Travel

Make Like a Queen on This Hot Solo Travel Trip to Spain

Why commit to just one pintxo bar or one beach when this town has so many options to flirt with?

Sergii Figurnyi/Shutterstock
Sergii Figurnyi/Shutterstock
Sergii Figurnyi/Shutterstock

There’s a town in Spain so lovely, so ideal for solo travel, it’s literally fit for a queen-a solo queen, no less. After her husband (you know, the king) Alfonso XII died in 1885, Queen María Cristina began visiting San Sebastián on the regular, solidifying the town as her go-to summer retreat. If you too want to make queen moves, or if you like pintxos, Txakoli (a crisp white wine), the freshest fish you’ll ever eat, an architecturally striking Old Town, sun-drenched beaches and hiking trails, San Sebastián knows how to show you a good time. Pintxo bars, after all, are meant for socializing or for fun crowd-watching.

This super chill, breezy coastal city in Northern Spain is a stone’s throw (if you can pitch 12 miles) from the French border. While the town is Spanish, Basque Country is like a world of its own, with its own distinct culture and language (Euskara), one of the oldest languages in Western Europe. Not to worry, you can speak Spanish here, too.

Bigger European cities can be daunting, but San Sebastián is a truly walkable town with urban beaches at your fingertips. Donostia-San Sebastián train station spits you right out in the city centre, where everything is a 15-minute walk or less. A dream for the solo traveller, as you can quickly ditch your carry-on at your hotel and be out and about (say, at Playa La Concha) in less than five minutes by foot. Here are a few solo-specific reasons why you should extend your trip to San Sebastián.

John Harper/Stone/Getty Images
John Harper/Stone/Getty Images
John Harper/Stone/Getty Images

Have urban beaches at your fingertips

It bears repeating: Here, there’s no getting in a car and driving half an hour to a beach. The whole town seems to be built on a long stretch of beautiful beaches. Playa La Concha is the more laid-back beach situated in front of hotels, restaurants, and shops. Directly on the sand here is La Perla, a seawater therapy centre in a stunning Belle Époque building, where a two-hour pass cost 22 euros.

The city also serves as the country’s most iconic surf town. Zurriola Beach, in the Gros neighbourhood, is the place to ride some waves. Take surfing lessons at Zurriola Surf Eskola and enjoy a txokotone (which is like a chocolate panettone) at The Loaf Boaker. It’s so chill, you’ll find surfers walking around the streets barefoot in their wetsuits, grabbing post-fun-in-the-sun snacks.

Bar Vallés
Bar Vallés
Bar Vallés

Go on a curated pintxos crawl

One word to learn and learn well is pintxos. The small, affordable, and easy-to-eat bites consist of deliciousness atop bread or served skewer-style-and there’s no shortage of pintxos bars in San Sebastián. The word doesn’t just signify the snack, though; it’s also a cultural tradition, where locals and tourists spill out onto the streets for eats, sips, and conversation. Bar Casa Vallés allegedly invented this writer’s favourite pintxo, the Gilda. Named after Rita Hayworth’s salty and sexy character in Gilda, this delectable treat is made of skewered guindilla peppers, Cantabrian anchovy filets, and manzanilla olives.

Why settle down with just one spot when you can hop around to several joints? That includes Juantxo Taberna for the most incredible tortilla bocadillo (a traditional Spanish potato omelette between bread), Paco Bueno for perfectly battered and fried prawns, Tamboril for mushrooms and stuffed peppers (and anything they do with hake), and Bar Txepetxa for made-to-order anchovies with different toppings.

Every bar will offer caña (a small beer), Txakoli (the white wine of the area), Rioja (red wine… because you’re not too far from Rioja), and Sidra (a refreshing Basque cider), and the sips are never more than three to four euros.

Ganbara Bar - Asador
Ganbara Bar – Asador
Ganbara Bar – Asador

Feast on a whole dining scene that rivals bigger cities

Ganbara is also one of the best pintxos bars in the city, but the accolades don’t stop there. Up top, you’ll find the vibey pintxos bar atmosphere, but the real secret is scoring a table downstairs in the wine cellar, where delicately grilled hake top seasonal dishes.

The city is also home to many Michelin restaurants, but one, in particular, to write home about is Arzak. This three-Michelin, family-run restaurant has been around since 1897 and now focuses on modern Basque cuisine.

For something different, Geralds Bar, a noteworthy outpost from Melbourne, is a nice mix of Spanish and Italian cuisine. And don’t miss out on the rotating cheese plate from Elkano 1 Gaztagune, a specialized shop that prized chefs flock to for the best cheeses in the area.

Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Sebastian
Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Sebastian
Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Sebastian

Sleep like royalty

Whether solo and on a budget or solo and living large, there’s a bounty of options. Colo Colo Hostel starts at 30 euros a night(!) and offers digital check-in, pod-like beds with noise-cancelling headphones, and a hip common area where coffee is always flowing.

Marisol Guesthouse is a solid in-between hostel and boutique hotel, as it feels more like a breezy beach house with modern accents.

If you came here to live it up, splurge at Hotel Maria Cristina, the hotel named after the reigning queen. Overlooking the Cantabrian Sea and Urumea River, the hotel’s striking Belle Époque architecture will have you stepping back in time. And you’ll never want to leave once you feast your eyes on the welcome amenity: a Gilda pintxo enhanced with caviar.

Tim Bieber/Photodisc/Getty Images
Tim Bieber/Photodisc/Getty Images
Tim Bieber/Photodisc/Getty Images

Take a funicular to an old school amusement park on a mountain

Take the funicular up to Mount Igueldo, home to a super old-school amusement park. Built in 1912, the theme park still manages to charm both kids and adults after all these years. Yes, it does get busy, but since it’s on top of a mountain, it’s actually less crowded than you’d think. Once you’re up there, ride Montaña Suiza, a steel railway roller coaster, over the Atlantic ocean. It’s a very unique way to see the city.

saiko3p/Shutterstock
saiko3p/Shutterstock
saiko3p/Shutterstock

Hike to a medieval fortress

Dust off the sneakers and work off the pintxos with a hike to the most picturesque part of the city. In the Old Town Port Area, you’ll find a scenic trail that leads up to Monte Urgull. The summit is crowned by the 12th-century medieval Castillo de la Mota fortress. History aside, it’s one of the most beautiful spots for panoramic views of San Sebastián.

Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images
Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images
Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

How to get to San Sebastián

San Sebastián is easily accessible via multiple transportation options. Although San Sebastián Airport (EAS) is a small airport, many travellers fly into Bilbao Airport (BIO) in Spain or Biarritz (BIQ) in France.

Taking the train, though, might just be the easiest (and most scenic) option, as it runs from most major cities in Spain. It only takes only about five hours from Madrid, and lands you right in the centre of town.

Once you arrive, getting around is a breeze, as everything is within walking distance and taxis are readily available. If you need to get around by public transportation, Dbus provides a great service that connects the city centre, beaches, and the Ondarreta neighbourhood.

Oleg Podzorov/Shutterstock
Oleg Podzorov/Shutterstock
Oleg Podzorov/Shutterstock

And helpful tips once you arrive

Something to keep in mind: It’s always a good idea to have euros handy-this is especially true when visiting pintxos bars, as most of them only accept cash. Paying in euros will help you blend in better with the local scene, and it makes the process quicker and smoother in these fast-paced environments.

Additionally, it’s important to double-check the opening times of attractions and restaurants, as the city’s rhythm changes with the seasons. Some establishments may close once the temperatures drop, so it’s best to plan ahead to avoid any surprises.

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Jenn Rice is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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