Foodie Heaven: Four Days in San Sebastián

By the time Els and I arrived from the Bilbao airport into San Sebastian, it was late afternoon. I was hungry, but 1) it was siesta time, so most restaurants were closed, and 2) it was raining. I figured I might as well use the afternoon to do some much-needed laundry, so I schlepped across the bridge to the closest laundromat. We Americans complain about having to spend a few dollars per laundry load, but I spent 9 euros for a wash and dry – and that was the cheapest option. Kind of crazy!

A couple of hours later, I walked back, laundry in tow, thankful that I’d managed to avoid the rain on both walks. Els and I met up for tapas (or pintxos, as they’re called in the north) at Gandarias, which was already in full swing by 7:40 pm. I started off with bacalao en béchamel (cod with béchamel sauce) and foie gras on bread. Tip to foie gras lovers: it’s very popular in San Sebastian, and can be found on virtually every menu.

San Sebastian

Coincidentally, we arrived on August 31st, the 202nd anniversary of the day that San Sebastian was burned to the ground by British and Portuguese troops. Of course, the city was having a festival complete with reenactments, costumes, and fire torches. My photos aren’t great due to lighting and movement, but, needless to say, the city was utter chaos.

I had a meat croqueta pintxo at a random bar, and pretty quickly Els and I realized that the best pintxos are ordered, not chosen off the bar display. I promise I’ll write a post about how to order pintxos in Northern Spain when I get home. It is an art, and I saw way too many tourists struggling (like we did on the first day).

We spent the rest of the evening wandering through the streets, repeatedly running into the “British soldiers”. After watching a little sermon and choir sing in front of the church, we decided to have one more pintxo before heading back. I opted for solomillo (sirloin steak) with foie gras and potato. Although it was delicious, the service at this restaurant (whose name started with an A, but I can’t remember it for the life of me) was terrible. I avoided it for the rest of the trip!

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The next day, Els and I woke up refreshed and ready to start the day. After a delicious, proper breakfast, we set off to explore the old city of San Sebastian. Churches, children, tons of shops and a flamenco show were just a few of the sights we saw that afternoon. It was a bit gloomy out, so we walked along the beach instead of tanning. Once the sun started peeking through the clouds, we people-watched at the beach for a while before moving to a pastry shop and people-watching there instead. I tried a delicious pastel Vasco (almond pie) from Pasteleria Oiartzun, which I highly recommend. After some more wandering, we headed back to Gandarias so I could try their version of solomillo. Els had tried it the night before, but they had run out by the time I got there. I must say, it definitely surpassed the one I’d eaten the night before. We also had some manchego and bread, as well as pimientos de pardón, which I’m obsessed with.

After lunch, we headed over to a café in the main square and parked there for a few hours in the sun. Els had come prepared with board games, and we played both Dobble & Skip Bo over drinks. I had Mosto for the second time (grape juice before it becomes wine), which I recommend trying in Spain – it’s delicious and refreshing!

After a siesta, Els and I went to another café for a drink and a game of rummy (which I’d never played before) before embarking on a chaotic dinner adventure. We headed over to Zeruko precisely at the same time as everyone else. Although the food was spectacular, I found trying to order, eat and pay in the chaos of it all to be a bit stressful. The trick is to go earlier in the night (around 8:30) and beat the rush, because everyone goes out to dinner at 9/9:30 – just a heads up. We did end up with some spectacular food though: fried lobster, smoked cod, solomillo and a squid sandwich. Drool.

Although it’s typical to bar hop during the night, we unintentionally stayed at Zeruko for over two hours. My stomach was feeling very content, though, so it made handling the stress a little easier. We ended the night with a nightcap at a bar in the main square before heading to bed.

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The next day, we (mostly me) woke up super late and lazed around for a while before getting started with our day. By the time we made it out the door, it was nearly noon, and restaurants had both breakfast and lunch options available. Like a true American, I somewhat guiltily had a burger and patatas bravas for breakfast. Clearly healthy eating has been a priority this trip. After a leisurely meal, we walked across the bridge to Gros, an up and coming part of the city popular with locals. The sun started peeking out through the clouds, so Els and I excitedly returned for our bathing suits, picking up an ice cream each on the way. We spent a few glorious hours “tanning” at Zurriola beach with the sun and clouds teasing us nonstop all afternoon.

