You might have already heard of San Sebastián or maybe you have heard of Donostia, as they call it in Basque. However, perhaps you were not sure where it is exactly. In this case, go grab a map of Spain, draw a line between Bilbao and Bayonne (France) along the North Atlantic coast and there it is, hanging at barely 20km from the Spanish-French border.
San Sebastián is best known around the world for the film festival that takes place there every year or even after the picturesque tide-washed Playa De la Concha. But that’s not all. You’ll find a bunch of Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastián, with chefs that know how to balance innovation and tradition in not only fancy dressed-up dishes but also as pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”).
These Basque bite-size close cousins to the well-known tapas, are the centre of the food culture in San Sebastián and in the whole Basque Country.
And that’s where the problem starts for visitors like you and us.
Served in every pintxo bar and restaurant around, you will feel overwhelmed by choice if you are in town for the first time. Where to go for the best pintxos? Which one to pick first? What to drink? How to order? And my personal favourite, “How much will it cost?”…
Do not worry and keep reading. We’ll break it down for you. This post is all about enjoying the pintxo experience in San Sebastián and at the end of it, you’ll wonder why this gorgeous Spanish town is not yet in your bucket list.
Ready to be inspired?
Know Your Way Around
First, the basics. San Sebastián is divided into several districts with their own personality. There is Ondarreta to the west, Gros to the east after the river Urumea, and the Parte Vieja (Old Town) and Romantic Area right between these two. While gastronomy is everywhere in San Sebastián, you’ll find most of the best and most traditional pintxos around the Parte Vieja, right between the harbour and the river.
While wandering the cobblestoned labyrinthine streets of the Parte Vieja, you’ll be lured into every tavern and restaurant on the way by the gorgeous display of pintxos on every bar top. From the simplest sauteéd peppers or guindillas and cold black-hoof ham or manchego cheese on a slice of bread, to more elaborate fares such as spears of Galician-style octopus, stuffed piquillo peppers or even warm creamy scallops served in a shell, steamed mussels in high terra-cotta plates or mini hamburgers of local beef on bread with a quail egg on top and finished with caramelized onion.
I’m sure by now I have your full attention (and your whole digestive system’s), don’t I?
San Sebastián’s Favourite Dining Experience
This is how it works.
Find a little spot in front of the busy bar top, beg for the attention of any of the always very cheerful waiters and order a local txacoli, a dry cider, a wine, beer (or whatever that comes to your mind really) to wash all that goodness down. And you are going to want to stay in that very same spot for the whole night!
But slow down. Going out “de pintxos” or “de poteo“ is all about hopping from one bar to the next, sampling one pintxo and a drink at a time. If you do it right, San Sebastián’s favourite dining experience will become yours too. So much so, that while in most places you eat between visits, in San Sebastián you will be visiting in between eating.
Once you finally start visiting the sights of the city, if you ask for directions, you’ll notice that love for good food here goes to such extent that people use bars, taverns and restaurants rather than street names, as landmarks when giving directions in the old town.
Some Survival Tips
If you think all pintxos are made the same you can’t be more wrong. Cold ready-made from the bar top, hot made-to-order and brought to you, with bread, fish or meat, vegetarian,…
So many options! But with a few tips, you’ll nail it.
Say, you get into a pintxo bar for the first time and see all that spread of goodness on the bar top. Now what?
Here are our first tips:
- Go straight to the waiter and ask for a plate, and while you are at it, ask for the speciality of the house too. They always have one!
- Cold ready-made pintxos are generally available on the bar top. The waiter will warm them up for you in microwave ovens if needed.
- Hot made-to-order pintxos can be ordered from the menu directly from the waiter.
- Depending on the day of the week and the time of the day, a pintxo might be included with every drink. Again, ask the waiter.
- AND VERY IMPORTANT!: always start with pintxos without too much bread if you don’t want to fill up quickly!
Our Personal Pintxo Bar Favs
For this post, we went to San Sebastián and took one (or a few) for the team. I know, such a commitment, right?
