You know the feeling: you land in a new city and before you even know which way is North or have taken your first photo, you already feel like you could move there. There’s an essence that’s hard to put your finger on, a vibe that makes it just feel like it’s your home-away-from-home that you never knew existed. For me, Basque Country is that place.
Be it the beaches at Hossegor with surfers who look like they just came out of the Southern California waves; chic Biarritz with high-end boutiques and the Imperial palace; the hills with Michelin-starred restaurants to Pamplona’s running of the bulls to world-class wineries; or Bilbao with Gehry’s Guggenheim sitting like the city’s crown jewel.
Basque Country is one of the first places I traveled in Spain so, at first, I didn’t appreciate how distinct it is. You probably already know that Basque Country is super unique—with a language that has no known origins, more Michelin-starred restaurants than most other countries, people who technically live in Spain and France but who look at the borders of Basque Country as the only borders worth really acknowledging.
It’s hard to pick one place in Basque Country, but when it comes to the tapas (pintxos in Basque), it’s San Sebastian. On my last trip there I strong-armed my siblings into a tapas crawl and they rolled their eyes at their food fanatic sister, feeling like it’d be more of a pain than it was worth. But, with a list of recommendations from friends who had cooked in nearby Michelin-starred kitchens and armed with a big appetite, we went for it.
If you haven’t done a tapas crawl (txiquiteo in Basque), you’re gonna want to read up on it so you know how to get fed and how to pace yourself. The idea is to hop from bar to bar, enjoying drinks and eat small bites from classic like croquetas, bocadillos,and jamon to anything else that looks delicious. Sipping Txakoli, sherry, and local ciders everywhere we went and doing our best to exercise restraint we made it to 8 bars and had an assortment of bites. These were our top picks:
If you're not sure how to kick things off, start here. It's a big enough place that there's room to sidle up to the bar or get your own table and there's so much food that the only problem will be deciding what not to eat. The bocadillos (little sandwiches) were amazing as were the frituras (deep fried bites).
A pretty worn-in looking place, what it lacks in charm, Astelena makes up for in food. With small bites as basic as jamon with peppers to as adventurous as foie gras ravioli, this place felt like a bridge between the classic tapas places like Paco Bueno and the avant garde food of the local Michelin-starred restaurants. Some of our favorites when we went where the croquetas coated in crunchy pistachios and the crepes stuffed with salmon and cheese.
If you aren't a fan of anchovies, well, first you should try this toast and then you should book it to Txepetxa to become a convert. They have seemingly endless ways to serve the Spanish marinated white anchovies knowns as boquerones. We went to town and had a big enough group that we were able to order one of each type but a favorite was the tostada de anchoas y centolla.
Another place that pushes the envelope with flavors, there was pretty much every cut of meat imaginable here from duck confit to foie gras to pig's ear. Go ahead and try their various pintxos but we really like the seared foie gras with apple compote and the goat cheese risotto. And, hopefully, it goes without saying that, if they have foie gras or txipirones (squid), get it!
There's a lot of amazing food here from the Ensalada de Tomate to the Tortilla de patata (available from 12pm to 8pm), but the Txuleton de Buey (thick-cut rib-eye steak) pretty much blew our minds. Our server was Argentine and claimed that the steak at Bar Nestor was better than any he'd ever had growing up in South America. I don't know about that but, what I do know is, once you order it, be prepared to stay a while and likely not eat anything else for the rest of the night.