Foodie Paradise: Pintxos in San Sebastian, Spain

It’s no secret that Spaniards have long-perfected the subtle art of small, shareable snacks. From the sophisticated eateries of Madrid’s exclusive Salamanca district to the remote coastal towns of Andalusia and everywhere in between, socializing over tapas is a custom that goes back many centuries.

Tucked away in the north, Spain’s Basque region has its own version of tapas known as pintxos. These creative bite-sized snacks are usually served on a small slice of bread and stabbed with a toothpick, forming the basis of the local culinary tradition. These delectable plates are best experienced in rustic pintxo bars that overflow the Basque Country.

Locally known as Donostia, San Sebastian is home to over 200 pintxo bars alone, with a majority concentrated in the cobbled Parte Vieja, or Old Town. Set to the backdrop of the Bay of Biscay, lush hillsides, golden beaches, and elegant Belle Époque architecture, the Basque capital is one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Home to just 185,000 inhabitants, San Sebastian admirably goes toe-to-toe with the likes of Tokyo, Paris, Lima, and New York when it comes to cuisine, and more than holds its own. The small resort town may not boast the metropolitan allure of Madrid or the cultural activity of Barcelona, but it continues to ferociously defend its culinary reputation with an extraordinary blend of authentic Basque gastronomy and Michelin-starred gourmet delights.

When you walk into a pintxo bar for the first time, you’ll notice that the countertops are weighed down by mountains of small bites, each with its own combination of ingredients and elements. You’re generally free to grab plates off the bar tops as you please, but it’s best to order fresh directly from the staff. In traditional establishments, napkins and skewers are discarded on the floor and patrons pay using the honor system, where in others the waitress will count the toothpicks you’ve accumulated to calculate your total.

From old-fashioned spots to those on the forefront of culinary innovation, pintxo bars may be ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean they’re created equal. Far from it, actually. Each establishment has its own unique specialties, recipes, and processes, ensuring that no two spots are even remotely the same. Favorites range from Spanish classics such as tortilla (omelette stuffed with soft potatoes and caramelized onions) and jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) to a stellar brocheta de gambas (prawn brochette) and la gilda, the city’s signature pintxo which consists of pickled anchovy, green olives, and a pickled pepper. Creativity is the name of the game among local chefs and these miniature haute cuisine bites ensure that it’s nearly impossible to make a bad food decision in San Sebastian. 

Not only are these tiny plates of art a great way to sample the entire cuisine of the Basque region for just a few euros, they also makes for a distinctive gastronomic experience. Pintxos are typically intended for a single person, unlike shareable tapas plates, and have come to redefine the worldwide interpretation of a bar snack with their own social element. Pintxo bar hopping is a mandatory custom like no other, as locals will often wash down the fabled bites with cidra (cider), txikito (a small glass of local wine), or zurito (a small beer). Enjoy the picture-perfect streets of San Sebastian and soak in the aristocratic flair as you roam from one establishment to the next.

While the Basque capital has long been known for its local food tradition, pintxos aren’t the only gastronomic allure. On the other end of the spectrum, San Sebastian knows fine dining like few places do and it’s rightfully in contention for the planet’s top culinary destinations with a grand total of 18 Michelin stars. In fact, of the world’s eleven 3-Michelin starred restaurants, one of the highest honors an establishment can receive, three of them are located in San Sebastian. 

With a heritage dating back to 1897, Arzak Restaurant has provided a top-of-the-line Basque gourmet experience for generations. The family-run establishment continues to stay true to the local culinary tradition as it did over a century ago and fuses it with a constant search for refinement. Between the pure ingredients, intense preparation, and exquisite presentation, Arzak continues to earn its place within the world’s top 50 restaurants.

Elsewhere, Akelarre has been awarded no less than three Michelin stars since 2006. Situated high atop Igueldo Hill, visitors can enjoy magnificent views overlooking the Bay of Biscay and the peaceful Basque countryside. With more than 50 years of experience, lead chef Pedro Subijana skillfully blends classicism and innovation with a range of beautifully executed dishes.

Akelarre Restaurant, San Sebastian, Spain. Credit: Akelarre

The art of gastronomy sets San Sebastian apart from many cities in Europe and the top-notch quality has become undeniable in recent years. This unwavering commitment to excellent ingredients is a tradition that goes back centuries along the aristocratic lineage of Spain. Queen Isabella II, who suffered from skin allergies, was advised by her doctor to bathe in the Bay of Biscay, whose salty seawater had long been known for its therapeutic properties. Before long, her annual summer visits to San Sebastian began attracting international attention to the rich landscape. 

Foodies will have no problem appreciating the meticulous quality, thought, and craftsmanship that goes into any given dish. San Sebastian showcases the culinary creativity of Basque chefs, who take advantage of the first-rate ingredients from the coastal area, while the seafood is always fresh and delicious.

Ask any local and they’ll declare that the Basque Country is home to the best food in the world, and there’s more than enough to reinforce that bold claim. Whether it’s long, leisurely lunches or fun evenings roaming from one pintxo bar to the next, San Sebastian is tangible proof that living well begins with eating well. It’s this perfect recipe of one-of-a-kind food adventures, high standards of quality, and passionate culinary tradition that has charmed the harshest of food critics and travel writers. The alluring seaside setting is simply the cherry on top of what should be an undeniable staple on the itinerary of foodies everywhere.