The Wonderful World of San Sebastian Pintxos 2023
Eating pintxos in San Sebastian is one of the culinary glories of visiting Spain. Read on for a local’s guide on what to eat and where to find it.
While the south of the country is feted for its tapas culture, the north – especially the Basque Country – is known for pintxos (or pinchos the Spanish word).
Pintxos are small dishes typically served on a slice of baguette, with one or more ingredients held together by a toothpick or skewer (a pincho in Spanish).
This means that a single pincho is not just a gorgeous example of Basque gastronomy, it also allows the chef to create a combination of colors, flavors, and textures, all on a small plate.
While tapas were originally a cheap accompaniment to a drink – a tapa, meaning a “cover”, literally covered the customer’s glass.
Pintxos have always been more at the sophisticated end of things, and in San Sebastián, a city with more Michelin-starred restaurants per square meter than any other city in the world, this is more than evident.
However, pintxos share some things with tapas, including the most typical way to eat them: going from bar to bar on a pintxos crawl – what the locals call txikiteo.
This comes from the name of the small beer glasses which often accompany a pintxo: txikitos. And if you would prefer a glass of white or red wine, these are also served in small glasses called txatos.
Another tradition when you eat pintxos is to keep the toothpicks and show them to the bar staff so they can tot up your bill with them!
If all that has your mouth watering, read on for my San Sebastian pintxos guide – what to try in this amazing city and where to try it.
Pintxos you must try
Sticking with the seafood vibe, anchovies are big in Basque cuisine, and you will find them on many kinds of pintxos in San Sebastian – including some surprising pairings such as anchovies with papaya!
For those of us who have only experienced anchovies on pizza, they might not be the most attractive ingredient, but look at it like this: if anywhere in the world is going to convince you of the charms of the anchovy, it is San Sebastian.
The Basque people are closely identified with sailing, and so the excellent seafood on offer in San Sebastian should come as no surprise.
Mussels, freshly caught in the Bay of Biscay, are a typical favorite. Look out for mejillones (mussels) or mejillones tigres (tiger mussels). The latter is topped with a strongly flavored, spicy red sauce.
One of my favorite things about Spanish cuisine is how much variety you get from region to region.
Whether that is because of the varied climate or the strong regional identities present throughout Spain, it has a wonderful effect on the food, not least the cheese.
Idiazabal is one of Basque Country’s best-known cheeses.
Made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk in a tradition that stretches back nearly 8000 years (that’s not a typo!), this nutty, buttery cheese has enjoyed protected status since the 1990s.
It can play a part in any number of pintxos, but look out for it served with walnuts or membrillo (quince jelly).
Of course, San Sebastian hasn’t gained all those Michelin stars for seafood excellence alone. One signature meat dish would be solomillo (beef sirloin).
As with many tapas dishes, solomillo pintxos tend to let the main ingredient do the talking.
They might be served with something simple like green pepper, but the philosophy is to let the quality of the meat shine through.
While many names of pintxos are self-explanatory, the Gilda has a curious history. Named after the 1946 Rita Hayworth movie, the Gilda packs as much of a wallop as Ms. Hayworth herself.
As noted above, Basque cuisine leans heavily on anchovies, and two popular ingredients –manzanilla olives and guindilla peppers – are also present and correct here.
While Gildas lack the sophistication of some of the more elaborate pintxos, these bite-size, satisfying mouthfuls have a good case for being one of the most popular pintxos in the city, something of an ever-present.
Tortilla (omelet) can be found in every corner of Spain and it is a regular feature at pintxos bars.
As you might imagine, there is any number of variants, notably tortilla de patatas (Potato or Spanish Omelet).
In San Sebastian, it is typical to find versions laced with meat or seafood. Tortilla de morcilla (made with blood sausage) or tortilla de bacalao (with salt cod) are two popular options.
While pintxos are typically thought of as the savory bar snack par excellence, you will also find dessert options.
None would be more traditionally Basque than the pantxineta, a flaky custard tart topped with almonds.
If you have ever had a Bakewell or frangipane tart you will already have an idea of what to expect: a delicious sweet to cap off your night with.
San Sebastian Pintxos Bars
Now let’s take a look at some of San Sebastian’s best-loved pintxo bars. Choose a few items at each couple of bars to tide you over till dinner time.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
La Cuchara de San Telmo is probably the most famous of all the San Sebastian pintxos bars.
While the restaurant is somewhat hidden away down an alleyway off the San Telmo Museum, in recent years, its success has been reinforced by thousands of glowing reviews online.
Meat dishes, including cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig), beef cheeks, and crispy pork are among their biggest sellers.
For those of you open to foie gras – a local specialty – the foie gras pintxos here are extremely well-regarded.
Where: Santa Korda Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Another candidate for many locals’ favorite pintxos bar is Gandaris Jatetxea.
Due to its popularity, it can often be crammed with people, despite being a large eatery with both a bar area and a formal dining section.
If you are mapping out a pintxos crawl, it might be better to schedule your visit Gandaris Jatetxea during off-peak hours.
A big selling point here is that while many pintxos bars close in the afternoon, Gandarias doesn’t, so you can make a beeline for it early before heading elsewhere in the evening.
Here you will find excellent options for both meat and seafood lovers. Their rocheta de cordero (lamb brochette) is a juicy, succulent dish, and Gandaris Jatetxea is another place famed for its foie gras.
Perhaps one of the most eye-catching dishes is the erizo de mar (sea urchin).
Though not for the faint-hearted, they are made with uni (sea urchin roe), salmon roe and are one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
Another favorite option here is the cremini mushroom with shrimp pintxo. Simple but effective, locally caught shrimp sits on the button-like head of the mushroom.
