How to Order Pintxos Like a Local in Basque Country

The food culture in the Basque region of Spain is truly amazing! San Sebastian is quickly becoming one of the top foodie destinations and for good reason. At the center of the Basque food culture are pintxos. These are small bites, similar to a tapa which people are probably more familiar with. In general pintxos are larger and more complex than most tapas offered in Spain. You can easily create an entire meal on pintxos, trust us we did this very often while we were in Bilbao and in San Sebastian. 

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 It can be intimidating to walk into a pintxos bar when you aren’t fluent in Spanish and aren’t sure the protocol. Most pintxo bars are small places and the best ones are jam packed with people. But don’t worry, we have some tips for how to order and what to order. The first stop on our northern Spain trip was Bilbao. When we arrived we knew we had to eat pintxos but we weren’t exactly sure what to do. We walked into a pintxo bar and just watched for a few minutes so we could see what people were doing and get a lay of the land. We saw people pointing to the pintxos on the bar so that is what we did. Most pintxo bars have cold pintxos out on the bar or just behind the bar, on display. So if you don’t know any Spanish you can simply point to which ones you want. Most often pintoxs are enjoyed with a drink so knowing how to order a beer or wine is helpful. Una copa de vino tinto or vino blanco will get you a glass of red or white wine respectively. You can ask for a cerveza and that will get you a beer but most locals will order a cana, which is a small glass of beer. Pintxos are meant to be eaten standing up and most locals go from place to place so don’t expect to sit at a table and stay at the same bar all night long.

We spent the first two days of our trip eating only these pintxos we saw on display. We ate well and were not disappointed but we knew we weren’t getting the full pintxo experience. We learned more later on in our trip once we got to San Sebastian. Here we took a food tour our first night hoping we would learn more than what we had already picked up on based on our observations.

What we learned is that a lot of the pintxo bars have a hot pintxo (pintxos caliente) menu which is often listed on a board (often a chalk board) on display on the wall behind the bar. Some of the bars will also have a paper copy on this menu and that may be offered in English. Hot pintxos can typically be ordered as pintxo size (small, bite size portion), a half portion (media racion) or as full portion (racion) which is a larger portion similar to what you would expect if you ordered an entrée. Either way most locals still enjoy their food standing up at the bar or a small counter. 

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La cuchara de San Telmo – 1/2 racion of Scallops

Once we discovered how to get hot pintxos there was no going back to the ones on display on the bar. The pintxos we ordered in San Sebastian were some of the best things we have ever eaten. While there are many Michelin star restaurants in San Sebastian we decided to stick with pintoxs each night we were there. That way you can still get amazing food but at a much lower price and get a real feel for the city as you wander the streets. You can get hot pintoxs in Bilbao but as we were there before we really had it all figured out we don’t have as many specific recommendations for Bilbao as we do for San Sebastian. Here is our list of pintxo bars you must eat at while in each city.

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La cuchara de San Telmo – 1/2 racion of Suckling Pig

San Sebastian:

La Cuchara de San Telmo: We ate here three times! The first time our food tour guide brought us. We loved it so much that we went back the following two nights. Everything on their menu looked amazing. The guy behind the bar taking orders was also awesome! He remembered our name and took time to say thank you and have a great night before we left. This is even more incredible when you see just how crowded this place is. Everything we had here was excellent, but you must try the Morcilla (blood sausage)! We also had the suckling pig, scallops, and pigs ear – and everything we saw come out of the kitchen looked and smelled phenomenal. One thing to note is that they almost exclusively have ration/half ration order sizes (no pintxos and everything is made to order), but don’t worry – you will wish you had more.

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La cuchara de San Telmo –  1/2 racion of Morcilla

Atari Gastroleku: We ended up going here twice. Once with our guided tour and once later in the week on our own. They are known for their Galician Octopus, and we also had the braised beef cheeks which are a traditional dish to the region. They are also known for their Gin & Tonics, so if you mind skipping the wine for a stop – this is the place.

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Atari Gastroleku – Racion of Octopus (pulpo)

Ganbara: This place is known for their mushrooms, you will see a pile of different types and there are a few different dishes you can get made to order with mushrooms and they are all on the menu. We also went here with our guide, and he ordered tuna off menu (called bonito in northern Spain, this place had it when it was in season).

Bar Sport: It was recommended by our AirBnB Host who’s brother owns this place. Despite the bias, we agreed it was very good. We mostly had the cold pintxos, and the sea urchin soup was really good.

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Bilbao:

Mercado de la Ribera: This is the largest covered market in Europe. You can buy fresh seafood, meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruits here. There is also a large indoor sitting area surrounded by venders selling a wide variety of pintxos.

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El Sacachoros: This was the first pintxo bar we stepped into. We didn’t really know what to do, so we ended up ordering off the cold bar, then sitting down at a table. We had the octopus pintxo in the picture below, which was excellent. the Iberico ham one was good too though!

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There are plenty of other pintxo bars in both these city’s. Wander through old town in Bilbao or San Sebastian and go into any pintxo bar full of people. We promise you won’t be disappointed with the food!

