November 21, 2019

The Best Pintxos in San Sebastian: A Story of Rebellion

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How to find the best pintxos in San Sebastian - including pinchos tours

Pintxos (pronounced "pinchos") defines the culinary scene in this characterful coastal Basque country. Quite simply: the best pintxos in San Sebastian is the best pintxos in the world.  Even if visitors mistakenly use the word tapas. 

Here's our inside guide to pintxos in San Sebastian, Spain. How to eat it, pintxos tours, self-guided walks, a bit of back story and, of course, the best pintxos bars in San Sebastian. Let's eat.

Plate of large shrimps served as pintxos in Donostia San Sebastian Spain

Fresh seafood makes sense in coastal San Sebastian

Disclosure – although I’ve visited San Sebastian before, some of the tapas bars featured here provided complimentary food for review purposes. Of course, that didn't always mean they made the list!

Pintxos in San Sebastian

Tapas on table tops, tapas on the bars,

Tapas in the restaurants, and tapas in the stars.

But however pretty it looks, arranged just so in taverns throughout the Old Quarter, it's pintxos. Not tapas.

So, with that out of the way, let's move on to finding the best of it, shall we?

Monochrome collage of people enjoying pintxos and tapas in San Sebastian

Pintxos in San Sebastian: it's half about the flavour, half about the social way we eat it

Tapas in San Sebastian - a tempting glimpse from the street

A typical pintxos scene in San Sebastian: food on show, waiting for a lucky passer by

The Best Pintxos Bars 

Arrange a self-guided pintxos tour in San Sebastian with these hand (and taste) tested pintxos bars. It's easy enough to walk around. Try a little in each and your stomach will help you by the end. 

Fuegro Negra collage including neon red sign and postcards in San Sebastian

Fuegro Negra Pintxos Bar in San Sebastain

A Fuegro Negro

Cool in a dark, shadowy and scarlet way, this strips away images of “tourist Spain” and replaces them with ideas of art and memories of strong flavours. 

This creative  spot is heavily influenced by music, drinks, art, theatre, cinema and design. Stocking a wide range of drinks and a menu of snacks and little dishes, including 'tartare of bonito & watermelon with grated yolk', you won't be disappointed.

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 31, 20003 San Sebastián-Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Email: [email protected]

PIntxos options in San Sebastian

So many different things to choose from when it comes to pintxos...


For a view of just how many options you can find in one place, check out the bar tops of this little eatery. 

Serving hot and cold dishes from both land and sea, each plate looks like a work of art. They even offer gluten-free options.

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Email: [email protected]

Pimientos de Padron in San Sebastian via @insidetravellab

Pimientos de Padron in San Sebastian via @insidetravellab

La Cepa

Look out for the glass tabletops over collections of sweets, seashells and other curios. 

La Cepa has been offering tasty dishes for over 70 years and has established itself as a firm favourite with both locals and tourists. It serves simple dishes using the highest quality ingredients.

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7, 9, 20003 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain

Email: [email protected] 

Black and white image of hanging bacalao salted cod

Bacalao - Salted cod is popular in San Sebastian

What is the difference between pintxos and tapas?

It’s pintxos in San Sebastian, and indeed the rest of the Basque country and Navarre (the corner of northwest Spain and southwest France.)

Pintxos takes its pronunciation form the Castilian Spanish pinchos, which comes from the verb pinchar, to poke, according to some. Others simply claim that the word pincho means “spike” or “thorn” given that toothpicks so often hold the food together.

All linguistics aside: pintxos tastes different to tapas.

It is indeed different food.

Bacalao and crispy caramelised onions pintxos in Donostia San Sebastian Spain

Bacalao and crispy caramelised onions pintxos in Donostia San Sebastian Spain

Held together by a toothpick vs open in an earthenware jar

Pintxos derives from the toothpicks used to “pinch” (or stab) the food together.

Tapas, so the old saying goes, comes from the Spanish word for “cover” and it's altogether a less elaborately constructed affair.

In Seville, manchego cheese arrives in an earthenware dish, swilling in oil. Albondigas (meatballs - pronounced al - BON - dee- gas) come in a similar type of dish, swimming in a tomato based sauce.

Over time, of course, distinctions become less clear and both tapas and pintxos developed characters all of their own.

Taberna politena square image in Donostia San Sebastian

Relaxed at the bar or chatting outside in the Old Town in San Sebastian

How to eat pintxos: standing at the bar

Half the thrill, for me at least, of eating in San Sebastian is the way in which you do so; the other half involves the flavour of the food itself.

Both are bathing in character; both may not be to everyone’s taste.

Pintxos (pronounced “pinsho”) typically lives stacked up along the bar. You either choose what you want and pay for it at the end according to the number of toothpicks you’ve acquired or…

...if you get stuck, resort to time-honoured traveller communication. Smile, point and say thank you. Just don't expect table service and to sit down with a menu. Eat as many dishes as you fancy (typically 3-5 per person) and share wherever possible, chatting to anyone around. This is the real joy of pintxos in San Sebastian.

