Travel Guide: How Hollywood Does San Sebastian

Courtesy of Maria Cristina; Mike Coppola/WireImage; Karwai Tang/WireImage
Matt Damon (top), Chris Hemsworth

Travel in Basque like Chris Hemsworth and Matt Damon.

San Sebastian, the posh beachfront town in the Basque region of Spain, becomes a Hollywood hotspot during the annual San Sebastian Film Festival, which starts this week (Sept. 21-29). But celebrities are also discovering this Spanish city as a place to vacation beyond the fest and are drawn to its other A-list attractions — celebrity chefs and Michelin stars.

According to Nicole Warren, a director at MiMo, a cooking school and gourmet shop based in San Sebastian that also organizes food tours and experiences, the town and the Basque Country have really exploded in the past year as a place for celebrities to visit.

“Celebrities enjoy visiting here because they can have a more private experience both in and around the city. We have beautiful beaches, amazing countryside drives and fantastic hotels — but without all the crowds and fanfare of some other European destinations. They can spend time with their families, eat amazing food and not be bothered by paparazzi."

Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky are the prime example of this influx of Hollywood visitors, as they are San Sebastian regulars. On their most recent trip, the couple stayed at Hotel Iturregi, a countryside property in Getaria about 25 minutes outside of the main city. Located amid vineyards and with views overlooking the coast of Gipuzkoa, it is the ideal place for relaxing amid nature. The town is also well known for Elkano, a legendary restaurant with super-fresh local seafood prepared expertly by chef/owner Aitor Arregui. One of the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite restaurants, the author and food/travel correspondent described the tableside deconstruction of Arregui’s grilled whole turbot as “an anatomy lesson.”

While Hemsworth and Pataky were in Getaria for her brother's wedding and to celebrate her birthday, the two met up with Matt Damon and his wife Luciana Barroso. This isn’t the first Damon-Hemsworth family vacation (they spent Easter together in Hemsworth’s native Australia last year), but their bromance was in full bloom as the two cruised the Bay of Biscay on a catamaran with their kids and friends. The couples were also spotted dining at Akelarre, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant within the hotel of the same name. The intimate, boutique property boasts incredible bay views and is known for its commitment to the privacy of its clients, making it an under-the-radar destination for both dining and spending the night.

Other favorite restaurants of the Pataky-Hemsworth clans include Bokado, the gastronomic restaurant of Mikel Santamaria near La Concha Bay, as well as Rekondo, a spot known for having one of the best wine lists in Europe. One of the most famous restaurants in San Sebastian, which is also consistently on the world’s 50 best list, is Arzak. Located on the top of a hill above the city, the avant-garde menu was created by Juan Mari and is now overseen by his daughter Elena, who was photographed with Ethan Hawke in the kitchen.

In addition to food and wine, San Sebastian also makes waves for its spectacular beaches — La Concha, the most visited, and Zurriola, a surfers' beach. When in town for a concert, Bruce Springsteen was spotted relaxing among the locals with his wife Patti Scialfa concealed only by an umbrella on the sands of La Concha (he also dined at Bokado during this trip as well).

The Boss stayed at the five-star Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection hotel, which is by far the choice for celebrities during the San Sebastian festival. The historic hotel, which opened in 1912, is an elegant and Belle Époque-style property that also prides itself on discretion — another Hollywood requirement. Originally a destination for Spain’s royal elite, it quickly became a celeb favorite when the film fest first launched in 1953.

Since then, it has hosted everyone from Bette Davis (there is a suite named after her) to Elizabeth Taylor. These days, Julia Roberts, Sienna Miller and Tom Hiddleston have all been guests, and it will likely be the home for many of the upcoming festival attendees, including Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who will be there to promote the remake of A Star Is Born.

Although the city is known for having the highest number of Michelin stars per capita, it’s the local pintxos bars in the old town that are the other star attraction. Celebrities and visitors are known to wander the old town and stop into its many pintxos bars, grab a glass of txakoli (sparkling dry white wine) and sample their signature bite-size snacks. Glenn Close and Ian McKellen’s visits to Txepetxa have been commemorated in photos on the wall of this no-frills, wood-paneled bar, where the pintxos to try are those with anchovies.

And when you tire of eating, go on a zip-line adventure in Txindokiko Itzala, an amusement park where Hemsworth and Pataky were spotted gliding through the trees with their daughter.