San Sebastian is a city synonymous with top quality food and has even been called the world’s best city for foodies. It boasts nine Michelin Star restaurants and 16 stars (as of 2017), a thriving pintxos bar scene, and beautiful local markets filled with fresh seafood, local meats, and seasonal vegetables—not to mention the excellent local wines and ciders!
First-time visitors to San Sebastian can easily become overwhelmed with choices—this is a small city, but one a food lover could spend months enjoying! If it’s your first time visiting San Sebastian we recommend focusing less on where to eat, and more on what to eat. This city is known for some very special dishes, here are our picks for can’t-miss typical foods in San Sebastian.
1. Anchovies and the Gilda Pintxo
The nearby Cantabrian sea is home to some of the world’s best anchovies and the surrounding areas know exactly what to do with them. The most exclusive (and expensive) go to the canneries, which have mastered the art of preserving and canning these tiny fish. The end result of the best brands is a melt-in-your-mouth, slightly salty anchovy—one of the best things you’ll try, we promise!
And for a change, don’t miss the pickled anchovies (boquerones en vinagre), which aren’t salty in the least but rather doused in local vinegar, garlic, and olive oil. One of the best ways to enjoy an anchovy in San Sebastian is to taste one of the city’s signature pintxos, called the “Gilda.” Consisting of green olives, spicy local pickled peppers, and a plump anchovy, it’s one of the most delicious bites, especially when paired with a glass of local vermouth or cider.
Taste it: Discover one of San Sebastian’s most authentic and historic anchovy bars on our San Sebastian pintxos tour.
2. Fresh Foie gras
The Basques love their foie gras, whether in paté form or freshly grilled. We recommend that if you try this decadent bite while visiting, you opt for the fresh version you’ll find in many of the city’s excellent pintxos bars. Fresh foie gras is best well seared and with a dusting of sea salt on top. It pairs well with jams and marmalades, ideally something with a zing of acidity to balance out the richness. We highly recommend the famous foie gras pintxo served with apple at the traditional Bar Haizea in the old town.
3. Salt Cod
Basque fishermen were among the first to reach the new world as they fished off of the coast of Canada as early as the 15th century. What were they fishing for so far from home? Codfish (bacalao)—which quickly became a staple of the Spanish diet and a trading commodity throughout the entire world. Credited by some with inventing salt cod (the method of salting and drying the fish, allowing it to easily be reconstituted with fresh water), Basque cuisine has countless salt cod dishes. Some of the must-try ones are: salt cod brandade, pil-pil style (this is a special technique of moving the serving dish while adding olive oil—if done correctly it results in a delicious emulsion sauce of the cod’s natural juices, garlic, and olive oil), cod fritters (bunuelos de bacalao) or cod omelets (tortilla de bacalao—popular first course at the cider houses).
Aged grass fed beef is something special, yet not what first comes to mind when many people think of San Sebastian. Basque Country is one of the best places in Spain to enjoy a great steak, and San Sebastian has many restaurants that do justice to these prime cuts of meat. If you’re there in cider house season (January to April) don’t miss a traditional sagardotegi (Basque Cider house), where the txuleta is the main course (after appetizers and plenty of local cider!).
Try it: You’ll taste one of the best bites of local beef on our Ultimate Pintxos & Wine Tour in San Sebastian’s old town.
5. Kokotxas de Merluza
If you are constantly looking to try new things when traveling, don’t miss tasting kokotxas, or fish cheeks (also called fish throats, and actually a gland– but delicious, we promise!). While many chefs throw out this part of the fish, in the Basque Country they are much revered. Hake cheeks (kokotxas de merluza) are among the best, usually served pil-pil style.
6. Whole roasted hake, sole, or turbot
When in San Sebastian do as the locals do, and make sure to have at least one leisurely lunch at a good fish restaurant. You’ll want to order a whole fish, generally intended for two or more people, along with other raciones (shared plates) from the menu. Some of the most delicious fish to order are merluza (hake), lenguado (sole) and rodaballo (turbot).
7. Idiazabal cheese
One of Spain’s most distinct cheeses, this delicious sheep’s milk cheese is a must-try in San Sebastian. Historically, this cheese was kept in the dwellings of the local farmers to cure, and would smoke slowly as a result of the family fire. Though produced differently these days, Idiazabal is still smokey and delicious. You can taste it on its own, or find it served in creative pintxos (like risotto with Idiazabal sauce) and desserts (think creamy Idiazabal cheesecake).
These seven typical foods in San Sebastian are just a start—but if you can enjoy a good version of each you’ll be well on your way to becoming a San Sebastian food expert! What’s your favorite food from San Sebastian?
Want to learn even more secrets of Spanish and Basque cuisine? Check out our lineup of online food and wine experiences and bring Spain into your kitchen!
Lauren grew up in an Italian-American family where 3-hour meals were the norm. After 10 years in the restaurant industry, she moved to Spain where she launched her popular Spanish food blog, Spanish Sabores, and soon after led groups on the first Devour Madrid food tours.