How to introduce and at the same time say goodbye to a Basque country where my family has lived for 5 years? How to describe a natural marvel and culinary wonder on one hand, and a human stubbornness and clan’s mentality on the other?
Not a single visitor we have had over those years left without being enchanted by the elegant charm, and the exquisite cuisine of its 16 Michelin star restaurants, of our temporary home, San Sebastian, or Donostia, as it is called in the Basque language. How to describe the life in this exquisite pearl of the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes called a little Paris or a little Rio, where it took a couple of years before we were invited to someone’s home or people felt comfortable enough to share their favourite places to visit or restaurants?
Be aware at all times that Basque country is a dual language country – Basque and Spanish. It all starts when you land in Bilbao and must look for a shuttle bus that runs every hour to Donostia, not San Sebastian. This dual language and resulting signposting can be quite misleading, I speak from experience! It happened numerous times that although my husband has a double tom-tom navigation system (first, the real device and second, natural, in his head), even he got lost, and not just once or twice.
Sharing and serving are not local virtues! When making your schedule, do not forget to always check out the opening hours and/or holidays in advance. It is very common that restaurants close down for 3 or 4 weeks at a time, mostly in the early months of the year, and most of them are closed on Mondays. Most of the local shops and businesses strictly observe daily siestas, with opening hours 10-14 and 17-20. Always keep in mind to also check if they are open on Sunday or Monday. In many cases you must make a restaurant reservation in advance as, although the restaurant is not fully booked, they simply do not take people who walk in off the street. After a couple of years, on the other hand, I find this fact of keeping very strictly their time and work schedules under control laudable!
Unfortunately, 5 years of experience in dining out with our 2 children, Flora and Leo, ages 4 and 6 at present, have not netted us much in the way of recommendations to give about child-friendly restaurants. Most of the restaurants do not offer accommodation for kids—such as chairs or menus for children. Sadly, those few in the old town that do are the closest places to tourist traps as you can get. You are not really forbidden to come to any restaurant with kids, yet do not expect a kind of infrastructure you might be used from your home country.
If you would like to read more about the history of this mysterious place in the English language then I recommend the book by Mark Kurlansky – The Basque History of the World I find worth reciting these lines:
We live in an age of vanishing cultures, perhaps even vanishing nations. To be a Frenchman, to be an American, is a limited notion. Educated people do not practice local customs or eat local food. Products are flown around the world. We are losing diversity but gaining harmony. Those who resist this will be left behind by history, we are told.
But the Basques are determined to lose nothing that is theirs, while still embracing the times, cyberspace included. They have never been a quaint people and have managed to be neither backward nor assimilated. Their food, that great window into cultures, shows this. With an acknowledged genius for cooking, they pioneered the use of products from other parts of the worlds. But they always adapted them, made them Basque.
A central concept in Basque identity is belonging, not only to the Basque people but to a house, known in the Basque language as etxea. A house stands for a clan. Though most societies at some phase had clans, the Basques have preserved this notion because the Basques preserve almost everything.
The Basque history of the world is far older that the history of France. The few hundred years of European nation states are only a small part of the Basque story. There may not be a France or a Spain in 1000years or even 500 years, but there will still be Basques.
The European Capital of Culture 2016 Donostia San Sebastian (ECoC 2016), the project that brought us to the Basque county, has as its motto: Culture to overcome violence. The idea of forgiveness and coexistence in the land wounded by many years of hatred and violence is indeed still fragile here!
Due to a symbolic 2016, I wish to share with you ours:
16 Basque Secrets,
16 favourite restaurants in San Sebastian,
16 favourite bars for pintxos in San Sebastian,
16 favourite restaurants outside of San Sebastian,
16 favourite recipes discovered in the Basque country.
In broad terms the restaurants here are divided into traditional and more avant-garde cuisine. Fish and shellfish normally take pride of place, in general hake (merluza), desalted cod (bacalao), monkfish (rape), clams, etc., but you will also find unusual cuts of beef and pork.
The steaks (txuletas/chuletas) can be great too, but don’t forget to order a side salad (lechugo con cebolla), piquillo peppers and patatas fritas as they do not normally come with the steak.
What I find admirable and enviable about this place that good food is not only for elite but for ordinary masses, too. Sure, you can find in restaurants where the prices are sky high, but on the other hand it is not at all mission impossible to find fine restaurants with affordable prices.
Arantzazu – sacred place for Basques, along with San Sebastian located on a pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela
Arantzazu, in the Basque language means a place full of hawthorn bushes, is a church situated in stunning mountains.
In the course of its history, Arantzazu was ravaged by three major fires, the last of which was in 1834 when the Sanctuary was burnt to the ground. 1950 marked the start of the construction of the modern basilica which is a brilliant example of contemporary Basque art erected on a ravine, its stone structure rises imposingly up from the rocks.
The survival of the Basque language was threatened for centuries by both Spanish and French, particularly under the rule of Franco, during which the Basque language was prohibited and came close to extinction in Spain. Consequently, the Basque Language Academy felt the need to create a unified dialect of Basque, so that the language had a greater chance of survival. The 1968 Arantzazu Congress took place in the sanctuary of Arantzazu, where the basic guidelines were laid down, therefore Arantzazu is considered as a sacred shrine of the Basque language.
