Unlike other beautiful, dramatic coastal regions in Spain and France, Basque country has always maintained a certain mystery. There’s the incomprehensible language, full of p’s, x’s and k’s, of course, and the four-decade menace of the violent separatist group ETA. But against that there’s a strong, sophisticated culture that’s retained its own identity, even in the face of increased EU-ization. Now ETA has declared a cease-fire, Basque chefs are setting world standards for adventurous food, days are balmy but breezy, and the European hordes haven’t yet overtaken the beaches—so it’s the perfect time to spend four or five days in the region’s cultural epicenter, San Sebastián.
1. Book a round-trip flight to Madrid on Iberia (from about $800); there’s a one-hour hop to San Sebastián.
2. Check into the grand nineteenth-century Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (from $178; 34-943-44-07-70), an imposing white reminder of the days when Spanish royalty summered here. Watch the sun set from the downstairs Swing Bar.
3. Stake out a spot among the beautiful people on La Concha or Ondarreta beach. Calm bay waters and surrounding mountains provide a perfect backdrop for young Basques and holidaying Europeans.
4. Start eating about 8 p.m. Begin in the Old Quarter with txikiteo, a fast-paced bar-hopping ritual centered on gourmet pintxos (the Basques’ exquisite version of tapas). Wash down the wild mushrooms at Bar Ganbara or the sautéed anchovies at Borda Berri’s with txakoli, a fizzy native white. Book ahead for a late-night meal at Arzak; the namesake chef changes the menu often, but get the squid-ink-and-pumpkin ravioli if you can.
5. Rent a car from Avis downtown for a day trip: To the west, there’s the hilly coast’s beautiful fishing villages, or go east across the French border and explore the sidewalk cafés of posh Biarritz.
6. Back in San Sebastián, shop the Centro Romántico district; try the bi-level Oddyti for youthful denim and accessories. Pick up a real beret at Ponsol in the Old Quarter, refined handicrafts at Saski-Naski, and cartoonish bull-themed T-shirts at Kukuxumusu.
7. Check out the cultural calendar of the imposing, cube-shaped Centro Kursaal (the site of last week’s large-scale Spencer Tunick nude-art installation). This summer’s Jazzaldia festival (July 22–27) features Van Morrison, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Gilberto Gil.
8. Try thalassotherapy—locals swear by the ancient treatment. At the beachfront La Perla Spa, $22 buys the 105-minute Thalasso Fitness Circuit: a series of dips in seawater pools at various temperatures, plus steam baths, saunas, and a Jacuzzi overlooking the sand.
9. At the Museo San Telmo, a mid-sixteenth-century former Dominican monastery, admire the beautifully restored cloister and mural-covered church—plus a good collection of contemporary European and Basque paintings.
10. San Sebastián’s airport is adjacent to the unexpectedly handsome border town of Hondarribia. Allow half a day to wander its preserved medieval walled city—a narrow maze of colorful façades—and to stuff down a few last pintxos before bidding Basque country adieu, adios, and agur.