On our Costa Brava trip we had Basque style tapas – called pintxos – many times in Barcelona and Girona so of course we HAD to go to San Sebastián (Donostia in the Basque language). San Sebastián is renown as the culinary capital of the world and right in the heart of Basque country. To get there we started in Portugal, rented a car and had a fantastic 18 days in beautiful, green, northwest Spain, including a week in San Sebastián – a stunning city and great base for day trips. And of course, incredible FOOD!
Travel: Drive from Valladolid to San Sebastián – 3.5 hours.
- Pintxos, Pintxos, Pintxos!
- The lively Parte Vieja (Old Town) at night
- Day trip to the Guggenheim in Bilbao
- Very expensive parking in San Sebastian – solved after the first 42 hours and $100 later
Donostia / San Sebastián
★The Best Location-High Speed WIFI, 7 nights in a superb apartment right in the middle of the best pintxos action – Perfect host, apartment and location. (Airbnb)
We met Luis at 5:00 at the apartment and we got more than just the keys – we had terrific concierge service! Then out the door for the first night of pintxos Donostia style. The locals don’t stay in one place for pintxos, they have a bite and a drink and move on to the next place. And there are plenty of next places in San Sebastian.
Tip: Parking in San Sebastian – 42 hours parking at Parking Okendo-Boulevard cost €74.10 – we expected €25/day, which would have been bad enough – but €74 for less than 2 days? That was crazy. We found Parking Txofre across the bridge in the Gros district, an easy 20 minute walk from the apartment for a prepaid cost of €10/day, in and out.
Pintxos, Pintxos, Pintxos
With hundreds of pintxos bars outside our door, we were armed with a couple of lists of specialties to sample – a list of favorites from Luis and a list from a travel article.
One of the outstanding items every time we had it was Solomillo – Sirloin steak pintxo. You have to try it to believe how good it is. Other favorites were Foie Plancha (grilled Foie) and Carrilleras (beef cheeks). Drinks to try are the local Txakoli (CHOKO-li) wine anywhere, a white wine with a bit of sparkle, and a gin and tonic at Atari Gastroteka.
The fun part of having a Pintxos Route is trying the specialties each place is known for. We sampled like the locals with a few pintxo bars a night and of all the places we tried, we kept going back to these two:
- Atari Gastroteka, Calle 31 de Agosto, 44
- Solomillo Teriyaki – Tenderloin steak with teriyaki sauce and pumpkin puree with ginger
- Foie Plancha – Grilled foie gras with white chocolate cream and sweetcorn
- Carrilleras – Slow cooked beef cheeks in red wine sauce with mashed potatoes
- The best Gin and Tonic, with a few juniper berries in it
- La Cuchara de San Telmo, Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
- Carrilleras – Beef cheeks
- Fois de Plancha
- Cochinillo – Suckling pig pintxos
- Pulpo – Octopus
- Try the local Txakoli (sparkly white wine) – a wine found only in this region
San Sebastian is dangerous – the food is TOO GOOD! We went to Atari Gastroteka three times, La Cuchara de San Telmo twice, and all of these other places once. We didn’t get to some of places on our list – like Nestor for T-bone steak and Paco Bueno for Gambas. A week flew by.
- La Vina, Calle 31 de Agosto, 3
- Deep fried anchovies
- Bar Martinez, Calle 31 de Agosto, 9
- Deep fried artichoke stuffed with Jamon
- Dakara, Calle 31 de Agosto, 27
- Scallops in the half shell
- La Cepa, Calle 31 de Agosto, 7
- Typical Basque tavern
- Taberna Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 23
- Traditional pintxos
- Bar Zeruko, Calle Pescaderia, 10
- Modern pintxos
- Lobster toast, local Txakoli wine
- Txepetxa, Calle Pescaderia, 5
- Specializing in Anchovy pintxos
- Anchoa a la jardinera
- Borda Berri, Calle Fermin Calbeton, 12
- Carrillera de Ternera – Beef cheeks
- Tomate relleno de mousse de atun
- Goiz Argi, Calle Fermin Calbeton, 4
- Brocheta de Gambas – Grilled shrimp
- Mushrooms wrapped in bacon
- Ganbara, Calle San Jeronimo, 19
- Setas plancha – grilled mushrooms
- Bar Astelena, Calle Inigo, 1
- Carrillera – Beef cheeks
- La Cueva, Plaza de la Trinidad
- Champinones (mushrooms) and piperrak (green paprika)
- Bar Pinudi, Calle Narrica, 27
- Specializing in Pintxos de Foie
- The “Jimmy” – Solomillo AND Foie Plancha
- Bar Sport, Calle Fermin Calbeton, 10
- Chipirones – Calamari
- Fois de Plancha
Working off the Pintxos
More than any other city I’ve been to in Spain, people in San Sebastián were exercising – lots of runners, bikers, and surfers – staying in shape for all that great food! We took it a bit slower with a walk around the bay over to the Wind Comb sculptures, and a walk up Mount Urgull for the views.
