Summer Travels: Spain – Part 2 (San Sebastian)

KFo and I love Barcelona – the food, the nightlife, the beaches, and, did I say the food? However, we were absolutely blown away by San Sebastian. A little bit before our trip, KFo and I had the pleasure of meeting a close friend’s sister who had studied abroad there and raved about it. Not, that we doubted her, but MAN!..it was absolutely incredible.

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The beautiful San Sebastian (view of Bahia de La Concha)

If you ever get the chance to visit Spain, San Sebastian is the place to go! San Sebastian is located in the Basque region of Spain, near the border of France. Again, it is on the east coast of Spain, in the northern most part. The primary source of economic activity is tourism, which includes the delectable food. However, for those looking for more than food, it also has lush greenery, beaches and a fair bit of history. Surfers should also take note because they have quite a bit of surfer culture here. However, make no mistake, this is definitely foodie heaven. P.S. It’s better, and cheaper, than most Michelin star restaurants.

First off, my little readers, let’s start with the wonderful world of pintxos…

Pintxos or pinchos are small snacks that are famous in northern Spain. They are served at bars and people generally get a glass of wine and a pintxo to share with a loved one…think tapas! However, the main difference between tapas and pintxos are that they normally incorporate bread and are single servings (however to keep us from gaining mucho weight before the wedding, KFo and I would split some). Most pintxos bars are self service ad a little known fact is that the dirtier the floor of the pintxos place, the better it is (although counter intuitive, this means more patrons). Also, pintxos places get crowded later – so no early birds! Think Europe time, so things start picking up around 8 or 9PM.

My partner in crime and I searched the city looking for the best pintxos we could find. Below is our list (adapted from the 2013 Huffington Post article “The 9 Best Pintxos Bars in San Sebastian and What to Eat There”): [Note to readers: Travel + Leisure also has a good list here.]

  1. Bar Martinez – KFo loved the roasted, stuffed red pepper, which was quite incredible. Served on a piece of bread and stuffed with a seafood filling. Although the zucchini toast (enfolded with crab mousse) gets rave reviews, my resident co-foodie didn’t care for it as much as the stuffed pepper.
  2. Atari Gastroteka – My favorite pintxos place! And, probably the most popular local joint judging by how packed it was! This was the only place we came back to twice over our four day stay. Fantastic wine and cocktails. We ordered the veal cheek (insanely, melt in your mouth good), the grilled calamari, the padron peppers, the goat cheese salad and the shrimp toast, all of which were amazing. Really, at this place you can’t go wrong. Best place to start is the chalkboard, which features daily specials. Also, consult your bartender; they were very helpful helping us navigate which pintxos to order.
  3. Casa Urola Jatetxea – The octopus skewer was delightful and not too chewy (it’s really hard to cook octopus the right way)! We also had a lobster pintxo that was very good.
  4. La Mejillonera – The mussels and the patatas bravas are to die for! A local’s favorite, this place gets crowded, so elbow your way in there.
  5. Goiz Argi – Again, grilled octopus was great here (are you sensing a theme in my food picks?) This place is known for their seafood. Get the prawn skewers as well. You won’t be disappointed.
  6. Borda Berri – Really, you can’t go wrong with anything here! Definitely order off the board, but whatever you get, make sure to get the risotto. We went with the cheese one, but the mushroom risotto looked equally good. Gluten intolerants beware – risotto dishes here are made using pasta, not rice.
  7. La Vina – The cheesecake! The cheesecake! This New Yorker is very particular about cheesecake, but one bite of this and you will be wanting more. Light and airy, but filling, this cheesecake is simply da bomb.
  8. La Cuchara de San Telmo – This is another place, like Borda Berri, where you can’t go wrong with anything off the chalkboard menu. It’s also REALLY popular with locals, so get ready to throw them ‘bows. Picking favorites feels like cheating, so the things we ordered (which were all delicious) are as follows: toasted goat cheese filled with sautéed veggies and chimichurri, veal cheek with a puree of garbanzos, suckling pig slow roasted with beer, and tuna with ponzu and onion. The menu changes here, so again, consult your bartender.
PINTXOS FOR DAYS-2

There were some other creative, gastro-like pintxos, but KFo and I both did not favor these. Stick with the tried and true stuff and you will be a happy camper.

The last food thing I will mention is that we had the pleasure of dining at Arzak, another Michelin star restaurant, located in San Sebastian. The parents of some close friends of ours were able to pull a few strings and get us in. Amazing and inventive, this meal was like no other we had ever had. The restaurant was small, only seating a handful of couples and reservations are hard to come by – you need to book this place up to four months in advance! It’s definitely worth the wait (and the price tag). Fruit and seafood lovers, this restaurant is specifically for you.

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Dining at the unique Arzak

Other must do things to do in San Sebastian include:

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  1. Visit a sideria – We went to Petritegi Tolare Sagardotegia. Since it was the low season in the world of cider, it was relatively quiet, but you could see how this would be a lively place. They feed you lunch and you take periodic trips into the cider vaults. Really a must do!
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  3. Take a run around the Bahia de La Concha (in other words, the beach). This leads you to some modern iron sculptures that are embedded in rocks called Combs of the Wind. There is also a really cool wind tunnel and when it’s windy, be sure to stand over one of the openings in the floor. 
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  5. Hike Monte Urgull and visit the military museum. This definitely adds a piece of history to your visit and it’s fun to know some of the facts about the city as you are walking around. Plus, the hike and the view are pretty awesome too!
  6. Stay at Hotel Maria Cristina – You won’t regret this! The hotel, which opened in 1912, is luxurious. After it’s opening, in the 19th century, it was a vacation spot for royalty…and it shows! The hotel is in a central part of town and the staff was friendly and extremely accommodating. Of all the hotels, this was KFo and I’s favorite and we will definitely be back again.
  7. Hike Monte Igueldo for sunset – We didn’t do this and it’s certainly a regret. If you go in the summertime, like we did, the sun sets late (around 9:00 or 9:30PM), so grab some pintxos and make the hike. The view looks over the city of San Sebastian and is an ideal place to watch the sun set.

All in all, San Sebastian is the perfect place to visit and I could not recommend it more highly. It 100% exceeded expectations. Go now and book your flight!