Spain’s San Sebastian is a perfect example of this. If someone mentions San Sebastian to me, my first thought – invariably – turns straight to food.
Although the totality of Spain is wonderful for food, San Sebastian, especially its Old Town, has long been considered to be the very best spot to experience pintxos.
|The view over San Sebastian and the iconic La Concha beach.|
Now, when it comes to the distinction between pintxos, pinchos and tapas, a clear-cut answer becomes a bit shaky. It’s thought that pintxos takes its name from the Spanish verb meaning ‘to pierce’. Accordingly, all pintxos would be held together with a cocktail stick. But, since pintxos have evolved over the years, the sticks aren’t always present, yet these small dishes are still called pintxos.
There are other factors to consider – whether you’re paying for the pintxos/tapas or not – but the following is the only rule I’ve come across that’s gathered the most agreement. If you’re ordering a small plate of food from a bar in the Basque Country, you’re eating pintxos.
With that out of the way, I’ll shortly be presenting my absolute favourite foodie finds from my time in San Sebastian. In truth, I visited the city a year ago, but my good friend (and fellow blogger) Emily is off to San Sebastian for her mini-moon soon, so I reckoned it was time to put this guide together.
The best thing about San Sebastian’s Old Town is that it’s compact, meaning that you can cover a lot of ground (and visit A LOT of pintxos bars) within a short space of time. All of my favourites can be found in this part of San Sebastian.
From the traditional to the inventive to the sweet, here are my favourite culinary discoveries in San Sebastian.
Where: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12
What you should order: The risotto
Oh boy, if one dish could have set the standard for the rest of my San Sebastian trip, this was it. At the time of my visit, there were two types of risotto pintxos you could try at Borda Berri – goat’s cheese and mushroom – and I tried them both. Made with orzo rather than arborio rice, this risotto is garlicky and moreish.
|The mushroom risotto – heaven on a plate!|
Unlike other pintxos bars, you’ll need to order your pintxos at the counter, as opposed to simply picking up a plate from the bar.
If you’re feeling braver than I was, order the other Borda Berri specialty; pigs’ ear is a major hit here. The veal cheeks are apparently delicious too.
Where: Calle del Puerto, 15
What you should order: The calamari or mussels
There are many venues where you can get good seafood pintxos in San Sebastian, but when it comes to quality and budget, La Mejillonera delivers the winning combination.
When I got there, it was so packed that it took a while to even get close to the bar. This is another situation where you need to order by the counter, but your food will be piping hot. I stuck to my tiny portion of counter space as I inhaled some of the best calamari I’ve ever tasted. Smothered in sauce, it’ll all be gone too quickly to even feel guilty about it.
|Perfectly cooked calamari from Mejillonera.|
My biggest regret was that I didn’t try the mussels that La Mejillonera is famous for. Don’t make my mistake; there are many varieties available so order away and enjoy!
Where: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7
What you should order: Everything
And I mean everything. I visited La Cepa with the crew from Star Surf Camps, where we ordered a number of pintxos for our table. From the chorizo to the cheese to the different types of tender meet being set before us, I can vouch for the fact that it was all delicious.
Since this was also one of the larger bars I went to, I’d recommend La Cepa as a place to visit with a group; you’ll have plenty of space to enjoy your pintxos.
|Inside La Cepa.|
|Just a tiny portion of the sharing pintxos we had that night.|
La Cepa has been around since 1948, and it’s known as the ideal spot to experience pintxos in their most traditional forms. If you’re willing to spend a little more, La Cepa’s mushroom platter has attracted rave reviews.
Where: Calle Pescaderia, 10
What you should order: Everything
I’ll admit to the repetition, but, trust me, you’ll be tempted to go into ordering overdrive once you see the pintxos on Zeruko‘s counter. This is my favourite spot for inventive pintxos and, judging by the many awards adorning Zeruko’s walls, I’d say that others agree with me.
This is a pricier option for pintxos but it’s well worth it even just to try one or two dishes. As you walk along the counter, you’ll be convinced that you’re looking at the Spanish version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Zeruko doesn’t shy away from using bright colours in their pintxos, and the results are very pretty indeed.
I could write an entire post on the incredible morsels of food I tried here. I had their signature dish, a lobster ‘rose’ served over a smoking shot glass of rosewater, and it was packed with flavour. I was equally impressed by the decadent goat’s cheese and foie gras number that followed.
|Zeruko’s signature lobster ‘rose’.|
|The goat’s cheese and foie gras pintxos.|
Yes, you’ll spend a bit more money at Zeruko but, and I’m pleading with you, do not skip a visit here. This is pintxos version 2.0 – and it’s the first place I’d go back to on a return trip to San Sebastian.
|The pintxos at Goiz Argi.|
Where: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4
What you should order: The prawn skewers
This is another solid choice for seafood pintxos. Goiz Argi is renowned for its prawn skewers, so make sure that this is the first thing you order. Plump and perfectly seasoned, you’ll be tempted to buy another skewer immediately afterwards. I know I was.
At first glance, this pintxos bar may look a little garish with its lit-up menus and tiny space within, but don’t be put off. When you’re done with the skewers, get the calamari or, even better yet, a pintxos that incorporates anchovies sourced straight from northern Spain.
Where: Calle 31 de Agosto, 3
What you should order: The cheesecake
Up until now, this list has only really dealt with savoury dishes, but this is my top choice for the sweet-tooths out there. Attracting equal amounts of locals and tourists, La Vina is the absolute top spot for cheesecake.
|More, please: The legendary cheesecake at La Vina.|
When I first heard about this, I was sceptical. Surely it couldn’t be that good. Readers, it is. When this plate was placed before me, I tried to eat the cake as slowly as humanly possible so that its goodness would never end. It’s indulgent, it’s filling and it’s the best way to end an evening of visiting multiple pintxos bars.
|Pintxos hunting in the Old Town.|
So, you’ve arrived in San Sebastian and are ready for an epic evening of pinxtos. Here are some tips that will ensure a great night out:
* There are a lot of posts out there that say there is only one way to pay for your pintxos. And this is not the case at all. Sometimes I paid for my pintxos as I picked it up; other times I paid as I was about to leave the bar. Take your cue from whoever is serving you and, most importantly, don’t get stressed about the etiquette. I was so nervous ordering my first pintxos and there’s simply no need to be!
* If you see a whole bunch of dirty napkins on the floor of a pintxos bar, do not be alarmed. This isn’t a hygiene problem – this the norm. Once their pintxos are done, patrons drop their used napkins on the floor. Again, take this on a case-by-case basis and do as the locals do!
* Do not stay at one pintxos bar all night. Go to a bar, try one or two plates and then move on. I visited an (almost) embarrassing number of venues in the two days I was in San Sebastian – and the Old Town area caters perfectly to this sort of exploring.
* On average, basic pintxos will cost between 1 and 3 euros, while a glass of wine will set you back 1.50 to 3.50 euros. On the wine front, don’t miss out on the chance to try txakoli, a sparkling white wine from the Basque Country.
* And my most important tip for getting the most enjoyment out of your time in this city: Calories don’t count when you’re in San Sebastian.
If you’re keen to visit the places on my foodie list, I’ve plotted them all out on the map below.
Although all of my favourite finds are located in the Old Town, I would love to return to San Sebastian to explore the bars that are a little further afield.