From the legendary pintxo bars in San Sebastián and Vitoria-Gasteiz to the famous vineyards of Rioja Alavesa and Michelin-starred restaurants in Bilbao, here’s what and where to eat & drink on your gluttonous gastro tour of the Basque Country.
1. Kick Start the Gluttony in the Heart of the Basque Country
As the capital city and cultural heart of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz is the ideal place to set up base and delve into this gastronomic nook of the country.
Mornings are all about wandering Vitoria’s main market, which springs to life as over 180 traders set up their stalls to sell fresh fish and seafood directly from the Bay of Biscay, as well as colourful fruit and veg and a whole lot of local Idiazabal cheese (more on that in a bit).
My favourite part of the market however is the rooftop gastrobar, where you can nibble on tapas and ease your way into a few local wines.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite it’s time to get lost in the Vitoria’s Old Town, or “The Almond” as the locals call it, where streets like Calle Cuchillería rumble with revellers hopping from pintxo bar to pintxo bar.
Staying for dinner in Vitoria-Gasteiz?
For something a little less boisterous, travel back in time for a taste of old world Spain at the ancient Restaurante Portalón. It’s all dark wood, wonky stones and creaking floorboards – I really felt like I’d “arrived” here. It dates back to the 15th century and was originally an inn and coachhouse. Proper hearty cooking, this. Excellent fish dishes.
MORE: Get more information about Vitoria-Gasteiz on the official tourism website.
2. Indulge in an Evening of Pintxo Bar Hopping in San Sebastián
The Basques are all about progress. Culinary progress, that is. And whereas most of Spain is happy with the classics, the Basques are more about creating new ones.
In this part of Spain, where Michelin stars seem to grow on trees, chefs aren’t afraid to experiment with new ingredients and break “the rules”, every morsel is a culinary conquest, a feat of creativity.
“It’s like cooking in miniature,” my guide Ester explained as I inhaled a bitesized beauty of anchovies, red peppers and juicy olives.
Tip: Traditionally pintxos were served on skewers or atop a little slice of bread, but as chefs have grown ever more creative this isn’t always the case.
Best pintxo bars in: You really don’t have to go far in San Sebastián to find a good pintxo bar, but many of the best are located in the narrow streets of the Old Town, or the “Parte Vieja” as it’s known locally.
Leading off the square of Plaza de la Constitución you’ll find crowds of bar hoppers nibbling and quaffing the evening away in streets like Calle Fermín Calbetón, Calle Mayor and the legendary Calle 31 de Agosto, which is where I spent most of my time.
Don’t miss Ataria Gastroteka for classic pintxos such “angulas” (baby eels), “gildas” (spicy pickles with olives and anchovies) and great music.
For dessert, pop into La Viña for their famous “burnt cheesecake”.
3. Splurge on an Essential Michelin-Star Dining Experience in Bilbao
Fact: the Basque Country has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. There are around 40 in total!
So what? you ask… Well this abundance of high quality establishments means that a Michelin-starred meal in the Basque Country typically costs less than in other parts of the world. It’s a ‘supply and demand’ type of situation, you see.
I enjoyed a contemporary fine dining experience at Restaurant Etxanobe in Bilbao, which is located on the top floor of the contemporary Palacio Euskalduna and affords dizzying views over the city.
Here, local chefs Fernando Canales and Mikel Población enhance classic Basque dishes with fusion flavours and avant-garde presentation. They’re lovely chaps too (see first picture of this post) and will more than likely come to your table to say hello and talk about their latest dishes.
Fernando even gave me a gift to take home with me, a special type of seasoning that he discovered while abroad. “You like it? I’ll put some in a pot for you to take home. Try it with tuna!”
Tip: Pop next door after your meal to visit the world-renowned Guggenheim Art Museum for the ultimate day out in Bilbao.
4. Chomp on the Basque Country’s Famous Idiazabal Cheese
The north of Spain is well-known for its cheeses and easily rivals France in terms of quality (if not quite variety). I’ve written quite a lot about the cheese (and food in general) of Asturias, the region next to the Basque Country – it’s worth checking out if you’re going to be in the north of Spain.
The most famous cheese in the Basque Country is Idiazabal. That’s “Idee-ah-tha-bal”, mi amigo. Try saying that after a glass or three of Rioja!
Idiazabal is a hard sheep’s milk cheese. It’s mild but complex with a subtle nuttiness and slightly smoky finish. It’s not a pongy cheese, and it’s the type that gets better with every slurp if vino.
To understand more about how this local delicacy is made, visit the Adarrazpi cheese farm in the Adarra Mountains just outside of San Sebastián, where Shepard Mikel will introduce you to his special “Latxa” sheep that produce the milk. With the help of Argi the sheepdog, you can even help round-up the flock!
The tour continues in the cheese factory where Mikel’s wife Inma explains and demonstrates how their delicious cheese is made.
