WARNING: Reading this post may cause intense hunger and wanderlust.
This is where Michelin star(t)s…
Starting our journey by flying into Bilbao, where we would spend only a night and the morning after, our aims were simple: become acquainted with the gastronomic scene of the Basque region and perhaps it would be rude to miss sampling a Txakoli (slightly sparkling and very dry white wine) and some Rioja (Crianza was our favourite by the way).
The morning after, fed and suitably caffeinated, we enjoyed an brisk walk around Bilbao. A highlight being Frank Gehry’s (literally) dazzling Guggenheim Museum architecture (it is closed on Mondays FYI…) and the surrounding spectacles, including Maman, a gargantuan spider statue by the Bourgeois – Stranger Things fans: you are in for a treat!
WHERE WE STAYED
The journey from Bilbao city centre to Donostia (as it is known by the locals) took just over an hour by bus and some of the views on the way were worth waiting until the morning after for.
We stayed at Pension LaPerla, situated in the heart of the commercial and cathedral district of Donostia and it was an ideal starting point from which to navigate all the wonderful things that San Sebastián has to offer and not just the shopping!
The host of the apartment greeted us with a map outlining their recommended ‘Pintxos Trail’ (it’s pronounced pinch-os by the way). The idea of a ‘trail’ for food gave me heart palpitations for all the right reasons, which is contrary to most other autumns I have ever experienced – we really needed this break!
WHERE WE ATE/DRANK
So, the thing with San Sebastián is that basically if you go into a bar and ask for a drink without wanting food or vice versa, you get looked at as if you have three heads – to match all three of the chins you feel you may have gained the few days you are there…
The premise is simple in most bars you will visit: it’s mutual respect and trust – you pick what you want to eat from the often extensive array of pintxos and tell them what you have had after, although I imagine you won’t be able to settle on just one round. Alternatively, some spots will be on a made-to-order, first-come-first-served basis, possibly to keep the sense of novelty about the place. Either way, I’m game.
Just like Donostia itself, the key is to take on tips, but to go for whatever you fancy whenever you fancy. Our trip went a little something like this:
DAY ONE, ROUND TWO: La gabardina or ‘tempura prawns’ at Paco Bueno. We truly felt like we were eating with the locals here and loved the touches of football memorabilia and photos of their most cherished guests scattered around the walls. Here, you grab whatever you fancy then just pay when you’ve ‘had enough’. Brilliant!
DAY ONE, ROUND THREE: Casa Urola for dos Crianzas, Bacalao, croquettes and cod with green beans and pine nuts. Absolutely divine! Our eyes were a bit bigger than our bellies in here, but it was just so delicious!
DAY ONE, SUPPER: Crianza and vermouth.
DAY TWO, ROUND ONE: Post-coffee (see ALL THE COFFEE section for details) and trek up to Mount Urgull, we fancied a Catch-of-the-Day down on the harbour.
DAY TWO, ROUND TWO: Just drinks (!) at Sirimiri (this was not the last time we landed here) for a great selection of vermouth!
DAY TWO, ROUND THREE: Txepetxa for vinegar-cured anchovies with a spider crab sauce, sea urchin and olive tapenade all served on moreish crusty bread. (This was not the last time we would visit Txepetxa!) I don’t think we will taste anything like this elsewhere!
DAY TWO, ROUND FOUR: Shoulder-to-shoulder for ultimate food appreciation in Borda Berri. Beef cheek and idiazabal (local cheese) risotto and foie terrine. The Crianza hadn’t dried up in here either…
DAY TWO, SUPPER: Crianza and vermouth.
DAY THREE, ROUND ONE: A day at Zurriola Beach was followed by the great find of Lete Taberna, which served food that was as ultra-modern as it was in following the traditions of great food! The vermouth was extra-impressive here too!
DAY THREE, ROUND TWO: Bodegon Alejandro (2017 Michelin Guide) for the tasting menu with (equally) excellent wine. Our biggest meal splurge whilst in Donostia, although not at a Michelin-starred restaurant (we’ll save that for our next visit…) the food was delicious! Highlights included spider crab salad, a deconstructed tortilla with Emmental consumme, grilled hake, beef steak with the most ridiculous garlic cream and french toast, but not as I’ve ever tasted it – highly recommend!
