How to Find the Best Pintxos in San Sebastian (And the Stories Behind It)

By Abi King | Food

Nov 15
How to find the best pintxos in San Sebastian - including pinchos tours

Pintxos in San Sebastian

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

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?

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

What is the difference between pintxos and tapas?

It’s pintxos in San Sebastian, and indeed the rest of the Basque country and Navarre (another part of Europe’s rich historical patchwork quilt: this one takes in 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”. Which, all linguistics aside, brings us to the more pressing tasty point: pintxos tastes different to tapas.

It is indeed different food.

Spiked pintxos in San Sebastian via @insidetravellab

The Legends of Pintxos

Legend has it that the pinchos/pintxos transmutation came as a result of the toothpicks used to “pinch” (or stab, if you ask me) the food together.

Tapas, so the old saying goes, comes from the Spanish word for “cover.” And while I never saw anyone cover anything when it came to food in Seville, tapas was altogether a less elaborately constructed affair.

Manchego cheese would arrive in an earthenware dish, swilling in oil. Albondigas (meatballs) would arrive 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.

Pintxos in San Sebastian - the atmosphere's half the fun

But lest you think I have veered off into academia, when I should just be noshing down (or whatever it is the kids do actually say these days,) let’s forget about semantics and get to the point.

Pintxos in San Sebastian: How you eat it

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 to be to everyone’s taste.

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

…or occasionally you need to ask the bartender to plate you out some morsels with the good old fashioned point and smile technique refined through the travelling ages.

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.)

Iconic 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.

There’s so much more I could say about the food in San Sebastian but I’d better call it a day for now. 

However, let me leave you with a “further reading” section of tastebud tickledom.

Or, in more usual language, a tried and tested list of suggestions of great places for pintxos in San Sebastian.

Just don’t call it tapas.

Self Guided San Sebastian Pintxos Tour

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. 

Gandarias

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

La Cepa

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

Basque Cooking Class and Pintxos Guide in San Sebastian

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.

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. 

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

If you happen to travel there in a campervan, there is a place you can park your campervan 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. 

Getting Around San Sebastian

Use public transport! It's the only sane choice, although, obviously more options available. The Tourist Card is "the key to the city." It not only allows you to travel about San Sebastian, it also allows you to travel to Gipuzkoa and gives you discounts on participating restaurants, shops, and museums. There are also taxis, car rentals and places to park your car available 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 line with all of the major attractions 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. 

A pintxos guide to the best pintxos in San Sebastian, Spain. Pronounced  - pinchos - this great way of eating bursts with history and flavour in the Basque country. Meet La Gilda, cheese, jamon, olives and more. #Foodandtravel #SanSebastian #pintxos #pinchos #tapas #TravelSpain
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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Niamh says:

    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?! :)

    • Abi says:

      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.

    • Abi King says:

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

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