bar-hopping for pintxos in San Sebastián (and discovering Spain’s culinary gems) – Lonely Planet’s travel blog

Two pintxos are shown resting on top of a copy of Lonely Planet's Ultimate Eats book, with the harbour of San Sebastián in the background Pintxos with a view – the harbour of beautiful San Sebastián © Dan Flying Solo

Lonely Planet Pathfinder, Daniel Clarke of Dan Flying Solo, recently spent 10 days exploring northern Spain, home to our top ranking food experience in the world – bar-hopping for pintxos in San Sebastián.

Spain is a country renowned worldwide for its perfectly crafted cuisine, fresh, seasonal produce and passionate chefs who can take the simplest of ingredients and turn them into a mouth-watering journey for the taste buds. It’s also home to the top experience from Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Eatlist eating pintxos in San Sebastián, a culinary gem found in Spain’s Basque Country.

However, gastronomic greatness is not reserved solely for this dreamy seaside town. The variety of tasty local cuisine served up in Spain’s distinctive regions and provinces saw 13 Spanish foodie experiences feature in Ultimate Eatlist. During my 10-day Spanish tour I managed to get to grips with San Sebastián’s prized pintxos scene, as well as tuck into a few of the other delicious delicacies on offer in northern Spain.

Pintxos, the top food experience in the world

Topping Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Eatlist, San Sebastián’s small but perfectly formed pintxos are petite and delicious. These flavoursome treats come in many forms, from the traditional mini-skewer combination of olive, anchovy and pepper known as the ‘gilda’, through to intriguing amalgamations of ingredients piled-high on bread – this is a dining delight that’s never bland.

Don’t go mistaking pintxos for tapas though! These tiny bites are exclusive to the Basque Region and aren’t to be confused with the traditionally free bar-snacks of tapas, which are served in other parts of Spain. Pintxos are ordered and paid for individually, and aren’t just an accompaniment to a drink, but the star attraction of a social dining experience.

Head to the old town streets for the buzz

The best way to enjoy pintxos in San Sebastián is by taking to the buzzing streets of the old town, where countless bar-tops are piled high with numerous variations, from toothpick based stacks to mini-sandwiches.

This is sociable dining at its very best, and the crowds from the bars spill out onto terrace tables, street stools, beautiful plazas and even church steps to enjoy the experience of eating in this food-obsessed city. Don’t start your edible escapade too early though – 9pm is the absolute earliest to hit the streets if you want to enjoy your pintxos with a slice of atmosphere, and you’ll be eating and drinking for much of your evening (and night!) in the old town. Is there any better excuse for an afternoon siesta?

Pintxos: perfectly formed finger foods

While you can grab a plate in any bar, and fill it with the tempting and delectable bites in no time at all, pintxos are best enjoyed the way the locals do – on a bar-hopping adventure. This way you can sample various treats in different bars across the city. For a really authentic experience, order a glass of the local sparkling wine, txakoli, and enjoy the theatre of skilled bartenders pouring it from a height to increase the bubbles in the glass.

It’s easy to miss the specialities on bar blackboards, which are usually cooked fresh unlike the spread on the counter – just ask the bartender what the best dish is that day, and order away! Whether battered white asparagus or mushrooms soaked in garlic, make sure you leave space to enjoy the warm dishes as well.

A stunning backdrop to a land of gastronomy

There is no denying that San Sebastián is a breathtaking beach destination, especially given the views of the bay from the top of Mount Igueldo, great for post pintxo-hiking (or easily accessed by funicular!)

There is a lot more to this destination than meets the eye, however, especially for those with a real passion for food. There are around 150 gastronomic societies in San Sebastián, which are a bit like members clubs, but for cooking and sharing culinary creativity. It is within these club houses that family get-togethers happen, and locals spend time in the communal kitchen. Members have their own key, providing access at any time of day – I was lucky enough to spend a morning with local chef, Ben, who showed us around one, and taught me how to cook local specialities. If you find yourself in San Sebastián, be sure to try and experience it for yourself!

Days all begin at the markets

No matter where my food tour of Spain took me, nearly every morning of it began at a market. With fresh, seasonal produce being the focus, and local ingredients and flavours prevailing, a trip to the market is much more than a shop, it’s a social experience in itself.

In Barcelona, Sarah, who would later cook us up some Catalonian treats in her home, guided us through a few of the local markets to meet her suppliers (and friends). The community bond between those who sell and buy at these markets is genuine, and community seems to be at the heart of the culinary experience throughout the country. Celebrating the market culture of Spain, at number 23 on the Ultimate Eatlist, is Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, by far one of the most visited by tourists. This bustling pit-stop on La Rambla is a buzz of bars, stalls and vendors, and a great introduction that may inspire you to hunt down some of the smaller markets throughout the city.

Continue your Ultimate Eatlist tour across Spain

Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Eatlist ranks the top 500 food experiences in the world, and with 13 of those originating in Spain, I had plenty to sink my teeth into. From freshly-sliced jamón ibérico (number 192), through to dark-chocolate dunked churros (number 22), I devoured my way across the country, and realised just how much you can tell about a destination from its cuisine and eating habits.

Like any incredible journey though, mine sadly had to end, and against the impressive backdrop of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, I dived into my last Ultimate Eatlist experience – the almond-based tarta de Santiago. Coming in at number 272, it was the perfect sweet treat with which to bid Spain farewell. With another 487 foodie experiences left on the list, it’s onto the next adventure (and meal) for me!

Fancy tucking into northern Spain’s food scene yourself? Enter our Ultimate Eatlist competition for your chance to win two places on this Intrepid Travel tour, along with return flights to Spain.

Daniel Clarke travelled to Spain with support from Intrepid Travel. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage. Follow @lonelyplanet for more Instagram inspiration.

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