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A Taste of San Sebastián, Europe’s Culinary Capital

Boasting romantic nights under the star-filled Spanish sky and more Michelin stars per square meter than anywhere else in the world, San Sebastián is foodie heaven on earth.

With its abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants, celebrated chefs and incredible food, San Sebastián is widely considered one of the world’s premier culinary destinations. While the cuisine may be the initial draw for some visitors, the ornate Basque architecture set against the coastal scenery is also incredibly alluring.

Photo by Roman Belogorodov / Shutterstock

San Sebastián’s location in Basque Country lends itself to its culinary richness; hence food culture is deeply rooted in these parts. Today, tourists fill the cobblestone streets of Old Town, eating and drinking their way through the pintxos bars among century-old buildings and churches that tower above.

There are a few foodie specialties one must try while visiting San Sebastián: Sidra (Basque-style fermented apple cider), the famous cheesecake at La Viña, Hake, a white fish that was once integral to their economy, and jamón ibérico, Spain’s Iberian pork considered to be “the best ham in the world”.

Between meals, stroll the crescent coast of Donostia Bay and hike up one of the two lush little hills that bookend each side. Or take the 45-minute ferry tour to Santa Clara Island where you can enjoy an espresso, vino, or a picnic lunch. All of these hilltops offer breathtaking views of the city below and of the monumental coastal cliffs, providing a perfect perspective of the slice of paradise that is San Sebastián.

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Michelin-Star Restaurants
Boasting an impressive 17 Michelin stars in total, San Sebastián holds the highest number of Michelin stars per square meter in the world, just after Kyoto in Japan. Three of the seven-highest-ranked Michelin restaurants in Spain are located in San Sebastián: Arzak, Martín Berasatgui, and Akelaŕe. We had the pleasure, and seven-month foresight, to book dinner at the acclaimed three-star Akelaŕe

Chef Pedro Subijana has more than 50 years of experience, and skillfully blends classicism and innovation. Not only are all the dishes beautiful, but they also contain some of the most interesting flavors and textures in the world.

We recommend booking one of his three carefully designed dinner menus for a complete taste of the team’s talents. You can also join them for lunch or cocktails on the terrace, surrounded by flower and herb gardens.

We enjoyed the 12-course “Bekarki” dinner menu composed of five small bites and eight larger courses like the “Prawns and Green Beans”, cooked in ‘Orujo’ Flame and sea roes, and “Squid as a Risotto with Flower Butter”. All the dishes were extraordinarily unusual in taste and preparation. We had fun figuring out which items were which ingredients, as they were sometimes indecipherable in their presentation.

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Mimo San Sebastián
Mimo is a renowned culinary company which was founded in San Sebastián in 2009. Mimo’s mission is to share their love (mimo) of great food and cooking with the world through first-hand, interactive experiences such as cooking classes, culinary tours, wine and sidra experiences, and gourmet shopping. Mimo has since spread its passion to two more locations in Spain and one in Portugal.

We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate in one of their decadent experiences, and signed up for the half-day Basque Cooking Class.

Classes are held in a state-of-the-art cooking environment with high-end appliances, utensils and unique workspaces that keep everyone in the midst of the action at all times. Our class was led by two knowledgeable native chefs who ensured we gained as much hands-on learning, pro tips and tricks, and cultural information as we each desired. We learned how to properly chop, prepare and cook a variety of meats like Spanish sausages, Hake and beef, along with vegetables, sauces and Spanish tortillas.

Save room for dessert, a local aperitif, and coffee as you reminisce on the morning spent preparing the amazing meal with your new friends.

All of Mimo’s cooking classes end with a multi-course meal where everyone (including the chefs) sits together to enjoy the dishes prepared. But first we learned to properly plate each dish before serving, and each was paired with an appropriate wine.

Save room for dessert, a local aperitif, and coffee as you reminisce on the morning spent preparing the amazing meal with your new friends. By the end of this four-hour experience you’ve wined and dined, laughed and learned, and leave fulfilled, having truly immersed yourself in the culture of San Sebastián.

Photo by Asife / Shutterstock

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Secret Food Societies
San Sebastián has been elevating the art of the dinner party since 1900, via private membership-only gastronomic societies. These societies provide a secret community and venue where men (and now women) come together to cook, socialize, and showcase their skills in the kitchen to their fortunate friends.

“Given that it 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 leads to games of cards or singing afterwards, 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 Sebastián.”
–sansebastianturismo.com

However, unless a member personally invites you, the only way to experience these societies is to visit on January 20 when many graciously open to the public. This special day is the Tamborrada de Donostia Festival (San Sebastián Day) where the city celebrates with the Tamborrada drum parade kicking off in the Plaza de la Constitución at midnight and lasting 24 hours.

The friendly atmosphere often leads to games of cards or singing afterwards, either with fellow diners or with people at other tables.

While the gastronomic societies are private, they contribute to their community through organizing many of the cultural activities central to the social life in San Sebastián. They are one of the 125 companies who parade through the streets during Tamborrada de Donostia and have significantly contributed to the festival’s longevity. Today, there are more than 100 of these secret societies slyly scattered throughout town.

While San Sebastián is a popular tourist destination, the city and its residents have worked diligently to ensure their history, culture, and traditions remain authentically intact. With its incredible food and gorgeous natural and architectural scenery, it’s no wonder so many seek out this distinctive Spanish destination that’s unlike any place in the world.

The city itself is majestic. Whether day or night, there is a captivating quality about it that makes you want to absorb everything (literally and figuratively) and return for more.

Where to Stay in San Sebastián

Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra

This 4-star luxury hotel features balcony views of the Bay, al fresco dining, a full bar and café with live music on the weekends, and the perfect location right where the town meets the beach.

Zenit San Sebastián

This upscale modern hotel is located in the heart of the city and offers amenities for both business and leisure guests at a nice price.

Astoria 7

This hip luxury hotel is dedicated to the world of cinema and gastronomy, apparent in everything from the decor to the amenities and menus.

San Sebastián beachfront, Bay promenade, Akelaŕe restaurant, Prawn plate and Mimo images photographed by Julianne McKay

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