For the Basque language revival was utmost important the establishment of schools, known as ikastolas, where now for nearly 20 years the education is conducted solely in the Basque language. I dare to say our children’s first language is Euskera. Needless to say, it is an entirely secret language between two siblings of which their parents do not understand a single word although they speak several other languages themselves. Leo, our 6-year old, has even started to read and write in Euskera.
Gastronomic societies: what is Tamborrada?
Gastronomic societies – total of 1552 in Basque country out of which 119 are in Donostia – play an enormously important part in San Sebastian’s social life. Here, members meet in a club complete with a kitchen for lunch or dinner, either with other members of the society or with their families and/or friends. This said, gastronomic societies are often much more than simply a meeting place for their members; they organise cultural activities central to the social and leisure aspects of life in the city, particularly forming companies of tamborrada drummers. In fact, most of the adult companies that parade through the streets on San Sebastián Day on 20 January belong to the gastronomic societies.
When you go to a gastronomic society in San Sebastian (which you can only do by invitation by a member, except on San Sebastian Day), the cooking is usually done by 2 or 3 of the diners who bring along their own food for the purpose (although the basics are generally available in the society kitchen larder). After eating, the costs are calculated and split among everyone eating at the table. These costs include items like the right to use the kitchen and its utensils, a symbolic charge per attendee, and the cost of all products taken from the pantry or cellar. All of the documents and cash to pay the bill are placed in a special box before leaving the society premises.
Given that this is a system based on trust and self-management, gastronomic societies have a very strong family feel to them and tend to be considered by the members and their guests as a place mid-way between their homes and a restaurant. The friendly atmosphere often means that lunches and dinners end with games of cards or singing, either with fellow diners or with people at other tables. Having lunch or dinner at a gastronomic society is just about the closest you’ll ever get to the cultural life in San Sebastian.
And that explains that our exposure to sociedas has been limited. We were invited a couple of times to have a meal in various sociedas and always agreed these places have special ambience indeed.
For the Basques tamborradas, the celebration of the name day of San Sebastian is more important than Christmas. They cook a truly extra dinner including the most expensive fish: angulas.
For us it is always a cultural experiment to see our children Flora and Leo dressed as cooks and drumming during their ikastola’s (school’s) performance.
Basque culinary centre (or Faculty of Gastronomic Sciences)
The Basque Culinary Center also known as The Faculty of Gastronomic Science, opened in 2011 and is the second gastronomic university in Europe. It is a part of Mondragon University and offers professional degrees in the culinary arts. The Basque Culinary Center is also dedicated to research and knowledge-sharing among haute-cuisine professionals and the business sectors related directly or indirectly to gastronomy, always with an eye on the international scene.
I have taken advantage of the availability of a great selection of non- professional courses, so called courses for enthusiasts, from which I have become a culinary enthusiast myself. I can highly recommend these courses, though if you plan to enrole you must bear in mind they are mostly conducted in Spanish language, though some classes are taught in English in the summer.
Another perhaps risky yet unique experience is to book, of course a month in advance, a degustation lunch menu for euro 20 or daily menu for euro 10 (without drinks), prepared by professional students –future professional cooks in training.
Sidreria / Sagardoetxea / Cider house
There are around 130 sidrerias in the Basque country with an official season from 23 January until 30 April although some sidrerias are open all year. It is a place where you are always offered the same food menu and local cider from the barrels to drink. Typical cider house menu is tortilla de bacalau, bacalau with green peppers, txuleta and cheese with nuts accompanied with a simple white baguette. During your dinner, which in typical sidrerias you are asked to share from the same plate with your guests, you are prompted by the “whistle / txotx” to taste various ciders from the barrels.
Sagardoetxea, the Basque Cider Museum, is the ideal place for an introduction to cider culture and to learn about the secrets of cider tasting before visiting a cider house. This experience, joining together a museum and a cider house, offers the opportunity to get to know the whole process of cider making, the history and the tradition of this ancient drink, the secrets that accompany cider tasting “al txotx”, and culminates in a visit to a traditional sidreria / cider house.
For us the biggest surprise was the fact that in the real tradional sidrerias you have no chairs and you must stand at all times. Yet, the excellent simplicity and outstanding quality of the food with the cider will surely keep you going and it is an experience not to be missed in the Basque country.
Local / Rural markets around San Sebastian
Where does the secret of the fine food in the Basque country begin? With the genuine products from the food markets. Here are few tips:
Biggest market in San Sebastian – La Bretxa – worth visiting everyday apart from Sunday, when it is closed, and Monday when most of fish shops are closed. Do not miss the great bar Azkena.
When you arrive at the Market in Ordizia on Wednesday and you see the high columns, the image of an ancient Roman temple will surely pop on your mind. And that what it is, a temple of Basque food. Similar feelings arise when visiting a Saturday market in Tolosa.