By the time evening rolled around, we gave up on the sun and headed back to get ready for another night of pintxo bar hopping. We started the night off a little earlier this time, going back to Zeruko and successfully scoring a table! It was definitely a much more relaxed evening than the night before. Once again, I had the bacalao (cod), chipiron (squid), and even tried the “rosa” as well (squid smoked under rose water) – delicious!

Next, we squeezed our way into Borda Berri, another very popular bar nearby. Unfortunately, they were sold out of everything we wanted to try. However, our consolation items were still exquisite: bonito (tuna), solomillo (steak), and queso de cabras (grilled goat cheese). If you find yourself in San Sebastian, I highly recommend Borda Berri. Not only were the prices reasonable, but the food was amazing too.

Our last pintxo stop of the day was Txondorra. Despite its high Yelp ratings, I found it to be just okay (in comparison to the other places we tried, of course!). They do have some exotic pintxos like kangaroo meat, but I stuck to the basics per the barman’s recommendation: taco de buey (beef with fries and pepper) and carrillera glaseada (beef cheek). While I enjoyed my dishes, Els wasn’t a fan of her pork solomillo or croquet. I’d say come here for some exotic pintxos if that’s your kind of thing, but it’s definitely not a must-visit spot.

We weren’t feeling tired yet, so we headed back to the main square for a nightcap. Unfortunately, it started pouring rain while we were outside. We spent a couple of hours chatting at the bar, but we quickly realized that the rain wasn’t going anywhere. Of course, I had removed my umbrella from my purse earlier that day, so Els and I ran home through the rain. A refreshing end to the day I guess!

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On our last full day in the city, we woke up a bit late. Els and I were thrilled to have secured last-minute lunch reservations at Michelin-starred Kokotxa. We each wanted to do our own thing, so we decided to split up and meet in time for lunch.

I spent the morning wandering through the streets, and found myself walking along the sea around Mount Urgull. It was a cloudy and somewhat gloomy day, but I tackled it head on with my umbrella in one hand a fresh juice in the other. The juice was only $3 from the local shop and was very tasty. Take a look at how beautiful San Sebastian is despite the rain and clouds!

I continued walking around the mountain and suddenly found myself at the San Sebastian port. Although we didn’t end up eating there, it looked like there were lots of great restaurants for fresh seafood.

I made it back to our apartment shortly before our lunch reservation, and Els and I walked over to Kokotxa together.

While I’ve been to a couple of Michelin star restaurants in Los Angeles, this was my first time trying a one abroad. San Sebastian boasts the most stars of any single city in the world, so I knew it would be a good place to try one. I must say, our 7-course meal did not disappoint. It was almost entirely seafood, and they did an excellent job accommodating my dietary restriction of no pork. I did find that they struggled a bit with Els’ lactose intolerance, and we both suspect that she accidentally ate something lactose-based at one point. That was a little disappointing considering the restaurant’s accolades, but everything else was delectable.

After a very long and leisurely meal, Els was ready for a siesta so we headed back to the apartment. I took the opportunity to catch up a bit on blogging, since I hadn’t spent much time doing so during the week.

At 7 pm, I headed over to Nestor to reserve 2 Spanish omelet tapas. Side-note: the evening before, a guy told us that Nestor is known for the best Spanish omelet tapa in San Sebastián. The trick is that you have to go at 7:15 and reserve a portion, then return promptly at 8 to pick it up and eat it. Since I happened to have time at 7 pm that evening, I did just that.

Els woke up as I entered the room, and the first thing I excitedly said to her was “I just ordered us Spanish omelet at Nestor!” The best way to wake someone up from a nap, clearly. We got back to Nestor at 8:10 pm and the barman told me that he was just about to sell our portion since we weren’t there at 8. Of course, this is the one time people take promptness seriously in San Sebastian! Luckily he had waited for us, and it was indeed the best Spanish tortilla I’d eaten thus far.

Delicious Spanish tortilla. San Sebastian

Delicious Spanish tortilla

Our next stop was at Txepetxa, a bar specializing only in anchoas (anchovies). They have a full menu of many different  anchovy combinations. Els opted for the most popular option, crema de centollo (onions and cream), whereas I ordered pimiento y aceitunas (olives and peppers). Mine was delicious! It was served on a slice of bread with just a hint of vinegar and freshly chopped vegetables – I think I could easily have eaten another few slices. Definitely a must-try if you have any remote interest in anchovies.

