San Sebastian is one of those incredible European cities that you can’t help but fall in love with immediately. A small coastal town in the Basque Country, it lies just 12km from the French border and just an hour by bus from the famous art-hub that is Bilbao.
Known best for its incredible food scene, I couldn’t have been more excited to visit, and it’s safe to say that it absolutely lived up to the hype – for such a small city the number of incredible restaurants is unrivalled; it boasts two of the world’s top ten restaurants (as voted in 2018) and a total of 18 Michelin stars – there are three 3-Michelin star restaurants within the city itself, which is home to less than 200,000 people.
It’s not just fine-dining though; far from it. We visited one Michelin star restaurant, but honestly the quality of food in restaurants and bars all over the city is incredible.
Our favourite restaurant was undoubtedly Ganbara – it was so good that we visited twice during our short stay. Upstairs they have a pintxos bar, which is deservedly heaving with people and most definitely worth a visit. An absolute must-try is their croissants; wonderfully soft and buttery, filled with jamon or smoked fish and their mushrooms with egg yolk, but everything we had was fantastic. Sit downstairs for a more relaxed meal – the service is brilliant and although the incredible dishes can also be ordered upstairs, they’re so special that I felt that they absolutely deserved to be enjoyed properly at a leisurely pace, rather than crammed up against the next person in a tiny space more cramped than a London tube at rush hour.
If there’s one thing San Sebastian is famous for, it’s pintxos, and come the evenings, the Old Town is absolutely overflowing with people. Despite the huge number of bars and restaurants, each one is crammed full of people and in most cases, many of them spill out onto the streets too.
Most pintxos guides tell you to sample just one (max two) pintxos at each bar before moving onto the next, a rule which naturally we found impossible to stick to. I challenge even those with the strongest will power to resist piling up plates at each bar – the food is laid out so enticingly, each plate looking better than the previous one, and each bar having slightly different and unique offerings. Most places give you a plate so you’re free to help yourself, before handing the plate over to the bar staff so that they can calculate what you owe. It’s always best to ask though, as some bars don’t offer self serve; cue panic as I’m suddenly faced with having to make immediate decisions with a rapidly forming queue being me!
For a Michelin dining experience, we went for the highly recommended Kokoxta – a gorgeous restaurant in the heart of the Old Town, beside the Basilica of Saint Mary. They offer two menus – a 9 course market menu or a 14 course tasting menu – and surprisingly based on the menus on the day, we had no trouble deciding on the market menu. From start to finish we were looked after wonderfully by the lovely team there, and each dish as the perfect balance of incredible quality, innovation and attention to detail without being unnecessarily pretentious. The hake (served as the third of three fish courses) was honestly the best I’ve ever had, the Iberico pork was impossibly tender, and the combination of the black sesame ice cream with the sweet, soft pumpkin was absolutely delicious.
When it comes to desserts, you’re unlikely to meet one person who won’t recommend the cheesecake at La Vina and eager to try it, we headed there on the very first day. Like most dishes there, it’s served simply, you get two thin slices to a portion and there are fancy flavours or additions – it’s just a plain baked cheesecake. Admittedly I was initially slightly underwhelmed; after all it’s very basic to say the least – there isn’t even a base on it – but the more I ate it the more I realised just how addictive it was. The texture was perfect – smooth and creamy, yet not dense and cloying like many cheesecakes and whilst it was sweet enough to be satisfying, it wasn’t overly sweet either so I imagine that even those who aren’t huge dessert fans could easily put away a slice or two. Best of all, when we went back for more we got slices that were ever so slightly underbaked, meaning the centre was soft and gooey.
That evening we also came across Loco Polo – an ice cream bar where you can choose from a variety of flavours ranging from Ferrero Rocher to mango, before dipping in milk, white or dark chocolate and coating in nuts, waffle pieces or other toppings of your choice – think the famous Magnum ice cream bar on crack. Each one had a molten centre, and they were so good that I even went for a fruit centre – something I’d never usually pick!
My favourite part of our days there were the mornings – I’d wake up early to wander the streets before it got too busy, and I stumbled across so many wonderful cafes, coffee shops and bakeries. Round every corner were windows full of glorious cakes, biscuits and freshly baked pastries, each more enticing than the last. My favourite was undoubtedly Oiartzun. With the most outstanding display of all the bakeries I visited, they have everything from wonderfully fluffy doughnuts filled with custard or cream to incredible biscuits, pastries and even chocolate truffles. I find many bakeries serving the traditional small biscuits can be very hit and miss quality wise, but these were so incredibly buttery that I couldn’t stop going back for more! My favourite pastry was probably the ‘Ocho’ – a pretzel shaped pastry that was absolutely packed full of nuts and sweet marmalade; slightly unconventional perhaps, but absolutely delicious.
Other bakeries I particularly liked were Otaegui, Barrenexte, Galparsoro Okindegia, Aramendia and Ogi Berri but if I’m honest, I didn’t really note down the names of many of the other bakeries – there are so many of them and they’re all so close together around the Old Town, that wandering for just a few minutes, you’re sure to find all of the pastries and cakes you could ever want!
On the last day, we were faced with an impossibly long list of place we still wanted to try, but we settled on Atari, having seen the most incredible octopus dish there the night before. We didn’t have a booking, so we went as soon as they opened at 12, and were lucky enough to get a table outside, before the tables filled up with reservations from 1.30/2pm onwards. The octopus dish was honestly one of the best things I ate out there, and possibly the best octopus I’ve ever had. Fresh, firm and yet beautifully soft, it was served simply with potatoes and soft onions and it coupled with a huge basket of their fresh bread for dipping in the oils, I couldn’t have imagined much of a more perfect meal. We also ordered the beef cheefs which were similarly excellent, and the rice of the day (seafood), although that (compared to the other dishes) was relatively lack-lustre and I could’ve definitely done without.
One place we didn’t get to try that we were particularly disappointed about was Bar Nestor. No longer a pintxos bar, they only really serve two things – steak and tortilla. Their txuleta is a cut of beef so big that it needs to be seen to be believed – we saw entire families sharing a single portion. Served sizzling hot, the smell as soon as you set foot in there is absolutely incredible.. there aren’t any sides or accompaniments, just an absolutely enormous skillet of meat, cooked perfectly juicy and pink. But it’s arguably their tortilla that is even harder to get hold of – they only make one a day, and despite opening at 1pm I have spoken to people who queued from before noon and were still unable to get their hands on a slice. Unlike typical tortillas which look like thick slabs of omelette with chunks of potato, this thing almost looks like a pie, with filling oozing out from between the egg layers. Sadly I can’t comment on how it tastes, but I’ll be camping there next time if it means getting my hands on a slice!
Typically for me, the focus of the trip was entirely on food, but there’s no denying that San Sebastian is an absolutely stunning city. Given how mountainous it is, you don’t have to walk far to be faced with mountains, steep hills, and a hell of a lot of stairs, but with height comes stunning views, and climbing multiple sets of stairs was so worth it to have an unrivalled view of the city from the top. The Old Town is absolutely stunning, with cobbled streets and gorgeous buildings round every corner and the city itself is home to ‘Playa de la concha’ – voted the sixth most beautiful beach in the world.