When we feel we need to take some cosmopolitan air we drive to visit a market on Sunday in the nearby French city of Biarritz. Although it is open on Sundays, it closes at 1pm. It’s a place where a multicultural ambience is evident at first sight. We shall treasure the memories of enjoying fresh oysters & shrimp with a zip of white wine.
To get the gist of the typical Basque village with their typical squares and pelota courts, caserios/country houses and at the same time enjoy the stunning mountains and eating local delicious txuleta visit:
A village hidden in the Pyrenees between patxaran bushes used for a production of patxaran – Basque liquor – where we first arrived with our 6-week old Flora.
There’s only one restaurant, located in a municipality house that serves a mixed salad, txuleta and tarta de queso to dream about – with an extended terrace overlooking the hills
And nearby Albiztur where they serve typical tolosa beans.
Two years ago, in a hospital, of all places, we met the most open and friendly locals ever, Aitor, (the most popular male Basque name) and his sister Joaine. Since our first meeting we have exchanged several visits. It always feels special to go to Joiane’s etxea, called Peru, to visit her family – her husband Aitor, and their two sons, Aitor and Urtzi–in the mountain village of Alkiza 30km/30min. away. It’s definitely our favourite Basque mountain village in a stunning mountain environment.
This picturesque fishing village has escalators and steps leading you to the very modern Cristobal Balenciaga Museum, opened in 2011. What an architectural contrast to the old buildings of this medieval fishing settlement. The Museum is a must for anyone interested in fashion and design. It is closed on Mondays.
With all our visitors we rarely miss the opportunity to have at least a quick stop in this charming village (where, by the way, the Belgium queen spends her holidays). We go to the local shop by the port with antxoas, tunas and txakoli and other local delicacies. If you fancy a less fancy lunch have a rape/monk fish prepared on barbeque by the sea. If you fancy a more fancy lunch have whole turbot cooked on the charcoal grill and served on the bone go to Elkano.
Hondarribia /Fuenterrabia – a special spot between Spain and France by the sea
Hondarribia is a town that guards itself from the dangers that come by sea, and protects the medieval treasure that is its old quarter with the remnants of thick, high walls. It’s important to keep in mind it is also the location of the airport closest to San Sebastian. Outside the walls, you find a seaside village with colorful, eye-catching houses, lively taverns and beautiful views of the sea. In Hondarribia there is also a member of the hotel chain that was established by the Spanish state to support tourism in various regions: a hotel Parador. This one is also known as the Castle of Charles V, its construction dates to the 10th century. Here you will feel as if you are in an authentic medieval fortress. The views of the coast of France and the sea from some of the guest rooms and the terrace complete the indescribable beauty of this place.
We can recommend whilst wandering the cobble stone streets in the old centre on the cobble stones to stop to have a drink in the Parador and appreciate the ambience of living in the old times. And then continue walking towards the seaside where you can hop on a little boat which takes you on the French side, or simply enjoy a seaside stroll.
At first sight, this coastal working-class village aligned with the Basque separatist movement has very little to recommend it. But Pasaia’s blend of genres – from the old sailors’ manors to the commotion of the docks – produces an inexplicable charm that once captivated Victor Hugo.
An Independent municipality, although it used to be the port for San Sebastian it still feels like a truly independent village. There is a natural fiord and within the activities of the ECoC 2016 the whaleboat “San Juan” is being rebuilt here and in addition the old relevant traditions are being revived.
La Rhune – a special spot between Spain and France in the mountains
When you take the “Petit Train de La Rhune” that dates from 1924, you will discover the breathtaking views of La Rhune, a mountain in the Basque Country, whilst on a 35 minute ride, traveling at a speed of 9km an hour.
La Rhune overlooks the Basque Country from a height of 905 metres, thus offering one of the loveliest panoramic views. Look around you, and see the seven provinces of the Basque Country, the peaks of the Pyrenees, the outstretched beaches of the Landes region, and the Basque coastline from Biarritz to San Sebastian.
It is a worthwhile trip and manageable with kids, but bear in mind long queues which might be avoided by buying tickets over the internet.
Bilbao & surrounding – Guggenheim Museum & Oma Painted Forest (Bosque pintado)
Hailed as the most important structure of its time when it opened in 1997, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has changed the way people think about museums and continues to challenge assumptions about the connections between art, architecture, and collecting.
Yet, talking to locals, we are aware of the never ending debate / mixed feelings about the impact of this huge investment of the city and the way it negatively influenced other cultural activities.
The peaceful town of Kortezubi, right in the heat of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, has a hidden treasure that combines art, nature and a connection with the artistic endeavours of our earliest ancestors. It is the Oma Painted Forest, where Agustín Ibarrola, the painter and sculptor, has turned the landscape into the frame, medium and raw material of one of his best known works. Visiting this unique “open air museum”, where there is no entry charge, involves going on a peaceful walk among pine trees and ferns, as you look for the trunks transformed by the artist’s paintbrushes and where he plays with the point of view and depth.
A real pleasurable walk through beautiful nature manageable with kids 4 years older however when the weather permits.
