Why San Sebastian is the Best Food Destination in the World
Mouth-watering food, picturesque buildings and white sandy beaches. Imagine a small Paris, located on the water, with way fewer tourists and with a Basque twist, all in one easy to navigate city. That is San Sebastian. This town is considered by many to be the best food destination in the world. We visited this jewel of Northern Spain about two years ago. We were not disappointed.
A Foodie’s Paradise
San Sebastian is arguably one of the best cities in the world to enjoy a meal. The city alone has 16 Michelin stars spread across 9 restaurants and famously boasts more stars per capita than anywhere else in the world other than Tokyo. Here’s a recent review of top places to eat in San Sebastian.
San Sebastián is famous for its pintxos (we’ll explain those a little later). And the best place to go to try some of them is the Parte Vieja (Old Part).
This charming old city center is famous for having the highest concentration of bars in the world. This is where the pintxo is king and the food and drink are taken very seriously.
Michelin Star Restaurants
The city alone has 16 Michelin stars spread across 9 restaurants and famously boasts more stars per capita than anywhere else in the world other than Tokyo.
Led by world famous chef Juan Mari Arzak Arzak is considered one of the best restaurants in the world. Featuring 3 Michelin stars, it offers vanguardist cuisine with a Basque spirit, which keeps evolving and renovating itself.
This 2 Michelin stars restaurant focuses on eating as an experience. Weaving in stories, smells, textures, tastes, incredible sounds, provocations and many more stimuli in search of pleasure.
Restaurant Martín Berasategui
Another 3 Michelin star restaurant, this time from chef Martín Berasategui. It offers an harmonious mixture of vanguardist and traditional cuisine, always genuine and a perfect formula.
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If Michelin star dining is not your speed, don’t worry. San Sebastian still has much more to offer.
Famous for having the highest concentration of bars in the world, this town elevates bar hopping to another level. The combination of casual dining, fine drinking with an incredibly high level of culinary quality is unmatched anywhere else in the world.
San Sebastián is world famous for its pintxos. And, as previously mentioned, the best place to go to try some of them is the Parte Vieja (Old Part).
The Old Town
The old town is filled with charming narrow streets, old european architecture and a friendly bar or eatery around every corner. You could easily hop between 8-10 cozy spots on a single block and leave each one with a unique culinary experience.
From Foie Gras to octopus you’ll find unique Basque delicacies taken to another level. All this of course amongst a super relaxed environment where you stop, take in a bite, a glass of Spanish wine and move on to the next amazing little spot. One really amazing way to experience this all is through the txikiteo. We did a txikiteo every night we were there (3 nights of amazing memories) and it was worth it every time.
The txikiteo is similar to a pub crawl, except instead of the focus being solely on drinking, delicious pintxos are thrown into the mix. The concept here is to go from one bar to another sampling pintxos with a fine wine or beer. This is usually done by groups of friends and is most popular on Friday and Saturday nights.
This is a classic spread that can be found at one of the many bars in the Old Town. You can order as little as one or as many as you can fit on a plate. The challenge here is to leave room for the amazing gastronomic experience next door!
What does “pintxo” mean?
Although they are similar to tapas, generally speaking, pintxos are smaller. The name comes from the Spanish verb “pinchar” meaning to poke or stab.
Historically, pintxos used to be served on a small slice of bread and have a toothpick piercing them through the middle (thereof the name). However, with the evolution of Basque cuisine, pintxos have become much more diverse and these days only some of them are pierced to a piece of bread.
Pintxos or pinchos?
Sometimes you will see these bite-size appetizers referred to as “pintxos,” others as “pinchos.” Both ways are correct. Throughout the Basque Country the most common spelling of the word is “pintxo” (which is the correct spelling in the Basque language), however the Spanish spelling (pincho) is also sometimes used.
How to eat pintxos?
The best way to enjoy pintxos depends on where you are. In some bars, especially in San Sebastian, you take an empty plate from the counter and serve yourself. At the end, you tell the waiter how many pintxos you had and he will charge you accordingly.
However in other places, you order the pintxos as you order a drink and the waiter serves you. Generally speaking, we recommend you to tell the waiter what you want. If he hands you an empty plate, it means that you are free to serve yourself.
Royal History of San Sebastian
The city became famous during the Belle Époque era when Queen Maria Cristina established her royal summerhouse. Evidence of San Sebastián’s glamorous past can still be seen throughout the city.
