Well-placed on the coast just across the French border, and about an hour from Bilbao, San Sebastian has been lauded across time by authors such as Victor Hugo and Ernest Hemingway for its elegance, beauty, and more recently, its excellent gastronomy. Sitting on La Concha (the Seashell) Bay, encircled by green hills and a sparkling blue sea, San Sebastian evokes old-time glamor. With wide promenades along sandy beaches, pretty architecture and a quaint old port, guests often feel they have stepped back in time. But don’t let that fool you.
As one of the rising stars of haute-cuisine, San Sebastian and the surrounding area boasts the greatest concentration of Michelin recommended and starred restaurants in the world. The lively nightlife and hundreds of pintxo (Basque tapas) bars give an endless selection to the most voracious of foodies. Combined with the traditional Basque cider houses, the wealth of options make the task of choosing the best places to go overwhelming. We’ve selected and highlighted a few of our favorite places from among the pintxo bars, the traditional Basque cider houses and finally, the Michelin starred haute cuisine of the area in and around San Sebastian. We have selected three ways to best enjoy the restaurants and bars in San Sebastian and is world famous cuisine from every angle.
San Sebastian and its best pintxo bars
In the winding, narrow pedestrian streets of the old town, there are rows upon rows of pintxo bars serving up piles of extraordinary culinary delights of all shapes and sizes. Choose from what you see in front of you, or learn to order from the kitchen, which is how the locals do it. Either way, the quality is always good – but where are the best? Head to Ganbara on San Jeronimo Kalea, considered to be the best pintxos place in town, this third generation family endeavor combines the deeply rooted Basque traditions with world class quality.
Their in-house fresh baked mini-croissants stuffed with folds of top-prized jamon iberico simply melts on your tongue. Or try their hongos (a type of wild mushroom) and their house symbol, sautéed with rich egg yolk and prawns. With a selection of fresh fish, grilled foie or steak, and many savory vegetable dishes, it is impossible to go wrong. Pair all this with a selection of top local wines, and you will feel like you have eaten a meal fit for royalty, all while standing at a bar, enjoying the buzzing atmosphere.
One of the most famous places in San Sebastian, and for good reason, is Bar Txepetxa on Calle Pescaderia, which produces an array of stunning anchovy pintxos. In fact, this place is so well-known that it has a wall of photos of all the famous people who have visited, including Glen Close, Ian McKellen and Ethan Hawke. But the real stars are, of course, the anchovies. Arranged in every manner possible, each more mouth-watering than the next, their creations are at once magically simple and yet surprisingly diverse. All of these go famously well with the local txakoli, the sweet lightly sparkling white wine, which fizzes brilliantly in your mouth after a bite of salty goodness.
Mentioned in every foodie guide book worth reading, including Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon), this unassuming little bar with a charming old-time character and relaxed atmosphere is welcoming and fun. In San Sebastian and in the Basque country in general, quality does not equal pretentiousness. The quality lies in their love of food and socializing. This hospitality is still felt in the warmth of the culture and the pride in their products.
San Sebastian and its best Basque Cider Houses
Kokotxo, located in San Sebastian’s old town near the seaport, is the perfect spot to dine at another amazing Michelin restaurant. There is nothing like an authentic cider house (sidrerías in Spanish) experience anywhere else in the world. Often cavernous, with long wooden tables and a real sense of communal eating and enjoyment, you will share the dishes and drinks with your friends but also feel a wider sense of companionship with the rest of the diners. Petritegi has more than 700 seats spread over three rooms and yet you feel immediately welcome and part of a larger party. Serving up woodfire grilled chuleton, a cut of tender bone-in rib-eye steak that explodes with flavor, traditional cod omelets, fried cod and peppers and for desert, quince jelly and a hard cheese with walnuts you crack yourself, the menu is generally set.
The star of the show is of course, the cider. The best cider comes out of huge barrels that sit in long rows around the restaurant . You get up with your glass and fill it yourself – it’s all you can drink. Each barrel will be different, so you are meant to try them all. The cider spouts out of the barrel in a long stream and you must catch the stream a couple feet out, in your tilted glass. The impact aerates the cider, making it fizzy, and you only fill it about an inch or two, so you can be sure to drink it before the fizz disappears.
