The first time I visited San Sebastian, Spain was around lunchtime on my day tour of the Basque Country. Although I could see the potential of the hundreds of pintxos bars in the old town of San Sebastian, I had one of the worst meals of my travel life. I knew I had to do better for my 2nd visit, which is why I called in help and joined a Pintxos food tour in San Sebastian.
After all, San Sebastian is known as a foodie heaven. How come it ended up to be a nightmare for me? I’ll explain below the 7 reasons why I think eating out in San Sebastian is not that easy. And I’ll share the one perfect solution to prevent a foodie nightmare but get the master key to enter the foodie heaven of San Sebastian.
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Pintxos in San Sebastian
Pintxos, or Pinchos, is a different style of tapas most common in the Basque Country and the northwest of Spain. Similar to tapas, you’ll eat small portions of food in a bar, before continuing to the next bar.
If you go out for pintxos and visit a few bars, you’ll eat enough food for a full meal. But pintxos can also be enjoyed as a nice lunch or light snack with your pre-dinner drinks.
The difference between pintxos and tapas is that with tapas you’ll usually receive a bowl of olives. Or some cured ham or croquette as a tapas. Pintxos comes from the tradition of picking your food with a toothpick, to pinch, and nowadays, you’ll get all kinds of small delicious little bites to each. Varying from a mix of olives, peppers, and anchovies on a toothpick, to a slice of bread with a delicious gourmet surprise of veggies and paste. Or even a small plate of Michelin-worthy meat cooked to perfection.
And in San Sebastian, they have elevated the art of eating small portions of food in bars with your friends, to a whole different level. San Sebastian hosts no less than 3 Michelin star restaurants and a huge number of Michelin-worthy places to fill your bellies.
No wonder that everyone serving food and drinks in San Sebastian will do their utmost best to serve you locally sourced-, specifically prepared and wonderfully plated food to enjoy.
When you consider yourself a foodie. Or when you just enjoy good food, vibrant bars, and a new type of eating, then San Sebastian is 100% the place to go!
Challenges of eating out in Spain
But how come if the food is so good in San Sebastian, I had such a miserable experience the first time? Well, it is one thing that there is great food in San Sebastian, the challenge lies in finding it.
I travel solo a lot and eating out alone is not really new or hard for me. But every time I go to Spain, I find it challenging.
Spanish food culture revolves around sharing. The portion size, the way to order, and the table settings (or their lack of them). Navigating this as a solo traveler is quite challenging and you might feel awkward.
Complications to enjoy the great food of San Sebastian
Now, even with my own tips, it was hard to find the great pintxos in San Sebastian. I was tired and hungry. I was roaming the streets of San Sebastian on a regional holiday, and it was Saturday. The city was packed and I was looking for a place to eat at the tail-end of lunchtime. Every place I saw was packed to the brim with locals, national tourists, and travelers.
I ended up in a restaurant, ordered their set menu, and just ate some food. The food was not bad, but it was also not very imaginative or creative. And the service was awful. At the end of the meal, I even skipped dessert as I just wanted to get out of there!
Complications to Pintxos bar hopping in San Sebastian
I basically did everything wrong. If you want to enjoy pintxos in San Sebastian, you go with a group of friends. You hop from one bar to the next, sampling a little dish in each bar before moving on to the next. You enjoy your food and drinks, as well as the atmosphere. And you try some new things that you’d never imagine would go together.
But in order to do so, I found a lot of challenges that made it difficult to navigate the Pintxos bars as a first-time visitor to San Sebastian and traveling on my own. Here are some things I had trouble with in San Sebastian:
Where to go for good Pintxos in San Sebastian?
I had no idea. Of course, the old town of San Sebastian is packed to the brim with pintxos bars and restaurants. But which one is good? Which one is new and innovative?
Of course, you can download the Pintxos app (for Apple or Android), which was made around 2020 and lists 99 of the best Pintxos bars in San Sebastian. However, it only lists the bars that were around at that moment. With so many bars in such a small city, things change all the time. Bars change their menu, opening hours and the next new best bar might not be on the list. I found the app not very useful for me as I didn’t want to look at my phone all the time.
