The longest stretch of time I spent traveling alone was in southern Spain. I was 21 at the time, and spoke no Spanish. I hopped from hostel to hostel, staying only 2 nights (max) at a time in each city. I drank many a glass of sangria, ate many a delicious tapas, and made friends with many a cute Australian.
When my friend Nathalie decided to have her bachelorette party in Ibiza, after getting over the initial shock of having to travel to Europe for a weekend, I knew that the trip would be an excellent excuse to test my solo travel prowess a little later in life, get inspired by Basque cuisine, and mentally recharge.
I definitely approached the trip with a different mindset now that I’m 27 and had zero interest in meeting 21-year-old Australians. But since I still speak no Spanish, I was lucky to find some foodie insiders to give me my first introduction to pintxos culture (the Basque version of tapas) and take the reins on the ordering so that I didn’t have to feel like a big dumb American weenie right off the plane.
If you’re heading to the Basque area, you should definitely consider doing a tour with San Sebastian Food. It’s one of the things I would have never invested in as a 21 year old, preferring perhaps to follow the New York Times pintxos list. But it really pays to have a local show you the ropes, and if you’re a food nerd like me, it’s great to have someone there to give you all the cultural background on what you’re eating, how the ingredients were produced, and why the dishes came to be – like, for instance, that the Gilda, a skewer with anchovies, olives, and hot peppers, was named after Rita Hayworth because she is similarly tall and spicy.
After 18 hours of travel, including one sleepless red eye, I arrived in San Sebastian mid-afternoon. At 6pm I met up with my tour guide Eli and a mix of other folks from around the world at the San Sebastian Food headquarters. From there we zigzagged through the old quarter to 7 different pintxos restaurants. Each spot had a different specialty, which was usually written on a chalkboard behind the bar. The cold dishes were laid out on the counter, but you really need to know what each place is known for if you want to order right.
Pintxos eating is rooted in many traditions, and I was so lucky to have Eli explain them to me. First, you’re meant to throw your napkins on the ground. This also means that the dirtier the pintxos bar, the better it is. In the case of La Mejillonera, where the specialty is mussels of all kinds, the empty shells are even discarded on the floor (think peanut shells in a New England ale house). The second most important thing about Basque culture is that everyone respects the honor system. You order drinks and bites as you go. When you’re ready to leave, you tell the bartender what you had and pay. It was very jarring for this New Yorker not to pull out a credit card after each glass of Rioja. But it’s a superior experience for the diner, so long as no one takes advantage.
Basque cooking is extremely seasonal and ingredient-based, and after about 3 stops, I started to catch onto what some of those specialties were. Txepetxa served anchovies every which way, but they were pretty ubiquitous no matter where we went, as were other seafood specialties like hake (merluza), monkfish (rape), baby squid (chipiron), and salt cod (bacalao). Some ingredients that are only in season for a few weeks come at a premium, and it’s not unusual to pay 20 euros for a plate of mushrooms, as we did at Gambara.
One of the best and most surprising dishes I ate was a briny white anchovy served over blueberry jam on a piece of baguette. Yes, I ate the bread and suffered for it. I spent the rest of my time in San Sebastian returning to a lot of my favorite spots. The pintxos I ate the most of was the solomio at Gandarias. It was just the juiciest, most perfect piece of steak a girl could ask for. I was munching on one when I went over to a pair of Dutch fellows to introduce myself, and when they saw the juices running down my face, their reactions was: “well, that’s charming.” Needless to say, we were fast friends.
I could go on and on about San Sebastian, but I want to let you discover it for yourself. Below is a list of all my favorite pintxos spots and what to eat there. Most places I discovered through San Sebastian Food, and a few I went to throughout the week per their recommendations. I didn’t really eat at any restaurants except for my last day in town, when I went to Arzak. I’m going to do a full write-up on that experience. If you have the time and the budget for one of those special Michelin star meals, I’d highly recommend going.
Have you ever been to San Sebastian? Let me know your favorite pintxos in the comments! I’ll have recipes for a few of them coming up on the blog.
Again, since I’m not 21 years old anymore, I had a hard time deciding what type of venue I wanted to stay in. I felt too old for a hostel, but also worried about not being able to meet anyone in a hotel.
A pension is a great option that’s in between. It’s still funky, but offers you the privacy that a hostel dorm room just won’t give you. Since they’re mostly converted apartments in the old town, the bathrooms are for the most part in the hallway. Shared bathrooms were never really part of the hostel experience that bothered me. Except for one time in Madrid when the door to our ensuite bathroom was just a shower curtain. Ask me to tell you sometime about how that experience played out. I rarely saw anyone else en route to the bathroom. Since the pensions are small, you’re really only sharing the bathroom with a handful of other people, and they are kept pretty clean after each use by the staff.
