Travel Tips: Spain’s Basque Country

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September 3rd 2019

In the words of legendary 19th century epicure and gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.” There can be no doubt that great wine and food go hand in hand. We are celebrating this most felicitous of marriages with a series of articles showcasing outstanding destinations for food and wine lovers, some in the heart of wine regions, others not. First stop, Bilbao and San Sebastián in the north east of Spain, with their many Michelin starred restaurants!

San-Sebastian
San Sebastián

The north of Spain has had far less British tourist attention than the south, but is a treasure chest of great restaurants, beaches and hotels. The north east is the Basque country – an autonomous region that prides itself on its ancient language, celebrated cuisine and incredible modern architecture. There are an unbelievable 40 Michelin starred restaurants in this small corner of Spain, more per head than any other part of the world. Given the overwhelming array of restaurants on offer it is worth taking a few days to really discover this area.

Most flights will land in Bilbao, which is an excellent place to start. The first place to visit is the celebrated Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry, one of the most recognisable modern buildings in the world. More importantly, the options for restaurants are exceptional. There are NINE one star restaurants and one three-star along with another dozen great restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide. Azurmendi is the three star that is a twenty-minute drive from the centre and is more than worth the visit. There is a remarkable 180 degree view from the glass-fronted side of the dining room and their twelve-course tasting menu was recently rated the 14th best in the world. The wine list is small and, like most great wines lists, expensive on Bordeaux but very fairly priced on Burgundy and Italy.

Azurmendi-Restaurant
Photos by Azurmendi Restaurant

If you fancy something more casual there is a fantastic array of pintxos (the Basque take on tapas) bars to try. Peso Neto is one of the best and the daily lunch menu is just €13. For a more traditional pintxos experience the La Viña del Ensanche has some excellent jamón plates and great Spanish products to buy and take home.

Pintxos-PesoNeto
Pintxos, photo by Peso Neto
La Viña del Ensanche
Photos by La Viña del Ensanche

 

Driving towards the coast and eastwards brings you to Getaria, a tiny fishing village home to some of the most excellent turbot you’ll ever eat. There are a couple restaurants with brilliant wine lists and even a museum dedicated to Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, remarkable given the population of Getaria is less than three thousand people. It was also home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first person to circumnavigate the globe.  It’s incredible that such a small place can be so steeped in history!

From Getaria the drive to San Sebastián (or Donostia, as locals call it) is through lush green hills – very similar to Switzerland or Germany in summer. Once you arrive, the secret is to dig in to any and all of the pinxtos bars in the central old town. Each place has a plate worth trying, Casa Urola for the scallop, La Cuchara de San Telmo for their beef cheek and foie gras and La Vina for the great cheesecake.

For the higher end of dining there are three Michelin three-starred restaurants in the area – Arzak, Akelare and Martin Berasategui and two-starred Mugaritz. With so many heavy-hitters it’s worth knowing that Akelare is best for daytime as the views over the sea are stupendous. Arzak is better at night for all the dramatic internal features and Berasategui can work for either. The wine lists for Arzak and Akelare are fairly-priced and interesting, the list at Berasategui is exceptionally expensive but worthwhile for the extraordinary quality of their dishes.

Finally, make sure to get a beachfront seat in one of San Sébastian’s cafes or bars for an early evening gin and tonic to enjoy some of the best views and sunsets in Spain over the two wonderful beaches, la Concha and Zurriola.

suset-san-sebastian
Sunset in San Sebastián

 

Where to stay in San Sebastián 

Hotel Maria Cristina: the signature hotel of San Sébastian, located in the exact centre of San Sébastian so easy to walk anywhere. From a basic room to suite, all the accommodation is exceptionally high quality and worth a stay for a special weekend. It also has the brilliant Mimo Cooking School, a must visit for lovers of Basque cuisine.

hotel-maria-cristina
Hotel Maria Cristina

Hotel Villa Soro: slightly out of the centre, this is a beautifully furnished boutique hotel, with a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff.

Hotel de Londres y Ingleterra: with a the perfectly central location, facing the La Concha beach, the views are beautiful if you book a sea-facing room.

 

Airbnbs:

Definitely a great choice if you want to be in the midst of it all, there are many options in all the neighbourhoods. The Parte Zaharra is the oldest part of the city, where almost all the pintxos bars are located. The Zentroa is the main shopping district with some beautiful, wide continental boulevards. Antigua is were many wealthy Spaniards have their second homes, close to Miramar, the old royal palace.  To the right of the city is Gros, more spread out and laid back, where most of the surfers stay so they can access Zurriola beach.