WHY GO NOW San Sebastián lies at the heart of the long-contested Basque region of Spain, suppressed under Franco and a locus of secessionist tensions for over a generation. The militant Basque separatist group ETA — Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) — announced a cease-fire in March, ending 38 years of violence. Thousands protested in Madrid in early June after Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero’s government agreed to talks with ETA. Among contested issues are the demands of Basque families looking for good-faith prisoner releases — prisoners, other Spaniards say, who were convicted of bombings and assasinations.
That news could easily make an outsider wary. But even at the height of terror, San Sebastián was never Gaza City. The overwhelming feeling in this lovely coastal town is tranquillity and optimism. Locals say tourism has markedly increased since April. Indeed, other than the very rare political graffiti, visitors must search for signs of continued dispute.
The three beaches that make up the heart of San Sebastián are clean and bright. A picturesque port, with tables of photogenic elderly women selling paper cups filled with langoustines, combined with the two steep hills that provide a spectacular view of the coves below and the old city’s winding lanes, feel like a cross between a Latin American seaside resort (the massive Christ statute on Monte Urgull gives a distinctly Rio-ish vibe) and a European village. Those octogenarian fish sellers walk the streets next to a decidedly hip, young and thriving population, far better-dressed than those in the capital, who have a cosmopolitan set of boutiques and bars. At July’s International Jazz Festival, July 21 to 26; during the Semana Grande (the Big Week), Aug. 13 to 20, eight days of concerts, parties, bullfights and fireworks; and at September’s International Film festival, Sept. 21 to 30, that population swells considerably.
WHERE TO STAY Opened in 1912 and now part of Westin’s Luxury Collection Hotels, Hotel Maria Cristina is the dowager queen of the city, renovated and retrofitted with a spa. The glitterati have long stopped there. The hotel overlooks the Urmea River, which runs through San Sebastián like a baby River Seine. Doubles start around 300 euros, or about $390 at $1.31 to the euro, and go up and up and up. Calle Oquendo, 1; (34-943) 437-600;www.starwoodhotels.com.
Slightly less convenient, but arguably no less luxurious, is the recently opened 25-room Villa Soro, housed in a former single-family mansion built in 1898. Avenida Ategorrieta, 61; (34-943) 297-970; www.villasoro.com. Doubles start at 220 euros in high season.
Hotel Niza, Calle Zubieta 56, (34-943) 426-663, www.hotelniza.com, is perched above the boardwalk overlooking Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián’s central beach. Niza’s low rates (128 euros for a double) and excellent restaurant keep it crowded. The rooms are slightly worn but clean, with crisp blue and green duvets and a faintly Provençal color scheme.
WHERE TO EAT San Sebastián says it has more Michelin multistarred restaurants per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. It is therefore known for the most expensive, most gourmand, most inaccessible repasts and the least: pintxos, the Basque interpretation of tapas, dominate in bars and restaurants from the old city to the new.
The 113-euro tasting menu at Arzak, Avenida Alcade José Elosegui, 273, (34-943) 278-465,www.arzak.es, which has been given three Michelin stars, feels less outrageous as the dishes keep arriving. A deconstructed breakfast was a poached egg in white truffle oil surrounded by dried and powdered tastes: grape, bread, chorizo; each bite exploded with flavor. Dessert was another six dishes in one, a warm strawberry soup with balloons of dark chocolate that popped in your mouth. The father and daughter chefs — Juan Mari and Elena Arzak — concoct ever-changing nouveau Basque cuisine, and Elena tirelessly works the room. Reservations are essential.
Wallets are kept fuller on Calle 31 de Agosto, the main street in Parte Vieja for pintxo-bar hopping. Unlike tapas, pintxos are bigger, more intricate and less formal. Bartenders put their wares in picturesque pinwheels; diners choose from the buffet. A salad of bacalao will be topped by a fan of anchovies; a “bag” of tempuralike batter is filled with cheese or fish or both. Prices range from 1.50 euros to 4 euros for one.
At Gandarías, Calle 31 de Agosto, 23, (34-943) 426-362, www.restaurantegandarias.com, mosto — a kind of nonalcoholic grape juice that’s much better than it sounds — is as commonly ordered as beer. On the bar, pintxos of anchovies, shrimp, smoked salmon and bacalao dominate, but jamón Ibérico, Serrano and bacon also make appearances. At Bar La Cepa, Calle 31 de Agosto, 7, (34-943) 426-394, and Bar Martinez , Calle 31 de Agosto, 13, (34-943) 424-965, locals can make you feel as if you are crashing their party. Tortilla espagnole is placed on thick slices of French bread, and fried mussels are eaten with a small fork. The regulars wander in and out of each bar, and eat two or three in each one, washed down with a beer or a local red wine.
