Selection of food at a Pinxtos bar in San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain is the culinary epicenter for Basque Country in Northern Spain. Many visitors come to this region for the myriad Michelin-starred restaurants, which dot this small city. With a population of just under 200,000, San Sebastian manages to pack in a combined 16 Michelin stars, including 3 of the 7 three star restaurants in all of Spain.

It is easy to get caught up in the glitz and glam of Michelin stars and high-end dining, but the real heart of Basque cuisine in San Sebastian can be found on the back streets and alleys of the Old Town, in the tiny bars with counters full of tempting treats. For me, San Sebastian is all about pintxos.

To make it easy to navigate, here is our guide to pintxos in San Sebastian!

The cramped streets of Old Town, crammed with some of the best pintxos in San Sebastian

pintxos-28-min

pintxos-27-min

So, what are pintxos?

Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas. Tiny cafes and bars line their counters with platters of bite-sized creations, typically eaten with your hands and often served on a piece of toasted bread. The fare at traditional pintxos bars is pretty straightforward, and heavy on meat and seafood. Items like: gildas (a spanish chili pepper wrapped around an anchovy and olive, speared with a toothpick), tortilla (Spanish-style frittata), jamon (Spanish cured ham), fried croquettes stuffed with salt cod, anchovies (in many forms), and grilled shrimp with ham, can be found in almost every pintxos bar.

Since the food is laid out for self-service, you just order a drink from the person behind the bar and ask for a plate. You can take as many pintxos as you want, which range from €1.50-€4 per piece, depending on the item. There also may be a blackboard displaying additional menu items, which are cooked to order dishes, so don’t overlook those items either. When you are done eating, the bartender will ask you to help tally what you’ve eaten, and your bill will be calculated. Simple as that!

Note that some specific bars may operate a variation of this process so we just like to watch a few other people asking for plates and calculating payment, to make sure we’re doing it right.

A lineup of pintxos in San Sebastian

It may be tempting to just grab a seat or a place standing at the bar and feast away, but you should fight the temptation. Pintxos culture encourages people to bounce around to different establishments all night, sampling just a few bites from each. Since most of the best pintxos are found within the compact Old Town section of San Sebastian, you never have to walk more than a few minutes to your next destination.

To avoid looking like a tourist, make sure to ball up your used paper napkins and throw them on the floor when you are done.

Don’t worry, you won’t offend anyone. It’s considered rude to place used napkins on the counter next to prepared food, so go ahead and litter, just like the locals.

Pintxos in San Sebastian: An elaborate lineup at Zeruko

Pintxos in San Sebastian: An elaborate lineup at Zeruko

While most pintxos bars have the food laid out, there are some bars that only offer pintxos to order, often displaying a simple board of menu items that you order at the bar. Despite having a printed menu like a ‘regular’ restaurant, these places are just as busy and frantic as any other pintxos bar. In fact, during prime dining hours (1-2pm, 9-10pm), do not expect a lot of room or a seat at any pintxos bar.

If you are looking for a romantic, relaxing night out, pintxos bars are not for you. They are all about socializing, eating, and drinking in small, confined spaces. The more cramped, the more frenzied, the better.

Pouring a glass of txakoli while eating pintxos in San Sebastian
Pouring a glass of txakoli while eating pintxos in San Sebastian

To wash down all of these amazing pintxos, the beverage of choice is txakoli (pronounced “chock-oh-lee”). It is the white wine of the region – light, crisp, dry, and with a slight fizz, not unlike one of my other favorite white wines, vinho verde from Portugal. To showcase that slight carbonation, txakoli is usually poured from a height with a little touch of flair, so that when the wine hits the bottom of the glass, it fizzes and releases more carbonation. Luckily, it is low in alcohol and very inexpensive (€2-€4 per glass), so you can indulge without terrible repercussions during a night out.

Pintxos in San Sebastian: An elaborate lineup at Zeruko

There are a lot of options for pintxos in San Sebastian, and just walking around, drinking txakoli and stopping at pintxos bars at random is not a bad option.

In case you want a little more of game plan, here is a list of a few places worthy of a stop:

Bar Nestor (Arrandegi Kalea, 11)

The legendary Bar Nestor is known for two things, tortilla and txuleton (massive T-bone steaks for two). The tortillas (€2) are only made at 1pm and 8pm and have to be pre-ordered, with queues starting at 11:30am just to reserve a slice for 1pm. The txuleton (€38) is huge and meant for two, and always served rare with plenty of salt. There is no food laid out here, so ordering off the menu is the only option.

