A weekend in San Sebastian – history, art, culture, cuisine, and cider!

by Lorraine Williamson
Txotx - the cider ritual

San Sebastian, a picturesque city nestled in the Basque Country of Spain, offers an enchanting blend of history, culture, and gastronomy that captivates both those who live there and avid travellers. But a weekend is not complete without immersing yourself in the traditional Basque cider culture.

This vibrant coastal town, renowned for its stunning beaches, world-class cuisine, and lively fiestas, provides an unforgettable weekend getaway. Discover the best of what San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) has to offer, from its rich history and cultural landmarks to its delectable gastronomy and cherished traditions. Venture a little inland, and discover the famous cider houses.

Getting there

Travelling to San Sebastian is a breeze, with various transportation options available. If arriving by air, the San Sebastian Airport (EAS) provides convenient access to the city. Alternatively, travellers can opt for the Bilbao Airport (BIO) and enjoy a scenic two-hour drive along the beautiful Basque coastline. For those coming from other Spanish cities, trains and buses are comfortable and well-connected, allowing for a seamless journey to San Sebastian.

History and culture

Begin your weekend adventure by exploring the city’s historical and cultural treasures. The Old Town, or Parte Vieja, is a labyrinth of charming streets dotted with picturesque buildings, housing numerous pintxo bars and boutiques. Stroll through Plaza de la Constitución, the former bullring, and Plaza de la Trinidad, the heart of the Old Town, where locals and tourists gather to enjoy the lively ambiance and events.

Visit the San Telmo Museum, which offers an insight into Basque history and culture, displaying fascinating exhibits that date back centuries. For art enthusiasts, the Chillida-Leku Museum showcases the works of renowned Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida in a beautiful natural setting.

Fashion and art

Fashion enthusiasts should not miss the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum, dedicated to the life and work of the legendary fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, who was born in the Basque town of Getaria, just a short drive from San Sebastian. The museum showcases an exquisite collection of Balenciaga’s designs, illustrating his significant influence on the fashion industry. Visitors can admire stunning couture pieces and gain insight into the designer’s creative process. It’s an excellent opportunity to explore the intersection of fashion and art while paying homage to one of Spain’s most iconic designers.


San Sebastian is a food lover’s paradise, with many Michelin star restaurants. Indulge in a culinary journey by sampling pintxos, the region’s delectable version of tapas, in bars like La Cuchara de San Telmo and Gandarias. Be sure to try local specialties like bacalao pil-pil and kokotxas.

For an unforgettable dining experience, reserve a table at one of the Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Arzak or Akelaŕe, where world-class chefs create innovative dishes inspired by Basque traditions and local produce. Mugaritz also features in the World´s Top 50 Restaurants and is described as creating a “rollercoaster ride of taste and emotion”.

Embracing cider culture

Beyond its tantalising gastronomy, San Sebastian also boasts a rich cider culture deeply rooted in Basque tradition. The Basque Country is known for its distinct style of cider known as “sagardoa,” and experiencing this unique aspect of local culture is a must during your weekend in San Sebastian.

The cider houses

One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the cider culture is by visiting the traditional Basque cider houses, called “sagardotegiak.” These cider houses are typically located in the countryside surrounding San Sebastian, offering a rustic and authentic setting. Each year, during cider season (January to April), these establishments open their doors to visitors, inviting them to witness the cider-making process and partake in the age-old cider-drinking rituals.

Txotx – The cider ritual

The highlight of the cider experience is the “txotx” ritual. When you visit a cider house, you’ll notice large barrels of cider lined up against the walls. During the txotx, a designated “sagardotegi” guide opens the tap of one of these barrels, and everyone present gathers around to catch the stream of cider in their glass. This act is not only a way to serve cider but also a symbol of friendship and celebration.

Traditional cider house menu

In addition to the cider-drinking tradition, cider houses offer a hearty traditional menu that perfectly complements the cider experience. Expect a feast of local delicacies, such as salted cod omelettes, grilled T-bone steaks, chorizo sausage, and walnuts with Idiazabal cheese, all served family-style.

Basque cider and the art of pouring

Basque cider differs from its commercial counterparts as it is still crafted using traditional methods. The natural fermentation process gives it a distinct tart and slightly effervescent taste. Pouring cider in the traditional Basque way takes some skill and practice. The cider is poured from a height to aerate it, enhancing its flavours and aromas.

Celebrating the cider festivals

To truly appreciate the cider culture, try to coincide your visit with one of the many cider-related festivals that take place throughout the region. These festivals often involve cider tasting, traditional music, dancing, and lively celebrations. The Sagardo Eguna (Cider Day) of Donostia will take place at the beginning of September this year.

The Ciderhouse trail

For an extended cider experience, consider exploring the Basque Ciderhouse Trail. This trail connects several cider houses, allowing you to traverse the beautiful Basque countryside while savoring different cider varieties and local dishes.

Tradtitions and festivities

Immerse yourself in San Sebastian’s vibrant traditions and fiestas. From August 12-19, witness the spectacular Semana Grande, the city’s renowned week-long summer festival filled with music, dance, fireworks, and a vibrant carnival atmosphere.

Don’t miss the Tamborrada which takes place in January, a 24-hour drum festival where locals dressed as cooks and soldiers parade through the streets, paying tribute to the city’s patron saint. Experience the emotion and camaraderie of this unique celebration.

Nature and beaches

Take advantage of San Sebastian’s stunning coastal location and spend time enjoying the beaches. La Concha Beach, with its crescent shape and golden sand, is a popular spot for sunbathing and swimming. Zurriola Beach, on the other hand, is known for its excellent surf breaks and youthful vibe.

A weekend in San Sebastian promises more than just breathtaking landscapes and delectable cuisine; it presents an opportunity to dive deep into the region’s cider culture. From partaking in the txotx ritual to indulging in the traditional cider house menu, experiencing Basque cider culture is an enriching and unforgettable experience that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for this treasured aspect of Basque heritage.

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