A Short Guide to San Sebastián’s Pintxos

San Sebastián is more than just a beautiful city by the sea, it is one of the world’s culinary capitals. And in this gastronomic haven and heaven, pintxos reign supreme.

It’s no exaggeration to say that eating pintxos is a cornerstone of Basque cuisine.

At Basque Bites, our range of San Sebastián and Basque Country day toursincludes fun and fascinating outings designed to give you the ultimate pintxo experience. Join us next time you are in town for pintxos crawl of San Sebastián’s old town.

But what are pintxos? Are they the same as tapas? How do you order them?

We’ve got all the answers you need and we’ve put them in this short guide to San Sebastián’s pintxos.

If you think of more questions for us while you read, get in touch with us when you’ve finished!

Classics from one of our favorite pintxos bars.

What are Pintxos?

In a city of exquisite dining options, pintxos are San Sebastián’s most beloved.

But what are they? Let us explain.

Pintxos are small bites to eat you find displayed on the counters of bars throughout San Sebastián and the Basque Country.

Many pintxos, but not all, are served on bread or toast—essentially, a plate you can eat.

But using bread as an edible vessel came later. The original pintxos consisted of cured fish, olives, and pickles. Think green olives, peppers, anchovies, tuna, mussels, and boquerones AKA vinegar cured white anchovies.

However, there is one thing that unites every pintxo—the humble toothpick.

When you browse the pintxos on the counter of a taberna, you will see a toothpick skewering them.

And this tiny feature is at the heart of it all! The word pintxo means ‘spike’, ‘piercing’, or ‘skewer’ in both Spanish and Basque.

A short guide to San Sebastián’s pintxos

But they’re not supposed to be a full meal. They’re more of a quick bite to eat that you enjoy while standing, chatting and catching up with a friend or barperson.

And let’s not forget hot pintxos! This controversial step in pintxo evolution came at the tail-end of the 20th century.

You won’t find hot offerings on the counter as they’re prepared fresh to order. For this reason, they feature on chalkboard menus that change with the seasons.

From one narrow bar to the next bar you can find a tempting range of pintxos at the many tabernas of San Sebastián, all waiting for you to enjoy with a drink and the company of good friends. From decadent bites like sea urchin, grilled baby squid, grilled octopus, seared foie gras and pig’s ear to more humble offerings like a classic Spanish tortilla, braised beef cheeks in a red wine sauce, fried peppers and even mini hamburgers.

Find out more about the REAL San Sebastián by reading our guide What is San Sebastián Known For?

Standing room only at most bars in San Sebastián

Are Pintxos the Same as Tapas?

One of the easiest ways to understand pintxos is to see them as “Basque tapas”—but don’t say that to a local!

Sure, they are similar in some ways, but they share just as many differences.

First, there’s the origin. Tapas originate from and are popular in southern and central regions of Spain, so there’s a clear geographical split. The word “tapa” comes from the Spanish atapar or to cover. Legend goes that a nobleman complained to his servant about flies getting in his glass of wine, at which point the servant brought him a small plate with a snack on top to atapar his glass. VOILA! The tapa was born!

One big difference between the two is that you must pay for each of your pintxos while tapas are generally free (although sometimes with inflated drink prices). Order a drink, get a free tapa–maybe something simple like some olives. Order a second drink, get a better tapa, like boiled shrimp. After your fourth or fifth tapas you have moved up the food chain considerably and might be eating a piece of suckling pig or beef cheek. The waiter might even ask if you’d like to move on to dessert. But remember that it is chef’s choice. While you pay for each pintxo you get to choose what you want and can thus make your own mini tasting menu of sorts!

Another huge difference between tapas and pintxos is that tapas are really designed to keep you seated in the bar. As a rule of thumb, the more alcohol you consume, the better the tapas become—so why not stay a while?

With pintxos, you hop from bar to bar, enjoying a range of bites, drinks, settings, and atmospheres. One rarely spends more than 20 minutes in each bar which I’m a huge fan of as we like to hop on the hunt for good food.

Blackboard menu offers seasonal and hot dishes–the house specials

Pintxos are a Basque Staple and a Way of Life

In San Sebastián, pintxos aren’t just a type of cuisine; they are a cultural institution! 

These delectable treats are an essential part of everyday life here. 

In the Basque Country, you never go out drinking without eating, and you never go eating without drinking.

This is why you should NEVER go to a pintxo taberna and not order a drink. You don’t need to eat, but drinking is expected.

The social, interactive experiences in the tabernas aren’t always confined to you and your friends or family either. Conversations often spill over into neighboring groups.

And it’s always been this way. Bars in San Sebastián have been serving pintxos for nearly 100 years now.

On our San Sebastián Market Tour and Pintxo Lunch and Pintxo Dinner Experience in San Sebastián, you can learn all about the history of these tasty morsels with Basque Bites.

Fun classics at one bar in San Sebastian’s Old Town

From Simple Classics to Miniature Works of Art

One of the most remarkable things about pintxos is their incredible diversity. 

You’ll find everything from traditional and hearty creations to pintxos that resemble miniature works of art.