Where: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23
Similar in feel to Gandaris Jatetxea, Meson Portaletas (Puerto Kalea, 21) is a popular, upmarket alternative, distinct from some of the more rough and ready pintxos bars.
A visit to Meson Portaletas, which has a medieval stone wall as an eye-catching feature in its dining area, is an opportunity to add a little sophistication to your evening.
Just five minutes’ walk from the sea, it is perhaps no surprise that it is known for its seafood pintxos: scallops, shrimp cod, salmon and crabs are among the most-lauded.
As well as offering a range of meat pintxos – among others, you will find beef cheek, duck, foie-gras, scallops, and Iberian acorn-fed pork, Meson Portaletas also has modern pintxos with vegetarian and gluten-free options on the menu.
Where: Puerto Kalea, 21
Gorriti Taberna is one of the best pintxos bars in San Sebastian and is popular with tourists and locals alike.
From the outside, it does not look like anything special at all, but once inside you find a mix of down-to-earth, unpretentious charm and gastronomic excellence.
Fish lovers have to try the sardine or cod pintxos, while meat eaters are advised to check out the chicharrones (pork belly) pintxo.
Some visitors might be put off by the lack of English spoken, but the fact that it is not the most touristy place in town is part of its attraction for many.
Where: De la Brecha Enparantza, 2,
Taberna Ttun Ttun
The Taberna Ttun Ttun is another unassuming tavern more popular with locals than tourists.
That lack of an international reputation can be helpful, as one of the few downsides to a pintxos crawl in San Sebastian is the sheer number of people vying to get served in some of the better-known spots.
Light and airy, Taberna Ttun Ttun is, then, a more relaxed spot than other bars to order pintxos.
The narrow bar offers many delights, from hot pintxos to Spanish tortilla, pickled peppers, and other cold pintxos.
Here it is worth underlining the quality of the seafood pintxos, which include some dishes you might not find in other pintxos bars, like angula (baby eel).
They are also not afraid to borrow from cuisines from the rest of Spain.
Pulpo gallego might be the most Galician dish imaginable, but here the octopus – boiled until it has a pasta-like texture, chopped, and served with paprika – gets the locals’ seal of approval.
Where: San Jeronimo Kalea, 25
Sidreria Beharri is a sagardotegi (cider house), which gives you a chance to sample another local specialty.
Cider – that’s strong cider for American readers – is a big deal in the Basque Country.
With a similar strength to beer, cider is served in most countries in a similar way to lager.
In Spain, however, it often sits alongside the champagne and cava in supermarkets, and you will notice not only the elegant bottles but the rather showy way in which bartenders tend to serve them.
At Sidreria Beharri, there is the added attraction of the huge cider barrels, from which the drink is poured directly during cider season: January to May.
For those familiar with British or French brands of cider, Basque cider can be surprisingly tart.
The chef here seeks to offset that tartness with the tasting menu, which includes cod, steak, and cheese pintxos – as well as apple jelly.
Where: Narrika Kalea, 22
With mussels being such a local specialty, it’s no wonder that La Mejillonera is so popular.
This rowdy, nautically-themed joint in the heart of the old town is standing room only, and you are just as likely to find yourself next to local workmen as tourists.
Order the mussels steamed (al vapor) or served in a variety of sauces, including tomato, white wine, or garlic.
In case you had any doubt about the restaurant’s main dish, there is a dedicated trap under the bar where you toss the mussel shells!
Apart from the mussels, both the patatas bravas and calamares (squid) come highly recommended.
Where: Calle del Puerto, 15
Ignore the name: the patrons at Bar Sport are far too interested in the gorgeous pintxos on offer to worry about Real Sociedad’s latest game.
Obviously made with great love and care, the pintxos here include some interesting desserts such as crepes and cheesecake.
It’s also a fun place for a drink, with the bartenders taking great delight in pouring txakoli – a slightly sparkling, dry white wine from the Basque Country – from dizzying heights.
Where: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 10
The Gros neighborhood may have become trendy in recent years but Bodega Donostiarra has been serving pintxos since 1928.
Another destination that teems with hungry locals, you might have to fight for a little space at the bar or a table, but it is a worthy cause.
Specialties of the house include the pulled beef but without a doubt the show stopper la brocheta de pulpo y langostinos, a mix of octopus and shrimp hanging from a metal skewer.
Where: Peña y Goñi Kalea, 13
Finally, the Antonio Bar opens at 7.30 am, which means it is a great option if you want a pintxo for breakfast.
Its tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet) is packed with caramelized onions and potatoes and is one of the best-loved in the city.
Where: Bergara Kalea, 3
Learn even more about Pintxos bar
Want someone to guide you on a San Sebastian pintxos tour?
Several companies can offer you a San Sebastian food tour to give you a background to this popular Northern Spain eats and help you find the most popular pintxos bars in the city.
Here are two of our favorite food tours:
San Sebastian: Ultimate Pintxos & Wine Evening Tour – Devour Tours
This three-hour tour takes you to 6 pintxos bars, including some of the oldest in the city.
As you enjoy local beer, wine, and ciders, learn about Basque culture and history and leave armed with a list of places serving the best food to visit over the rest of your visit.
San Sebastian: Gourmet Pintxo Tour – Local Experts Tours
On this 2-hour tour, you will visit bars in the old town. Enjoy 4 pintxos chosen by experts at some of the best bars in the city.
Eat pintxo is paired with a different wine and this slightly shorter tour leaves you with enough of an appetite to enjoy a sit-down meal afterward.
Available at lunch or dinner time and is wheelchair accessible.