-TFWYs

How to: $1,500 Extended Weekend Europe Trip for 2

We both have full time jobs in the United States, and due to that we have some constraints around how much time we can take off for travel. We have been experimenting with the idea of how to pull off a long weekend trip with two major constraints that everyone has: time and money. This only works if you are within driving distance of a major hub airport in the US (we are closest to Chicago and Detroit so we look at both fares when planning trips). This post is broken out into the top expenses and how we minimize them.

How to Find a Cheap Flight: $800 for 2 Round Trip Tickets

Usually when I talk to someone about traveling they think the flights are going to be extremely expensive to go to Europe. A lot of this is due to their inflexibility: you can easily pay over $1k per ticket to go over to Europe, or you can often pay less than $400. When I say flexibility, that means both time and location: in the summer you will have a harder time finding cheap fares. Also if you are not too picky on where you are going it broadens your options even more. Here is what we do:

  • Go to Google Flights
  • Type in your nearest major international airport (Chicago O-Hare for us!)
  • In the “where to” box type in “Europe
  • Type in your date range – we have been doing Thursday to Tuesday trips because most flights to Europe leave late at night (after 7 or 8 pm) and return during the day on the way back – remember you lose time on the way there but make it back up on your return.
    • For example: we found a flight from Chicago to Copenhagen that departed at 10:05 pm CST and landed at 1:20 pm CET. If you can power through that first day you can get a good (if not a bit delirious) afternoon at your destination before having the best sleep of your life Friday night.
  • When you hit “search” you won’t just get a list of flights. A map will pop up which has the cost of the flights from your airport to the different destinations. As you move/zoom the map, it will reload for those locations. If there is nothing looking good at the moment, change your date range a bit or look back in a couple of days. Flights prices change all the time. This is where you might need to be a bit flexible.
    • You can also add in a “non-stop” filter to make sure you are only looking at direct flights. This will narrow it down even more, but it’s just that much more time you don’t have to be in an airport.
    • Google Flights also lets you track prices if you find a route that you are interested in
  • Don’t believe us? Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights for inspiration. Also, here is a direct flight we found to Stockholm just doing a quick search:Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 8.04.49 AM.png

Lodging $50-100/night = $300

It is a good idea to keep proximity to mass transit in your consideration when booking your lodging. Some countries are obviously more expensive than others which you should keep in consideration when booking your place. A couple of tips to keep your costs down:

  • Stay away from major hotels
  • Use AirBnB & Booking.com, find where you want to stay and sort/filter by price
  • Stay in a hostel if you are on the super cheap
  • Keep transportation in mind from a location standpoint: you can find a farmhouse out in the country for very inexpensive but you’re going to spend more than that on Uber/car rental.

Food: $50/day = $250

We are foodies. This is where we will gladly blow our budget and probably be willing to spend a bit more. You can definitely spend less than $50/day. There are a couple of key things you can do to keep your costs down:

  • If you are on the super cheap – go to a grocery store. You don’t eat out every day at home so you can save a ton by cooking at your AirBnB. Even if it is just some basics like fruit/granola bars/bread/wine (yes we know that last one isn’t food!) will save you a bunch of money in the long run. It’s also just fun to go into international grocery stores!
  • Look for lodging that includes breakfast (a true B&B) we always look at Booking.com
  • Avoid buying alcohol and ‘fancy’ mineral water at restaurants
  • Get to where the locals go. For example, if you’re in Athens, don’t eat in the Plaka neighborhood. A few blocks away you’ll pay 1/3 the price for a more authentic gyro. It isn’t too hard to find these spots, there are are a few things to look for
    • Away from the tourist areas (not filled with tourists… they are easy to spot)
    • Be cautious of TripAdvisor – we use it a lot and it can be a good for info, but it is heavily used by tourists so its typically skewed. Lonely Planet is a good second source that can be a bit more reliable.
    • This is not to say there aren’t really good restaurants in the touristy areas, but you will definitely pay a premium for them.

Transportation: Stick to a Plan $100

With transportation you typically have a trade-off: time vs. money. Public/mass transportation has economies of scale going for it, but it usually has the downside of not dropping you off where you need to be and taking longer than the alternatives. Bus/train/subway/etc. are all inexpensive options – especially when you are leaving the airport. The more individualized and faster but much more expensive option is Taxi/Uber. Maybe not nearly as available but what of a middle ground is an UberPool, which can be surprisingly economical but will take a bit more time. As for airport parking, you should look at parking at a hotel – we use Way.com with success. You basically rent a parking spot from a hotel near an airport and they let you use their shuttle service. We have paid as little as $5/day to park but the rates can vary.

Summary – $1,450 Total 

$50 left over! You can travel on the cheap – and you will probably feel like a baller if you take a weekend trip to Europe. Most of the travel tips in this post are principles that apply to more than just Europe. Everyone has their own priorities to keep in mind when planning a trip.

Would you ever do a long weekend to Europe? Please drop a comment below!

-TFWY’s