It is sometimes said that the best pintxo route in San Sebastián begins in Landa, a hotel and restaurant approximately 234 kilometers north of Madrid in Burgos province and a popular stop for travelers en route to the Basque Country.
The building can be recognized from afar by the 14th-century stone tower that guards over it. The decoration might be described as rustic baroque, and the whole place exudes an air of calm that appeals to tourists, executives, grandmothers with greasy-chinned grandchildren, and even the odd proud Camino de Santiago pilgrim who stops by. Spending a little time in Landa is an elegant way of preparing oneself for what awaits in San Sebastián.
San Sebastián has a privileged location, varied architecture that tends toward the Belle Epoque style, a compact size that’s perfect for an aimless stroll, and a gastronomic sophistication that borders on the insulting.
All of it conspires to disarm visitors despite the unstable weather. In fact, you can sometimes be positively grateful for a downpour that will stop making everything look so picture perfect. But the truth is there is no choice but to approach many of the city’s pintxos – the name for Basque tapas – as if you were contemplating a work of art from classical antiquity.
Although it is hard to get lost here, the beaches – Ondarreta, La Concha, Zurriola – the island of Santa Clara, and the Igeldo and Urgull hills make excellent landmarks when trying to find the hustle and bustle of the bars in the Old Quarter (Parte Vieja), located between the port and the Bretxa market.
After a late-morning walk along Zurriola beach, dominated by the two monoliths that make up the Kursaal Congress Center and Auditorium, it’s time for your first aperitivo of the day.
Nearby is the Bodega Donostiarra (13 Peña y Goñi street; bodegadonostiarra.com), open from 9.30am until midnight. The house specialty is the small roll filled with tuna, anchovy and a small hot pepper, which brings people in from across the city.
Close at hand is Bar Zabaleta (51 Zabaleta street), a friendly place whose tortilla is among the best in the Gros neighborhood. Smooth, appetizing, light, and with perfectly cooked potatoes, it even attracts people from neighboring France to sample it. A journalist from the French newspaper Sud Ouest dubbed the bar “the birthplace of the tortilla,” and who are we to disagree? It’s open from 8am to 11pm Monday to Saturday – Sundays, from midday.
After crossing the Kursaal bridge, on the left you pass the ostentatiously luxurious Hotel María Cristina, built in 1912 and designed by Charles Mewes, who was responsible for the Ritz in Madrid. But we’re headed for Zuloaga square, home to the San Telmo museum, located in a recently restored 16th-century Dominican convent.
After making our way over the Monte Urgull and enjoying the views of Zurriola beach, we climb down to the Paseo Nuevo to find Construcción vacía, a sculpture by Jorge Oteiza that was installed here in 2002, a year before his death. From here it’s a short walk round to the old port, which is lined with restaurants. The place to head for, though, is the Club Náutico, one of the city’s architectural treasures, and resembling a steamboat moored on land.
It’s not a bad idea to sit in the sun on the terrace of the Naútico in preparation for what lies ahead: total dedication to the pintxo, a custom closely tied to happiness. Let nothing stand in your way: there is no such thing as moderation.
31 de agosto street
If it’s past 12.30pm, then we need to be in Bar Néstor, at 11 Pescadería street: at 1pm a single tortilla is served, and as it only provides for 16 portions, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead. Some might laugh, but there are those who take this kind of thing very seriously. The bar is tiny, but the space is put to good use. There is just one table, and somebody has always booked it before you, but the waiters keep order at the bar.
At 1pm the tortilla is produced, and Néstor, bearing what looks like a straight-edge razor, calls out the names of the lucky few and shares it out, God-like. To our left is a Japanese couple, waiting anxiously. To the right, a couple from Mexico resist the temptation to take a photograph. The inside of the tortilla is runny, and it’s made from potatoes cooked al dente, onion, and green pepper: it’s absolutely delicious; as delicious as the tomato salad and its legendary txuleta, or beef steak.
After this, we head across the Plaza de la Constitución to reach 31 de agosto street. By this time, it’s a squeeze getting into Gandarias, at number 23, to try whatever is on offer: maybe mushroom and Idiazábal cheese risotto, or a skewered kidney, or maybe a txangurro (crab) tart. This is like being at the New Year’s concert in Vienna with Daniel Barenboim conducting.
Across Plaza de la Trinidad, the mushroom pinxto at La Cueva is awesome, and in front, the steaks at Txuleta, always served with fried peppers, seriously rock. On the same street, if you can get in, is La Cuchara de San Telmo, offering classics such as foie and pigs’ trotters. More innovative and eccentric is A fuego negro (31 de agosto street; afuegonegro.com), which has two tasting menus priced €35 and €50 each.
We shouldn’t forget Ganbara (19 San Jerónimo street), where the bar is piled high with mushrooms, or the modern Sirimiri (18 Nagusia street), which also serves cocktails. It’s always a good idea to finish up in La Viña (3, 31 de agosto street), where it is seen as bad manners not to try its creamy cheesecake.
