Amazing Places

This Unassuming Spanish Town Is Swarming With Michelin-Starred Restaurants

The unassuming seaside town of San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Northern Spain (locally known as Donostia), has a reputation far larger than its size — and it's all about the food. With more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city in the world (16 stars and counting), it's no wonder Europe declared it as a Capital of Culture in 2016.

A Cultural Haven

For centuries, San Sebastián was little more than a small fishing village, but it gained popularity as a vacation spot for Europe's aristocracy, including the Spanish Royal Family, in the 19th century. The result was the creation of many architectural treasures, including a number of stunning Belle Époque buildings and palaces scattered throughout the city. With Biarritz, France and Bilbao, Spain each just an hour's drive away, the atmosphere is a mix of classic French elegance with an earthy Basque ambiance. It's like having all the charm of Paris with the beauty of the beachfront.

Typical spanish pincho de sardina in slate plate (Sardine pintxo)

A Culinary Revolution

It wasn't until the 1970s that the city experienced a culinary revolution. With ample rainfall, lush green hillsides, and nutrient-rich Biscayan waters, the climate was perfect for harvesting top quality ingredients. It was only a matter of time before someone took the bait! Two young chefs from San Sebastián did just that. Juan Mi Arzak and Pedro Subijana spent time in France studying the nouvelle-cuisine movement and returned to their hometown determined to give the Basque cuisine an innovative new twist. With the help of other free-thinking chefs, a new and exciting culinary movement was born: La Nueva Cucina (the new kitchen), otherwise known as molecular gastronomy. This modern method merges technique and technology with dishes defying convention, such as hot ice cream and carrot-juice noodles — just like a real-life Willy Wonka factory!

Michelin Star Mecca

With nine Michelin Star restaurants to dine in, three of which are ranked in the top 50 worldwide, your biggest dilemma will be deciding which one to visit. Of course, if you're feeling particularly lavish, you can set yourself the challenge of trying them all! Arzak, Akelaŕe, and Martin Berasategui each boast three Michelin stars, alongside Mugaritz with two and Kokotxa, Mirador de Ulia, Zuberoa, Alameda, and newcomer Amelia with one.

Of the three-star spots, there's Martín Berasategui, named for its head chef: a proud holder of eight Michelin stars in Spain (the most in Spanish history) and coined as the godfather of Basque cuisine. A trip to his establishment will wow you with exciting flavors and textures you never thought possible, and you may even catch a glimpse of the celebrity chef working his magic in the kitchen.

Next up is the family-run Arzak. Matriarch Elena Arzak was dubbed the best female chef on the planet and curates the menu in an experimentation lab adjoining the restaurant. The lab is home to thousands of ingredients collected from across the globe, which a team of chefs (more like alchemists) uses to test out new concepts and recipes year-round.

Mugaritz is by far the most creative and bespoke of the three triple-stars. It tailors a 24-course menu to each guest and features curiously inspired courses such as the noble rot moldy apple: an apple infected with a fungus known to make wine grapes taste sweeter.

Pintxos

When most people think of Spanish food, they think of tapas. However, the Basque natives pride themselves on their own version called pintxos (pronounced "peen-chos"). The invention of these small bites came about in the 1930s when San Sebastian locals were dissatisfied with the simplicity of tapas. From leek-and-cognac-filled sea urchins at Aloña Berri, to tempura-fried cod at La Cuchara de San Telmo, to a duck-and-apple-filled tartlet at Bar Bergara, these are the culinary equivalents of Picasso on a plate.

The best part? They won't break the bank! Generally, a pintxo costs around two to six Euros a plate. They cover every bar top in the Parte Vieja (otherwise known as the old quarter), which is pintxos party central, the beating heart of the city. If you're trying pintxos for the first time, here's a tip: Tradition is to throw used napkins, toothpicks, and empty shells on the floor as a compliment to the chef, so the messier the bar, the better it is! Finally, a pintxos pilgrimage wouldn't be complete without a glass (or two) of local Txakoli wine (pronounced cha-ko-lee), a slightly sparkling pale and fruity nectar that will perfectly complement your food journey around the city.

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Hungry yet? Try your hand at this Spanish delicacy with the cookbook "Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition" by acclaimed chef Gerald Hirigoyen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

True Facts About Spain

Written by Siobhan Raies July 20, 2018

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