jilla ad final


Loading Flickr slideshow...

Hotel Maria Cristina

Callum McCall visits 'gastronomical mecca' San Sebastian for a 'captivating' cooking masterclass in the characterful grandeur of Hotel Maria Cristina

The credentials:

Built in the early twentieth century, Hotel Maria Cristina is a stalwart of the San Sebastian hotel scene. Many say there’s no better option in the city. One of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, Maria Cristina underwent a total revamp to celebrate its centenary year in 2012. The facelift merged old-world, Belle Époque charm with a more modern aesthetic and it works really well. It’s a beautiful hotel.

Sitting on prime real estate between the old town and the Urumea river, the hotel is big but not a behemoth with 136 rooms in total. It has the grand entrance you might expect in a big luxury hotel, but the sort of character you might not. It doesn’t feel generic or sterile and there’s a nice asymmetry throughout.

The staff are great. They’re charming but never overly-effusive, and the impeccably friendly service oozes luxury without the stand-offish attitude you might experience at similar grade hotels across the continent.

There’s a nice gym in the basement that has more machines than you’d ever need during a hotel stay. But I’d still recommend a run around the headland if the weather allows.


The hotel houses two restaurants: DRY Bar and Café Saigon. DRY Bar, as its name implies, is primarily a bar but it also serves a selection of classic dishes. Café Saigon is the more highly-regarded of the two, and serves a cross-section of Asian cuisine (Vietnamese and Japanese, for the most part).

To kick things off, I used my fail-safe litmus test for Spanish restaurants: croquetas and a gin and tonic. The results were good, not great. Shards of dry, unavoidable rosemary littered my otherwise delicious gin and tonic and while the croquetas tasted great, they lacked the crunch that usually makes them so good. The more-established Café Saigon is nicely decked-out and might make a nice change if you’ve overdosed on pintxos.

There is, however, another food option that guests should definitely look into if they like the idea of being a bit more hands on. Mimo—an all-things-food company founded in 2009—runs a fantastic cooking school out of the hotel’s former basement that offers a variety of courses to satiate all curiosities. I joined the ‘From farmer’s market to table’ class, which ran from 10am-3pm.

After a quick history of Basque cuisine while we picked up seasonal ingredients from La Bretxa (the famous local market), we were given a masterclass by the affable, funny, and very talented Patricio and Agustín. With generous doses of instruction, we created our own six-course meal, with each course accompanied by a specially-selected local wine. Vinegar-tart sardines, barbecue-blackened white asparagus, ink-laced squid, and savoury-sweet walnut ice cream topped the list of dishes for me.

My group included relative novices and a former restaurant chef, all of whom seemed equally captivated. The airy kitchen—replete with hyper-polished, personal work stations, and all manner of cooking equipment—was a great setting. If the experience is anything to go by, it’s no surprise so many people regard San Sebastian as a kind of gastronomical Mecca.

It was also recently announced that Hélène Darroze’s pop-up kitchen will return to the hotel this summer (1 July—15 Oct), following the acclaim the two-Michelin-starred chef’s interpretation of Basque cuisine received at last year’s pop-up. One to look out for.


I stayed in a ‘Double Deluxe’ room and it didn’t disappoint. The elegant room was full of muted greys, with acres of space and towering ceilings. But the real show-stopper was the bed, which was the biggest I’ve ever seen. The bed linen probably deserves its own review, too. The room’s marble-clad bathroom was nice and bright, and well-stocked with Elemis Spa goodies.

Those with a bigger budget can opt for the terrace suite, which is basically the same room but includes a private terrace big enough for a table, some chairs, and a few sun loungers. And if your idea of fun normally involves private jets and very big boats, the grand prize is the Royal Suite, which has the bedroom, living room, walk in wardrobes and terrace you’d expect at its room rate.

Who goes there?

Not as many businessmen as you might expect. It was a mixture of well-heeled tourists (the hotel tells me predominantly American, Australian, Asian, and various European countries) and well-to-do Spanish families taking a break from their busy lives in Barcelona and Madrid. You know the sort of families I mean; deep olive tans and immaculately dressed toddlers.

Out & about:

San Sebastian is most famous for the cornucopia of pintxos bars and Michelin-starred restaurants that line its cobbled, old-town streets. And rightly so, because a) there really are loads of them, and b) the food is extraordinary.

The popular pintxos bars are a hustle-and-bustle of plates passed over shoulders and jostling for standing space at the bar, but the quality of the food ensures the experience is one most people love. There isn’t enough space here for full recommendations but make sure you fight the crowds at Bar Nestor to get txuletas (steak) and their famous tomato salad, and at La Cuchara de San Telmo for their octopus and their ox cheek. Of course, you can always book one of the many, many Michelin-starred restaurants but where’s the fun in that?

And food isn’t San Sebastian’s only trick. It also has two great city-beaches: one in the sheltered bay beneath a busy boulevard and one that gets Atlantic-swell for the surfers. It’s also well worth braving the zig-zagging climb up to the castle on the hill that splits the two beaches for the amazing views of the city and rolling green hillsides that surround it.

The worst thing:

It’s hard to think of any significant flaws, but if I have to pick something it would be the ever-so-slightly stale bar area, which felt too hushed. Mind you, it was a Thursday evening so it might just have been a quiet night.

The best thing:

The bed. My god, that bed. And the cooking course, which ticked so many boxes.

The details:

Rooms range from €285–€3400
Paseo Republica Argentina, 4, San Sebastian, 20004, Spain; www.hotel-mariacristina.com/en

If you would like to stay up to date with our restaurant reviews, subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter.