You may have seen a snapshot of San Sebastian on the BBC’s Remarkable Places to Eat recently. As the city with one of the highest number of Michelin stars per square meter in the world, this city is kind of like Mecca for food lovers.
I visited last year for about 24 hours which was just enough time to squeeze in a Pintxos tour (which I wrote about here), a bit of sightseeing, a big hangover, and to fall in love with it. We returned this year with my brother and his wife – also massive food fans – and that love grew deeper.
Ironically, I still haven’t been to one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants that gave it its reputation. Yet still, I know deep down that this city will probably be the love affair of my life. As with all the best romances, there’s always more to discover. Remarkable Places to Eat gave you a snapshot – it covered three places (all wonderful of course) but just three out of the hundreds, if not thousands that make San Sebastian so special.
It also showed you a lot of the amazing world of Michelin-starred cooking, but less of what I think is the real joy and what is making me plan a third visit. The accessible, down-to-earth, infinitely different bars and restaurants that may not have some kind of global recognition but are equally as special. And so I’ve put together a little list of some of the things that I’ve tried there.
If you want the ‘best’ restaurants, the most experimental places and the ones with the awards, there’s plenty out there on the internet to help you out. This guide is just a little list of things I did to give you a flavour of the abundance of food-based fun that can be had in this place. There’s far more – there always is. Long may the love affair continue.
Visit Bar Nestor for tortilla
This is one of the ones that’s on everyone’s list. I haven’t put it first because of that, but because despite going to San Sebastian twice, it’s STILL on my list. If you watched Remarkable Places to Eat you’ll have seen it on there, but for those who didn’t, this place is world-famous for one simple dish. Tortilla. Nestor makes two a day and that’s it. You turn up early, put your name down on his list for a slice and go back at 1 to get it. One slice per person, that’s the rules.
The first time we went to San Sebastian we just didn’t have time to hang around for a second day. The second time I turned up to queue to find a sign saying Nestor had gone on his holidays, pretty much exactly over the period of time we were there. I feel perhaps I’m cursed, or instead that this will be the best goddamn tortilla I’ve ever had by the time I’ve waited another year to get some.
I’m sure it’ll happen one day – and until then I keep re-reading other people’s descriptions of this wonderful place (try Meat & One Veg, he has feasted on this magical tortilla).
Go on a Pintxos tour in the Old Town
You don’t need to do a tour to enjoy Pintxos in San Sebastian. We did on our first trip because we had limited time and a Rottweiler in tow so I was a bit concerned we might miss out. Incidentally, San Sebastian is wonderfully dog-friendly so it would have been fine.
Nevertheless, I’m still glad we got involved in Mimo’s tour. I wrote in detail about it here but in essence, it means you hear the history behind some of the places and food in San Sebastian, get to try a range of Pintxos and a taste of the wonderful selection of wines on offer.
If you don’t fancy a tour, it’s all fairly simple. Wander around the Old Town, see something you like. Order it. Drink wine with it. Move on to the next… Don’t forget, while it’s lovely to stand outside in the hustle and bustle, if it all gets a bit much plenty of places have seating inside where you can rest your weary feet and enjoy some of the cooked-to-order hot pintxos and bigger dishes.
Eat fresh fish down by the harbour
It’s easy to get swept up in the Old Town and all it’s delights, but if you venture down to the harbour you’ll find a line of restaurants serving up all things fish. On our first visit this was actually the first area we came too because we were camping (in a car park…) round the corner. I will forever remember eating crispy chipirones with the most garlicky aioli and my first taste of Tzakoli, their local wine.
We went back on our last trip and feasted on all things fish, from sardines cooked with a tonne of garlic to octopus salad and baked crab. It’s a different experience to the bars of the Old Town but well worth trying.
Have an ice-cream at Casa Arnoldo
How we managed to squeeze in an ice-cream after the fishy feast mentioned above, I have no idea, but manage we did. The Arnoldo family came to San Sebastian from northern Italy, arriving in 1935 when they started their gelateria.
Apparently to this day it’s still all handmade and is everything you dream of in a gelato and more. Especially Jamie, who could order one the size of his head and the lady serving us didn’t even bat an eyelid. Team your ice-cream with a quick espresso and it’ll give you the boost you need for more exploring.
Sip Sangria by the beach
The great thing about San Sebastian is while it’s a perfect city break, it also has not one – but two – beaches. So you can easily spend a few hours soaking up some sun or taking a dip if, like us, you find yourself visiting in 30-degree heat.
La Concha beach lies pretty much in front of the Old Town and if you walk along a bit you’ll find a few bars and restaurants with terraces overlooking the bay. The perfect place to enjoy a gin, a beer, or for me a sweet, far-too-easy-to-drink jug of Sangria.
Check out the produce
One of the best things about cities in France and Spain is their markets. San Sebastian is no exception. The food market is underground and well worth a visit. From jamon hanging from the ceiling to huge tanks of crab and lobster and stacks of fish and shellfish – some of which I’ve never seen before (Percebes I’m looking at you) and fresh fruit and veg. Oh, and let’s not forget the salt cod, spices and cheese.
