If you love trying different things, tapas is the most fun meal on earth and there’s no better place to indulge than San Sebastián, Spain. The pintxos bars in this Basque coastal city are the best in the world and there are so many good ones close together in Old Town, you can easily make an entire day, or night of it. While many serve similar things almost each one has a specialty, standout dish. Here are the best bars and what to order at each one. Remember, don’t go too big at any one spot. This is a marathon not a sprint.
Pimientos de Gernika and Jamon Iberico de Bellota
La Cepa is an atmospheric old bar hung with hams and bullfighting paraphernalia. The best things here are simple, but unforgettable: paper-thin Iberico ham, the prized Spanish black pig fed an acorn rich diet, that melts on the tongue and fried pimientos de Gernika or green peppers from the region sprinkled with sea salt. The plates really compliment each other: the savory sweetness of the meat, balanced by the tang and earthy spice of the peppers. This is a great way to wet your palate for more.
31 de Agosto Kalea, 7
A few doors down at Gandarias they serve this tapas called the Duo. I’m not sure it’s a very traditional dish, I didn’t see it served at any of the other bars, but it certainly is delicious. Bacon comes wrapped around a hunk of goat cheese. It’s cooked until crispy and served on a piece of toast. As you can imagine, it’s crunchy, creamy, salty and very satisfying.
31 de Agosto Kalea, 23
Xiperones (squid) with Arroz
The inky rice at Atari Gastroteka is cooked just right, it’s still got a bit of bite, and the pieces of squid are chewy but not too tough. The foie gras here is also quite popular.
Calle Mayor 18
I have two favorite places in San Sebastián for this simple Spanish omelette. Bar Martinez serves a very traditional take, an airy version made with eggs and potatoes and lightly fried in oil. In the Gros neighborhood by Zurriola surfing beach La Guinda, a cute cafe and bakery where waitstaff wear sailor shirts, serves a slightly more hearty, sweet version with the addition of perfectly caramelized onions. When it comes to the table it’s still the slightest bit runny inside, just how I like it.
Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 13
Zabaleta Kalea, 55
Oh the plate of mixed mushrooms at Ganbara is one to leave room for. A variety of plump local mushrooms are sautéed in oil and cooked down and then served with a bright yellow egg yolk. It’s a rich, earthy and delicious dish.
San Jeronimo Kalea, 19
Seared Steak and Red Peppers
Everything is good at the La Cuchara de San Telmo and while this is a tapas bar, the presentation and level of cooking is on par with many of the region’s best restaurants. You’ll want to try a number of things, red tuna in a sweet broth, tender and slightly charred octopus and of course the steak with red peppers. Chefs leave a little bit of fat on each piece giving it loads of flavor. The beef is cooked medium rare and sprinkled with the right amount of crunchy sea salt. Roasted peppers on the side give a hint of sweetness. I dare you not to order this twice.
Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28
Gambas al Ajillo
The basement level of Beti Jai is one of San Sebastian’s finest seafood restaurants but if you eat tapas style upstairs you can dine for half the price. Seafood really is the star here so try the anchovies, tuna and the gambas al ajillo or garlic shrimp. Here you get a healthy portion of sweet shrimp cooked in garlic oil and sprinkled with chives.
Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 22
Other amazing restaurants and sites near San Sebastián:
Many food writers think this family owned restaurant in the town of Getaria serves the best seafood anywhere. Partial to the Pacific Northwest where I grew up, I’m not ready to go that far, but I do think it’s worth driving 25 minutes west of San Sebastián for. The freshest catches of the day are cooked outside on a wood-fired grill. One of the restaurant’s specialities is kokotxas, the throat of the hake cooked three ways. It’s an oily, but flavorful delicacy and the whole grilled turbot dressed with olive oil and salt is so good you’ll suck the bones dry.
Herrerieta Kalea, 2
I think one of the top three steaks I’ve eaten was at this tiny restaurant in Tolosa about 30 minutes from San Sebastián. The entry way looks like a storage room, but then you’re led around the corner to the tiny dining room decorated with simple wood furnishings, dusty bottles of Rioja and an ancient charcoal grill. The bone-in rib steaks are grilled with a heaping pile of salt on top that draws out the juice and the flavor. The other dishes on the small menu–Little Gem lettuce hearts with olive oil and salt and blistered piquillo peppers are simple and delicious.
Calle de Sta Klara, 6
This small church atop a rocky island attached to the mainland by a stone bridge is one of the most photogenic places in the world. The walk down from the parking lot and up to the church makes for a nice hike and is a great activity to mix in between all the amazing meals you’re enjoying.