What food is good in this Pintxos bar?
Another challenge is that each pintxos bar has its own specialty. Of course, there are bars that serve a whole range of different types of foods. But the really good bars, focus on one particular thing. And those are the ones you want to visit, as they are the best and most creative with their pintxos.
If you feel like you want to try local clams or sardines, you need to go to the best Pintxos bar for that food. But where to find them?
What to order in the pintxos bar?
Say you finally found the best bar for the pintxos you crave or want to try. But still, they have all different variations and combinations on their menu. You’ll only have one, maybe 2, pintxos with your drink in this bar, so you want to choose wisely.
But how do you know what to order? The choices on the menu board or on the bar in front of you can be overwhelming.
How to order pintxos?
Once you find the right bar and know which pintxos you want to try, then there is the issue of how to order pintxos!
I don’t know about you, but I find it very daunting to stand at a crowded bar, desperately trying to make eye contact with the person behind the counter to place my order. And then there is the noise, what if they ask a question and I can’t hear them?
All in all, I feel awkward and very self-aware and I make it my life goal to avoid those situations as much as possible.
Language barriers: the Basque language
As you might know, the Basque people have their own language: the Basque language. And although everyone speaks Spanish, the Basque language is very much alive and present in San Sebastian. All official signage is duo-language but in those historic, local bars filled to the brim with character, you’ll find the name of the food in Basque.
And it makes perfect sense. It is a local dish or recipe, so there might not even be a word for it in Spanish or English. Expect a lot of the letters x, tx, kt and so on. It is a challenge and sometimes just a blind gamble.
Daunting, Intimidating busy bars
I think I mentioned the daunting and intimidating already. Combine that with busy bars, with no place to stand or place your drink. That is perfectly normal in San Sebastian. People stand on the street, in side alleys, or hang on the windowsill of bars all the time.
Sometimes because the place is packed, but also because the weather is nice, or they’re meeting friends or they’ll be on their way soon anyway.
Especially when you’re eating out alone, I found it very hard. There is nobody to order for you or save you a seat at the bar or windowsill.
Drinking is as much part of Pintxos culture as the food
This brings me to my last challenge of going out for pintxos on your own. Drinking is as much part of the pintxos culture as the food itself. After all, the Basque Country has a wide array of local (alcoholic) drinks that you simply must try with your pintxos.
And you have a drink at each bar. If you’re anything like me, you’ll start to feel the alcohol move quickly through your body after a glass of 2, maybe three. If you travel solo, there is nobody to watch your back.
Of course, you can stick to non-alcoholic drinks, but you’ll be missing out on the true culinary experience that waits for you in San Sebastian.
Overcome these challenges with a Pintxos Food Tour
As you might have noticed. I don’t really have an answer to all the above-mentioned issues. I’m not a local and I don’t have insider knowledge about the best places to visit, what to order, and the fail-proof way to order it. But I do have one brilliant solution that solves all of the above problems in one swoop: Join a Pintxos food tour in San Sebastian!
Yes, it is really that easy. If you can’t beat them, join them! Join a food tour of San Sebastian and learn everything there is to know about the pintxos food culture, and get to know the city, all while stuffing your face with delicious little pintxos and sampling amazing ciders, wines, and more!
Why you should join a San Sebastian Pintxos food tour
Do you need a little bit more information about why I think it is such a brilliant solution to join a San Sebastian food tour? Here you go!
Local guides on the San Sebastian food tour
If someone has lived in a place for over a decade, I consider them a local. If they are connected to the culinary institute and know all about the food in San Sebastian, I consider them an expert. Our guide was local and super knowledgeable.
Not only could he answer any generic question about San Sebastian and pintxos food, but he also had very specific knowledge about the bars, which place is best for seafood, where to go if you only want vegan options, etc.
I loved the stories of our guide about how his wife convinces him it is time to go out to find new pintxos bars but they always end up in her favorite bar.