Day trip to Bilbao – The Guggenheim and the Fine Arts Museum
The Guggenheim building is a work of art. We enjoyed the immense Ernesto Neto installations, don’t care for Yoko Ono so “meh” on that, and were disappointed that the permanent collection room had nothing by Picasso, Kandinsky or Braque. The ground floor steel sculptures The Matter of Time are designed to be walked through and around and, yes, they DO make you dizzy.
Tip: You can take the audioguide outside to the bridge to listen to the description of the building. Didn’t know about that.
A couple of blocks from the Guggenheim is the terrific Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilboa (Fine Arts Museum). Makes a nice day.
Day trip to France
Pretty day for a drive to France, skipping up the coast with stops at some pretty beach towns – Hondarribia on the French border, then Saint-Jean-de-Luz where we had to immediately have a real French croissant – they really are the best in France. Finally big Biarritz for a walk above the Old Port and views.
Tip: Off season in Hondarribia you can park near the port for free, for parking closer to town you need coins to get your parking sticker from a machine.
Tip: Make sure you have some coins! On the way back to San Sebastian we took the speedy toll road, the toll booths in France were automated only, no toll staff. The tolls were only €1.20 each.
Day trip west along the Basque Coast
The coast drive is beautiful, first stop Getaria for a look and some lunch (Pintxos of course!). Then we kept going, stopping at all the opportunities and finally ending up in Lekeitio, the prettiest of all.
Of course now we had to drive back on the same winding road until picking up the toll highway at last to zoom the last bit home.
Tip: We didn’t see any toll booths in Spain that were unmanned. Look above the toll booths for the symbol of a man with an arm out to pay with your credit card.
Mount Ulia Hike
Our last day in San Sebastian, how about a hike around Mount Ulia? This takes at least a couple of hours along a beautiful mountain trail. The trail starts out easy enough but gets pretty rough with huge rocks in the trailbed, so going can be a bit slow.
The views of the coast are stunning as you go from shady glens to open coastal cliffs. The trail is also one of the Camino de Santiago routes – we saw several pilgrims with their scallop shells on their packs hiking along. Yikes – when we got to the extremely steep stone staircase leading from the trail down to Pasajes de San Pedro we really felt for the pilgrims who hiked UP.
You can start the trail from San Sebastian at Zemoria Street (Zemoriya Kalea), and go all the way over to Pasajes de San Pedro. A little ferry shuttle (€1.00) takes everyone across to the old fishing village of San Juan where there are lots of cafes to get pintxos. Now how do you get back to San Sebastian? Fortunately, bus E01 has a stop not too far from the end of the San Juan village that takes you right back to the heart of San Sebastian in 30 minutes. Tip: Here’s a link to my map with Zemoria Kalea, the ferry, and the bus stop marked. Easy when you know.
Leaving Donostia / San Sebastián
A week was barely enough in San Sebastian – there are plenty of driving excursions we didn’t have time to do and lots more pintxos bars in the Parte Vieja that we didn’t get to. But we had more of northwest Spain to see – next stop – Picos de Europa!
Travel: Drive from San Sebastián to Fuente Dé – 3.5-4 hours.
Have you been pintxos bar hopping in San Sebastián? What’s YOUR favorite pintxos bar?