Of all the places I visited this year, one was my clear favorite: San Sebastian, Spain.
It was one of those rare cities where I felt I could actually live.
My family and I spent a few days there, on the tail end of our Spain trip.
I was so glad it worked out that way. San Sebastian definitely closed our vacation on a high note.
San Sebastian is one of those rare beach towns that feels cosmopolitan.
It has historic buildings, great shops and restaurants, and a river running through it. (It reminded me a bit of Boston and Cambridge.)
Gorgeous beaches flanked by hills make up its coastline. And the city has an active vibe that I loved: I saw so many surfers, bikers and runners.
San Sebastian also has some of the most unique, inventive and delicious food I’ve come across during my travels. The city is Spain’s unofficial pintxos capitol—small bites served in bars, alongside txakoli, an effervescent Basque wine.
But more about pintxos in a few.
Hotel Okako, a small boutique, was our home base.
The rooms were tiny, but clean, comfortable and artfully decorated. (That’s my single, below.)
It was in an ideal location, just minutes from Zurriola beach and Parte Vieja, the old town.
On our first day, one of Okako’s employees recommended Bodega Donostiarra, a restaurant just a few blocks away.
We had a delicious lunch that included prawns and rice…
…and seafood skewers.
It was a fantastic first meal in San Seb. And so good that we actually went back two days later for more tortilla…
…and veal ribs.
On our second morning in town, my mom, E and I walked along San Sebastian’s beaches…
…to the funicular at the edge of town.
We rode it to the top of the hill…
…and arrived at a bird’s eye view of the city.
There was also a children’s amusement park that was closed.
Too bad. I kind of wanted a trip through the Casa del Terror. (Muah ha ha ha.)
We made sure to have a few hours of beach time, each day.
One afternoon was warm and sunny—we all took advantage of it, and enjoyed long, post-lunch naps.
But since it was early October, not every day was bikini weather. Two afternoons were chillier.
That still worked for me—I didn’t mind bundling up to nap.
Because I needed to rest up for going pintxo bar hopping each night!
It’s hard to capture the essence and allure of pintxos in words. I didn’t really get what was so great until we actually experienced them in San Sebastián.
But I can best describe the scene like this: Imagine a number of bars in one area of town. (In San Seb, they’re mainly in Parte Vieja.) When you walk into each bar, you’re faced with some of the prettiest, most delicious-looking platters of finger food that you’ve ever seen. You can order short glasses of txakoli or beer, and tell the bartender which pieces you want from the platters. Plus, you’ll order one of their hot specialties, which is also about the size of an amuse bouche.
When you’re done eating, you’ll throw your napkins on the floor, then pay your tab. (The amount of crumpled napkins is a good indication of how good the food is.)
Then, you’ll continue from bar to bar, sampling food from each.
We did this all three nights we were in town.
Our favorite pintxo bars included:
Zeruko, a stylish, modern bar with updated takes on pintxos—each plate was so pretty and elegant!
We tried several pintxos: octopus, blood sausage topped with egg, marinated mushrooms topped with egg.
Borda Barri looked like a dive bar, but had a surprisingly sophisticated menu: veal cheeks, duck breast, mushroom risotto, sweetbread ravioli.
Not surprisingly, it was crowded every time we went there. (And it was on our hit list, all three nights.)
At Bar Ganbera, the platters of fresh mushrooms beckoned.
We tried them grilled…
…along with grilled prawns.
We were clearly happy with our selections.
Bar Nestor is known for two things: tortilla and steak. To get a slice of the tortilla, you have to arrive early and put your name on a list. Same with the steak. You have to be there close to when they start serving, to get a seat at the bar or a table outside. We managed the latter.
From our table, we could order txakolis through the window. (Note the pour: Basque bartenders always serve the drink a couple feet above the glass.)
We enjoyed each of Nestor’s specialities as they arrived. First the tortilla, which was as delicious as it was hyped up to be.
The the tomato salad—fresh and delicious with lot of olive oil and flaky salt…
…followed by charred peppers…
…and then the famous steak, also perfectly cooked and simply seasoned with more of that flaky salt.
Atari Gastroteka, a hopping bar with an innovative menu, had one of my favorite pintxos: a slow cooked egg in a pea puree.
Atari was in a prime location, right across from the gorgeous Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus.
Outside of Parte Vieja, we had amazing pintxos at Bar Bergara.
I couldn’t get enough of their tortilla or risotto.
Pintxo-crawling was some of the most fun I had with my family: Deciding which bars to try, picking out pintxos, savoring the flavor combinations in a setting that’s unlike anything in the States.
(We talked about what the scene would be like if someone transported San Sebastian’s pintxo bars to NYC: crowded. Unbearably crowded and expensive.)
I feel incredibly lucky to have shared that experience, in such an awesome city, with some of my very favorite people. My family doesn’t often take big vacations together, so I’m thrilled that our Spain trip turned out to be so wonderful.
I’m looking forward to more memorable journeys in 2015. Here’s to many travels in the new year!
And wishing Mal, my sister, my very best friend and other half, a happy birthday—it’s her big 3-0 today!