We tried a lot of bars and restaurants in the old town and ate a humongous amount of pintxos. Here are our handpicked recommendations in no particular order:
- Bar Baztan (Portu kalea 8). They carry a wide selection of excellent pintxos and they also offer “à la carte” dining. We found it a bit overpriced when taking fish-based pintxos (15€ for 4 pintxos and 2 sangrias) but worth every cent we paid.
- Casa Alcalde (Mayor kalea 19). Here you’ll find pintxo fare that competes both in variety and quality with Bar Baztan, with equally nice staff. Expect to pay some 14€ for 4 pintxos, one sangria and one cider (poured from the distance, the local way)
- La Cuchara de San Telmo (31 de Agosto kalea). This one is a bit different, they do not have their ready-made pintxos on the bar top and you always have to order from the blackboard menu on the wall. Also, this pintxos bar might be the smallest ever, so expect long lines but it’s worth fighting the crowds for their speciality, the “Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto“ (beef cheeks in red wine sauce). We tried respectable portions of beef cheek and grilled duck foie gras with apple mash, plus two Ribera de Duero red wines for 12,50€.
- Bar La Cepa (31 de Agosto kalea 7). Here we had the chance to try one of the best tortilla de bacalao (codfish omelette) and “ensaladilla con jamon” on bread, plus two sangrias for 10€.
- Casa Gandarias (31 de Agosto Kalea 23). The patrons of Casa Gandaria swear by their stuffed pimientos (pimiento del piquillo rellenos) and goat cheese on peppers. We also had sea urchin and a mushroom croqueta with 2 glasses of Ribera de Duero red wine. All together for 16€.
- Bar Txepetxa (Pescaderia kalea 5). Here you’ll find the most tender pan-fried calamari ever (or “rabas”, how they call it here), and more fish specialities (anchovies, sardines,…) if you’re still hungry. A portion of “rabas” with a bottle of water set us back 6€.
- Casa Triburcio (Fermin Calbeton kalea 40). A bit more local, with shared tables. with a traditional fare and big terracotta pans with stews straight on the bar top. Here, 6 pintxos and two glasses of Rioja red wine, 16€.
- Taberna Bardulia (Fermin Calbeton kalea 7). Pintxos here are classic with a twist, sort of refreshing after finding similar fare everywhere. The beef cheek in wine sauce here is possibly better than at La Cuchara de San Telmo, and that’s a huge call! 4 pintxos and 2 glasses of aged red wine, 13€
A Bit of Everything Else
After a few days of having pintxos for breakfast (yes that’s a thing), lunch, snack and dinner you might want to try something else just for a change. If this is the case, here are four more recommendations:
- ChinChin (Garibai kalea 5). Give your tummy a pintxo break and go for a more balanced lunchtime menu at this central restaurant. Art Deco ambience, quick service and 3-course daily menus, everything for 11€.
- Bar Santa Lucía (Portu kalea 6). What about a quick lunch or a snack in this self-service, family-friendly setting? Don’t forget to try their thick chocolate with churros for just 4€.
- Pasteleria Oiartzun (Ijentea kalea 2). If you fancy even more treats to satisfy your sweet cravings after so many savoury pintxos, try this pastry shop and indulge yourself. Here we couldn’t resist and came out of the shop with 4 pieces for 9€.
- Loco Polo (Narrika kalea 10). Either as a snack on a hot summer day or as a dessert, ice cream on a stick is always a great idea. At Loco Polo, you can have them with your choice of being dipped in hot white, milk or dark chocolate and then rolled in crushed cookies, candy, almonds or hazelnuts.
Take This Map With You
Check out all our favourite eats in San Sebastián and take this map out for your self-guided bar hopping experience in the Old Town.
And that’s just the beginning
There is no limit to what the pintxo bar scene of San Sebastián has to offer, not only to foodies at heart but also to all of you wondering how to best mingle with the locals while in town. The San Sebastián Turismo & Convention Bureau issues and maintains a gastronomic guide with a lot more restaurants and bars not only in the Old Town but also in the rest of the city
And if this is not enough for you, follow our steps and drive from San Sebastián to the neighbouring region of La Rioja to enjoy strong warming wines and more delicious hearty gastronomy infused with centuries of history.
Over to you now
Have you been to San Sebastián recently? How was your experience? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
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