It’s time to start thinking about summer vacation (yay!!), especially if you’re planning to travel abroad. With the dollar in a state I don’t even want to mention, London, Paris and a lot of other European destinations may not be as appealing as usual. But instead of suggesting a Mexico vacation (because we all know about Mexico already), I’m pointing you to my favorite place in the whole world … San Sebastian, a little beach town in the Basque region of Spain.
It’s right on the Spanish/French border — in fact, a San Sebastian native I met by chance the other day told me childhood stories of swimming from the beach right outside his house over to France. (Biarritz, probably — it’s the closest town over the border). Was I envious for a minute? You bet. For some reason, San Sebastian isn’t nearly as expensive as Biarritz, or even Barcelona and Madrid. But most significantly to me, you can be a totally clueless tourist here, and still have fun.
The people are warm and friendly (and loud, and they like their booze). The nightlife — which mostly consists of small, unpretentious, no-name places — is ridiculously fun. The beach is gorgeous. The town is elevated a bit from the sand, and a seawall fronts it. At sunset the tide comes all the way up to the wall, and surfers ride the waves in while the whole town comes out to relax and enjoy the view.
This is Basque country, which means the food is slightly different than typical Spanish fare. Foie gras and game meat and peppery stews are served alongside tapas and amazing cheeses and fresh seafood specialties. The region also produces its own wines, most of which don’t make it to America. You can’t take direct flights from the U.S. to San Sebastian, but Bilbao, the capital city of neighboring province Bizkaia (Biscay), is only an hour and a half ride by rental car.
And it’s worth noting that Bilbao has gained a reputation as a culinary and cultural hot spot over the past decade or so. From the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum to the Sheraton Bilbao, tourism hot spots boast award-winning restaurants run by adventurous, charismatic chefs. Traditional dishes like Vizcaina cod, grilled elvers and steaks a la bilbaina are reinvented for the haute cuisine table.
As a port city, Bilbao has a lot of attractions centered around bridges, waterways and marinas. The Bizkaia Transporter Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while the Old Port is as much a historical attraction as a place of commerce. Also worth checking out: the Guggenheim Museum and Memory Lane, with its many modern sculpture installations.
Bilbao is the bustling city; San Sebastian is the cheerful village. Together, they complement each other nicely and offer as multi-faceted a European summer as anyone could need.
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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about
tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.