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The best Pintxos in San Sebastian are an art form and social event. As culturally significant in Spain’s Basque country as its landmarks. Here’s where to find them.
“You must try Pintxos in San Sebastian!” You’ll hear it over and over when you arrive, if not before. Yet, trying the best Pintxos in San Sebastian also requires a local education about their origin and importance.
We are on “the street where everything happens”, according to Gabriella Ranelli, whose apartment we have taken over for the afternoon to try our hand at making Pintxos with a local chef. This humble-abode turned Tenedor cooking school is on the same Fermin Calbeton Street we had previously toured by Pintxos bar-hopping.
This Old Town street is San Sebastian’s avenue of food.
What are Pintxos?
Pintxos are bite-sized snacks, typically served in bars, and are a staple Basque tradition. We learn that for a modern country, Spain has kept its traditional methods of harvesting in abundance for a short period, then salting, pickling and preserving it to enjoy for the rest of the year, cooking it all up with creative flair. “Basque country is all about specific flavours and specific combinations,” Gabriella explains, with San Sebastian, in particular, being the very pinnacle of a miniature food culture known as Pintxos.
Pintxos are culturally significant in the Basque country, as are landmarks, monuments, and an ancient language.
San Sebastian was the European Capital of Culture for 2016. Still, it had long been a worldwide gastronomical acclaimed city, including an accolade of 16 Michelin stars, signature restaurants, straight-from-the-barrel cider houses and members-only ‘gastronomic societies’.
The concept of Pintxos in San Sebastian is more profound in a city where gastronomy is an expression. Making them is an art form and eating them is a social event. It’s criminal to call these delicately pieced-together portions tapas, for they are in no way the same, but exquisite bites layered on top of a small piece of bread and held together by a single cocktail stick.
Pintxos Bars in San Sebastian
The Pintxos bar in San Sebastian’s old cobbled streets brings everyone together in one place – the atmosphere created by the excitable hovering around the bar where the cocktail sticks peak from the trays, ready to be plucked out in the ravenous decision.
Cold Pintxos adorn the bar, and you can order hot options directly from the waiter. Seafood and red meats combine with savoury delicacies like peppers, olives, potatoes and eggs, and freshly carved slices of Jamon.
Drinks are small measures to go with the bite-sized food for extended indulgence. The idea is to choose one or two of the Pintxos and pair them with a small serving of the local cider or the fruity Txakoli white wine, which is poured with precision skill from a great height to preserve the bubbles. You then collect your sticks to pay at the end before moving on to the next bar.
How to Eat Pintxos
Pintxos are meant to be eaten in one bite and devoured slowly, an exquisite moment of enjoying the region’s carefully chosen and handcrafted combinations of fresh flavours in true farm-to-table fashion.
Pintxos bar-hopping in San Sebastian is the end game of this culinary journey. As we dig into our hand-made creations, we reminisce about the multiple stops – of peering into doorways and perusing the entire length of the bar, lost in the problem of how to narrow down 30 options to a hearty three. Such an event is a visitor rite of passage here in San Sebastian to indulge just as the locals do.
Only then can you understand this city’s unique and long-standing gastronomic culture.
Mouthful by tiny mouthful.
Where to Find the Best Pintxos in San Sebastian
You could spend a whole day bar hopping, but if you are feeling overwhelmed by choice, here’s a selection of 15 of the best Pintxos bars in San Sebastian.
- La Cepa de Bernardo
- La Viña
- Bodega Donostiarra
- Gorriti Taberna
- Atari Gastroleku
- Bartolo House
- Bar Sport
- Paco Bueno
- Bar Nestor
- La Cuchara de San Telmo
- Casa Alcalde
- Borda Berri
Start on the main street in the Old Town – Fermin Calbeton Kalea – and work your way around from there. You’ll see that the cluster of bars spread on a block of four streets surrounding Constitution Square, so the area is easy to navigate.
An essential part of the experience is to go with the flow. Do you like the look of a bar, or are you curious about the atmosphere brewing inside? Head inside and see what you find – you might stumble upon a local secret.
Take a Pintxos Cooking Class
During the Tenedor Pintxos cooking class, we listen as the onions sizzle in the pan before adding peppers and garlic. We each prepare a Piquillo pepper that has been charred, peeled and packed in olive oil (post-harvest), ready to stuff it full of a tuna-based mix. Peppers are used in almost everything and are already roasted, peeled and frozen.
We cocktail-stick loops through a salted anchovy three times to make it look like its own curving art form as it delicately sits atop a pepper-like flag. We coat fresh prawns in a dusting of flour and egg before lightly crushing tiny pasta sprinkles onto them so that they can puff up and crisp in a pan of oil and turn into a heavenly texture mesh of crunch and delicate seafood.
Gabriella talks about ‘her shepherd’ who makes the sheep milk cheeses up in the mountain in his hut – a variety of pale yellows and creamy whites with not too overpowering a taste, accompanied, naturally, by more Taxkoli.
Things to Know About Pintxos in San Sebastian
- Learn to make Pintxos in San Sebastian: Tenedor offers a variety of cooking classes in San Sebastian suited to all levels of culinary expertise and includes a private market tour and a personal chef.
- How to Plan Pintxos Bar Hopping in San Sebastian: Go Local San Sebastian offer dedicated Pintxos bar tours (alongside other activities), taking you to some of the most favourite hangouts and explaining the food culture. The tour lasts 2.5 hours and costs €25. We had Iñigo as our guide, and he comes highly recommended.
- Pick up the “Gastronomic Guide Map” from the tourism office, which details the 70 key bars and restaurants, three pintxos routes and food shops on a map.
- For further information and trip planning: visit sansebastianturismo.com
This trip was organised in conjunction with iAmbassador and the Spanish National Tourism Office to highlight San Sebastian’s offering in light of it being the European Capital of Culture for 2016. I’m still not a good chef, but I’m trying.