Travel

48 Hours in San Sebastián with Kerin Auth Bembry

The proprietor of La Luz Selections shares her tips on the finest cuisine, lodging, and drinks in this bayside Spanish city

San Sebastian, Spain
Photo by Botond Horvath.

Over the past 17 years, Kerin Auth Bembry has cultivated a reputation for bringing off-the-beaten-path Spanish wines to the U.S. market as the founder of La Luz Selections, a company with offices in New York and on the west coast that imports Spanish and Portuguese wines. Prior to that, she owned a boutique wine shop in Manhattan’s East Village called Tinto Fino, Vinos de España. Over the course of more than 30 trips to Spain, she has developed an expert list of places to eat, stay, and play around the country.

Here, Bembry shares her recommendations and travel tips for visiting San Sebastián. Whether you’re taking in the city’s famous ports, the lush hillsides of Getaria, or the historied vineyards of Rioja, Bembry’s top picks will help you make the most of 48 hours in this city by the sea.

Planning for the Trip

Bembry suggests checking out tourist websites like TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet for useful information regarding costs and locations of restaurants, lodging, and nightlife. She also recommends that foodies follow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on Instagram and check out his San Sebastián episode, “It hits all the best bars and restaurants,” she says.

Bembry also follows Kevin Patricio on Instagram for dining recommendations. The owner and founder of Basqueland Brew, he is a former New Yorker who now lives in San Sebastián.

Getting There

Take a plane from any small airport in Spain, or drive from Madrid (about four hours). A more scenic option, says Bembry, is to fly into Bilbao and drive along the coast (an hour and a half) to San Sebastián. The small town of Getaria is a 20-minute drive from San Sebastián, and Rioja is an hour and a half away.

Where to Stay

While there are plenty of hotel options in San Sebastián, Bembry suggests renting an Airbnb in the Playa de la Concha or Gros area to take in the lively city vibe. These two neighborhoods are in the center of it all—nearly everything is within walking distance.

For a more luxurious stay, Bembry recommends the Hotel Iturregi, just outside San Sebastián in Getaria. It requires a rental car and is located on a hillside overlooking the ocean and a vineyard. “It’s a true luxury to stay there,” Bembry says. Expect a flavorful breakfast with fresh ingredients to await you on the patio in the morning, and be sure to take an invigorating dip in the swimming pool.

Where to Eat and Drink

San Sebastián is well known for its pintxo bars—bars that serve small portions of Spanish cuisine, paired with wine or à la carte drinks for a euro or two. “Make sure you always look at the blackboards,” Bembry says, explaining that a lot of pintxo places will serve the same 15 or 20 dishes but will put their own specialties on the board. “If you only have 48 hours,” she says, “you need to look at the board to make sure you’re eating the best anchovies, the best calamari.”

Bembry’s insider picks after several San Sebastián visits include pintxo bars, restaurants with impressive wine lists, and all-day eateries so that “even if you stay at the beach too long and other places have closed, you’ll still be able to grab a bite.” For drinking establishments, she says, “there isn’t a big cocktail scene in San Sebastián. Most people drink wine in the bars until late—at least people of my age, and then they enjoy a massive Gin and Tonic or an icy Paxaran nightcap.”

Bar Urola

Run by chef Pablo Loureiro Rodil, this landmark restaurant established in 1956 is located in the old town of Donostia-San Sebastián. Known for its use of a charcoal grill, it has made a reputation for itself as a pintxo bar that serves unique drinks and delicious food. Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 20.

Bereziartua Sidra

This is an old school, classic sidrería (cider house) that dates to 1870. The restaurant offers guided visits throughout the year, and during txotx (barrel) season a tasting menu is offered with cider pairings. Bembry says it’s a great place to get a bit of the northern sidra culture. Iparralde Bidea, 16.

Cuchara de San Telmo

Located in the city’s plaza, Cuchara de San Telmo is well known and always quite busy. Bembry says it’s worth the surrounding hype because it’s a little less traditional, and similar to New York’s Casa Mono in style and atmosphere. She says everything on the menu is tasty, and she’s convinced you’ll want to go more than once. 31 de Agosto Kalea, 28.

Ganbara

This is one of the many traditional pintxo bars lining the crowded streets of La Parte Vieja. The wine selection is heavy on Rioja wines, but there are also offerings from nearby wine regions in both Spain and France. Bembry recommends ordering the sautéed mushrooms with fried egg and foie gras—and be sure to check the blackboard. San Jeronimo Kalea, 19.

Kaia

Just 20 minutes away in nearby Getaria you can find another gem: Kaia. This seafood restaurant is right in the middle of the downtown port area. “The whole place is worth a day trip,” says Bembry, “especially if you visit a local Txakoli producer. The view of the fishing port while you dine on kokotxas (hake cheeks) and rodaballo (turbot) is enough to make you want to never leave.” General Arnao Kalea, 4.

La Perla

La Perla is an outdoor club, with a bumping atmosphere outdoors, and a relaxing café  indoors. Says Bembry, “There are a couple of ‘chill-out lounges’ with couches and live music along the promenade overlooking the water.” Edificio La Perla, Kontxa Pasealekua.

Las Gandarías

This restaurant, open throughout the day and very busy, has a great wine selection. Older bottlings of López de Heredia, Vega Sicilia, and Dominio de Pingus PSI are available to sample in tasting portions at reasonable prices. The restaurant has a distinguished blackboard selection as well. Bembry says they make a delicious cochinillo. “It’s the perfect way to satiate off-hours hunger,” she says, adding that their pintxos are some of the best. 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23.

Pasteleria Oiartzun

This place offers great pastries and coffee. Bembry says they also have a delicious pressed ham-and-cheese croissant for breakfast. It’s located on the bustling corner. Ijentea Kalea, 2.

Rekondo

“I try to go here every time I go to San Sebastián,” says Bembry. “The wine list is impressive, deep, and well -priced.” One of the world’s top restaurants for wine, Rekondo has a cellar that contains around 125,000 bottles, and it has won several international wine awards. The list is curated by the renowned sommelier Martín Fleait features everything from rare sherries to pre-1900 Marqués de Riscal. Along with the restaurant’s impeccable wine list, Bembry says that Rekondo offers a gorgeous view and delicious food. Igeldo Pasealekua, 57.

Places to Visit

Bembry recommends checking out the bars in Parte Vieja, the old part of the city. She describes the crowd as fun, young, and international—albeit a bit sloppy in the wee hours. “People just pour out of the bars here at night,” she says, “so the streets are filled with people smoking and drinking.”

She also suggests visiting Monte Igueldo, a hill overlooking San Sebastián with breathtaking views along the coast. At the base of the hill are several bars. “I always go late; I never look at the name,” Bembry says, adding, “Order gin and tonics everywhere you go.”

“San Sebastián is the good life,” says Bembry. “I love everything about it. It’s overflowing with local delicacies, stunning backdrops, and perfect sunsets. Just roaming the promenade at night is breathtaking. And the nightlife is an extension of the incredible energy that buzzes in the town throughout the day. There is such a unique blend of tradition and people—from locals to surfers to tourists coming to eat some of the world’s best food.”

Lauren DiFilippo is a New York–based writer and the production coordinator at SevenFifty Daily. You can find her with her nose in either a how-to book or a glass of wine. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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