo bars as well as avant-garde restaurants like Ni Neu.
Should you want to venture out of town, head to the fine old country estate of Iriarte Jauregia, located about thirty minutes by car from the center of San Sebastián. Once there, expect marvelous renditions of the local game. Just know you’ve got to stay the night to eat it.