The Basque city of San Sebastián is a true food lovers paradise! In the 'Food Capital of Europe' you can find the freshest and tastiest dishes within walking distance. To all foodies: go and try all the best pintxos you will ever eat, while wandering through this stunning city at the Atlantic Ocean. This city guide gives you travel tips to explore the highlights, and to indulge in its top notch Basque cuisine, including my top 5 best Pintxos bars of San Sebastián!
What to see and do in San Sebastián
The Old Town of San Sebastián is where most of the magic happens when it comes to the world-famous pintxos. In the maze of the characterful city center with charming narrow streets you will find dozens of pintxo bars. Here you can enjoy the best of the best "miniature dishes", often served on bread, on a skewer or marinated/fried/sprinkled with olive oil on a little plate. Many bars are famous for one or several types of pintxo, so a little preparation can be helpful so you know what to eat where. Check out my food tips below to make some sort of a "plan" before you dive into this beautiful city.
When you say San Sebastian (or Donostia-San Sebastián in Basque), next to food many people probably think of surfing. Because this place is one of the most popular surf spots in all of Spain. The surf conditions are often ideal and work like a magnet on water and wave lovers. No matter the temperature, here you will (almost) always find brave people who take a dip in the ocean.
Plaza de la Constitución in the heart of the old town should not be missed. Here is where the former City Hall was located (nowadays a library) and where bullfights took place in the past. The numbers above the windows are remnants of this ancient tradition, because these marked the "boxes" you could rent to view the fight between the bull and the matador.
The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was constructed in the last years of the 19th century and is still a real eye-catcher until today. It is surrounded by a beautiful square with classy streets and buildings reminiscent of Paris. In this area you will find many stylish shops from local designers and entrepreneurs.
Even if you are not a swimming fanatic, the beach and bay are in my opinion a must visit for a walk along the shore or the boulevard (known as The Concha Promenade). This area attracts many people who love to stare at the powerful ocean and the horizon. From here you will get a good overview of the old and new(er) parts of the city. The Basque Country can be very windy and rainy, so make sure you are prepared for several types of weather during your visit. We've visited San Sebastián at the end of September and had to endure a lot of rain and cool temperatures, but were also treated to a bit of sunshine.
Along the promenade you will come across an ancient Clock Tower and Barometer Tower.
At the end of the bay on the westside you can find a collection of three steel sculptures named 'The Comb of the Wind' (El Peine del Viento). When the waves are powerful they will provide a spectacle through the blowholes. Be careful not to get to close to the edge otherwise you have the chance to get showered a second time that day like me...
Art, culture and architecture lovers beware, I would advise to calculate at least two hours of your time to vist the beautiful San Telmo Museum. This museum of Basque Society and Citizenship is partly located in a 16th century Dominican convent and partly in a modern contemporary building. The collection consists of 55.500 works of art and objects.
One of my favourite artworks was this painting by Spanish artist José Villegas (Sevilla 1844 - Madrid 1921). The different types of fabric, ruffles and lace are incredibly detailled and painted very realistic.
Where to eat the best pintxos in San Sebastián
We went to the lively Bar Borda Berri especially to try their famous risotto with Idiazábal-cheese, which was very creamy and heavenly! Together with the white bean 'stew' with mushrooms (perfect to dip the bread in), it made a really good combination. San Sebastian's most popular drink is for sure cider (sagardo in Basque) which is made from fermented apple juice. The way of pouring the cider is just as famous, because it is poured from a great hight to get as many air bubbles into the drink as possible.
El Tamboril (also known as Tambo Donosti) is owned by the same family as the celebrated Ganbarra, which I will mention later in this blog post. This place has more of a restaurant feel than many other bars in the old town, and it has a calming but cozy and stylish atmosphere. We were happy that two stools were available at the bar, for us the most desired spot, because this brings a nice extra dynamic to the experience.
We ordered and loved the 'anoxia rebozada' (battered anchovies), 'gildas' (olives, peppers and anchovies on a wooden stick, which you should eat in one bite...), 'ensaladilla' (potato and vegetable salad with mayonnaise), and the 'pimientos' (grilled green peppers). This all tasted even better with two local drinks, a glass of Ribera de Duero (red) and a glass of Manzanilla sherry (white).
Since 1921 this wonderful family business has been serving very refined pintxos at Bar Gorriti. It is the oldest bar in the old town, and the one that offers the largest variety of pintxos, with more than fifty hot and cold different types. It is a lively meeting point for locals and some visitors of the city, with a very authentic and lovely atmosphere. Every pintxo was a work of art in itself with great attention to detail, enormous variety of flavours and all market fresh. Simply perfect.
Ganbarra is well known for a unique selection of pintxos, and especially for their huge variety of mushrooms. At the end of the bar there is a daily variety of the freshest produce of excellent quality. Of course we had to try the selection of seasonal mushrooms with egg yolk, which you should mix altogether. It may not look spectacular, but the taste was wonderful. The asparagus in a crunchy batter and 'glides' were delicious as well. Keep in mind that here (but in several other places as well) there may be a queue at the door, which is of course always a good sign...
The boyfriend eating a tasty gilda pintxo the traditional way (in one bite), and his face expression in the last picture probably says enough :)
La Viña has been part of the exquisite food culture of San Sebastián for over half a century. And they are mostly known for two specialties. The first is a savory 'Canutillo', which is a crispy cone filled with some sort of cream accompanied by an anchovy. This combination may seem rather unusual, but turned out to be fantastic! Especially when you enjoy it together with a glass of cider.
The second specialty is 'burnt cheese cake', which is so soft and creamy that you'll have to eat it with a spoon. No worries though, the cheese cake is not actually burnt, so you can eat it with peace of mind. In our opinion a wonderful place which we loved because of its positive and energetic vibe.
For the legendary tortilla de patata at Bar Nestor (some say the best tortilla of San Sebastián) we have to come back one day... Because, as of 1980 this family run bar makes 2 tortillas each day, one around noon and one in the evening. If you want to get 1 of the 16 pieces that will be cut from 1 tortilla, you have to be present either sharp at 12:00 or sharp at 19:00.
If you are one of the lucky ones, you have to make sure to come back 45 minutes after your order, to make sure you can enjoy your piece. Unfortunately we were 15 minutes late, so that makes a good excuse to revisit San Sebastián in the future :)
Where to enjoy the best coffee/tea in San Sebastián
When you are looking for a relaxed bar with good music and a nice atmosphere then Bar Pokhara will probably suit you. We went here to enjoy a cup of tea together with a good piece of lemon cake and a tasty American style cinnamon roll. Later in the day it functions more like a real bar, and you can of course go there for something stronger than a cup of tea.
Old Town Coffee is for sure the best specialty coffee bar of San Sebastián. Their single-origin coffee beans are roasted in-house on their own Probat roaster. In 2015 this successful place was set up by two childhood friends who were both passionate about coffee. Meanwhile it has become a very popular bar where a sense of community is of great value. Sweets, breakfast and brunch dishes are on the menu as well.
Where to stay in San Sebastián
Hotel Villa Victoria by Intur is located in the heart of the city next to the above mentioned Cathedral. This small scale boutique hotel is situated in a beautiful old building which is decorated with great taste. The rooms were stylish and very clean with a great private balcony overlooking the charming area. In the morning the breakfast buffet offered enough choice and the options were of good quality and fresh. Perfect to get you day started!
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