The pair work 7 days a week and rarely (if ever) take holidays. “If you don’t milk them every day then they stop producing milk,” Mikel explained.
The best bit part of the tour however is the tasting session, which is accompanied by a bottle of traditional Basque cider and panoramic views of the verdant countryside. Honestly, what more could you ask for?
5. Head to a “Sagardotegi” for a Meat Feast and Unlimited Cider
My girlfriend Rosana, who is from Asturias, says that the Basque Country’s cider “isn’t real cider”. And most Asturianos would probably agree.
It’s true that Asturias is better known for its cider. But apple trees grow in abundance across most of northern Spain and have been put to good use at Basque “sagardotegis” (cider houses) since the 11th century. So it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing.
“The owners of the cider houses would invite their neighbours over for lunch and to try out their cider,” my guide, Ester, explained, “and now it’s an important tradition for the Basques.”
Today, locals head to their favourite sagardotegis by the busload. And with unlimited cider on offer it’s easy to see why! Basque cider is natural and much sharper and cloudier than English cider – nothing like Strongbow or Magners.
How to Drink Cider in the Basque Country
Another key difference is the way in which it is served. Giant barrels lay in cold rooms where staff shout “Txotx!” to let you know they are about to open the tap.
Get in line with your glass ready and fill it about two-fingers full.
Drink it in one gulp while it’s still zingy and “alive” and throw the last dribbles to the ground. Do it like you mean it. Then elbow your way back in line and repeat.
It’s a little bit intimidating on your first try, but this is no time for shyness.
Because most sagardotegis are owned by farmers, eating is also an important element of the experience. The cavernous dining halls are filled with long wooden benches where whole families, couples, grandparents and large groups of friends sit shoulder-to-shoulder. Traditionally the menu is fixed and includes:
At around just €25/30 per person for the entire feast (including unlimited cider), eating at a sagardotegi offers outstanding value for money.
Where to drink cider in the Basque Country: There are countless cider houses throughout the Basque Country, but I can highly recommend the Petritegi sagardotegi, which is located in the countryside about 7 km outside of San Sebastián. Drive if you don’t plan to drink (in which case I wouldn’t recommend going at all), or find a bus tour that’ll take you there and home.
6. Sip Your Way Through the Basque Country’s Rioja Alavesa Wine Region
Ask anyone what their favourite Spanish wine is and more than likely they’ll mention Rioja. What most people don’t realise however is that a large chunk of the Rioja wine region is located in the Basque Country. I didn’t know until I arrived. What a pleasant surprise that was.
Known as Rioja Alavesa, it is the smallest of the La Rioja sub-regions and is protected by the Sierra de Cantabria and Sierra de Toloño mountain ranges.
This means it receives the lowest amount of rainfall in the Rioja wine region, forcing the vines’ roots to dig deep and grow strong.
This results in quality grapes — mainly Tempranillo but also Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano — that produce wines that are respected for their excellent ageing potential.
Wine Drinking Tip: La Rioja produces some of the world’s finest red wines, but it also produces excellent white wines. No, really, I’ve tried them and they’re great. Almost every winery and wine bar will have a few varieties in the chiller, so be sure to do as the locals do and start with a glass or two of white before moving onto the reds. The locals always start with white, by the way.
Wine Drinking Tip #2: If you love white wine, or even if you’re more of a red drinker like me, be sure to try the Basque Country’s slightly sparkling white wine called “txakoli” (cha-ko-lee). Light and refreshing, with a slight green hue, the locals drink it by the gallon, typically as an aperitif with a few pintxos.
Where to drink wine in the Basque Country: Visit the tiny family run El Fabulista winery in Rioja Alavesa’s Medieval capital city of Lagaurdia (it’s more of a walled fortress than a city). The cellars date back to the 15th century and very little has changed since. The tours are fun and informative and include a guided wine tasting of the bodega’s four excellent wines. Olé!
For an insight into Rioja’s larger and more contemporary wine producers, visit the space-aged Baigorri Bodega, Ysios Bodega, and the avant-garde Marqués de Riscal Bodega, which was designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed Bilbao’s iconic Guggenheim Museum.
Make it Happen
I discovered the Basque Country with the help of Thabuca Wine Tours, a local company run by passionate foodies and wine connoisseurs.
Where to Stay to Stay in the Basque Country
San Sebastián: I stayed at the romantic seafront Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (4*) and highly recommend it. It’s perfectly located for exploring the best of San Sebastián on foot and the views over the bay are unbeatable.
Vitoria: I stayed at the ultra convenient Abba Jazz Hotel (3*), a clean and cosy hotel within strolling distance of Vitoria’s historic old town – and all the best wine and pintxo bars.
Rioja Alavesa: I stayed at the handsome Villa de Laguardia Hotel (4*) in Laguardia and enjoyed relaxing in the spa in between my tours of the nearby Rioja Alavesa vineyards. If you want serious luxury then stay at the double deluxe Marqués de Riscal Bodega (5*).