Anchovy pinxos. San Sebastian

Anchovy pintxos

Since it was our last night, we knew we had to return to Gandarias for solomillo and pimientos de padron. Despite the crowds, we were well-experienced in the art of ordering pintxos by this point, and made it in and out fairly quickly.

San Sebastian

Solomillo and padron peppers

Ordering pinxos is total chaos. San Sebastian

Ordering pintxos is total chaos

Our last stop of the day was Borda Berri – this time to get the dishes we couldn’t get the night before. We were lucky that everything we’d wanted the night before was available that evening. We ordered pulpo (octopus), carrillera (beef cheek), and risotto. All three were amazing. The risotto was just a little to heavy for me, but the other two dishes were perfect. The beef cheek was fall-off-the-bone tender and full of flavor. The perfectly cooked octopus was served with a membrillo (quince) jam, which complemented the dish despite the odd flavor pairing. Wow.

Since we had to check out the next day and go to Bilbao, we called it an “early” night at 11 so we could head back and pack.

Concluding thoughts:

First of all, I promise to write a San Sebastian how-to and where-to pintxo guide when I’m back in LA. The city is truly a foodie heaven, but it can also be a bit overwhelming for tourists given the crowds. While the majority of the bartenders speak English, most of the menu items are in Basque, not in Spanish. This made ordering a bit difficult, considering Els and I both have dietary restrictions. And the food can be expensive, depending on how much a you eat and the bars you choose to go to. In summary, San Sebastian is the perfect combination of sun, surf, and gastronomy. I highly recommend a visit (just a few days is sufficient) to anyone traveling in Northeastern Spain. Your stomach will most certainly not regret it!


 

TLDR: a short summary of what I did and where I ate in San Sebastian for those too lazy to read the post

Where I went:

  • The old town: Explore and walk around. Lots of shopping, street performers, and people watching to do. Make your way back to Concha beach, well-known as the place to swim and tan.
  • Gros: the local part of town. A little cheaper with regards to food, and somewhat off the beaten path
  • Zurriola beach: more popular for surfers but still great for tanning and swimming
  • Mount Urgull: Although one can hike up to this mountain for a spectacular view of the city, I chose to walk around the base of the mountain into the the Port
  • The Port: Lively and great for people-watching and eating fresh seafood. Here you can go to restaurants or rent a boat that will take you to a nearby island.

What I ate:

  • Solomillo, foie gras, and pimientos de padron (padron peppers) at Gandarias
  • Pastel Vasco (almond pie) and ice cream at Pasteleria Oiartzun
  • Hamburguesa de chiripon (squid sandwich), rosa (infused lobster), and bacalao (cod) at Zeruko
  • Bonito (tuna), solomillo (steak), queso de cabras (goats cheese), pulpo (octopus), carrillera (beef cheek), and risotto at Borda Berri
  • Taco de buey (beef with fries and pepper) and carrillera glaseada (beef cheek) at Txondorra
  • Set menu at Kokotxa
  • Spanish omelet at Nestor: you have to go at 7:15 and reserve a portion, then return promptly at 8 to pick it up and eat it. Nestor is also known for its steak dinner that comes in a set menu along with padron peppers, bread, and tomato salad.
  • Crema de centollo (onion and cream) and pimiento y aceitunas (olives and peppers) anchovy pintxos at Txepetxa

Where I stayed:

  • Pension Bule: Located in the heart of the city near all the delicious pintxo bars, Pension Bule is well-worth the splurge. Although it can get expensive in the summer months, it is quite reasonably priced during off season, and offers the comfort of large rooms, WiFi, and a balcony.

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  • lee neutron

    i’ve been doing laundry in my sink. i get the pleasure of having wet clothes hanging everywhere in my hotel room. alas, i too yielded to temptation and had a hamburger this week, but it had a freshly baked bun and amazing grilled mushrooms on top. i wish i had that plate of green peppers (pictured above) to go with it. i’m very glad you are having a great time in san sebastion!

    • Kudos for doing laundry in your sink! I’m a baby and need the washing machine for most things but I’m sure your room is quite a sight!
      The spaniards make excellent burgers so it is totally okay to eat a burger.
      You should see if you can get the peppers elsewhere! They’re called pimientos de padrón and they’re delicious.

    • Enjoy the rest of your travels!

  • Looks delish!

    • Sally Elbassir

      Amazing city for foodies! You should definitely add it to the must-visit list 🙂

  • theurbanfoodster

    Nice read! San Sebastian is my home city and I love it – still so much to explore!