Locals share their own favorite spots
The nice thing about having a local guide you through the tightly woven labyrinth of pintxos bars in San Sebastian, is they share personal stories and favorites. With such an immense dense number of great pintxos bars crammed in a small place, it is always nice to hear anecdotes, personal stories, and preferences to justify a visit to a specific bar.
We did a cured ham tasting at a small shop where our guide always goes shopping for foodie gifts for Christmas and relatives who visit from overseas.
Always up-to-date information about bars and their menu
The good thing about a pintxos food tour and a local food guide, it they always have the best up-to-date information about the pintxos bars. They don’t make a food tour of San Sebastian and never touch the itinerary again. No, the food tour I joined might include completely different bars and restaurants than when you would join.
Pintxos bars close or get a new owner or a new chef all the time. Or the tour visits different bars in summer than in spring due to the menu and pintxos on offer. We visited a newly opened pintxos bar, that wasn’t on any map, app, or list that I could find online.
It was a newly opened fusion bar that mixes traditional Basque recipes with international touches and takes. We sampled a pintxos of braised duck breast in a reduction of soy sauce with pineapple compote and vegetable chips. It was one of the most delicious foods I ever tasted and I would have never figured out that was the thing I wanted to taste if it wasn’t for the tour!
Joining a pintxos food tour is a social event
The Devour food tour in San Sebastian is not a private event. It is a walking tour of the old town and together with other tourists and travelers, you’ll explore the pintxos bars of San Sebastian.
This resolves the problem of eating out alone, you have a group of new friends to save you a seat and to keep an eye out for you when you enjoy your 3rd glass of wine or that amazing sherry to go with your Basque cheesecake!
No worries about paying or ordering
You book the food tour online in advance and you pay for the tour. The tour includes all food consumed, several (alcoholic) beverages, and the guide. All in one go.
You don’t have to worry about paying in a foreign currency and, you have someone that does the ordering for you! No worries about what to order, where to order it, and how to order it! It is all done for you and sometimes, you’ll have a reserved seat at an overcrowded bar. Or the food is already waiting for you.
All you have to do is soak up the atmosphere, enjoy your drink and the company and the pintxos! Of course, the guide hands out some tips on what to look out for and tricks on how to order, but I won’t spoil it all here.
Great intro to the city and the food culture
As I travel a lot, I visit places sometimes only for a very short amount of time. I find that with these types of food tours, you not only get to eat with a nice group of people, but you’ll also get a great introduction to the city, its heritage, and a sneak peek at the food culture!
That was certainly the case with our Pintxos food tour in San Sebastian! We learned about the history of San Sebastian, and the layout of the old town and we learned a lot about pintxos food culture in the Basque region. The guide explained certain local holidays and how they are celebrated in San Sebastian.
Learn tips and tricks for other pintxos nights
Besides all the background information about the city of San Sebastian and the food culture of the Basque Country, the guide gave us hands-on tips and insider information. This is especially useful if you’ll spend more time in the city or region.
You could make a whole list of other great pintxos bars to visit, on another night or afternoon. And with all the information on the food tour, it makes exploring San Sebastian’s foodie dreamland a walk in the park!
Pintxos Food Tour in San Sebastian
I hope I was able to show you why a pintxos food tour in San Sebastian is such a good idea and a great investment. Not only for a tasteful night in the city but also for future foodie adventures in Basque Country.
There are many food tours out there in San Sebastian. Of course, I haven’t tried them all, but I can vouch for the Pintxos food tour with Devour San Sebastian.
Do you wish to book the exact same food tour as I did? Click the below link for more information, dates, prices, etc.
What you’ll get on this food tour:
- Amazing local guide that showers you with information, foodie tips and knowledge
- At least 8 food tastings and 5 drinks at 6 eateries in San Sebastian’s Old Town (enough food for a full dinner)
- A great afternoon or evening filled with food, (new) friends, and fun!
Are you thinking of booking a trip to San Sebastian? And wonder where to eat at night? Please consider a food tour as you’ll not regret it! Enjoy your pintxos!