DAY THREE, SUPPER: Crianza and vermouth.
DAY FOUR, ROUND ONE: Worth the wait for the ultimate recommendation if you are carnivorous! We thought it had closed, but just be conscious of its varied opening times. At Nestor you register your name on arrival and basically wait until there is a standing space (or seat if you’re really lucky!) at the bar. After a few minutes of confusion, dribbling and lots of people-watching amidst the language barrier and a no-nonsense owner, it was our turn. We nestled in at the bar and told them we wanted the sirloin/Vieja and the owner came to us with two huge cuts of meat – around 750g – and gestured for us to choose which we wanted. When it arrived, sizzling on a hot plate around ten minutes later, we could not believe we were actually going to eat it! Alongside the huge plate of pimientos which were salted and guzzled in oil, we were in heaven! My advice: go here!
DAY FOUR, SUPPER: Crianza and vermouth.
BEST OF THE REST:
ALL THE COFFEE:
As with most of my outings, my penchant for a decent speciality coffee fix seems to lead lots of my life decisions and that was no exception here in Donostia. After a little scan of Instagram and the internet, I found Old Town Coffee, which worked out to be a treat for their flat whites with Square Mile after a little too much red wine and vermouth on a little too many occasions. They also provided an excellent brunch and aesthetically pleasing little shop.
Sakona Roasters was a considerably new roasters in the area and with an up-and-coming speciality coffee scene, it’s an exciting time for the Donostia residents!
WHAT WE SAW:
Amidst the truly wonderful food scene, there is so much more to Donostia, hence us not counting this as our only visit to San Sebastián. Here are just a few of our highlights.
The Old Town/Romantic area with its Belle Époque buildings really were truly a sight to behold and made traipsing between Pintxos palaces so much fun, day or night!
The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was a mere stones-throw from our lodgings so it is no coincidence that we spent some time admiring her, albeit from behind a coffee-cup at times.
Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus:
The Concha beach is the central point of San Sebastián and it’s no surprise that it is always bustling with cyclists, walkers and entertainment. I imagine that in the summertime it is all the more teeming with tourists and locals alike, but I loved its sweeping coastline and mostly the fact that I got to go on a beach in jeans (and maybe I took a nap whilst reading…)
Plaza de la Constitución is now home to apartments and somewhat sad-looking bars and restaurants, but it was once central to local celebrations including bull-fighting, where rich visitors and residents would spend a fortune on hiring one of its numbered rooms and balconies for a safe spot to watch! Either way, its gorgeous architecture is so interesting!
A trek up to statue of Jesus Christ and the Sacred Heart at the top of Mount Urgull, overlooking the whole of Donostia is a must! The mount is also home to lots of history, including a castle from the 12th Century, which changed hands many times over the years between the French and English on occasions. Some fortifications and cannons still remain and it is strange to imagine all they could behold when under attack those hundreds of years before. What is left behind is really fascinating and somewhat eerie – a sort of celebration but at the hands of so much assault and all overlooked now by their religious figure is testament to their culture.
River crossing to Gros district for shopping and some fantastic bars:
Zurriola Beach, which reached highs of 24 degrees Celsius on our November trip and there were plenty of families attempting to catch some gusts with kites. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any surfing whilst on our trip – I was told the sea was a little nippy!
Ondaretta, the more ‘family-friendly’ area of Donostia is home to a famous funicular railway and theme park (of which we didn’t visit on our trip this time), but the wind-cob sculptures and variety of architecture was really interesting, especially when considering the contrasts between the fierce winds of the coast and the strength of the iron structures and hill-side and hill-top settings.
Views over the Ondaretta beach from Miramar Gardens (inspired by 18th Century British architecture):
Oh, Donostia – the process of composing this post has emphasised how difficult it is to describe and define a place like it. Ultimately, if you’re into your culture, wine, gastronomy and all of the food, you will love it!
Enjoy, N x
‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food’ – Hippocrates