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?
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for “Foodies”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.