San Sebastian is one of those towns that's held in the highest regard by culinary enthusiasts and the like. The coastal town is located within the Basque region of Spain and holds a worldly reputation for having the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre. Funny enough, I didn't make reservations at any of these establishments. However, as much as San Sebastian is known for fine dining, one can have an equally fulfilling experience by sampling the town's experimental, but affordable pintxos (pronounced pinchos) and tapas bars. In terms of eating out and value for money, San Sebastian definitely gets my golden stamp of approval. I also loved how there was no strict agenda involved in the town's exploration. One simply does what one deems to be enjoyable; whether that's relaxing at the beach all day, climbing a mountain or eating one's way through the old town. Given that the town has a reputable gastronomic culture, I have included a pintxos/tapas bar crawl guide as well as a supplementary guide on the worthwhile things to see and do (towards the bottom of the page).
PINTXOS & TAPAS GUIDE
- Bar Haizea gave me my first taste of authentic Basque cuisine on the trip. Interestingly enough, I had heard Anthony Bourdain visited this spot, which made even me more curious to stop by and try it out. After tasting only two courses, it wasn't hard to see why this bar was so iconic; the food was so flavoursome, vibrant and unpretentious. The owner's hospitality only made the experience all the more enjoyable.
- Bar Zeruko is in the centre of the old town and is known to be the experimental tapas bar with a focus on seafood. I would definitely say the bar met my expectations in terms of pushing flavour and presentation boundaries.
- Bar Nestor created by far the most memorable dining experience I had in San Sebastian. The bar had an energetic buzz, which trickled into the town's narrow pathways (with Bar Zeruko just opposite it). Everyone comes here for THE STEAK which costs €48 with a generous serving of juicy tomatoes. The steak is sure to please one's carnivorous sixth sense and its juiciness is enough to make one weep. Tip 1: There is usually a wait list for the steak so get here on time (most tapas bars close at midnight). Tip 2: Don't forget to dip the steak in the glorious rendered fat left in the pan.
- La Cuchara de San Telmo showed me the importance of freshness and simplicity in cuisine. This tapas spot has a more inconspicuous location but one cannot leave San Sebastian without coming here. I tasted three dishes here and each of them consistently amazed me with subtly contrasting flavours, vibrant colours and a clever handling of textures.
- A Fuego Negro offered a decent selection of innovative dishes. I remember the bar for its edgy design, which fits in well with the overall experimental vibe. However, given that the dishes are rather small, I would recommend that one use this bar as a launching pad to the spots listed above.
- Gandarias was incredibly busy when I visited. If I'm being honest, the ambience wasn't so great - it was too impersonal and claustrophobic. On the other hand, the tapas dishes were quite hearty and impressive. So I guess it depends on how badly one wants to try the food.
- La Vina is essentially the cheesecake factory everyone wishes they had. Tons of cheesecakes are baked here at any given time and each serving contains two divine slices of rich and sweet goodness - truly the best cheesecake I've ever tasted.
SEE & DO
- Zurriola Beach was my beach of choice. It had a more intimate and enclosed feel than the alternative La Concha Beach. One can spend the entire day here reading a book, appreciating the sublime landscape and going for a dip in the gentle azure waters.
- The Old Town is an essential part of the San Sebastian experience. One will inevitably end up here during the pintxos bar crawl but daytime explorations are very much worth it. There's something about historic buildings and narrow walkways that never gets boring.
The San Telmo Museum is the town's main art museum and houses a large collection of historical art dating from the 15th to 19th centuries as well as an impressive collection of Basque modern art. I was particularly impressed by the works of postimpressionist Argentinian painter, Antonio Ortiz Echague, on his handling of light and his rendering technique, which reminded me of the great Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Joaquín Sorolla.
- The Aquarium is a good way to pass time on a slow afternoon especially if it's raining and the beach isn't looking like a viable option.
- Monte Igueldo is one of the two large mountains overlooking the coastal town - the other one being Monte Ulia. Monte Igueldo especially allows for a dramatic vantage point of the town (photographers take note). One can also hike to the mountaintop but there's a funicular option for us lazies.