The Mondragon myth
The Mondragon Group of worker cooperative enterprises began with a single company and two dozen people in 1955-56 and today has around 74 000 employees. Among the key values are cooperation between owners and workers, preferably workers are members, participation in management, social responsibility including involvement in the community and constant innovation.
Along with democratic governance, egalitarianism is important for cooperative philosophy and it is put into practice through a policy of remunerative solidarity, that is, a relatively compressed compensation scale from 6:1 (highest : lowest salary). Also important cooperative policy concerns employment stability and lay-offs. A worker-member cannot be let go for motives related to the company’s economic performance and must be transferred to another coop. If not, they are paid 80% of their wages until such a transfer or return to work is possible. Last but not least, there are in place schemes for solidarity in profit distribution as well as in loss distribution whenever losses happen.
Living in the Basque country with 2.2mil inhabitants in the province of Gipuzkoa with its 710.000 inhabitants where the Social economy accounts for 10% of employment or you could say there are 15 jobs in the Social economy per square kilometre, I was eager to learn more about the Basque Valley also known as Silicon Valley. When we started our discussion with Professor Fred Freundlich, Mondragon University’s guru on co-operatives, we voiced our deep concern about the enormously widening income gap in a global society and growing importance of implementation of the principle of employee participation. Therefore, the co-operative system so extensively established in Mondragon in the Basque country, although it is not a paradise, seems to be a more human system than the common private business model. That view was first expressed to me by Mikel Lezamiz, the real co-operativista from Mondragon.
I have decided the Basque Country makes an excellent case study since there are some interesting parallels between my native Czech Republic and this region in the north of Spain. It experienced 40 years ago a transition from an authoritarian regime to democracy in some ways comparable to that experienced by Czech society 25 years ago. Second, the Basque Country is today a comparatively wealthy European region, with an important concentration of metallurgic industry and manufacturing SMEs.
Calle San Blas in Southwest
From our street we have view of one of the beaches Zurriola and can observe those brave surfers in the Atlantic Ocean all year along as well as the mountains that ring the city. Our neighbourhood used to be a rough area, still remembered by some old inhabitants of our street, but where nowadays live a real mixture of people from all walks of life. In front of our house is a cosy small square with several benches occupied by all which makes it an incredible social laboratory. This is where we learnt to appreciate the outdoor Spanish way of life. The discretely located, yet public, elevator built on the side of the recently-built school gives easy access to the beach. We have within a couple of hundred metres of our apartment a court for local Basque game called pelota, we also have the ikastola where Leo and Flora master with ease education in Euskera and the adjacent church where Flora was baptised. On numerous occasions pilgrims headed for Santiago de Compostela wander off their route and end up in our street asking for directions.
La Perla – not only for the time when sun is not shining
La Perla Thalassotherapy is a genuine relic of the belle époque of San Sebastian. More than one century ago, the queen Maria Cristina established the royal summer house in this city. Sea baths were considered to be a fine pleasure by holidaymakers, a pleasure that combined therapy, relaxation and wellness.
La Perla Thalasso is located in the incomparable surroundings of La Concha Bay. Regarded as the best Thalassotherapy Urban Spa of Europe, for 2 hours for euro 26.50 you find a magic combination of salt water baths and body toning programmes. The facilities have a view of the beach, as well as direct access to it.
This is a marvellous spot where I can recommend to escape for 2 hours to enjoy the various therapy and breath-taking views.
Best viewpoints overlooking the beauties of San Sebastian & surroundings – from Monte Igueldo & Monte Ulia
Strolling along the La concha & Ondarreta beaches, taking a funicular to the top where is an old amusement park and a lookout tower with the old photographs of San Sebastian, to see the most stunning views, accompanied by the old photographs, is a great way to be introduced to the city.
Walk down or take a funicular and go to see the statue by the most famous Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida – and his bronze statue is the perfect example of beauty in its purest state, a profound dialogue between art and the landscape on the rocks washed with ferocious ocean waves.
We never get tired of wandering or cycling along the local 3 beaches – Zurriola, La concha & Ondarreta. Zurriola, closest to our home, it is a surfers’ paradise and our local playground / sandpit if you will. A lot of our visitors rent a bike and join us. Then we cycle to the end of Ondarreta beach and take the funicular. We enjoy the stunning views, take the best photos and on the weekends must not miss the old amusement park. Then we either treat ourselves to refreshment in the bar or restaurant Branka, or in the restaurant Tennis Ondarreta.
You can always drive up the mountain Igueldo which we also sometimes do, but admittedly we more often drive up the opposite mountain of Ulia. In this protected natural resort is a youth hostel that includes a bar where during the season, or out of season on the weekends, you can get refreshment whilst enjoying the breath-taking scenery.
