This blog post was originally posted on April 28, 2017 and was updated on January 27, 2021.
San Sebastian is synonymous with top quality food—so much so that it’s even considered the world’s best city for foodies.
It boasts nearly a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants, a thriving pintxos bar scene, and beautiful local markets filled with fresh seafood, local meats, and seasonal vegetables. And that’s 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 the abundance of excellent Basque cuisine also makes it 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, so without further ado, here are our picks for can’t-miss typical foods in San Sebastian.
The best 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 San Sebastian knows 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: a melt-in-your-mouth, slightly salty anchovy and one of the best things you’ll try here—we promise!
Looking for something different? 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.
If you’re still on the fence about eating anchovies, trying them when combined with other ingredients—like in many typical pintxos—is a good way to ease yourself into it. A great choice is the Gilda, one of San Sebastian’s signature pintxos. Consisting of green olives, spicy local pickled peppers, and a plump anchovy, it’s especially delicious when paired with a glass of local vermouth or cider.
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 Bar Haizea in the Old Town.
3. Salt cod
Basque fishermen were among the first Europeans 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 the method of salting and drying salt cod, which allows it to be easily reconstituted with fresh water, Basques have created countless salt cod dishes. Some of the must-try ones are:
- Salt cod brandade
- Pil-pil style: 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)
- Cod omelets (tortilla de bacalao), a popular first course at Basque cider houses.
Aged grass-fed beef is something special, yet not what first comes to mind when many people think of San Sebastian. But the 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 here during the cider season (January to April) don’t miss a trip to a traditional sagardotegi (Basque cider house). Here, txuleta is the main course (after appetizers and plenty of local cider, of course!).
5. Kokotxas de merluza
Kokotxas are fish cheeks or throats, and technically a gland. It might not sound all that appetizing, but trust us—this is one of the most pleasantly surprising typical foods in San Sebastian.
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 dairy products, this delicious sheep’s milk cheese is a must-try in San Sebastian. Historically, Idiazabal cheese was kept in local farmers’ dwellings to cure, and would smoke slowly as a result of the family fire.
Though produced differently these days, Idiazabal is still smoky and delicious. You can enjoy it on its own, or find it served in creative pintxos, such as risotto with Idiazabal sauce, and desserts, like 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.