San Sebastian, Spain
An urban city perched on the Northern Atlantic Coast of Spain, San Sebastian has the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, the surf culture of Southern California & the charm of 19th century Europe.
From the cobblestone streets of La Parte Vieja to hip coffee shops in the district of Gros, there's a wide array of styles and subcultures within this one small city. Especially because of its rich history with French and Spanish influences, Donostia (as the locals call it) is by far one of the most unique places I have ever been to. The Basque language, known as Euskera, sounds more nordic than anything. "Caixo" is "hello". "Eskerrik Asko" means "thank you". And "Agur" translates to "cheerio!" The locals are very independent-minded and have hopes of separating from the rest of the country (if they can survive without the economy of Madrid). Siesta takes place from about 2-5 everyday where everything, and I mean everything, shuts down. Fortunately, you can escape the ghost town for a few hours and head to one of San Sebastian's world famous beaches.
Three main (nude) beaches make up the coastline:
1. Ondarreta is the southernmost beach - situated next to the tennis club, Miramar Palace and Mt. Igueldo amusement park. Here, you can find kayak & SUP rentals, concession stands and flocks of local families.
2. La Concha sits just north of Ondarreta and is the most picturesque of the three beaches...and consequently the most crowded. A popular destination for French and Spanish stay-cationers alike, La Concha is family friendly with the shallow waters, gentle waves, and rafts equipped with water slides & diving boards. It's also right along the main boulevard lined with street performers, gelato parlors, and pintxo bars (pintxos = Basque version of tapas). In August, during the Semana Grande, La Concha hosts the International Firework Competition which is a CAN'T-MISS!
3. On the opposite side of the city is Playa Zurriola - my personal favorite. Not only is this the least crowded, but impressive swells make their way through the bay year-round. Although overall small in July, consistent swells of up to 14 feet charged the shoreline in August and September. With numerous surf shops right across the street and board rental facilities on the sand, there are plenty of options to choose from. I purchased a NEW shortboard from Pukas upon my arrival in July for $400 and sold it back in September for $250. Can't beat that! In July, there's also the annual Heineken Jazzaldia - a free jazz concert on the beach with cheap beer and an unbeatable location.
In the heart of the city is Monte Urgull. With a Rioesque statue of Jesus, a spectacular panorama of the city and the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte's fortress, climbing to the top is exercise and a history lesson all in one. And during the Semana Grande in August, there's a full-blown carnival with games, food & rides for all ages. One of the highlights of my trip.
The public transportation in San Sebastian is as easy as it comes. Use D-Bus to get around the immediate area (including the airport*), with bus stops located all over the city (and maps posted on the bus stops themselves.) OR head to the main bus station located 3/4 mile from Zurriola to go elsewhere in Spain, France and a few buses even run to Portugal. Check out PESA for schedules and destinations.
*The bus station you need to get to and from the San Sebastian airport is located on the north side of Gipuzkoa Plaza. I flew into Bilbao so I arrived at the central bus station.
You're either going to love the food here or hate it. I hated it LOL! They're actually rated #1 Gastronomy in Europe so I think my palette is just not mature enough yet.
What saved me were the really awesome fruterias & farmer's markets on every corner and the cheap green juices, acaí bowls and salads from Uh-Mami across the street from Playa Zurriola. I'd say San Sebastian has some of the best produce in the world. And it costs next to nothing.
And lastly, while the sun does shine more often than not in the summer time, be prepared for rain. Sunscreen. Raincoat. Bikini. Umbrella. You might just need it all.