From 16 Michelin stars to Pintxo pote on every Thursday
In fact, of the seven 3-Michelin star (the highest there is) restaurants in Spain, three are here in our city, home to great selection of establishments holding a total of 16 Michelin stars, where you can enjoy the excellent fare dished up by the city’s culinary artists. San Sebastián is one of the cities in the world to hold the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre (only beaten by Kyoto in Japan, and well ahead of cities like Paris and Lyon). But the local haute cuisine is not only recognised by the Michelin Guide; the list of the top 50 restaurants in the world published by the magazine, Restaurant, considers the Mugaritz, run by Andoni Luis Aduriz to be one of the best in the world since 2006, and the third best restaurant in the world since 2011. Also since 2006, Arzak has ranked among the 10 best restaurants in the world, and in 2012, Elena Arzak, fourth generation in the family of restaurateurs, was named the world’s best female chef.
I am by no means a Michelin professional. I dare to say I have become a professional enthusiasta, as they call us in the Basque Culinary Centre, one who appreciates good food.
I was fortunate during our years here to visit several of the local restaurants, including those with Michelin stars. Although I certainly can appreciate innovative cooking, my admiration goes to simple cooking from real ingredients that are cooked over a fire with just a hint of oil or salt. This is what real cooking is and what we are losing in the quest for the latest techniques of cooking or presenting food while not knowing what we are actually eating.
I will remember with fondness the tradition of local restaurants on Thursdays when most serve a pintxo and drink for Euro2 which brings particularly crowds of youngsters together out.
Pintxo – local Basque tapas – pintxo culture is about being on foot and on the move
Today it’s a way of socialising and having a good time. Like to come along? There was published last year an article even in the Financial Times called Passport for the palate. These are recommendations from our palate:
6+1 Favourite pinxo bars plus sweet cherry on the top: the Basque habit is to take one or two pintxos per bar)
If it is a pintxo tour during lunch time begin in the bar inside the local market
Azkena, Mercado la Bretxa (inside the market), Planta Baja, tel. 615 792 655 – black pudding / mortilla pintxo
If it is a dinner tour begin in
Borda Berri, Calle Fermin Calbeton, 12 – octopus with quince and the beef carrilleras (cheeks) in red wine
Bar Zeruko, Calle Pescaderia 10, 943 423 451 – tostada con bogavante / lobster
Bar Astelena , Plaza Constitución 1, tel. 943 425 245 – brochetas de setas y bacon or gambas / skewers with oyster mushrooms and bacon or prawns
Ganbara, C/San Jeronimo 19, tel. 943 42 25 75 – seasonal mushrooms / hongos a la plancha or guilda
Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 25, tel. 943 42 63 62 – filet mignon / solomillo con pepper
La Cuchara de San Telmo – filet mignon with foi / solomillo con foi
La Vina, Calle 31 de Augosto – tarta de queso / cheesecake
Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 25, tel. 943 42 63 62 (upscale traditional lunch and dinner)
Who would have thought whilst drinking our first txakoli, the local white fizzy wine, and eating our first steak / txuleta during our honeymoon that this town will become our home for 5 years? And it remained our favourite place for txuleta in the Parta Vieja/Old town ever since.
Bokado, Jacques Cousteau Plaza, 1, tel . 943 43 18 42 (upscale avant-garde lunch and dinner with a stunning view)
Restaurant on the top of the Acquarium with stunning views of the ocean and mountains. It is a restaurant ideal for celebrating special occasions; it was here we celebrated the baptism of our Flora. The dishes I recall are fish soup / Sopa Donostiarra de pescado, grilled king prawns / Gambas a la plancha , Monkfish / Rape and Veal Cheecks / Carrillera.
El Saltxipi, Calzada Vieja de Ategorrieta, 3, tel. 943 323 310, 608 757 (upscale traditional dinner)
A well-hidden restaurant close to our house in a beautiful garden with a traditional décor inside and a charming terrace outside. We enjoy there fish and seafood, e.g. – rice with clams/arroz con almejas and monkfish/ rape or turbot / rodaballo a la brasa / on the barbeque
Eiztari Etxea, Buen Pastor Plaza 13, tel. 943 46 35 01 (traditional lunch and dinner)
Restaurant as traditional as it gets; we were introduced to it by the mayor who declares it his favourite restaurant for sea bream / besugo, and mamia / boiled milk, a local dessert.
El Ibai, Calle Getaria 15, tel. 943 428 764 (upscale traditional lunch and dinner)
Inconspicuous restaurant where you cannot walk in off the street, you must always make reservation in advance. Well recommended if you are in the mood to experience a traditional meal in a 20 year old interior with no windows, but absolutely divine food such local caviar if in season – peas, sole / lenguado in a butter sauce, kokotxa / cod’s cheeks and the most tender txipirones a la plancha / grilled calamares ever.
Bernardo, Calle del Puerto, 7, tel. 943 422 055 (upscale traditional lunch and dinner)
Our local friend who knows something about fish as he happened to own two fish shops took us here for a dinner and since then we are always happy to come back for a plate of lomo to start and sea bream / besugo or lenguado / sole a la Parrilla (on the coal).
Viento Sur, Avenida Zurriola 4, tel. 943 29 13 33 (avant-garde lunch including lunch menu and dinner)
Restaurant located right across from the Kursaal where I enjoy filet mignon with soya sauce / solomillo a la suegra, and vainas con jamon / grean beans with ham. They have a great selection of gins and make a superb gin & tonic.
