The sheer number of pintxo bars in San Sebastián is overwhelming, and while the quality is generally superb, it does vary from place to place. With this guide we attempt to provide a curated selection of our personal favourites, though it’s important to remember this is not an exhaustive list.
These aren’t just places with high-quality and reasonably priced food; they also have a uniquely vibrant atmosphere. A favourite among both locals and tourists is the ‘pintxo crawl’ or txikiteo. This involves hopping from bar to bar, eating and drinking until full, slightly inebriated, or both. However, since our visits to the Basque country tend to be brief, we instead treat pintxos like a light meal, leaving room to visit the great restaurants of the region like Mugaritz, Etxebarri or Elkano.
Not only food
We also find that San Sebastián, ever touristic, reveals its true charm in the off-season, offering a more authentic experience even if the weather isn’t always ideal. Renowned for its food scene and excellent surfing conditions, San Sebastián (Donostia in euskara) is also home to the art of local sculptor Eduardo Chillida. His ‘Comb of the Wind’, situated at La Concha’s western end, is within walking distance from the city centre. For a deeper appreciation of Chillida’s work, a visit to the museum designed by artist himself, located just a 15-minute drive south of the city, is highly recommended.
Our pintxo bar list
Most of our selected bars are located within a two or three-minute walking distance in the old town of Donostia.
Bar Txepetxa specialises in anchovies and boquerones, offering fourteen different combinations. These can be either cured or marinated, and are often accompanied by vegetables or other seafood. The flavours are simple and pure, with a strong emphasis on using high-quality ingredients. At the same time, it offers an ambiance that is distinctly Spanish, all within a tiny space adorned with plenty of photographs of family and celebrities. Perfect for locals and tourists looking to immerse themselves in the culture without feeling like guiri.
Our favourite servings are the most traditional: the boquerón with a sauce of crab, the boquerón with jardinera and the anchovy with pimiento del piquillo. Whether you are on a pintxo crawl or just having a quick snack, this spot is worth a stop. With some luck you might even bump into Andoni Aduriz.
Just a minute walk west of Txepetxa, you’ll discover El Tamboril, with superb croquetas de jamón that can rival even those from Echaurren. Each croqueta is encased in an exceptionally thin and crispy breading, so delicate that the creamy béchamel filling seeps out as soon as you take a bite. The combination of the finest Basque dairy with top-quality jamón Ibérico is hard to beat. And if you haven’t had your fill of anchovies at Txepetxa, try El Tamboril’s fried anchovies – they are truly excellent.
For a more substantial meal, we recommend Ganbara. On the ground floor, you’ll find a bar serving pintxos, while a more formal dining experience awaits in the downstairs dining room. The atmosphere is still warm and welcoming, frequented by local families enjoying their Sunday lunch, and the service is relaxed yet professional.
Ganbara’s culinary reputation is built on its exceptional seafood and mushroom dishes. They are particularly renowned for their revuelto de hongos, txangurro a la donostiarra, and excellent croquetas. If available, a must-try is the goose barnacles (percebes), which are on par with those of Etxebarri’s, albeit smaller. The wine list deserves attention too, showcasing a modern Spanish selection with notable hidden gems from France and Italy, such as Emidio Pepe – Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2013, which was excellent during our last visit.
Every meal of ours traditionally ends with a dessert, and in San Sebastián, the ultimate choice is La Viña. Interestingly, many are unaware that La Viña is where the now-famous Basque cheesecake first originated in the 1990s. This dessert has since gained international fame, featured on nearly every menu in London and every baking website. After tasting several variations and even preparing it ourselves (using the original recipe), we are convinced that few compare to La Viña’s original ‘tarta de queso’.
The recipe has been widely replicated, with varying degrees of success. This has affected people’s perception of the original concept, causing confusion. In our eyes, the original remains a sophisticated dessert, a quality that remains intact even when harshly dumped in a simple plastic takeaway box, as they do in La Viña. Three attributes stand out: its texture, the caramelisation, and the distinct cheese flavour.
- The texture: Many aim for an extremely soft Basque cheesecake, as runny as possible, to the point where it more closely resembles a lava cake. The original tarta de queso has a gradient of textures with a significant difference in ‘doneness’ from the middle to the edge. It must be firmer at the edges and soft and creamy in its centre, but never raw and liquid.
- The caramelisation: The term ‘Basque cheesecake’ is often used interchangeably with ‘burnt Basque cheesecake’. Despite the unflattering description, the original is certainly not burnt. It’s indeed bien cuit, featuring a mix of lighter and darker spots, but is never charred.
- The last and the most crucial – the flavour of the cheese. The original is made with local dairy, and its flavour will be hard to replicate outside of the Basque country. While it’s not clear whether this cheese is made from cow’s or sheep’s milk, its distinctive flavour is undeniably recognizable. Resorting to industrial cream cheeses as alternatives, which are notably bland, drastically strays from the original’s authentic taste.
As a bonus, right in front of the cathedral, we will conclude with our beloved Narru, a restaurant we recommend for any meal, from breakfast to dinner. Nestled on the ground floor of a four-star hotel, Narru serves as a bar during the day, seamlessly transitioning to a restaurant for lunch and dinner. For breakfast, try their pan con tomate with jamón Ibérico. While this is easy to get in any bar around the corner, their version is simply delicious.
When turned into a restaurant, Narru offers all the Basque staples. The focus here is on selecting high-quality ingredients, which then are minimally processed and cooked with precision. On the menu, you’ll find an array of seafood starters, including a noteworthy ventresca, and grilled fish dishes a la Elkano, like sea bream, sole, hake, or turbot. They also serve txuleta in the style of Casa Julián in Tolosa as well as a few classic desserts. The wine list here is also excellent, with a surprisingly modern selection of Spanish wines. Do yourself a favour and try the Remírez de Ganuza Blanco. Additionally, about a third of the wine list is dedicated to some of the finest French wines, including Lahaye, Selosse, Lamy, Pattes Loup, or Dujac.