The late-great Anthony Bourdain once said that if he had the opportunity to spend an extended period of time relaxing in one destination around the world he would choose San Sebastian. Bourdain had a love affair with this beautiful coastal city, calling it the best place to eat in Europe. Many foodies were inspired to visit San Sebastian because of his shows – and today it’s considered a culinary giant up there with places like Tuscany and Tokyo.
Food is not simply the means to get nourished in San Sebastian, it’s a way of life. Whether whiling the hours away over a three-course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant, gorging on pintxos as you hop from bar to bar, cooking up a storm at your airbnb with fresh local produce bought from a gourmet market, or taking a trip to La Rioja where wine flows abundantly – visiting this Basque jewel is all about exciting your taste buds.
One way to immerse yourself in the cooking culture here is to book food and wine tours with Experience San Sebastian. They lead gastronomic tours that take guests to pintxos bars, traditional bodegas, cider houses, cooking societies and Michelin-starred restaurants. Being specialists in the outdoors, there is also the option to combine the food tours with other activities such as hiking, biking, sailing, surfing and SUP paddle boarding.
Run by Penny and Borja, a lovely Welsh and Donostiarra couple, Experience San Sebastian is made up of a small team of passionate guides that emphasize personalized and unique journeys in the Donostia and Basque area. Since Penny views her adopted home through the lens of a foreigner, she knows exactly what is required for tourists to enjoy their stay. While Borja was born in San Sebastian and adds some of that local insight.
Together they form quite the pairing and have created trips that balance sightseeing with authentic local experiences. Their food and wine tours in San Sebastian go beyond the pintxos bars – giving you a behind the scenes look at the ingredients, flavors, dishes and techniques that make this little corner of Spain so appetizing. No matter what your food preferences are, Experience San Sebastian has a tour or two that you will treasure.
Best Food & Wine Tours in San Sebastian
1. La Rioja Explore Tour & Rioja Total Tasting Tour
Situated on the edge of Basque Country, south of San Sebastian and Bilbao, lies the La Rioja province. The wine from La Rioja is internationally recognized but the region still remains off the tourist trail. This is good news as it allows travelers to escape the crowds and discover the gorgeous agricultural scenery and thriving wine scene. The main grape cultivated here is the Tempranillo which produces some stunning red varieties.
On the La Rioja Explore Tour, guests say “hasta luego” to San Sebastian for the day and head down through the mountains to reach the sun-drenched hills of La Rioja on a relaxing drive. The landscapes are covered in vines and there are many world-class vineyards and wineries to visit – none more impressive than a four-generation, family-run bodega that you will get the chance to thoroughly explore on this trip with Experience San Sebastian.
Highlights at this bodega include learning the wine making process, enjoying a tasting session on a patio and sampling traditional tapas. The other major attraction on this itinerary is Laguardia – a charming town where you can get lost down cobbled streets and sip wine in hidden cellar caves. The tour ends with lunch/tapas in a restaurant of your choice. Keep in mind that the tour can go from either San Sebastian or Bilbao.
An alternative to the Explore Tour is the Rioja Total Tasting Experience which involves no less than four winery visits. It’s the ultimate trip for vino lovers who want to cram as many bodegas and tastings in as possible. Starting from San Sebastian or Bilbao, the tour kicks off at the 12th century town of Laguardia. Guests follow underground tunnels to arrive at a secret cellar for what can only be described as a “once in a lifetime tasting”.
Next on the agenda is a boutique winery nestled in a valley where another tasting awaits, before moving onto the third bodega for the day – a property that marvels with its architecture. The final vineyard is a family-run one that boasts a welcoming, personal touch. This visit is accompanied by a Rioja tasting and a tapas lunch in a dream location overlooking the vines. Our only tip is to drink slowly as there is plenty of wine to go around.
2. The Pintxos Experience Tour
Pintxos are one of the staples of Basque cuisine and although they are similar to tapas, there are a few notable differences. For starters, pintxos are smaller in size. Originally they were served on bread with a toothpick pierced through the middle (the name comes from the Spanish verb “pinchar” which means to puncture/prick). But over time they have become a lot more broad and only some are now pierced to bread.
The Pintxos Experience allows San Sebastian visitors’ to learn all about these mouth-watering morsels on a three hour tour. Out of a possible 180 bars, only the best will be selected – and that is no easy task considering the quality of them all. This night excursion is set in the Old Town, or “Parte Vieja”, with several stops at different bars. Some pintxos will satisfy with their simplicity while others will astonish with their complexity.
During the bar crawl you will have the opportunity to wash down each bite with a glass of wine, delighting the palate with a mix of flavors. A fun aspect about this tour is wandering down the narrow alleys and seductive streets that make up this part of San Sebastian. Due to the late start, you can build up an appetite beforehand by booking an active tour with Experience San Sebastian. A good hike, for example, always makes you ravenous.
3. Back to the Basque Roots Tour
It would be silly to travel all the way to San Sebastian without diving deeper into Basque Country. This corner of northern Spain is different from other regions of the country, especially if you are coming from Andalusia. The contrast is immense and incredibly rewarding to see. Locals of “El Pais Vasco” have a reverence for nature, strong cultural traditions, their own distinct language and a cuisine that is arguably the best in the world.
By booking the Back to the Basque Roots tour with Experience San Sebastian travelers will be able to venture off the beaten path and explore Basque culture through its food. The top moments are heading to a txakoli bodega to learn the ins-and-outs of the winery, a pintxos and tasting session at said bodega, and journeying to the port town of Getaria to stroll the streets for a while before sitting down for lunch overlooking the bay.
It goes from 9:30am to 4pm, so it’s a nice and short day trip suited for those who would still like to explore the city of San Sebastian at night. And if you didn’t know already, “txakoli” is a slightly sparkling dry white wine produced in the Basque Country with high acidity and low alcohol content. Some even think it tastes salty. Trying a glass or two – whether on the Back to the Basque Roots tour or back in San Sebastian – is an absolute must-do.
When Should Foodies Visit San Sebastian?
The great thing about traveling to San Sebastian on a food-themed trip is that there is no right or wrong time to go. Any month of the year will suffice. However, there are certain periods of the year when the weather is warmer and crowds smaller. In terms of climate, July – September are the hottest months but they do attract a much larger tourism footprint. The pintxos bars are generally packed with people all vying for the same space.
The upside is that you can take some outdoor adventures at the beach, on the water and in the hills with less chance of rain. The temperature creeps up to 25°C – making for perfect hiking, swimming and sailing conditions. Highs still top the 20 degree mark around June and October, but either side in May and November and it starts to feel colder. With lower temperatures comes less visitors of course, so it’s a balancing act.
San Sebastian has a mild climate so don’t expect year-round beach visits. Another thing to remember is that flight and hotel prices are reduced outside of peak season. With more money in your pocket to spend on pintxos, this is a good option for budget travel. Ultimately, when you choose to visit San Sebastian is up to you. Just don’t forget to book food and wine tours with Penny and Borja – they will show you the real Basque Country!