Going on a real life tapas tour or pintxo crawl is completely different to dining in the UK, it involves a different rule set & if you are the shy, wait your turn type – you may never get fed! But fear not, I’ve been there, done it & have made this handy guide to assist you on your travels in Spain!
Before we begin – Pintxo (pronounced ‘peen-cho’) is a small piece of food, often found on a small piece of bread and comes from the traditional Spanish tapas. Pintxos are traditionally from the Basque country and although this post focuses on San Sebastian in particular – you can find these pintxo bars all over Spain.
Spanish meal times
First of all, Spanish meal times are much later than those in the UK and other parts of the world! Prepare yourself and your stomach for this! If you are used to having your dinner at 5 or 6 o’clock, you are going to be hungry for a few more hours! Local places may even be closed at this time – so make sure you adjust your clock and do like the locals do!
Breakfast is still early – around 8/9 o’clock and differs depending on what part of Spain you are in! In San Sebastian they are fond of a freshly squeezed orange juice and a pastry & you will find deals on these at most cafes or patiserries. In Catalunya they enjoy pa amb tomaquet (Bread with tomato) and a cafe solo (Espresso coffee). In other parts of Spain you may start your day with a baguette containing jamon serrano or chorizo, or a Spanish favourite Chocolate milk & churros/ pastry. So in general breakfasts are small but don’t worry because you are allowed your first snack around 11ish!
Lunch – Generally speaking the Spanish are only starting their lunch when we would be finishing ours in the UK. So don’t expect to start eating until 2pm! This is usually the largest meal of the day and can take hours in itself! Often a 3 course meal involving: salad or soup, then meat or fish, and finally something sweet. You will definately also have a coffee and possibly a ‘chupito’ if you are feeling wild (a small shot, usually a liquer).
Merienda – La Merienda or snack is had at around 5/6 o clock. It can involve anything from churros, a pastry, or even an ice cream in the hot summer months!
Dinner – Finally dinner time usually rolls around at 8.30/9pm with restaurants and tapas bars not even opening until 8! By this time you are ready to begin your tapas tour.
Follow the crowds
Now this is the complete opposite of what we are usually told! But in my experience in San Sebastian I found that the busiest places were usually busy for a reason! The locals know it & if you spot people spilling out of the bars and into the streets – you will know it too! This is how we discovered Borda Berri Bar in the old part of town, which we absolutely loved and went back to again and again!
These dishes were the BEST hot pintxos we have ever had!
Beef cooked in red wine for 6 hours & Veal cheeks, red peppers and goats cheese –
yum yum yum!
Don’t order everything at once!
When we first moved to Spain we did this SO many times and kept finding either we couldn’t fit everything on our table (Embarassing) or the waiter/ waitress would say ok stop ordering – that’s enough food!! (haha) The Spanish way for tapas or pintxos is to only have one or two at a time! Which you should only need a small plate for. Beware – if you go into a tapas bar & they give you a large plate straight away they know you are tourists & it’s more than likely a tourist trap, not a local bar. My advice would be – have one and move on!
Help yourself to cold Pintxos along the bar
When you enter a tapas or pintxos bar and are faced with this: a row of little food on little bread as long as the bar itself – you are allowed to help yourself!
If you are unsure about what things are I’ve found that staff are usually only too happy to help out and explain what different delicious delicacies are on offer! Again, take your time and peruse the bar a little, don’t take as many as you can fit on your tiny plate!
Order hot pintxos with the barman
If you are after some hot pintxos you must order these at the bar. Our first experience in the afore mentioned Borda Berri was a bit chaotic – if you don’t know what to do it can be a bit intimidating. The real tapas bars are usually hustling and bustling and although they may appear to be all over the place they are actually slick oiled machines.
They work like this: you order with the barman behind the bar, they shout the order into the kitchen as they pour drinks and do a million things at the same time, then the order comes out the kitchen and the barman will hand it to you if you are at the bar or shout the order if you are at the back of the bar. Et voila! You have your hot pintxo! It is definitely worth it and the more you do it the easier it becomes. Good luck to you!
Try the Txakoli Wine
Txakoli wine is the typical wine in the Basque region. It usually comes in a tumblr glass and is poured in such a way as you’ve never seen before! It is surely worth ordering if not for the light, fruity taste but for the spectacle alone. Check this out: pouring txakoli wine
Don’t always expect a seat!
When you are going on a pintxo crawl, do not expect a sit down meal. You may get a bar stool if you are lucky but the food is often eaten standing in a crowded bar so prepare yourself for this and wear comfy shoes!
Dont throw your serviettes on the floor!
You may see hundreds of these teeny tiny napkins that are so small and paper like that they barely soak up anything – all over the floor in many bars. However this is a point of contention with the locals and even if you see others doing it, find a bin and use it. Help the barmen out and it will be appreciated.
Keep your little sticks!
OK! Another thing you may not be used to, you will not normally get a bill.
What you do is this: keep track of your little cocktail sticks that come with your pintxos because at the end you should give these to the staff, they count them and tell you how much you owe. If you have a hot pintxo and no cocktail stick be honest and tell them exactly what you had.
It is a lovely, old system of honesty and if you are in a local place this is how it will work. You will know if you are in a tourist place because they will ask for payment up front. This however, is not the San Sebastian way!
Don’t stay in one place!
It is called a tapas tour or pintxo crawl for a reason! You are not meant to spend all night in the same place. Stay in each bar for 2/3 pintxos and move onto the next one. Sample as many tapas bars as you can during your stay and you can always go back to your favourites again!
Eskerrik asko!! (Thank you)
As any traveller tries to do – Learn a bit of the lingo in each place you go! At least how to say hello, please and thank you. When travelling all over Europe, believe me, people really appreciate it and people in the Basque country are no different! We struck up a conversation with a local man one lazy tapas afternoon and he was delighted to teach us a few useful phrases. It’s not always easy to pronounce but just try your best & make an effort. The locals will be glad you did – and so will you!
Hello – Kaixo
Please – Mesedez
Thank you – Eskerrik asko
I hope you have found this post useful and are ready now to tackle your first tapas bar like a local! If you have any more tips for me or any experiences in tapas bars please comment below!
If you enjoyed this, you may also like my article on My top tips to exploring San Sebastian!
The Wee Wanderer x x