Black and white image of pintxos in San Sebastian including barside platters and hanging jamon

Hanging jamon and salted cod are also popular dishes. Don't expect many vegetables!

Strong, bitter flavours

The flavours are not for the faint of heart: think strong olives, anchovies, peppers and paprika, fierce mustard, and of course concertina folds of thin, creased, translucent and tasty jamon.

And to feel cultured while you seduce your senses with all this salt and spice, look out for La Gilda (pronounced Heelda.)

The Most Famous Pintxos: La Gilda

This salty, spicy treat for the tongue earned its name from Rita Hayworth’s iconic Gilda, back in the day when Franco’s military dictatorship ruled and locals had to sneak across to France to watch such saucy sirens.

Basque Cooking Class

Tenedor Tours

This gorgeous little kitchen manages to a pack a punch of culinary education into a small space with a balcony that overlooks the Old Town. Learn plenty about Basque cuisine, txakoli wine and even make a Gilda of your own.

The class is really hands on, allowing you to visit the food market for supplies before heading back to a masterclass with a private chef. You'll go home with cooking tips and spend time making and tasting the creations, whilst you sip wine. Now that's good value, right?!

Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 27, 20003 primero, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Email: [email protected]

Walking Pintxos Tour in Donostia San Sebastian

Go Local San Sebastian Tours

Highly recommended informal, knowledgable and enjoyable guides to San Sebastian and the Basque Region. 

On this tour you'll discover both modern and traditional spots, whilst learning all about the secrets of San Sebastian. It's a chance to brush up on your history, but also to feast!

Address: Sarriegi Plaza, 9, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Email: [email protected]

Red funicular at the station in San Sebastian

Visiting San Sebastian

How to Get to San Sebastian

By Air

The closest airport  is San Sebastian airport. It's on the small side but does connect to the much larger cities of Barcelona and Madrid. 

Bilbao Airport is 105km away but has connections to all of Europe. Biarritz Airport is 47km away (in France) and is an international airport.

All of these airports have shuttle buses that will take you to San Sebastian.

By Car

If you'd prefer to take a car, the drive is basically a straight shot on the highway from the airports. You could also park your car at the Ficoba Exhibition Center in Irun and take the Euskotren train to San Sebastian which is about a 40 minute train ride from Irun. This is a good option for some because parking may be rather difficult in San Sebastian and you may have to pay for underground parking.

By Train

Traveling by train is another option. Renfe, Eusko, and SNCF are trains that run long distance and locally. Finally, traveling by bus is possible with lines that run all over Spain and part of Europe. They recently added a station in San Sebastian. If you take the Renfe train to San Sebastian, the Dbus bus line has connections you can make into town.

The Dbus bus line takes cashe (bills smaller than 20 euros), credit cards, or a variety of public transportation cards such as the SSCARD or BASQUECARD which are popular tourist cards. 

By Campervan

Years ago, on my first visit to San Seb, we stayed at the campsite on the edge of town. If you happen to travel by campervan, you can park and have water and electricity hookups. The maximum stay is 3 days and it charges the same amount as the car meters: 7.76 euros in the high season and 3.3 the rest of the year. 

Sand shore with churning water along the coast from Donostia San Sebastian Spain

Along the coast from San Sebastian

Getting Around San Sebastian

Use public transport! It's the only sane choice, although, obviously more options are available. The Tourist Card is "the key to the city." It not only allows you to travel about San Sebastian but also extends to Gipuzkoa and provides discounts on participating restaurants, shops, and museums. There are also taxis, car rentals and places to park your car if you choose to drive. If you look at the website I'll provide at the end, it is possible to click on the underground pay parkings and see how full each of them are.

You could even walk if you'd like: the coast where the major attractions lie is only 6km long. All of the important information with parking, travel, maps, shopping guides and the answer to all of you major traveling questions with other helpful links can be found on the San Sebastian - Donostia website here.

Disclosure - although I've visited San Sebastian before, this latest trip came about through a partnership between iAmbassador and San Sebastian Tourism. However, my thoughts on tapas, pintxos, and all things food related remain mine, all mine, because life's too short to have it any other way. 


Food Guide

  • I have had tapas served covering a drink in Andalucia! And in Madrid. Tapas also are often free, especially in Andalucia. Pintxos are a joy too, of course. And a very different thing. When do we go back?! :)

    • No WAY! How funny. Three years in Seville and never once did I see this. I MUST eat out with you more often – you know all the best places and all the right questions. I did have free tapas in Granada, though, but never Seville. I do miss the type you’d get at the roadside service stations, though. Homemade on the premises, oozing with flavour and cheaper than a packet of salt n vinegar crisps. Lovely. You’re right. When do we go back?!!!! :-)

  • We call both styles tapas here in the Costa Blanca area and I just love them! The other day I had a pickled green aubergine stuffed with pimento. It was so good! I am going up north next month and will remember to call them pintxos.

    • I just LOVE the pimientos de padron (or Guernica.) So simple, so tasty…Eat some for me please!

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