Portuetxe, Camino Portuetxe 43, tel. 943 215 018 (upscale traditional lunch and dinner)
Well hidden restaurant out of the center city located in an old house surrounded by modern buildings mostly belonging to university. Definitely worth visiting for the traditional atmosphere in which to eat classical and seasonal dishes such peas, asparagus, sea bream / besugo and steak / txuleta in San Sebastian.
Mirador (Michelin star), Paseo de Ulia 193, tel. 943 27 27 07 (upscale avant-garde lunch and dinner with a stunning view)
Michelin star restaurant closest to our house, overlooking the ocean and mountains. A special place indeed, because I met here my second Harvard classmate Dante who was visiting in a role of the Corporate Social Responsibility Guru Deusto University, a local university in San Sebastian. Needless to say, my first Harvard visitor was Elka from Sofia who visited numerous special Basque places.
nineu, Avenida Zurriola 1 (in Kursaal), tel. 943 003 162 (avant-garde breakfast and lunch including lunch menu and dinner with a stunning view)
Restaurant based in the Kursaal with a great terrace on the spot where you can see the mountains, river and ocean. Our favourite place for breakfast, where we always enjoy their tostada con tomate or pintxo de anchoas or torrija, local dessert. Other recommendations are either a small degustation plate with three warm pintxos for lunch or a full lunch menu in a restaurant.
La Guinda, Calle Zabaleta 55, tel. 943 98 17 15 (avant-garde breakfast and lunch including lunch menu and dinner)
Local restaurant with a nice terrace in Gros in a French bistro style recommended for an early start as it opens at 8am, which is not that common around here at all. They offer a vast selection of breakfast items but my favourite remains tostada con tomate and orange juice. A bit later of the day they make great tortilla de patatas. It is also among my favourite places for a quick local lunch menu. In addition, reflecting French influence, they bake great lemon meringue pie and macaroons.
El Iturrioz, Calle San Martin 30, tel. 943 428316 (avant-garde breakfast and lunch including lunch menú and dinner)
Restaurant I discovered thanks to my Spanish teacher MariMar who took me there for a lesson. And ever since I enjoy this place for breakfast. They make the best tostada con jamon together with tostada con revueltos de salmon. They also have great lunch menu and the second best tarta de queso / cheesecake in town.
Ezkura, Miracruz 17, tel. in Gros (traditional lunch including lunch menu and dinner)
Restaurant I was introduced to by Leo’s teacher Margari with whom we used to go to the gym and whose sister lives above it. It is a plain restaurant, yet with an unusually friendly owner and where I can recommend bacalao ajoarriero and ensaladilla rusa.
Restaurant surrounded by the tennis courts we noticed whilst cycling at the very end of Ondaretta beach and several times taking the fenicular to the top of the Monte Urguell where is an old amusement park and the fabulous view of the city and the surrounding countryside. Tried the lunch menu which was always worth the money and atmosphere.
Mendizorroz, Plaza de Lizardia 4, Igeldo, tel. 943 212 023 (traditional lunch)
If you wish to eat a great txuleta – local steak with salad and home cheese cake in a real Basque traditional place, this restaurant in San Sebastian yet on one of the hill’s – Igeldo (where the former mayor comes from), you will feel the ambience of a rural caserio indeed. Do not forget the make the reservation as they do not take easily people of the street.
Astelena, Euskal Herria Kalea, 3, tel. 943 42 58 67 (traditional / avant-garde restaurant)
Discovered only recently due to the fact that the chef is Ander Gonzalez who is my teacher in the Basque culinary centre. He is also running a TV show where 2 Basque pueblos / villages compete in cooking a particular local dish. This is my comment on the Tripadvisor: Got the tip for this place whilst taking a culinary course at the Basque culinary centre where the chef is an inspiring teacher! Without hesitation can recommend this traditional / avant-garde restaurant with a real great deal quality versus money! On the offer are old Basque dishes with a modern innovative touch whilst using seasonal products. Must applaud to their starter – grilled sliced asparagus and artichokes with cream potatoes and main course – grilled squid, caramelised onion and new potatoes with parsley. Looking forward to discover more from their menu!
The protocol here is to help yourself to hot or cold local tapas, known in the Basque language as pintxos on the bar and then when you are ready to go, indicate to the barman what you have had and pay up! It’s an honour system. Hot pintxos are described mostly on the blackboards and you will have to wait until they are brought out to you.
Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 25, tel. 943 42 63 62 (also great for an upscale traditional lunch and dinner)
Bar / restaurant as mentioned earlier discovered already on our honeymoon with a great filet mignon / solomillo con pepper.
Ganbara, C/San Jeronimo 21, tel. 943 42 25 75
Bar / restaurant where we met, more than once, one of the most celebrated local chefs – Arzak (the founder of a 3 Michelin star restaurant now run by his daughter Elena). We always enjoy there the seasonal dishes such as mushrooms / hongos a la plancha and fried green peppers and artychoceks / alcachofas with foi.
