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San Sebastian, the world's best epicurean destination

A blend of traditional Basque recipes and avant-garde cooking techniques that just hits the right spot, this charming city is world-famous for its top-notch food

March 25, 2023 / 04:39 PM IST
San Sebastián boasts stunning outdoors, golden beaches, lush hillsides, and a flourishing art and music culture (Image: Pixabay)

San Sebastián boasts stunning outdoors, golden beaches, lush hillsides, and a flourishing art and music culture (Image: Pixabay)

A picturesque resort town in Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, San Sebastián boasts stunning outdoors, golden beaches, lush hillsides, and a flourishing art and music culture. But what makes this charming city world-famous is its top-notch food. Its distinctive culture, fresh local ingredients and creative preparations have helped shape San Sebastian into an outstanding destination for those who like to savour a good meal.

There’s something about the blend of traditional Basque recipes and avant-garde cooking techniques that just hits the right spot, and anyone who’s ever eaten in San Sebastian knows why this coastal town is considered one of the world’s top epicurean destinations.

Using time-tested recipes that reflect the region’s unique culture, the decadent dishes here demonstrate not only admirable culinary expertise but also immense pride for local traditions and history.

Boasting countless Michelin-starred restaurants, a thriving pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) bar scene, lively local markets and home-grown wines and ciders, it’s no wonder that San Sebastian is often known as one of the world’s most exciting culinary destinations. Here are some of the unmissable gastronomical delights that make this gourmet city a connoisseur’s heaven.

Michelin- starred restaurants

You haven’t experienced Spanish cuisine well enough until you have visited one of the Basque Country’s gastronomy-defining restaurants. The Michelin Guide is the world’s most highly regarded and their global rating system is a universal indicator of quality. San Sebastian is home to nearly a score of Michelin-starred restaurants helmed by innovative chefs, earning the city the distinction of the most Michelin stars per square kilometre in Europe.

Reserve well in advance and enjoy a gourmand experience of a lifetime.
The exceptional three Michelin-starred Akelaŕe, Arzak and Martin Berasategui feature à la carte and tasting menus with impeccable presentation and scrumptious flavours— from volcanic oysters with smoked vegetables, foie gras bonbons, caviar with cauliflower purée, to smoked eel and jelly sorbets.

Martin Berasategui Martin Berasategui is popular among diners for his impeccable presentation

Innovative cooking at chef Martin Berasategui’s eMe Be Garrote includes a quirky smoked pork belly carbonara with salsify and bacon ice cream, while unimaginable creativity at two Michelin-starred Mugaritz such as edible stones and candy caviar will leave you astounded.

Don’t miss the signature kokotxas, a traditional Basque fish stew, at the popular Elkano.

In recent times, The Zelai Txiki restaurant has been awarded a Michelin Green Star in the 2023 Guide, a nod towards its philosophy based on sustainability and circular economy.

Zelai Txiki restaurant The Zelai Txiki restaurant has been awarded a Michelin Green Star in the 2023 Guide

Other noteworthy restaurants offering a true Basque experience include Alameda, Amelia, Mirador de Ulía and Zuberoa, among others.

Pintxo bars

Spain has tapas, but the Basque Country has a new spin on it— pintxos. This tasty snack is a type of finger-food that was originally a slice of baguette with any combination of fish, meat, cheese or vegetable topping, and has now evolved to include more sophisticated, tapas-style snacks. Invented in San Sebastian, the name translates as ‘spike’ or ‘thorn’ because this type of tapas is commonly served on the end of a cocktail stick.

Travellers have a choice of hundreds of pintxo bars in San Sebastian to fit their budgets and get their fill of these delicious versatile snacks. The most quintessential bite is the ‘Gilda’, a toothpick skewer of pickled guindilla peppers, manzanilla olives and anchovies.

La Cuchara de San Telmo, Casa Vergara and Bar Zeruko are popular pintxo bars that deliver some of the best. Bar Sport is a popular choice for grilled foie gras on toast and Restaurante Bare Restaurant stands out for its glistening anchovies, prawns and crab.  Ganbara’s croquetas bring regulars flocking for more, while La Espiga and Sansse are best for seasonal delicacies.

La Cuchara La Cuchara de San Telmo is among most popular pintxo bars in San Sebastian

Other great places to try pintxos include Borda Berri, Atari Gastroteka and Bar Txepetxa.

Seafood culture and fresh food markets:

Located right on the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian’s signature local dishes revolve around seafood, such as the fried salt cod of bacalao pil pill, the hake cheeks of kokotxas, the world-famous anchovies, or the stewed tuna of marmitako. The freshest top-quality ingredients— fresh meat and fish, seasonal vegetables and local cheeses— are available at markets such as Mercado de San Martin and form the base for outstanding creations.

Located in the basement of a shopping centre, Mercado de La Bretxa is another picturesque fresh market from where award-winning chefs are known to source their ingredients, including olives, oil, wine and Iberia ham.

Home-grown beverages

It’s no surprise that a region world-renowned for its exceptional food also boasts delicate sparkling wines, apple cider and strong liqueurs to wash down your delectable meal. San Sebastian and its surrounding towns produce great wine, with the dry, fruity Txakolí white wine pairing best with seafood.

A mere 1.5-hour drive away is the world-famous wine region Rioja, so get your fix at the many bars and restaurants in the city. The vibrant Rekondo restaurant in particular stands out for housing the best wine cellar in Spain, with over 100,000 bottles of wine on site and the wine list running to a staggering 300 pages.

Cider is one of the locally, seasonally produced beverages made with fermented apple juice and the city is teeming with sagardotegias (cider houses) using traditional methods to produce this crisp and tangy drink.

When in San Sebastian, one cannot miss the traditional Spanish vermouth and some of the best places to try this speciality include Bar Roberto, Sirimiri and A Fuego Negro. Order a cocktail or a local red vermouth on the rocks and toast to cultural enlightenment.


Pasteleria Oiartzun Pasteleria Oiartzun is known for its special pastel vasco

What’s a good meal without a delightful sweet treat to finish it off? Your sweet tooth can be indulged at local pastry shops with famous dense classics such as the pastel vasco and pantxineta. Pasteleria Oiartzun is known for its special pastel vasco, and Casa Otaegui ranks most popular for its pantxineta, while La Viña is recognised for offering the most famous baked cheesecakes in Spain.

Karishma Jagtiani
Karishma Jagtiani is a Mumbai-based independent writer on travel and lifestyle. Views expressed are personal.