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San Sebastián, sheer elegance

Tempting pintxos line up in a traditional bar. :: SUR
Tempting pintxos line up in a traditional bar. :: SUR
  • This northern Spanish city, known for its fine dining and curved beaches, wears its classiness lightly

The elegant and wealthy city of San Sebastián sits on Spain's wild Basque coastline, twenty miles south west of the French border. It is a hugely popular holiday destination - particularly among Andalusians, who love its temperate climate and its greenery - and in recent years has become one of the world's great gastronomic cities. This well-deserved reputation is partly owed to the abundance of bars serving “pintxos”, delightful bite-sized snacks that are the Basque country's answer to tapas; but it's also because you'll find more Michelin-starred restaurants per square metre here than anywhere else in the world except Kyoto in Japan.

Three of the city's nine Michelin-rated eateries have achieved the notoriously difficult feat of gaining three stars: Akelarre, Arzak - partly run by Elena Arzak, named the best female chef on earth in 2012 - and Restaurant Martín Berasategui, located in the charming village of Lasarte-Oria five miles south of San Sebastián. In the whole of Spain, only three other restaurants have attained this level of culinary perfection. The capital of the Basque country's Gipuzkoa region is also leading the way in training up-and-coming Spanish chefs, having opened the Basque Culinary Centre six years ago: it was the first institution in Spain to offer a degree in Gastronomy.

Impeccable foodie credentials aside, it's easy to fall in love with San Sebastián at first sight. Lining the final stretch of the Urumea river - which flows through the verdant countryside of north east Spain and out into the Bay of Biscay - its grand old townhouses look as if they've been transplanted straight from a Parisian arrondissement; the green hills of the Basque Country roll away behind their austere rooftops.

Porsches and boutiques

Three beautiful, curved beaches back on to Brighton-esque promenades where the locals stroll to see and be seen. Unblemished Ferraris and Porsches growl softly at traffic lights outside cocktail bars and designer boutiques. Yet the city doesn't feel flashy or tacky: Donostia, as the city is known in Euskera, wears its classiness lightly.

Parte Vieja is the city's second-oldest and most popular quarter. A compact barrio of pedestrianised streets, elegant dark-hued buildings and lively pintxo bars, it occupies an outcrop of land on the eastern side of Concha Bay. In its smart eateries and drinking dens, the ubiquitous pintxos are displayed in colourful buffets that run the length of the bar; their tastiest toppings include anchovies and picked green peppers, cured hams, morcilla (the Spanish equivalent of black pudding) topped with a fried quail egg and a sweet jam made from piquillo peppers, which is usually paired with goat's cheese or brie and drizzled with a balsamic reduction.

You'll find your own local within a few hours of arriving in San Sebastián, but try Bar Sport - popular with both visitors and locals, where the socialising spills out onto the street - and Bar Zeruko, whose chefs have won numerous prizes for serving the best pintxos in the region.

Parte Vieja is also the place to be at night. Stroll along Plaza Kaimingaintxo - where the city holds its quirky Crab Festival every summer - and onto Kaiko Pasealeku (trying to pronounce the Basque street names as you go), which is lined with some of the best seafood restaurants on Spain's Atlantic coast. Carrying on to the end of this street takes you up some rather steep steps to the Naval Museum and a great spot for views out over Concha Bay, especially at sunset.

Later on, grab a copa from Casa Vergara or Bar Atari and join the locals on the steps of Saint Mary's church, an 18th century building with an elaborate Baroque façade. Plaza Constitución is the quarter's principal square and is surrounded by stately old buildings, the balconies of which bear numbers from when the space was used as a bullring. Admiring these over a cocktail on one of the candle-lit terraces is the perfect way to round-off an evening of pintxo-crawling in San Sebastián.

Fine sand

Daylight hours in this gorgeous city, meanwhile, revolve around its three main beaches. The largest and most famous of these is Playa de La Concha, a half-kilometre stretch of fine sand and calm, shallow waters which is consistently named one of Europe's best city beaches. This is where locals and visitors flock, but La Concha's 100-metre width means it rarely feels crowded. If you fancy a break from the stresses of swimming and lying around, head to one of the chiringuitos on the actual beach rather than on the promenade behind it: the latter places tend to be overpriced and the service in some is surly and slow.

To the east of La Concha and the old town, on the other side of the Urumea river, is the surfer's haven of Playa Zurriola, while the small and tranquil Ondarreta beach occupies the bay's western extremity. From Ondarreta, you can swim out to the Santa Clara island, which sits right in the middle of the bay; its attractions include a tiny beach that completely disappears in high tide and a chiringuito from which you can look back at the elegant curve of La Concha. Inland, shady paths scattered with picnic tables weave through the island's lush and uninhabited greenery.

San Sebastián has also become known as one of Spain's most culturally-dynamic cities. Indeed, last year it was named (along with Wroclaw in Poland) as European Capital of Culture, in recognition of its impressive calendar of artistic events.

The Jazz Festival takes place in July and is Europe's longest continuously-running jazz festival; in August, the city's Musical Fortnight attracts the world's finest classical musicians, while the same month's Semana Grande features an international fireworks competition; and September, of course, sees the town hosting the achingly-cool International Film Festival, which gives out some of cinema's most coveted awards.

From world-class art and food to secret islands and beautiful beaches, San Sebastián seems to be the city that has everything.