La Cuchara de San Telmo,
Tiny bar situated close to the Museum San Telmo with a great solomillo con foi.
La Vina, Calle 31 de Agosto
Bar / restaurant that was introduced to me by a girlfriend who adores the Basque cuisine and who discovered they serve, among other things, a great plate of jamon and the best tarta de queso/cheescake in the town. On weekends you can also taste the Apple versión which is simply bonissimo.
Bar Astelena , Plaza Constitución 1, tel. 943 425 245
The main square in San Sebastian is named Plaza Constitución and is where I spent hours and hours with Leo in good weather upon our arrival to San Sebastian whilst still living in hotels; it was a charming place to enjoy oneself. It has several bars, yet we keep returning to this one. One reason was that the manager’s wife is of Czech origin, and it was also the first bar where I found a small table for kids with pencils and a piece of paper, was that a coincidence? In this bar with a great terrace they serve brochetas de setas and bacon or gambas /skewers with oyster mushrooms and bacon or prawns or various kind of crocetas or ropas de carne.
Paco Bueno, Mayor / Nagusia Kalea 6, tel. 943 424 959
In our family this bar is known under the name Rugby bar. Always crowded with a good spirit in air and always served great gambas con gabardina/coated fried prawns.
Bar Zeruko, Calle Pescaderia 10, 943 423 451
Bar which requires great tom-tom skill to find due to the dual signposting in Spanish and Basque – Calle Pescaderia 10 versus Arraindegi Kalea, but once you do, you will find yourself in an Art gallery. They serve they most artistic pieces of delicacies – certainly to call them Art pintxos is no exaggeration, it is a must. You must try their tostada con bogavante/lobster, but you must see with your own eyes those smoking and glittering beauties.
Borda Berri, Calle Fermin Calbeton, 12
Traditional bar in the old centre where is worth trying their octopus with quince and the unctuous beef carrilleras (cheeks) in red wine.
San Telmo, inside the Museum San Telmo – breakfast / pintxo
Good for breakfast or simple pintxo regardless you visit the museum or not – worth tasting pintxo with jamon mixed with garlic or pulpo.
Kata.4 Oyster bar, Calle de santa Catalina 4, tel. 943 423 (avant-garde lunch including lunch menu and dinner)
Restaurant also great for breakfast – either to have with your coffee a cold pintxo with anchoas or great tortilla with onions / tortilla de patatas con cebolla or you can always enjoy a simple toast with tomato sauce / tostada con tomate. But it is a recommended place for Pil – Pil bacalau / cod that is mostly on the lunch menu.
Branka, Paseo de Eduardo Chillida, 13, 943 31 70 96
A great place to take a rest whilst cycling or walking at the very end of the Ondaretta beach where nearby is the statue by Eduardo Chilida.
Oquendo, Calle Okendo, 8, tel. 943 42 07 36 (also a good option for a traditional lunch)
Bar just across the river from the Kursaal with a numerous photos with film stars who have dined there while attending the annual September San Sebastian film festival, for over 60 years one of the highlights of San Sebastian’s cultural life. Great selection of cold and hot pintxos which over lunch are offered also as a menu – 3 cold + 2 hot pintxos + drink – great calamares.
Monpas, Paseo José Miguel Barandiarán 20
Our local bar in Gros/Southwest is known for their vast selection of beer including the Czech beer. We, however, go there for chocolate croissant/napolitana for breakfast, then we do approve of their rizek which is served with a green pepper during the week and with caramelised onion on the weekends, and their beef stew/estofado.
Azkena, Mercado la Bretxa (inside the market), Planta Baja, tel. 615 792 655
When you visit the local market La Bretxa with its great selection of every kind of fish and meat you can possibly imagine, and, needless to say with vegetables and fruit that taste as they ought to taste, you must visit the tiny bar Azkena with the best black pudding/mortilla pintxo ever. Worth enjoying the set lunch menu for which, however, you must make a reservation in advance.
Salt, Avenida Navarra 2 – corner with Calle Zabaleta in Gros
Local bar restaurant in Gros with a stunning ocean view and most importantly across the road from our children’s school, place for a quick breakfast with tostada con tomate.
Whiskey Museum, Boulevard Zumardia 5, tel. 943 426 478, whisky and piano bar on the main Boulevard – closest to the municipality
Truly traditional night bar opening at 11pm where the good barman must show you an old trick (if not, ask for one); on two floors with a great display of whiskies as in a proper museum indeed, and on the ground floor with an old piano and that usually hosts a live musician – great cocktails including the classic gin and tonic.
Most of these places are in a beautiful natural setting, either by the ocean or in the mountains, so naturally many of these are favourite outdoor places for fish or txuleta.
Katxina, Barrio San Martín, Orio – 943 831 407, traditional lunch or dinner – (20min from SS)
Traditional restaurant on the way to Getaria situated on the hill with outstanding views outside the restaurant, where we started to learn to appreciate the quality of eating grilled sea bream or monkfish upon a recommendation from our Spanish teacher MariMar, who was from the very beginning our secret source for tips on where to go to visit or eat in this Basque realm.
