From royal health resort town to royal foodie heaven, a visit to northern Spain’s coastal city of San Sebastián feeds both body and soul.
POSTED BY PINKY
Thanks to Queen Isabel II, who in 1845 came to San Sebastián after her doctors prescribed salt water baths to treat her skin ailment. This once-small fishing village eventually transformed into a fashionable playground for Spain’s 19th century aristocracy. And as we all know, wherever the rich and famous go, the rest of the world follow.
Fast forward to a century and a half later, and this tiny, quiet city in the Basque region of Spain exploded onto the global culinary scene as a major food mecca. This time, thanks to the talented and creative chefs responsible for putting it on the map, specially within the last two decades.
San Sebastián – or Donostia in Basque – hosts plenty of visitors every year and has become more accessible to us in many ways, yet it’s managed to retain a certain air of gentility reminiscent of its upper-class past.
Even when standing outside a bar during txikiteo or packed like sardines inside one competing with everyone else in claiming your pintxos, I couldn’t help but sense one thing: San Sebastián is one classy town.
Old Town Donostia
San Sebastián itself covers all of roughly 60 square kilometres, and its parte vieja is the heart of the city.
Composed of narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants, the old town’s where most of the fun happens.
We went in autumn, and it turned out to be slightly rainy during the week of our September visit. It didn’t rain all day but it did pour pretty heavily one particular morning. So best to bring an umbrella.
Nevertheless, we managed to take several leisurely strolls along the elegant Promenade overlooking the Playa de la Concha and still got to walk all over the city.
Michelin Star Status
Arzak. Kokotxa. Akelaŕe. Martin Berasategui. Mugaritz. Zuberoa. Alameda. Mirador de Ulia.
Just some of the best Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastián. And boy, does this city take its food seriously. If Lyon has the highest concentration of restaurants per capita in France (read our post on Lyon here), San Sebastián has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere. This is where even famous chefs all over the world eat to find inspiration.
But for now, I’ll stick to the kind of eating that’s much more accessible but no less as exciting and worthy of your attention whenever in Donostia.
The ritual of the Txikiteo, or pub crawl, is much like going out for tapas in other parts of Spain. And the Basque version of tapas is called pintxos, taken from the word pinchar, meaning to stab or skewer. But there are major differences between the two.
- A serving of Tapas is small but can be shared by two or more people. Pintxos, on the other hand, are more for one person. They are served primarily on top of bread like bigger canapés, with all the components held together by a toothpick.
- Tapas are typically simple dishes. Pintxos are more elaborately prepared or a combination of more carefully arranged ingredients.
How to do the Txikiteo
When you enter a bar in San Sebastián, you will most likely be faced with a wide, and at times, overwhelming array of pintxos laid out on the bar counter. Then you point out or ask for the piece you want – or pick it up yourself.
The best thing to do is to observe what the other customers are doing, then follow their lead.
Aside from the obvious, the toothpicks used in pintxos serve another purpose. They actually help determine how much you’re supposed to pay. Much like in a Japanese sushi bar where you get billed by the number of plates you’ve wiped out, here you’re billed by the number of toothpicks you present. Sometimes different rates are assigned to each kind or size of toothpick.
Some modern bars no longer use toothpicks, however, and pintxos are served upon order instead of having them spread out on top of the counter. So keep this in mind if you prefer a more traditional experience.
And be prepared to stand. The idea of a txikiteo is to grab a couple of pintxos with one drink (like a local white wine called txakoli), pay, then move on to the next bar. So there’s really no need for seating here. And I can’t stress enough the importance of wearing sensible shoes (but fashionable ones, please – this is Europe, after all).
Where We Ate
How to choose which bars to try? Traditionally, you judge how good a place is based on how full it is or how much paper napkins are scattered on the floor.
New bars have cropped up over the years since our visit and naturally, the list of the best bars in San Sebastián keeps on changing every year. However, it should be safe to try out the ones that have been there longer yet still are able to please their customers.
There’s Ganbara, La Cuchara de San Telmo, Gandarias, and La Cepa. All in the parte vieja.
Where to Stay
In recent years, more and more accommodations have mushroomed all over the city. But if doing the txikiteo is your main reason for coming here, it’s best to stay as close as possible to the parte vieja. Perhaps not within the old town itself if you’re a light sleeper, though, as the sound from all the fun happening in the streets below could very well travel up into the rooms.
What Makes San Sebastián Unforgettable?
I think we can all agree that creating memories is always a goal whenever we travel. And in this aspect, San Sebastián absolutely delivers.
For me, it began the moment I first laid eyes on the city. Our overnight sleeper train had arrived before the break of dawn. And as we stepped out of the station to begin our trek towards the hotel, we were suddenly greeted by this warm golden glow emanating from the most elegant Art Nouveau street lights I had ever seen. Dotting the city’s main thoroughfares, their brilliance reflecting on the waters and on San Sebastián’s turn-of-the-century buildings, it was like walking into a dream.
An added bonus about arriving before sunrise: we had the city all to ourselves.
Another occasion was when my husband and I were walking along the plaza in front of the City Hall one particularly sunny yet cool morning. We came across a newly-wedded couple and their families posing for wedding photos. The setting was so lovely and, with the couple looking extremely happy, I remember thinking to myself, what a great way to start a new life together.
But perhaps San Sebastián’s most lasting impression on me was something that we had witnessed over and over again during our late-evening walks. Several generations all coming together in the main square. Children, parents, grandparents. Playing, talking, just plain being present for one another.
For the people of San Sebastián, family and community seemed to be a natural way of life. And seeing all these, specially in this age of technology and social media, it certainly looks like San Sebastián can teach the rest of the world a thing or two.
Yes, there’s hope for us yet!
Why not use San Sebastián as a base in the Basque Country? Bilbao is a mere 1-1/2 hour trip from San Sebastián while Pamplona (read about my trip there during Sanfermines) is less than 2 hours away, both easily by bus.
Best Time to Go: June and September