Outside of Parte Vieja, Restaurant Café Oquendo, Calle Oquendo 8, (34-943) 420-736, a friendly spot with 40 years of San Sebastián posters of events on the walls, offers a hearty, shareable, American-in-Spain breakfast for 7.50 euros including two fried eggs and a healthy portion of jamón. Above the city, on top of Monte Igeldo, is the low-key but excellent Alaia, Paseo de Igueldo, 225, (34-943) 223-662, which is just inside an amusement park though you would never know it. Diners sit at picnic tables and order grilled meat and fish and simple salads (entrees are around 10 euros) and take in the spectacular view of the bay below.
WHAT TO DO DURING THE DAY The best way to sample the beaches is also the best way to see the city: by bicycle. In the last year, San Sebastián has laid out an intricate and extensive series of bicycle-only paths shared by the occasional in-line skater. At Bici Rent Donosti, Avenida de la Zurriola, 22, (34-94) 290-854, bikes are 20 euros for 24 hours. A provided map clearly lays out the paths. Playa de La Zurriola, in front of the cubist Centro Kursaal (a center for arts and culture), is the beach locals tend to hit first.
Farther afield but well worth the short bus or car ride is Chillida Leku, (34-943) 336-006,www.museochillidaleku.com, a homage to the late sculptor Eduardo Chillida, arguably San Sebastián’s most beloved artist. Chillida’s massive steel and stone sculptures are displayed (mostly) outdoors, scattered over some 30 exquisitely manicured acres of gently rolling hillside that recall the Berkshires, and splayed out around a 16th-century stone farmhouse that houses smaller and less weather-proof pieces. The G2 bus leaves every 30 minutes from Calle Oquendo in San Sebastián, and the trip takes 20 minutes. A child-friendly, recently remodeled Aquarium is at the end of the port, Karlos Basco de Imaz Plaza; (34-943) 440-099;www.aquariumss.com.
WHAT TO DO AT NIGHT On Saturday evenings, locals follow a pattern of pintxo hopping until midnight and then a boho crowd heads to bars along Calle Reyes Católicos behind the cathedral. If you can push your way in, try to scream over the music at Splash (Calle Sanchez Toca, 7; 34-943-465-817), or chill out at the more low-key, red-lighted Udi Berri (Larramendi, 8; 34-943-451-538), and drink a Keller, the ubiquitous beer in Basque country. Uniforms of tattoos, black leggings and 80’s-inspired Barcelona fashion prevails. After 3 a.m., the entire scene heads to La Rotonda, an on-the-beach disco at Paseo de la Concha 6, Centro; (34-943) 429-095.
WHERE TO SHOP The hippest San Sebastianites have a brand-new one-stop haberdashery of coolness in Parte Vieja. Noventa Grados, Calle Nagusia 3, also called Calle Mayor, (34-943) 420-760, www.marcialm.com, is half ultrasleek hair salon, and half well-edited, cutting-edge, brightly lighted white boutique. It has everything from Brazilian rubber earrings in fantastic shapes and colors (18 euros) and matching rubber gladiator shoes (59 euros) to Scandinavian cosmetics. Those who shop there undoubtedly also hit Dos En La Carreta, Reyes Católicos, 11, (34-943) 450-562, which boasts designers from across Spain but is a bit easier on the American dollar (a cheerful striped skirt with patch pockets by the Madrid brand Tormeto was 71 euros).
The boutiques aren’t just for the young and the groovy. At Darlington, Reyes Católicos, 10, (34-943) 465-064, Spanish jewelry and fans have mass appeal. Domizil, Hernani 11, (34-943) 424-275, carries the entire Marimekko collection. Boulevard 15, at Calle de Alameda de Boulevard, 15, (34-943) 421-359, sells a slightly overwhelming selection of bags from its own line, as well as European mainstays like Mandarina Duck. Lur-Lan, Alameda de Boulevard, 7, (34-943) 428 648; www.jurlan.org, pushes Basque gastronomy, selling everything from foie gras to wine, all from local vendors. In Parte Vieja, Casa Ponsol, Calle Narrica 4, (34-943) 420-876, has been a hat shop for men since 1838 selling, among other things, traditional Basque berets. A worn oak counter and original mirrors recall a more genteel era.
YOUR FIRST TIME OR YOUR 10TH Lie on the grass at Palacio Miramar, Queen Maria Cristina’s late 19th-century palace with open lawns that overlooks the sea. A music school in the palace provides (free) jazz and classical background music.
YES, FREE Walk. You can stroll on a concrete boardwalk from one end of the city to the other, along the coast, without ever crossing a street or touching the sand. Get a taste of Eduardo Chillida’s work at the most westerly point of San Sebastián: El Peine de Veinto (wind combs). A dramatic collection of Chillida’s iron sculptures are welded to the rocks jutting out of the sea.
HOW TO GET THERE There are no direct flights from New York to San Sebastián. Most flights connect through Madrid or Barcelona. From the airport, a bus, with a three-euro fare, leaves every hour for San Sebastian, about 12 miles away.
GETTING AROUND By foot or bicycle. Taxis are relatively inexpensive. To climb Monte Igeldo, take a funicular train, which costs two euros. In summer, they run until 10 p.m.