Abeletxe, Zarate Bidea, 20159 Zizurkil, t 943 693 983, traditional lunch (30min from SS)
Restaurant we discovered when Leo went for a school trip and we heard about the Basque heroine Edurne Pasaban who conquered 14 + 1 Everest Without Oxygen. When she is not climbing Mount Everest she runs a hotel and restaurant with a beautiful terrace overlooking the mountain scenery. We enjoy filet mignet / solomillo with foi there.
Beizama, traditional lunch 50min from SS
This restaurant we discovered when Flora was not even two months old. We always have here a mixed salad / ensalada mixta as a starter, txuleta, red peppers, green salad and French fries, and house cheese cake. This typical rural mountain village has one restaurant in the municipality house with a terrace overlooking beautiful mountain scenery. It is also a place where we learned about the local liquor patxaran that is made mainly of sloe berries that grow on the blackthorn shrub in this part of Pyrenees.
Camara, Pasaia, post traditional lunch or dinner, Pasaia
If you fancy a fish or seafood in a place where time stood still, you must get to this restaurant in Pasaia. Inside the very traditional restaurant is a well in the sea where they keep the live lobsters. Should you wish to eat one, they pull them up and let you pick your own, which is as fresh as it gets.
Aittola Zar, Madariaga auzoa, Azkoitia, tel. 943 581 186, 635 710 281, traditional lunch (50min from SS)
As hidden in the beautiful mountains of Pyrenees as is possible, we always enjoy the most beautiful scenery whilst approaching this typical Basque house-based restaurant. For a starter order the fried plate with most delicious croquetas, then txuleta, red peppers, salad and French fries, and cheesecake to finish this simple yet divine rural meal.
Etxebarri Asador, Plaza San Juan, Atxondo, Tel: 94 658 30 42, posh avant-garde lunch or dinner (75km/60min) – expensive yet fabulous tartar the chorizo and gambas and txuleta in a great natural setting, 1km away is a hotel/restaurant for aperitif, Mendi Goikoa, Barrio San Juan 33, Axpe – Valle de Atxondo, tel 946 820 833
We recommend you first have an aperitif at Mendi Goikoa which is a hotel/restaurant in a wonderful setting and with a great motto– “we are a place where you can hear silence.” And then go for a rural yet posh lunch to Etxebarri restaurant, where we had tartar the chorizo, gambas and txuleta.
Etxebertzeko Borda, Orabidea, 31795 Lekaroz, tel. 948 580 400, traditional lunch (1.5hours from SS)
Place well hidden and which we had yet again difficulty to find, but once we succeeded we discovered a yet another traditional old restaurant in the beautiful setting of the Pyrenees that offers a great txuleta.
Asador Laia in a Basque setting indeed, Arkolla Auzoa 33, Hondarribia, tel. 943 646 309, avant-garde lunch or dinner, 20km/25min
This is a good solution if you fancy the traditional fish or meat on the grill or even the menu of sidreria but with an avant-garde touch.
Casa Julian, Calle Santa Klara 6, Tolosa, 943 671 417, traditional lunch or dinner (40min from SS)
When you walk inside this restaurant you may be confused as it looks like a warehouse/shop to begin with, but as you walk further you discover a cosy old place where you find displayed numerous wines, which creates a nice atmosphere. And to try their txuleta with red peppers is a must.
To enjoy this place you must not mind the great ritual of sidrerias, in this one, they keep the tradition of standing on your feet at all time…, great food, but you really must stand all the time (with Mari Mar and Jose Luis), 10km / 15min.
Sidreria Saizar (with the huge metal apple), Kale-zahar Auzoa, 39, USURBIL, 943 373 995, avant-garde sidreria (11km/20min from SS)
A yet another well-hidden place that you know you’ve found when see a big metal apple, it’s a big, modern sidreria.
La Era, Escota (Alava), 945 362 158 – 1.5hours from SS
Place recommended if you feel like enjoying more of the Basque country and wish to drive from the region Gipuzkoa to the region Alava to see its different kind of landscape. Their fish Rodaballo al horno con pil-pil de hongos and Cochinillo crujiente confitado en su jugo are worth the journey.
Mesón Las Torres, Ujué – Navarra, tel: 948 73 90 52, traditional lunch – 145km/1.50min –
If you feel driving from the Gipuzkoa region to Navarra to enjoy their landscape this is the place for delicious lamb / cordero.
It is a restaurant combined with a shop with pork/cerdo products only). Their artychocks with jamon, papada y pimientos de cristal, ensalada de carrilleras, laminas de lomo con trufa are great.
Bar Jean, Biarritz , 05 59 24 80 38 – chateauxbriand – across the market
Our treat on Sunday was to go to the market, enjoy the fresh oysters or prawns with a glass of wine and then for lunch go for chateaubriand in this classical restaurant which is always buzzing with people.
La Plancha du Pecheur, 37 Impasse Nicolas Bremontier, Ondres Plage, 05 59 45 24 06 – fish & seafood
What a stunning beach with dunas! And the fish & seafood is a treat!