My 8 favourite pintxo bars in San Sebastián (Donostia)
Earlier this year, after countless rave reviews and recommendations, I finally visited the Basque country. I very quickly realised that all the raving was 100% justified, and cannot wait to go back soon! We divided our time between Bilbao and San Sebastián, with a quick day trip to Biarritz in France, and probably consumed about 458 pintxos in 10 days (that is just an estimate).
There have been, and there will continue to be, countless blog posts and articles about which pintxo bars to visit in San Sebastian, but despite that, I wanted to note down my experiences. Whilst there, I relied heavily on recommendations from SavlaFaire, a food blogger whom I trust completely with my palate, and we also took a few local recommendations whilst there. Having said that, our best pintxo was probably the one we hadn’t planned on, but just stumbled across whilst walking down the streets of Bilbao (squid with lashings of caramelised onions, in case you are interested). So if you are reading this and planning a trip to Basque, rest assured that pretty much any pintxo bar will be unique in its own way, and all of them will surely enrich your tastebuds!
General pintxo tips for your trip
- Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas, but never, ever call them tapas (if looks could kill…). Usually, they consist of a small piece of bread with any kind of topping, held together by a toothpick (this is the pintxo), and cost around €1-3. However, they can also be an entire dish of octopus, a portion of stew, or a tortilla, and the price is accordingly a little higher. Never restrict yourself to only what you can see – there are usually daily specials scribbled somewhere on a piece of paper or blackboard, and if you order from that menu those dishes are usually made to order.
- Never plan to spend an entire evening in one bar. The best thing is to have 1-2 pintxos in each place, perhaps washed down with a local glass of txakoli, and then move swiftly on (you’ll be glad of any exercise you can get whilst stuffing yourself!).
- Be patient. People will often push and clamour at the bar, but if you are on holiday, don’t rush or put pressure on the already incredibly busy bartenders. If you smile and are patient, you are often rewarded with something extra (or was that just us?).
- Bartenders have incredible memories. Whether you help yourself or are served, they normally only bill you when you leave, and even if it’s been an hour, and they’ve served 100 other people in between, they will remember what you ordered. Don’t try and cheat them – it’s just not fair.
- A little Spanish goes a long way, and Euskera even further (although we couldn’t really go beyond caixo and agur!). Even a simple por favor will definitely get you brownie points.
- Don’t dwell on the fact that all the food is out and exposed on the counter. British people in particular may balk at the health and safety issues… but learn to take it in stride. You will kill off all the bacteria with txakoli.
- Speaking of… my last tip is to drink txakoli. It is the local sparkling wine, dirt cheap (usually around €2 a glass), and unbelievably delicious. Dangerous, too, as it’s not very strong. We often realised this a little too late…
Restaurants we visited
Oh, my days. This was the uncontested highlight of our entire trip, and perhaps of my year. San Sebastián is known for having the highest density of Michelin stars in one place, and Arzak boasts 3 of those glittery accolades. I wrote a full review of this meal, which you can read here.
This one was recommended by our Airbnb host as being excellent value for money, even though it has a Michelin star. We later looked it up and found out it didn’t have a an actual star, but was “only” Michelin-recommended. The value could not be sniffed at though, as our 3-course lunch cost a mere €31. Unfortunately, this was the only meal of our trip we were a little disappointed by, partly due to the dishes, but also the restaurant’s clinical environment, which wasn’t quite the ambience we were hoping for.
The food was all good, but the portions felt too large (perhaps we were too used to pintxos?) and nothing really blew us away. Each dish felt like it lacked a certain pizzazz. Michelin-recommended it may be, but it definitely fell short of our expectations and all the other incredible food we had on the holiday surpassed it (though the tiramisu dessert was excellent).
My top 8 pintxo bars
1. Bar Ganbara
This one was personally recommended to us by Elena Arzak, the 3 Michelin-starred chef of Arzak fame. So of course, we had to stop by. The crab tarts were to die for, and upon hearing who had sent us, the chef brought us some piping hot chicken croquetas straight out of the kitchen as a special treat. We were also hoping to sample their mushroom and egg yolk dish, but unfortunately, they only had one type of mushroom left, so we skipped it. Definitely pop by here for one or two pintxos at some point during your evening.
2. Borda Berri
All we had here was the tiramisu, and all my notes say about it is “OMG. I wanted to take it home and cook it a romantic candlelit dinner.” That probably says it all, right? No photos – it was gobbled up far too quickly.
3. El Sport
What really stood out here was the service – it was as though we were long-lost relatives. We tried an erizo stew (sea urchin), served in its own shell, as well as some smoked fish and a crab crepe. All outstanding, delicious, and perfect.
The pintxos here seemed a little more upmarket, as there was hardly anything on the counter. We ordered a mushroom rice, which looked like a risotto but tasted even better, a salad with goats cheese and nuts (which was probably the only green/healthy thing we had in the entire two weeks), and my absolute favourite: an incredibly tender lamb dish. A little more expensive than other bars, but definitely worth it!
5. Bar Néstor
Bar Néstor is known for its tortilla, and we had been warned to head there an hour before it opens, in order to put our names down for a slice. Luckily, it was right around the corner from our Airbnb, and so we did just that. Oozing with yolk, bursting with sweetness from the caramelised onions, and with exactly the right bite to the potatoes, I wished we had asked for two slices each! You definitely cannot miss this one.
I was enticed by SavlaFaire’s pictures of the pulpo racion (octopus), and it did not disappoint – I could eat that dish every day for the rest of my life. We also had a few other pintxos off the counter, and they were outstanding too.
We went here for the famous cheesecake, which attracts all the tourists. Countless giant cakes adorn the walls, and everyone inside has their elbows out, waiting for a slice. We absolutely inhaled it, but in terms of desserts, I rate the tiramisu at Borda Berri a little higher. Viña was also slightly spoiled for me as we had a brush up with a very rude tourist. Luckily, it was the same night that we went to Cuchara de San Telmo (see below), and the lovely experience we had there more than made up for it!
8. La Cuchara de San Telmo
This bar was probably the most unique one we visited, and the vibe felt very different. There are no pintxos on the bar – everything is made to order based on the list on the blackboard. You can choose the size (pintxo, media or racion), and so we opted for txipirones (squid), beef, and false risotto made of orzo. Placing our order was a nightmare due the large crowds and my height, but after a while, one of the barmen spotted and took pity on me, coming around the front to take my order. He waved at us to go and sit outside, and then brought us each dish himself, assuring us it was fine to pay afterwards, which we did just as they were closing.
The dishes themselves were outstanding. The beef fell apart at the slightest touch, and the txipirones too were just right. Added to which we made friends with the people sitting at the table outside, which is always a nice bonus. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d laughed so much (admittedly, there was quite a bit of txakoli involved, but that is par for the course, isn’t it?)
Not a pintxo bar, but rather a cafe on the outskirts of the old town, a little walk across the river. Fantastic coffee with milk straight from the cow (or at least that is what it tasted like), lovely breakfast options and amazing cakes. A great place to start your day and warm up your stomach for what is to come…
So as you can tell, my 10 days in the Basque country involved a hell of a lot of food. But there is really no other way to spend a holiday there! Having said that, the surrounding landscapes are beautiful, and we also did a bit of hiking and a lot of walking (San Sebastian boasts some glorious hill views) to work it all off. The area is definitely a foodie’s paradise, but don’t take my word for it… try it for yourself, and then please let me know about your experiences!
Have you been to San Sebastián? What were your favourite spots?