Need an idea for a small Euro trip? Think two countries, two very different experiences, less than 50km apart. That’s the magic of the combo Biarritz, France and San Sebastian, Spain. Combine them with Paris and Barcelona stopovers (fly into one and leave from another), and you’ll have an amazing experience that doesn’t require too much time.
Biarritz sounds fancy, and, well, it is. The village has a history of being the seaside resort of royalties, Emperors, and worldwide celebrities. Napolean Bonaparte had a vacation house there (today is the Hôtel du Palais). Accommodations are, therefore, classic and chic; but, impressively, you’ll feel comfortably unjudged wearing flip-flops and no name tanktops. Moreover, the locals aren’t bothered if you can’t order your petit dé’jeuner in français. Perhaps that is due to its surf vibe, since Biarritz is one of Europe’s favorite surfing destinations.
If you’re like me, a beach lover looking for sunbathing and refreshing ocean splashes, Biarritz is also good for that. In the Summer months, beaches get overcrowded, but I had a wonderful time at the small Plage Port Vieux. The tight sand space got me placing my canga (brazilian beach towel) way too close to the French families, and I could easily hear them speaking their lovely language: “Je veux aller à l’océan, maman”! So cute!
The Cote de Basque beach belongs to surfers. There’s a huge cliff that surrounds it, where the busy highway runs. Not many bathers, but there’s also a park and a beautiful golf course. The Grande Plage and the Plage Miramar offer more space, including busy volleyball nets and a few seaside restaurants.
Best way to let your hair loose is renting a scooter. That will get you traveling on the perfect speed while also beating traffic. My husband (boyfriend at the time) and I managed to cross the town, going past the lighthouse and then to the completely opposite side, where the museum circuit is.
We stayed at Le Grand Large and I totally recommend it. We got upgraded to a suite with a balcony and beautiful view. The only sad part was that we were only spending one night. The hotel has a main exit near the beach path, as well as a back exit to easily reach the town’s shopping district, with delicious patisseries, bistros, and shops of Rue Gambetta.
At night, look for the free events provided by the city; we went to one at the Cité del’Océan, a museum with outstanding architecture that imitates sea waves. People were skating, playing, or, like us, simply enjoying the sunset with a drink in hands.
Expect of Biarritz the French elegance of stripped beach umbrellas, long beach hats, delicious gourmet foods and, to top it all, a 60’s vibe casino. Make sure you have a filet tartare for me. Merci!
Bus from Biarritz to San Sebástian: Finding the bus station and scheduling was a bit complicated, to not say very confusing. Some said it left every hour, but there is no ticketing booth (you pay the driver), so we just had to trust a timetable someone told us about. A little sketchy as you have to show up with bags, etc. But it worked! Go to the Tourist Office of Biarritz, at Square d’Ixelles, and ask around. Then come back with your bags when it’s time to leave as the bus departs from that same square.
Leave the French Basque Country taking the 1h bus ride to San Sebástian — or Donostía, in Basque — and arrive in a different country that may as well be a different world. From quiet chic to the loud and messy, it all balances like yin and yang. Or may I say as wine and pintxos?
The beauty of San Sebastián is the bohemian life, enjoyed on the streets packed with bars and people, making the whole scene one big party. You’ll get into a pub, order a drink to the barman while admiring the different pintxo options laying right there, on the same bar. The sight could be compared to a an all-inclusive buffet of canapes and finger food. If something catches your eyes, let the bartender know and he’ll put it on a plate (and in your tab). Make sure you do a proper research for the best pintxos in town and the trending ones. Sorry, it’s been too long and I didn’t properly document my favorites, but the one bar I remember and that was actually my favorite was Atari Gastroteka (get there early to get a table). Do your research, but also try random ones along the way, along the day.
The San Sebástian main beach, Playa de la Concha, is nice, but not as appealing as the nightlife, to be honest. Better spend your day walking around: go to Monte Igeldo to check out Eduardo Chillida’s famous sculpture collection El Peine del Viento (The comb of the wind), and visit the Museo San Telmo.
San Sebastián might feel small but be prepared to walk a lot (great to burn the calories from all the drinking and snacking!). We stayed at Hotel Gran Bahia Bernardo, which was great to get out of the crowds of the bottom of Monte Urgull and La Concha Bay. The hotel was located on the other side of the bridge that divides the Urumea river, an area that you should go for a night if you can, as it has its charm and it feels more like where the locals hang out.
While in the hills of Biarritz the best locomotion choice was the Vespa (did I say scooter?), in San Sebastian it’s better to choose bicycles. The city is pretty flat, and the small crowded streets are focused on pedestrians; ride your bike until it gets too busy, then park it and go enjoy life.
Si amigo, it is a wonderful vacation life!