Calle Narrika Kalea 21. First floor
I stayed in two different ones throughout my trip, but this one was the superior experience. The rooms have little character, but they’re clean and perfectly located.
Hotel Londres y de Inglaterra
Calle de Zubieta, 2
If my food budget wasn’t twice my lodging budget, I would have stayed here. It’s right on the main beach, playa della concha, and just a short walk from the old city, where all the pintxos restaurants are.
If I had it to do over, I would have stayed in an apartment for half of my stay. All I wanted to do was buy some fresh fish from the market and cook it. But that’s just not an option when you’re staying a pension. A couple I met on the pintxos tour said they were having a great experience in a room of an AirBnB apartment.
San Sebastian Food
I highly recommend starting your trip with a pintxos tour or cooking class (more on the class here). If you have a nice sized budget, you also might consider having the company act as your travel agent and book your hotel and restaurant reservations. Everyone who works there is beyond professional and will make you feel like part of their family for the week. That’s me above with COO Susan Creamer and the uber talented creative director Aiala Hernando.
Get the tasting menu and put yourself in Elena and Juan Mari’s hands. It isn’t cheap, but the restaurant is so representative of the Basque region and how new and old world food culture meets. Though Arzak has maintained three Michelin stars, it still feels like a family-run restaurant, which it’s been for three generations.
Calle de Fermín Calbetón 4
This is the place to go for seafood a la plancha. We had wonderful prawn skewers (brocheta de gambas), grilled squid (chipiron a la plancha), and pimientos di padron. They all pair great with Txakoli, the young white wine of the region that was described to me as a “breakfast wine.”
Calle Pescaderia 5
If the fish-shaped menu on the wall is any indication, this place is all anchovies, all the time. Try the Gilda, the first pintxos invented in San Sebastian and named for Rita Hayworth because she is tall and spicy. This is also where I had the anchovy toast with blueberry jam. Have some sidra with the meal.
Calle Pescaderia 10 (right across from Txepetxa)
This is one of the modernist pintxos bars that incorporates some of the molecular gastronomy that the region is known for. The bar is full of interesting and beautiful creations. Go to town!
Fermin Calbeton 12
We ate a ton here, and it’s one of the places that I returned to. Idiazabal and Hongos (sheep milk cheese and wild mushroom) Risotto was amazing. But glutards be warned: “risotto” in San Sebastian is made with orzo, not rice. The Veal Cheeks here are melt in your mouth amazing, as is the pulpo (octopus). Though less traditional in the north, they also served up a great Salmorejo – a creamy-style gazpacho that was my go-to when traveling in Andalucia.
Calle 31 de Agosto
Don’t miss the solomio (pictured). And do a little surf and turf by pairing it with the shrimp and chorizo brocheta. We drank an amazing red wine here: Ribera del Duero (Krel).
Calle San Jeronimo 21
This is the place for seasonal specialties like the mushroom plate. It’s expensive, but worth it. You’ll never taste anything so pure and umami-laden. Wash it all down with a glass of Navarra rose.
Calle Agosto, 31
I would have never guessed I’d be eating cheesecake in San Sebastian. But you’d be a fool to not grab a slice at La Vina. It’s very light and airy – a cross between a custard and a cheesecake. The tortilla ain’t half bad either if you want to return for lunch.
Calle del Puerto 15
This place is packed with locals. Don’t be shy and elbow your way to the counter. I had every type of mussels and they were all delicious. Try the mejillones picantes, Patatas Bravas, and Calamares.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
This place was on the NY Times list and also makes a mean veal cheek. The bacalao and bonito were also delicious. Like Borda Berri you can’t really go wrong with whatever is on the chalkboard. So get adventurous.
Everything is fairly close by bus, so I’d recommend scooting up to the French Basque country for a few nights. It’s amazing how much changes when you cross the border 20 minutes North-East from San Sebastian. Biarritz is an amazingly chic French surfing down. But I made the happy mistake of accidentally booking my hotel in Bayonne, the capital of French Basque, and just a few miles away from Biarittz. It’s much less touristy and a beautiful little town. San Jean de Luz is another great beach town, though it’s a little on the touristy side.
If you’re an art buff, you can’t go to the region without visiting Bilbao. Just scoot down there for the afternoon, as the Guggenheim is really the only reason to go. I took a bus down at 2pm and returned to San Sebastian just in time for some 10pm pintxos.