Let’s start with some classic staples:

  • Gilda: The first and most famous pintxo! Gildas are ubiquitous in San Sebastián. Named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the movie Gilda, this simple yet tantalizing pintxo features green olives, salty anchovies, and spicy pickled peppers on a toothpick. 
  • Tortilla de Patatas: Spain’s famous potato omelet is a popular offering in many a bar and several spots have turned it into a medium-sized sandwich. Always a good bet, locals argue over which bar has the best tortilla. Creamy, golden potatoes, onions, and eggs, seasoned to perfection—it’s a comforting delight in every bite.
  • Txistorra: This Basque pork sausage is a meat lover’s dream. Slightly spicy and bursting with flavors. Sometimes it’s deep fried, sometimes it is boiled in local cider or txakoli. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a glass of our local tipples …but the same is true for most pintxos!

The Gilda was the first pintxos in san sebastian

From humble beginnings, the pintxo has evolved over the years, influenced by San Sebastián’s culinary excellence.

Today, you can find pintxos that have more in common with artworks than a humble kitchen.

Too many creations grace the counters of San Sebastián’s tabernas to cover here, but just some of the sights and tastes you can expect include:

  • Foie Gras with Compote of Local Fruit: Velvety foie gras complemented by the sweetness of apricot, pear, or apple jam–the definition of “sucré-salé” creates an explosion of flavors that lingers on your palate.
  • Tuna Confit in Olive Oil with a Basque Vinaigrette: Albacore tuna steaks confited in olive oil, cured for months, and served with a quick pickle of sweet onions and peppers.
  • Baby Squid a la Plantxa: Tiny squid seared hard and caramelized, served with parsley pesto and balsamic reduction.

Remember, these are just a few examples. The pintxo world is vast, but you can discover countless other delights with Basque Bites on a group or private walking food tour in San Sebastián.

Pintxos in San Sebastian can be simple or elegant, hot or cold

Are pintxos served in Michelin starred restaurants?

Well, yes and no. To a certain degree a pintxo is about the size of an appetizer or an amuse bouche. And sure, many of dishes found on a Michelin tasting menu are on the small side. Occasionally a client will ask us, “how many Michelin starred restaurants will we visit on the pintxos tour?” and the answer is ZERO. Sorry kids, you cannot rock up to a Michelin starred restaurant, sit at the bar and order a brocheta de gambas or an oreja de cerdo. Which is one of the reasons we love San Sebastián’s old town and its inviting little bars. While not everyone can afford a night of opulence at a Michelin restaurant, everyone is welcome in the city’s many bars for affordable, delicious bites. In fact many of clients say that our pintxos tour was better than the tasting menu at the big dogs!

To Drink or Not to Drink?

Not sure why we put a question mark on the above heading ‘coz I think we all already know the answer. But drinking is an integral part of of both pintxos bars and basque culture. A small glass of wine here, a small glass of cider there, a tiny beer…we think you get the point. The drink pours are not always large ‘coz the goal is not to get drunk or overdo. Tipsy, lit, light on your feet? Perfect! nestor

How to Order Pintxos

The best way to order pintxos is to take a tour with Basque Bites. Not only will we take you to the best bars and guide you around the city, we will demonstrate how this all works and walk you through the process. 

Ordering pintxos as a tourist isn’t easy. Bars are often packed with people as multiple conversations reverberate off the walls.

The menus are written in a mix of Spanish and Basque, so you may find it hard to figure out what’s what.

You need to be “patiently aggressive” to get to the bar. And when you do, try to make eye contact with a barperson. They know you’re there, so wait for them to address you.

First things first, order a drink to prove that you are serious. And stick to the same barperson in each taberna, don’t confuse them. Be polite.

Practice your Basque, and if you don’t speak any it’s perfectly fine to use Spanish. ¿No hablas Castellano? Don’t worry, use your French!

But don’t sweat it, nearly all the bar staff in town understands English, but they might not speak it back to you.

If you want cold pintxos, just point. If you want hot pintxos, look for the chalkboard. 

Failing that, you can always ask for a menu—there’s usually one printed up in a variety of languages but the printed menu might not be 100% accurate or current. 

Roll with it. Don’t be afraid to point at what other patrons are enjoying. We always recommend looking for grandparents, or gents in berets; they usually know what’s what at the bars!

Don’t forget to check out our Ultimate Guide to San Sebastián. It’s packed with the handy tips and recommendations you need for an unforgettable vacation. 

Join Basque Bites for the best tours in San Sebastián

A Short Guide to Pintxos Bars in San Sebastián

So, what are the top tabernas in San Sebastián, Spain? We’ve got plenty of recommendations up our sleeve.

The majority of pintxos bars are in San Sebastián’s Old Town, but there are hidden gems elsewhere too. 

Some of the very best are family-run places that have stood for decades and passed from one generation to the next.

Just two examples are Casa Vallés, where the pintxo was invented, and La Espiga, a bar that has been open for 90 years.

Our walking food tours are the perfect gateway for the complete San Sebastián pintxo experience.

Join one early in your visit and you’ll get the lay of the land PLUS the history of the town and a 101 crash course in all things pintxo culture!

This means you’ll be a confident pintxo expert for the rest of your stay.

The red wine glass is always half full on this food experience

Let Us Be Your Guide to the Best Pintxos in San Sebastián!

Are you ready to experience the incredible world of San Sebastián’s pintxo bars?

Check out our San Sebastián and Basque Country day tours and find the perfect outing for your needs.

Did you think of any questions for us? Get in touch for the answers you need.