Even if you don’t make it to the market, there are plenty of little shops littered between the bars in the Old Town selling produce, as well as the small veg shops that lure you towards them with sweet, squishy tomatoes the size of your head and uncooked padron peppers just waiting to be transformed into the dish nobody can resist.
Have a drink in the Plaza de Constitucion
If you get lost in the Old Town, you’ll undoubtedly end up stumbling back into the Plaza de Constitucion. I speak from experience. And from watching each member of my family do the same thing. This main square was originally where bullfights were held and you can still see the numbers of the windows for the apartments that look out on to it – the original boxes to watch the bullright.
They later built a new bullfighting arena and the square is now home to bars where you can take a break from the endless walking and enjoy a bit of people watching with a drink in hand. It’s busy, yes, but also somewhere with a bit more space and calm than the tiny streets of the Old Town, so a good place for a rest, recharge and regroup.
Try the cheesecake from La Vina
I’ve raved about this cheesecake extensively before – so much so to the point that I was worried when I returned it would be an awful disappointment. It wasn’t. It was everything I remembered.
We first visited La Vina as the last stop on our tour with Mimo. Famed as one of the best cheesecakes in the world, they dish out slice after slice to eager punters, along with a glass of sweet, syrupy Pedro Ximenez that you pour over your slice for an added delight.
We returned with my brother, joining the clamouring throng to get our hands on a slice each. Delving into a slab of this baked cheesecake whilst balancing my sherry precariously in hand remains one of my favourite food moments of all time. I can’t really describe why, but it does. And it remains on the list to do again, again and again, every time we visit San Sebastian.
Find some Basque street food
Okay, we actually had these in Biarritz, but I’ve done some research and apparently if you look hard enough you can find Talos in San Sebastian. They’re basically corn tortillas that are then used to encase various fillings – traditionally txistorra, a Basque sausage that’s then fried, but also cheese, bacon, more cheese. You get the picture.
Apparently you can find talos at festivals and events, so if you’re in San Sebastian for one of these and fancy a change from some of the more gourmet options, go and see if you can get your hands on one.
Eat the octopus at Atari
I haven’t included a list of favourite dishes or favourite pintxos places (though if you want some recommendations check out my piece from our Mimo tour) but this one really did stand out.
Atari is one of the bars but just happens to occupy a rather splendid location right in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria, as well as boasting a bit more outdoor seating than many of the other bars which makes it the perfect place to sit and enjoy some fabulous food and drink.
We visited on our last trip and even ended the night there diving into Atari’s extensive gin selection, but this time we stuck to one dish – grilled octopus. Served with slow-roasted onions and a smoky pimenton-sauce. The dish of the trip for all of us and the kind of dish you have little dreams about for years to come. If you’re an octopus fan, you have to try it.
Eat late-night churros and chocolate sauce
My brother loves food and is far better at cooking it than me, whipping up everything from Cacio e Pepe to Chinese feasts with an attention to, and passion for, quality, flavour and presentation. He is, however, also human, so when he’s had a few beers he likes simple pleasures just like the rest of us.
And so, after a day sampling delights like the octopus from Atari you see above, he demanded churros. Crispy, fried batter drenched in sugar that we could scoff as the ending to our day of consumption. We found some in a cafeteria-style place in the Old Town and found ourselves huddled round the melamine table scrapping for these sweet delights and then battling over who could dip theirs first in the cup of chocolate sauce they were served with.
Forget Michelin-starred desserts covered in foams and smears and dusts. Sometimes it’s all about fried batter and chocolate sauce.
Breakfast with the cool kids at Sakona Coffee Roasters
If you google where is best to have breakfast in San Sebastian, Sakona Coffee Roasters will undoubtedly come up. It’s also easy to spot by the queue out of the door. It’s hipster as hell, with avo smash and something they call 30-degree eggs served with ham or salmon and the obligatory hollandaise.
The coffee is great. The place itself possibly a bit too similar to stuff you can get in the UK for my liking, but if you’re after a taste of home and a quality breakfast that feels familiar and is tasty and perfectly Instagramm-able, this is probably your place.
Drink gin in the new town
A trip to the Old Town in San Sebastian is an assault on your senses. It’s wonderful but it’s also loud, busy, hot and a bit cramped. We were staying across the river in the newer part of the city and discovered that that side actually has plenty to offer too. The restaurants are that bit quieter, possibly more a destination of choice for locals, and everything just seems a bit calmer.
Tucked away round a corner is Gintoneria, a bar doing a huge array of gins as well as seriously good cocktails. Sitting here for a night cap convinced me that my third trip to San Sebastian has to involve a whole evening in this area of town, seeing the side of the city that is probably so often missed.
There you have it. Just a few foodie things you can try if you’re planning a trip to San Sebastian. As I say, there’s so much to do you simply won’t have time on one trip to get it all in – especially if you’re choosing to dine at restaurants – Michelin-starred or other local delights – too. And hey, if like me you fall deeply and uncompromisingly in love with this marvellous place, you know you’ll always go back.
Everything in this post was paid for in full.