If you want to venture a bit further afield into the countryside, there is a wonderful family cider house, Martitxonea, located in the heart of the Basque Country. What makes this place special is that it is in the family home, at a farm in a small, charming village called Aldatz. You enter the restaurant area by walking into the 17th century stone building, with heavy wooden beams and low ceilings and sit at the long wood tables. The restaurant is run by the family and you are waited on by the family members including their kids. The atmosphere is very warm, intimate and communal. The fun part of this place is when they yell ‘txotx!’ everyone gets up with their glasses and walk together en masse out of the dining room into the yard and across to the various barns where the cider barrels are kept.
Here, they give a brief presentation (in Spanish) of the cider, the provenance of the apples used, and other aspects of taste and body. Then people take turns tasting the cider and discussing it before returning to their tables to continue eating. This can happen quite a few times over one long meal. Children end up in the yard all playing together and if, like us, you are there when it snowed, you may end up in a massive after-lunch snowball fight with other willing guests. This type of experience is seriously one-of-a kind.
San Sebastian’s world famous Michelin Starred Restaurants
Akelarre Restaurant in San Sebastian
Akelarre is Pedro Subijana’s life and passion. Arriving at Akelarre in 1975, Subijana is the champion of the avant-garde gastronomic wave that put, and is still putting, the Basque Country on the map of international gastronomy. By 2007 Subijana had achieved his three stars in recognition of great technical and personal expertise. He achieved his first star after only three years of being a chef, in 1978. Akelarre is on Monte Igueldo with the best views imaginable, three miles west of the center of San Sebastian, about 15 minutes by taxi. Sitting on the Bay of Biscay, the view is beautiful all day long and in all weather, but it is particularly stunning at sunset. Expect to savor some of his great classics as well as his latest creations. At lunch or dinner in this restaurant, you can enjoy dishes like txangurro in salad, red chard, spinach and lettuce from Igeldo, and one of their specialities, spiced beef pojarski.
Kokotxo Restaurant in San Sebastian
If you would like to sit down and try a Michelin starred restaurant, Kokotxo, located in San Sebastian’s old town near the seaport, is the perfect spot. What makes the culture of the Basque haute cuisine so different, and so amazing? According to Kokotxo’s chef Dani Lopez, it goes back to the Basque culture itself and its long culinary history. The Basque chefs support each other and share among themselves, mentoring younger chefs rather than selfishly competing with each other and guarding culinary secrets, they come from a culture that believes in sharing in the delight of cooking and preparing the very best food you can. At Kokotxo, experience fine dining and this incredible cultural gift in one. There are two menus available: a market menu with 9 courses and a tasting menu of 14 courses for the whole table. The menu includes traditional themes such as pigeon on its stew or broad beans and seasonal shellfish, and some exciting new tastes like the stingray and ramen egg.
The list of excellence goes on in and around San Sebastian. Exploring the old town and seaport area alone can take a day or two, but there is even more throughout the rest of the city and the surrounding areas. There are many great ways to get around the Basque Country. Cycling along the Basque coast, or from the Basque mountains on the Navarra to the Basque Coast Tour provides incredible scenery and luxury accommodation with plenty of time to stop and taste the wonders.
The area also boasts amazing coastal hikes and even the chance to hike on the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago. This tour Basque Coast Hiking Tour gives you the chance to sail into San Sebastian in style on an antique sailboat, docking in the Concha harbor for swimming and sunbathing before a night of pintxos, wine and nightlife. We also have tours, like A Feast for the Senses, with a chance to learn from the best chefs at a private show cooking and dinner experience at a local gastronomic society, so you can take home some of the skills to create the food you enjoyed so much. Regardless of your style of travel, whether meandering and luxuriating or cycling and high activity, or a good mix of both, the one thing that will blow everyone away is the unending brilliance of the local cuisine couched in warm hospitality, in all its forms.
If you are looking for a culinary tour that includes Michelin Star restaurants, Northern Spain Travel includes first rate restaurants