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Trip Report July 2014

new york
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Trip Report July 2014

I thought I'd repay the favor of the many helpful posters and posts on this board who helped me plan my trip to San Sebastian and write a brief trip report.

We arrived on Friday July 4th and departed Wednesday July 9. It quickly became apparent to me that this was way too little time to fully appreciate all of the beauty and culture of the region, but we did our best. This is definitely a region I would like to return to-- it so captivated us!

We stayed at a small but very well equipped apartment on Kalea Moraza, booked through Friendly Rentals, which I would HIGHLY recommend. For us renting an apartment worked out perfectly, both in terms of comfort and cost. The location was quiet and so was the apartment (except for an early rising pigeon!) as it was an interior unit. There were many shops and cafes around, and it's only a 15 minute walk to the beach or the center of town. Friendly Rentals was very good to deal with, too. If anyone would like the information for this apartment, please let me know and I'll pass it along!

First day-

We ate breakfast in and then went out strolling. After brief snack stops at Paries for gateau basque (the cherry was our favorite and we later returned to buy a large one to take home-- tip: it travels very well!) and Barrenetxe for an elephant ear (a palmier- not sure what it's called in Spanish) and a txintxurro (amazing little muffin with nuts and caramelized on top) we strolled around Parte Vieja and decided to climb up Monte Urgull. We didn't make it all the way to the top-- it was rather warm-- but we made it far up enough for gorgeous vistas of all of San Sebastian. It was definitely the most beautiful day of the time we were there so I'm glad we did it then. After that we had our first taste of pintxos at A Fuego Negro, their little mini hamburgers, gildas, and homemade pickles, along with our first of many (many!) glasses of txacoli. We headed back and got suited up for the beach, where we relaxed among the many beachgoers and dipped our toes in the chilly water. Because it was a Saturday Parte Vieja was PACKED and very rowdy and I failed in my first attempt to secure a place at the bar at Borda Berri. I'm not a naturally assertive person so I couldn't push my way to the bar, so we gave up and headed to Zeruko. Motivated by hunger, I stepped up my game, and bellied up to the bar and started ordering as soon as I could make eye contact with a bartender. We were rewarded with a parade of amazing pintxos, from txipirones to bacalao to cochinillo to lobster and more! Dessert was a gorgeously plated homage to breakfast. After that we waddled home...

I'll post more later.

new york
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1. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Second day-

On Sunday we drove up to French Basque country for lunch in Sare at Olhabidea (recommended on Chowhound). After a lovely drive, we found the restaurant: Olhabidea is remotely located, on a very green and lush farm, and the farmhouse porch where lunch is served is so charming. We had a lovely and leisurely lunch, almost 3 hours long, with the freshest ingredients very simply prepared. I highly recommend it. After that it had begun raining but we pressed on towards Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where we somehow made the stomach room for glaces at Txomin, which were fabulous, the best ice cream we had on the trip. Even though it was Sunday, all the souvenir shops were open, so we managed to get a lot of shopping done there and bought some very nice typical Basque products to bring back home like pepper, black cherry preserves, Basque linens, some candies, etc. After our drive back and a siesta, we were ready for another pintxos crawl. Now that it was Sunday (and we also started out earlier) it was much more relaxed downtown so we were able to make it to quite a few places. At Cuchara de San Telmo we enjoyed risotto cremoso with mushrooms and goat cheese ganache, queso de cabra relleno with vegetables, and ravioli de sepea y zizahori. Very relaxed, fun atmosphere, nice bartenders. After that we went to La Cepa where we had the most amazing jamon that could not be matched anywhere else. Cute place, more traditional seeming (less trendy so less crowded) and with a bartender who was so sweet and nice. We ended the night at La Vina for vino tinto with their incredible cheesecake that lived up to every bit of hype I'd read about it.

new york
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2. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Third day-

Our third day we drove to Bilbao. We had been planning to take the bus but we figured we might actually save some money by driving (and I think we did make out slightly ahead, given the cheaper price of parking in Bilbao). It was a fast drive and we found a lot right near the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim was a great experience; the building is just as stunning as photos suggest and I was totally smitten by Puppy out in front. I got a little dizzy walking in and out of all the Serra installments and so we had to take in some nourishment at their excellent cafe, where we noshed on a few pintxos (surprisingly good, or maybe not so surprisingly!) and some bottled water. After a while, we decided to push on and walked all the way to Casco Vieja, taking photos of the interesting urban landscape along the way. I had read varying descriptions of Bilbao, and was expecting a rather grim landscape, but we were totally intrigued by the mix of new and old architecture in the city. It is also small enough to be manageable and extremely walkable. We had a few excellent pintxos at Gure Toki, where more amazingly pleasant bartenders made us feel welcome. A pile of delicious Idiazabal cheese, a soft cooked egg with mushrooms (that reminds me of a dish at one of NY's finest restaurants where I probably paid 5 times more for it!), and an oxtail croqueta. Sated, we strolled a bit more, and then headed back home for a siesta! That evening, after another lovely stroll along the beach, we settled in to Atari for a few pintxos (jamon croquetas and house smoked salmon) and then went to La Madame (I read about it in the NYTimes) where my husband finally got some craft beer (Basque Brewing Project-- EXCELLENT beer and gorgeous labels to boot!) and I got two spectacular cocktails, a mojito and a gin fizz-- the gin fizz, I told the sweetheart waiter, was probably one of my top 2 cocktails I've ever had in my life. It was a piece of art. I highly recommend drinks at La Madame, though the atmosphere was decidedly New York-y to us.

