Basque cuisine — the food of San Sebastián — has produced some of the most regaled flavors and techniques of the culinary world during the past 20 years. Established and aspiring chefs travel from afar to indulge, train, and be inspired by the city in northern Spain that’s a short drive from France.
A good destination to start on the foodie journeys is Ganbara, one of the many restaurants that line the streets of San Sebastián’s old town. Co-owner Amaia Ortuzar is the self-educated chef who made it an ambition to retain many of the recipes and practices of the Basque people. Her efforts have provided some of the inspiration for Barcelona-based brothers Ferran and Albert Adria, and the Arzak family, whose eponymous restaurant is on the outskirts of San Sebastián and is considered among the very finest places to dine in the world.
Not all foodies can afford the likes of Arzak or Asador Etxebarri — San Sebastián’s other global culinary sensation — on a regular basis, so Ganbara offers the chance to taste the homespun flavors of Basque cuisine without the cost associated with high-end culinary craftsmanship and extravagant tasting menus. Located in the heart of San Sebastián, which is set against the waters that lead to the Bay of Biscay, Ganbara delivers what the city is best known for — outstanding food that is focused on seafood and meats reared in the Ebro Valley. Sublime flavors and distinct farming practices help to differentiate Basque cooking. For example, txuleta is the increasingly popular steak made in Basque style that is sourced from cattle that is aged between 8 and 18 years before slaughter (most of the world’s beef cattle is killed before four years of age).
At Ganbara, diners have the chance to experience what Ortuzar calls traditional Basque food. She has been preparing it for more than three decades at her restaurant and noticed it was the “change to new cuisine that brought attention” to her city. Arzak and the Adria brothers have been champions of Basque cooking for years and that has helped down-market restaurants like Ganbara flourish, too. For diners, that’s a good thing, because we can savor classic Basque dishes like Langoustine salad, Fried Milky Bread, and Strawberries and Pepper in the way they’ve been enjoyed for decades.
But San Sebastián is much more than a foodie destination. It’s a ritzy city that feels a lot like the south of France — not surprising because the French border is only 30 minutes by car away. It’s a clean, safe city that’s easy to navigate. The town hugs two crescent-shaped beaches — Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta — where locals and tourists congregate at all hours. On either side of the beach, lush green hills climb, giving San Sebastián the feel of a cove secluded from the rest of the world. In some ways it will remind you of Italy’s Cinque Terre region, also known for its picturesque cliffside houses and ambling coastline.
The primary landmark of San Sebastián is a towering statue of Christ on top of Mount Urgull, which overlooks the city from the east. The hike to reach it is short — less than 45 minutes — and the view — like so much else in the city — is delicious, too. Santa Clara Island is an eyecatching mass of greenery and loveliness that will catch your attention while walking around the city’s promenade and when you’re atop Mount Urgull you can see it from a bird’s-eye angle. It has an old lighthouse as well as a dramatic windswept surface with a small beach known to disappear beneath the tide. A ferry will take you out to the island and although there’s a bar at Santa Clara, you’ll want to do all your dining in Donostia, which is the Basque name for you San Sebastián.
Restaurants like Ganbara bustle. They’re lined with patrons dining around high-top tables or empty wine barrels. They eat standing up because before long they’ll be back at the counter ordering pintxos, tapas-like dishes that you select from a lineup of foods and pay as you nosh.
When you’re not eating in or exploring around San Sebastián, you can venture easily to other parts of north-central Spain. Particularly noteworthy are Bilbao and Pamplona.
Bilbao is home to a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, dedicated to modern art. While the artwork isn’t nearly as compelling as the New York Guggenheim, or even London’s modern-art delight The Tate Museum, it’s worth the one-hour drive from San Sebastián just for the sight of the whimsical building that is likely Gehry’s masterpiece, an edifice of dazzling lines of steel waving into a form that seems incomprehensible.
Meanwhile, Pamplona is an old Spanish city known for two things: a notorious annual bull parade and the American writer who romanticized the blood sport of bull fighting. Ernest Hemingway tributes are visible in multiple locations in Pamplona, including at Café Iruña, where the famed novelist frequented while writing works such as “The Sun Also Rises.” A statue of Hemingway can be found in the back hall of the restaurant, leaning against at the bar as if waiting for you to invite him for a drink.
Hemingway was attracted to the city for its bulls and the animals continue to bring notoriety to Pamplona. The running of the bulls — officially called the Fiesta of San Fermín — is one of the oddest things humans do. If you’re in the city, you must see Rafael Huerta’s sculpture in the middle of the city’s main shopping corridor. The dramatic masterpiece shows the horror on the faces of the participants as they are chased, trampled on, or speared by the rampaging beasts. If you were ever tempted to run with the bulls, the statue would likely sober you of that ambition.
More About Visiting San Sebastián
Getting There: San Sebastián Airport, which is located 13 miles (22 kilometres) away in Hondarribia, has flights to and from major cities in Europe, with the most frequent flights arriving from Madrid.
Getting Around: Although Spain has a high-speed train system, renting a car is recommended while in the northern part of the country because the roads and highways are well-maintained, making it easy to drive. A vehicle will also make accessing different cities such as Pamplona and Bilbao more efficient. Cars can be reserved prior to arrival and the keys can be picked up at kiosks inside the airport.