Zeruko (C/Pescadería 10)

Zeruko is a modern take on the pintxos bar, with elaborate displays and garnishes. Many of the classics can still be found, but all with a twist. Here, the ordering system is a bit unique. You are given a plate by the bar staff, and select the pintxos yourself, but here, you hand the plate back to the staff. Then, they garnish each plate individually and hand it back to you. That last step is where a lot of the most delicious bits are added to the dish, and it was the most gorgeous food I saw in San Sebastian.

Bar Txepetxa (C/Pescadería 5)

A classic pintxos bar famous for its anchovies. It has other things on offer, but stick to the anchovies because they are some of the finest marinated anchovies in the Basque Country. The marinated anchovies with blueberries sounds horrible, but tastes delicious and is a specialty of Bar Txepetxa.

La Cuchara de San Telmo (31 de Agosto Kalea, 28)

One of the most popular spots in town, this bar requires patrons to order dishes from a blackboard menu. It is perpetually packed, so just elbow your way in and order at the bar. The beef cheeks and seared octopus are delicious. We missed out on the foie gras, which is another specialty. There is always next time!

Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton 12)

From the people behind La Cuchara de San Telmo (above), many of the dishes are similar, including the slow braised beef cheeks. They also serve mushroom risotto (made with orzo, not rice), and a sweetbread ravioli, which was amazing.

Have you eating pintxos in San Sebastian? What are some of your favorite spots? Let us know in the comments section below!

Guide to the Best Pintxos in San Sebestian, Spain

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  • July 9, 2016

    I love this idea of getting small bites and going from place to place! I eat fish but no other meat so I’d skip the ham. But the Spanish tortilla gets me every time! It would be hard to have just a bite or two of that for sure. A night out like this would be tons of fun!
    Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie recently posted…The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Maximizing One-Ways and StopoversMy Profile

    • July 11, 2016

      I love a good spanish tortilla. There is a restaurant here in London called Barafina that does absolutely amazing tortilla, so luckily, if I need a tortilla fix, I can just hop on a bus to SoHo rather than a plane back to Spain!

  • July 9, 2016

    So wanna go there just for the food now. Great post 🙂

    • July 11, 2016

      The food in the region is amazing, but it is also incredibly beautiful, and has amazing cider and wine. So many things to enjoy!

  • July 10, 2016

    Great roundup- and gorgeous photos! Guess I’ll have to try this next time I’m in Spain 🙂

  • July 10, 2016

    Ok you just made me hungry! Pintxos sound fantastic and I love that it’s a SoCal setting and you can just hop around from place to place. Good to know about the napkins, too! I would have felt bad throwing them on the ground, haha! Will have to check out San Sebastián sometime for sure!

    • July 11, 2016

      One of my favorite regions of Spain. Hard to eat any better anywhere else in the country. And yes, the napkin thing is strange.

  • July 10, 2016

    Oh wow I haven’t tried Pintxos but it looks amazing! All the food looks so delicious and I think its a great way to socialize around food as well as being able to sample many different bites. I do have to say, its interesting to learn that it is rude to placed used napkins on the table, I had no idea!
    Lieurene recently posted…The conversation that I lost track ofMy Profile

    • July 11, 2016

      The napkin thing really confused me too!

  • July 10, 2016

    You guys surely take amazing photos! You also encompassed what I love about Spain the most: the food (and the tapas haha) 😛 I’ll surely be taking note of this place in Spain too!
    Aileen Adalid recently posted…Only in Japan: The Fun & Crazy Show of Robot Restaurant in TokyoMy Profile

    • July 11, 2016

      It is amazing place to visit. Beautiful beaches, amazing food, incredibly nice people, and delicious wine! All you need…

  • July 11, 2016

    Ohhh!! How delicious. What a fun post to read. You certainly cannot go wrong with the Pintxo. I already love tapas, so this Basque version look just as delicious!! Great pictures of the food and place. Ready to book my flight to San Sebastian. Great read!
    Rosemary recently posted…5 Reasons Why You Want To Stay With Locals On Your TravelsMy Profile

    • July 11, 2016

      Definitely worthy of a visit. If you love food, Basque Country should be a must-see destination.

  • July 11, 2016

    I love tapas! Definitely adding San Sebastian to our list of places to visit in Spain. Now only does it look like it has amazing food the place looks like it would be wonderful to explore.

    • July 12, 2016

      it is not just about the food, as the landscape is simply stunning!

  • July 11, 2016

    OK you made me seriously hungry. Just got home from the gym and I’m really craving some food right now, but there’s not much in the house. I heard before that San Sebastian is food heaven and their pintxos are amazing by fellow bloggers, I’ll definitely keep that in mind next time we are heading south!

    • July 12, 2016

      San Sebastian is a must-visit destination for any food lover, that’s for sure!