new york
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3. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Fourth day-

We had a little bite at Pateleria Geltoki, another very friendly and welcoming establishment, with fresh baked croissants and fresh squeezed juice (loved the fresh squeezed juice in Spain-- even at the airport!) and then spent the rest of the day in San Sebastian, strolling and shopping and eating more. It was raining for a good part of the day so we stopped into the Naval Museum, which is a wonderful way to spend an hour. They have a very nice collection of Basque artwork and artifacts and we got to hear our first extended Euskera conversations-- a day camp for children was visiting and they were all speaking Euskera. We got caught up in the crowd of them and as a language teacher I was totally fascinated listening to the language. After a few more pintxos at A Fuego Negro (final verdict-- fun but pricey compared to a lot of other places we visited) we went back to pack. In the afternoon the rain cleared up and we went to sit by the beach for a couple hours, reading, writing and people watching. Our last evening we had an epic pintxos crawl back to our favorites and to a new one (Txetxepa for their incredible anchoas on toast with different toppings), and we returned back to Borda Berri, where this time I trundled right up to the bar like a pro :) and ordered some delicious pintxos. Zeruko and Atari were also revisited, and we ended the night back at La Vina for a final farewell slice of cheesecake.

new york
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4. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Final reflections:

As you can see, a large focus of our trip was on the food, and San Sebastian and environs did NOT disappoint. For a foodie this is a MUST-VISIT destination. We were not in the market for the very upscale Michelin dining and honestly now having experienced it I can say that the convivial, social atmosphere of pintxos appealed to us more than a 20 course meal would have. We kept meaning to have a sit down dinner but every night we would get so caught up in pintxos we never got to! Every single morsel that we ate was delicious; the default red wine and txacoli were unfailingly delicious no matter where we went; every bartender was friendly and accommodating and helpful. It was really fun getting to practice my Spanish and I learned a ton of (mostly food related) vocabulary. We found it surprising how many tourists just spoke right to waiters/bartenders in English. A lot did understand/speak English but I found the assumption rude. We always at least tried to speak in Spanish and I could tell the effort was appreciated.

There was so much more I would have liked to have done but we simply didn't have the time. I would love to return to experience some of the smaller towns (we had Getaria and Hondarrabia on our list but just didn't have time) and more rural areas. Our impression was of a beautiful and rich area with very proud, welcoming people and a totally fascinating culture and language. To me this trip just was the tip of the iceberg of an area I felt a real connection with and am already looking forward to revisiting!

Edited: 4:50 pm, July 13, 2014
Biarritz, France
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5. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us - have yet to meet someone who hasn't fallen in love with San Sebastian.

Particular thanks for the tip about the craft ale in La Madame. It is surprisingly difficult to get real ale in France and Spain due to the big brewing giants; Heineken and San Miguel.

los altos...
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6. Re: Trip Report July 2014

We just spent 3 days in San Sebastian and 3 days in Bilbao and feel exactly as you do. Only we spent more time at the beach since we had no rain. We would return any time. Thanks for sharing.

San Francisco...
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7. Re: Trip Report July 2014

wonderful trip report! Thank you so much for taking the time to post. I am now starving! C'mon, how much weight did you gain? Lol

Bilbao, Spain
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8. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Beautiful report, a big Thank You from a local very proud of his homeland, which is (yet) so unknown to many. And with many hidden gems that are still to be discovered by visitors.

new york
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9. Re: Trip Report July 2014

BiarritzTaxi: My husband (a huge beer nut) was so excited about La Madame. It's definitely a destination for beer drinkers.

Sebinah: I was disappointed when we first saw the forecast but it ended up being just fine. Like I said, the first day was so gorgeous, and though the other days started off gloomy, the afternoons usually ended up sunny. Summer in NY can be brutal (and those couple weeks we were away it was very very hot here in NY) so temperature-wise it was a nice break.

Siouxxie: Sooooo funny you ask this question! All in all, we were in Europe for 13 days (the first few drinking beer and eating our way through Brussels, the last couple in Madrid where we finally stopped stuffing our faces so much) and we were really curious what the scale would say when we returned. We usually eat very healthy and are both very fit people to begin with and while we got in a few workouts we were definitely not going out of our way to exercise. So when we got home, we weighed ourselves and we both burst out laughing because not only had we not gained a single pound but our body fat had plummeted, mine into the "too low" zone, my husband's lower than it has ever been! The only explanation I can see is how much walking we were doing. Most days we were walking for miles; for example, our day in Bilbao alone we walked over three miles. My job is pretty active but my husband's isn't, so I told him if he gets a treadmill desk at work he will be able to drink more beer no problem. :)

On an unrelated note, I also managed to increase my alcohol tolerance while we were away too, aided by the pintxos style of dining where every drink is accompanied by a bite (or two or three :). I usually am done in by 2 drinks but given the constant intake of small amounts of food I was drinking up to 4 drinks a night and not getting fall down drunk or waking up hungover. Of course this isn't something I'd continue (my poor liver) but it was an interesting development!

MikeBasqueGuide: I'm glad you enjoyed the report. Many people who ask about where we traveled in Spain are completely unfamiliar with the area so I am making sure to spread the word!

Edited: 7:15 am, July 14, 2014
Bilbao, Spain
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10. Re: Trip Report July 2014

Thanks...and regarding the weight issue...did you realize that we eat a lot, drink a lot...and there are almost no fat people around? I think it´s due to the absence of processed food, abundance of fresh ingredients, olive oil and lots of vegetables.

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