As home to one of the world’s best gastronomic scenes, San Sebastian’s culture revolves largely around food.
This beautiful beachside city is foodie heaven, as is the entire Basque Country. From classic pintxos bars to Michelin-starred locales, the city itself is a true feast. To get the full experience, you definitely have to try to eat like a local in San Sebastian! Here are six things to know before you head out on your pintxos crawl.
1. Forget about tapas
Elsewhere in Spain, you might spend an evening eating tapas. Not in San Sebastian! Here, they’re called “pintxos,” and they’re wildly different from the tapas you might be familiar with. Pintxos typically include several ingredients piled high on a slice of homemade bread, all held together by a toothpick. Despite being served in no-frills, basic bars, pintxos are very high quality and often quite gourmet. While you’ll find some classic pintxos just about everywhere, each bar has its own unique specialties, which leads us to our second point…
2. Don’t stay in one place
Want to truly eat like a local in San Sebastian? Don’t just hang out in the same bar the whole night. Most locals will enjoy a couple of pintxos and drinks at one bar before paying their tab and heading on to the next. And, of course, bars tend to get more packed as the night goes on. You might be lucky enough to snag a seat at your first stop, but as you continue your pintxos crawl from bar to bar, expect to stand. It’s all part of the experience!
3. Check the bar and the blackboard
You can usually check your pintxos options in two places inside any given bar. First, check out the selection displayed on the bar itself. These pintxos are served cold. At some bars, you can pick them up yourself; at others, you’ll need to tell the bartender what you want and he or she will put your pintxos on a plate for you.
While the cold pintxos are equally delicious, don’t limit yourself just to the selection on display at the bar! The real gems can be found handwritten on a blackboard, usually behind the bar counter. These pintxos are made fresh to order and served hot. To really eat like a local in San Sebastian, try your hand at ordering a few of these!
4. Don’t worry about your tab
Your server or bartender will do that for you. In most pintxos bars, staff will keep track of how many pintxos you’ve eaten and keep a running tab, then you simply pay the bill at the end. We’re still amazed at how they can keep track of every customer’s tab in a packed bar, but they rarely make mistakes! Don’t forget that you’ll need to flag down the server or bartender and ask for the check.
5. Brush up on the local language
Outside of tourist traps (don’t go there!), you’ll rarely find menus in English. Everything will be in Spanish, or even Basque. Don’t be afraid—that’s part of how to eat like a local in San Sebastian! Brush up on your Spanish before ordering. If you’re really daring, you can try Basque, but all bar staff will speak Spanish. This is especially important if you’re vegetarian or have other dietary needs. Pintxos bars are crowded and hectic, and your server or bartender will surely appreciate your effort to speak a little bit of the language, even if it’s just a few words. A little bit goes a long way!
6. Try a new drink
In any given pintxos bar, you’ll find locals drinking any number of things. Many local favorites are hard to find outside of the Basque Country, so take advantage and try something new! One must-try drink is txakoli, a fruity, semi-sparkling white wine produced just outside of San Sebastian in the towns of Getaria and Zarautz. Another all-time favorite is, of course, cider! This is more popular throughout northern Spain, but drinking it in San Sebastian is truly an experience.
Eat like a local in San Sebastian on our Ultimate Pintxos & Wine Tour! We’ll spend 3 fun-filled hours eating our way across the best authentic, family-run pintxos bars in the city. You’ll try regional delicacies, meet the families behind them, and learn how to do pintxos like a local! We can’t wait to show you this incredible city and its world-class food!
Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.