La Concha and Monte Igeldo
Contented and restored, now’s a good time to go for a walk along the Paseo de La Concha. The Hotel Londres radiates peace and makes you dream of taking a siesta in front of the sea. Even in the fall, if the sun’s out, a barefoot walk on the beach is obligatory. Nobody is in a hurry. Nothing changes here, it seems. Past and present blend together with the future: after all, it’s impossible not to start thinking about dinner – all you want is for the hours to pass quickly so you can get back to the bars.
Ondarreta beach marks the end of our walk. Between June and October, this is where La Carpa holds court, the bar where everybody wants to be on long summer nights. Nearby is el Peine del Viento, Eduardo Chillida’s collection of steel sculptures encrusted in the rock face.
What we need to do now is take the cable car up Monte Igeldo. The amusement park at the top dates back more than a century and is surely one of the most retro in Europe. Be sure to try the little roller coaster that goes over a pool and edges over the cliff, inducing vertigo.
There is no nicer way to end the afternoon than to gaze out across the Bay of Biscay from up here, with the wise words of Stoic philosopher Epictetus echoing in your mind: “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”
01 Mushrooms with egg and foie – Ganbara
The delightful surtido de setas con yema y ‘foie’ fresco is made from a mix of wild mushrooms. It seems a shame to touch the plate, but mopping up that egg is even better than looking at it.
After 25 years in business, Ganbara is now a renowned bar that uses the best local produce.
Address: San Jerónimo, 21.
02 Tomato salad – Néstor
Only the best ingredients will do at Néstor. Take this simple dish: a tomato salad (ensalada de tomate). But the tomatoes taste like, well, tomatoes. The bar opened in 1980, and has always been a tribute to simplicity. Don’t look for anything fancy here – Néstor was the first to prove that you can eat a steak standing up. There is only one table, the mythical number 19, and it’s in high demand.
Address: Pescadería, 11.
03 Mushroom and idiazábal cheese risotto – Gandarias
Al dente, aromatic and creamy, the ‘risotto’ de hongos e idiazábal is one of the most popular hot pintxos at Gandarias. The skewered kidney (brocheta de riñón) is also worth the trouble. With prices that vary between €2 and €6, the pintxos are served with a smile and whatever explanations are necessary. Traditional Basque cuisine at its purest.
Address: 31 de agosto, 23.
04 Anchovies – Txepetxa
Txepetxa has been around for more than 80 years, and is dedicated heart and soul to anchovies (anchoas), whether they are served with tapenade, sea urchin (erizo de mar), or cream of lobster (crema de centolla)… US actress Glenn Close is a former visitor and ordered the surtido of eight anchovy pintxos (normally enough for two people). She also took away a couple of glasses with the bar’s name on as souvenirs.
Address: Pescadería, 5.
05 Grilled mushrooms – La Cueva
La Cueva is located in one of the Old Quarter’s most historic buildings, which miraculously survived the fire of 1813. Famous for its grilled food, the place’s champiñones a la plancha have given plenty of pleasure to humankind over the years and remain one of its most popular dishes. The seasonal cuisine here uses only the freshest ingredients.
Address: Plaza de la Trinidad.
06 Creamy cheesecake – La Viña
La Viña’s tarta de queso crema is a most decidedly creamy, light and delicate pudding, and provides good enough reason on its own to come to San Sebastián.
The portion is large, and at €5 it’s tempting to order seconds. Another option, of course, is to simply buy the whole cake for €45.
Address: 31 de agosto, 3.
07 Gilda – Sirimiri
One of San Sebastián’s best-known pintxos was supposedly invented in the 1950s as a tribute to Rita Hayworth. The dish comprises a tender Cantabrian anchovy embracing three pickled peppers (guindillas) and a stuffed olive. Sirimiri’s version never disappoints. The Gilda is fresh, stylish and hot: just like Hayworth in the famous movie of the same name.
Address: Mayor, 18.
08 Beef cheeks – La Cuchara de San Telmo
This is one of the best spots in town for short-order pintxos. The carrillera de ternera (slow-cooked beef cheek) literally melts in your mouth. This is haute cuisine on a miniature scale and at affordable prices. But you will find it hard squeezing in at the narrow bar, despite the two different doors leading into the establishment.
Address: 31 de agosto, 28.
09 Kobe mini hamburger – A fuego negro
Talk about reinventing the wheel: the innovative minihamburguesa de ‘kobe’ comprises ketchup bread, salmorejo mayonnaise, lettuce and onion rings, accompanied by plantain chips. Need we say more?
Address: 31 de agosto, 31.
10 Mini Completo – Bodega Donostiarra
This bodega has been serving the best preserved fish and seafood, along with the finest charcuterie, since 1928. This is where the Indurain was invented, a pintxo named in honor of the first Spaniard to win the Tour de France. It consists of a chunk of canned tuna, an anchovy and a spring onion, topped off with a pickled pepper. These days the mini completo, featuring tuna, anchovy and guindilla pepper, is unbeatable.
Address: Peña y Goñi, 13.