Aerial view of the coast of San Sebasatian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain, is a fabulous place to spend a long weekend. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

3 Days in San Sebastian, Spain: A Weekend Itinerary for Food, Culture and More

Queen Maria Cristina, the erstwhile monarch of Spain, put San Sebastian on the tourism map in the 19th century when this Basque town in northern Spain became her vacation spot of choice.

Today, though, there may be few monarchs, but the world’s cognoscenti migrate here for a few reasons. Fans of great beaches flock to San Sebastian, for example, because of the town’s crescent-shaped strand and boardwalk.

Lovers of architecture gravitate here, too, thanks to the large historical center that is crammed with Gothic, Baroque and art nouveau masterpieces. And devotees to dining — that growing set of travelers whose stomachs set the itinerary — sprint to San Sebastian because it boasts one of the best collections of restaurants and tapas bars on the planet.

Which one are you? All of the above or a little bit of all? Whatever the case, it’s impossible to spend a few days in this city of almost 200,000 people without wanting more. Enchanting San Sebastian is quietly sitting on the Bay of Biscayne, charming each and every visitor that walks down its handsome tree-lined streets, luxuriates on its white sand beaches and savors its informal tapas bars and many Michelin-starred restaurants.

If you’re going to this glamorous and glorious town for a few days — say, Friday to Sunday for a long weekend — here is an itinerary that, as it did for Queen Maria Cristina, will certainly put San Sebastian on your list of favored vacation spots.

As always, check for travel guidelines and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: See the City Center

Check into the iconic Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Sebastian, the town’s most luxurious hotel for more than a century.

Aerial view of Hotel Maria Cristina in San Sebastian, Spain
Stay in the historic, luxurious Hotel Maria Cristina. (Photo: Marriott International)

When in a destination for the first time (or even the second time), it’s important to orient yourself. So take a stroll around the center of San Sebastian, ambling down the city’s treelined boulevards flanked by ornate 19th-century apartment buildings.

You might stumble upon a museum or attraction. The Tabakalera, for example, was a tobacco factory from 1913 to 2003. Today it is a center for contemporary art and culture with new exhibitions mostly headlined by Basque artists.

Another option would be the San Sebastian Aquarium, one of the best of its kind in Europe and the only aquarium on the continent that has an underwater tunnel for optimum viewing of sea life.

In the evening, partake in a classic San Sebastian pastime: Go on a pintxos bar crawl in Parte Vieja, or Old Town. Pintxos, known as tapas in the rest of Spain, are small bites on skewers or small plates. Be sure to hit Casa Vergara, located at Calle Mayor 21, which has been serving up cod-focused small plates since 1948 (don’t leave without trying the creamy cod croquettes).

Other can’t-miss pintxos bars include Atari for its elevated pintxos, including ultra-tender beef cheeks with mashed potatoes; and Bar Néstor, which specializes in tortilla de patata, a tasty pielike concoction of eggs, potatoes and onions. The tortilla at Bar Néstor is the most famous in town, and some say it’s the best in the world.

In fact, they only make two pizza-sized tortillas per day. To get a slice, arrive at 7 p.m. and put your name in with the tortilla-maker. About 45 minutes later, your tortilla slice will be ready. It’s truly a slice of Basque heaven.

Wash it all down with a glass of txakoli, a lightly effervescent Basque white wine that bartenders serve by pulling the bottle up and away from the glass while pouring. It’s pintxos bar theater at its best.

Walk off your pintxos by taking a stroll around the arcaded Plaza de la Constitución, one of the most beautiful squares in town.

Saturday: Enjoy the Outdoors

Begin your second day in San Sebastian in the best possible way: breakfast at Hotel Maria Cristina. The property is well-known for having one of the best breakfast spreads in Europe. Local cheeses; fresh breads and cured meats, especially jamon Iberico de bellota (iberian ham); on-demand omelets; and freshly squeezed juices highlight this superlative morning meal at the hotel.

Ondarreta beach in San Sebastian, Spain
A stroll along the beach is a lovely way to spend an hour or two in San Sebastian. (Photo: Getty Images)

Walk off your big, delicious breakfast by heading to the beach. The seashell-shaped La Concha is framed by fin-de-siécle apartments and hotels, many of which have restaurants and cafés on the ground floor. Walk the entire curved boardwalk and then settle in for some sun, sand and shore.

When the stomach rumbles, head for the hills. Or at least one hill: Mount Urgull, located at the end of La Concha Bay, has trails that can take you to the top of the mountain for a stunning view of the city. Pick up some provisions at a nearby supermarket or the Lukas Gourmet Shop at the Hotel Maria Cristina and head up one of the four trails to the top.

After a leisurely Saturday afternoon of lounging atop Mount Urgull and ambling along the beach boardwalk, head back to the hotel and get ready for one of the star attractions of San Sebastian.

This city and surrounding area have 10 Michelin-starred restaurants, three of which have an esteemed three stars. That’s a lot of stars — a virtual culinary constellation, really — for a city of just 200,000 denizens.

Tonight’s three-star spot is Arzak, the legendary restaurant run by chefs Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena. And on the menu tonight is a procession of ultra-elevated Basque dishes that will wow your palate like never before.

Sunday: Savor the Finer Things

After breakfast at the Hotel Maria Cristina, head over to the Balenciaga Museum in the charming fishing village of Getaria, about 15 miles west of San Sebastian.

Getaria in Basque Country, Spain
Explore the town of Getaria, about a 30-minute drive from San Sebastian. (Photo: Getty Images)

The museum, of course, is dedicated to famed Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. Here you can gawk at examples of the designer’s garments and accessories, from his earliest works up to the present day.

Finish up your final day in San Sebastian in style by dining at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Mugaritz in the village of Errenteria — a 20-minute drive north of the city. The restaurant, open on Sunday only for lunch, is an elevated experience.

The restaurant’s 20-to-30 courses on its tasting menu turn a lot of Basque cooking on its head with avant-garde fare that is both playful and artful.