With its three beautiful beaches, San Sebastian became the summer capital of Europe during the reign of the Queen Regent Maria Cristina. Over the years, the city hasn’t lost any of its Bellé Epoque charm and today is still a popular tourist destination for travelers from around the world.
Despite its relatively small size (186,000 inhabitants), international events are also held here. The most famous of these is the San Sebastián International Film Festival.
Ayuntamiento (city hall)
The city hall, one of the most majestic buildings of San Sebastián. It is located in a beautiful location alongside the water and the well-maintained Alderdi Eder Gardens
Originally built in 1882 as a casino hall, it once hosted parties of the Belle Époque era, when Europe’s bourgeoisie and aristocracy spent their summers in San Sebastian
During World War I, the casino was filled with an eclectic mix of political refugees, spies (such as Mata Hari) and those wealthy enough to flee the fighting in the north. Later on during the Spanish Civil War, the building was also caught up in the fighting between the nationalists and republicans. Today, bullet holes can still be seen on the facade of the building as a result of the bloody fighting that took place alongside it.
The Kursaal is a postmodern convention center which opened in 1999 and was designed by Rafael Moneo. It is located on the shore next the Zurriola Beach and was designed to represent “two beached rocks.”
During the day, the building can seem quite subdued. However, at night it completely changes as the whole façade lights up and functions as a kind of giant billboard advertising whatever function is going on at the time in the city.
La Concha, the most beautiful urban beach in Europe, is adorned by luxurious beachside mansions as well as the famous spa called La Perla (The Pearl). Its boardwalk is lined by an ornate white railing that has become a symbol of the city. There are, however, two other beaches in the city both of which are less posh and more relaxed: Ondarreta and Zurriola. Zurriola is also popular with surfers.
Of the three beaches in San Sebastián, La Concha is the most famous. Worldwide renowned for its almost perfectly arched bay, it is without a doubt Europe’s most beautiful urban beach.
Queen Regent Maria Cristina is responsible for making La Concha famous in the middle of the nineteen century, when she started frequenting it and declared San Sebastián the summer capital of Europe. Afterwards, the city became fashionable and the aristocracy started to visit San Sebastian, building mansions on the shore, most of which are still visible today. This is also when La Perla Spa opened and gained notoriety as one of the best spas of Europe.
The promenade of La Concha is a symbol of the city. When visiting San Sebastian, make sure you take time to walk along it, from the Old Town to the Miramar Palace. On the promenade you can enjoy the atmosphere and the views of the Santa Clara island and the Cantabrian Sea. If you still feel like walking when you get to the Miramar Palace, you can continue all the way to the Peine del Viento, crossing Ondarreta beach.
Panoramic View From Mount Igueldo
Mount Igueldo is located in the western corner of the city, between Ondarreta Beach and the Peine del Viento. From the top of the mount, you can enjoy some of the best views of San Sebastián.
The main attraction is an old amusement park, which opened its doors in 1911 and is one of the oldest in the Basque Country. If you do decide to go in, don’t expect too much. The park is small, old and a little run down. It is more about the charm of the place, situated in a perfect location
Next to the amusement park stands a tower called “El Torreón.” Originally built in the 16th century, the tower served as the lighthouse of San Sebastian until a new one was built in 1854.
Currently, the tower is open to visitors and holds an exhibition in the stairwell with many historic photos. It only costs a few euros to climb the tower and it does offer great views, however, they aren’t that much better than the already great views that can be had for free on the terraces by the funicular.
There is also a hotel at the top of Mount Igueldo. What originally served as the casino-restaurant of the Mount Igueldo, became the Hotel Mercure Monte Igueldo in 1967. If you want to wake up to some impressive views of the San Sebastian bay, then this is probably the perfect place for you.
The best way to get to the top of Mount Igueldo is by using the funicular railway which has been operating since 1912 and is the oldest in the Basque Country.
Getting around in San Sebastián
Once you are in San Sebastián, most places are reachable by foot. If you need to go from one end to the other, then the bus system is quite easy to use as well. Another good option is to rent a bike at one of the numerous bike rental companies. The city has many bike paths (30 km of them) and overall, San Sebastian is pretty bike friendly. Riding along the beaches and taking a tour around Mount Urgull is definitely recommended.
However you choose to visit San Sebastian it is difficult not to come away with a unique experience. Whether it’s the food, the beaches or the charm of this seaside royal town, San Sebastian should be near the top of any foodie’s destination list.
Let us know if you agree in the comments!