SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — In this glitzy seaside resort town in Basque country, locals in black berets mingle with tourists along the narrow stone streets edged by the gleaming Bay of La Concha, just 12 miles from France.
You know it's a mecca for foodies because there are five Michelin-starred restaurants in this city of fewer than 200,000 people, including Arzak and Akelarre, both honored with the premier three stars for 2013.
But you don't have to drop a bundle and reserve your spot far in advance to explore some of the finest Basque cuisine. That's because you're in the birthplace of the pintxo (pronounced pin-cho), and there's no shortage of places where you can sample this ultimate finger food.
Pintxo bars aren't as upscale as the starred restaurants, of course. But they offer an appealing gastronomic experience that melds tradition and innovation with the Basque love of fresh local ingredients and the camaraderie that comes from sharing food and drink in a casual atmosphere with friends and family.
Pintxos are not as large as tapas, the small plates of Spanish cuisine that have become ubiquitous across the United States. Pintxos are designed to be just a bite or two, often served on just a napkin, not a plate.
And though visiting a pintxo bar can be a casual outing, there is a definite style of pintxo dining that locals practice, and travelers would be wise to observe this kind of pintxo pub crawl.
Here are two pieces of advice, offered by Gabriella Ranelli of Tenedor Tours, which takes tourists on culinary excursions in San Sebastian. These will help you have the best experience and keep you from being labeled a tourist.
1. Eat only one pintxo at each bar, because each has its specialty. Savor it with a glass of wine, and move on to the next place.
2. Most pintxos are served on napkins, and the way you dispose of the napkins will mark you as a local or an outsider. When you are finished, don't leave the napkin on the bar or look for a garbage container. To demonstrate true Basque style, raise the napkin into the air and throw it to the ground under the bar. Don't just drop it like a kid feeding vegetables to the dog. True locals fling it to the floor with flair, take one last swig of wine and move on to the next place.
San Sebastian is about 60 miles from Bilbao, the largest city in northern Spain's Basque Autonomous Community, which is home to the iconic Guggenheim Museum and where there is no shortage of pintxos. A culinary excursion can include both cities with easy connections via car, bus or train and enough pintxos to fill your stomach.
If you go
Tours: Gabriella Ranelli's Tenedor Tours (tenedortours.com) offers culinary-themed experiences for travelers to the Basque region, including cooking classes, market trips and visits to Basque cooking clubs. She even will take you on a walking tour of her favorite pintxo bars in San Sebastian.
Where to eat: If you prefer to go it on your own, here are some pintxo bars in the city's old town that are worth a visit:
Borda Berri on Calle Fermin Calbeton, 12, for stewed beef cheeks.
Txepetxa on Calle Pescaderia, 5, for the best anchovies in town.
Bar Nestor on Calle Pescaderia, 11, for the best tortilla, a Spanish egg dish, not a Mexican wrap.
Casa Urola on Calle Fermin Calbeton, 20, for artichoke pintxos.
Al Fuego Negro on Calle 31 de Agosto, 31, for the rice, tomato and egg pintxos.
Where to stay: In San Sebastian, you must stop at the Hotel Maria Cristina, a grande dame extraordinaire, if not for a stay then at least to savor a gin and tonic, one of the hotel bar's specialties. An overnight would be a splurge for sure, but it's extremely luxe and in a great location. A midweek stay in April starts at about $309.
When I'm in Spain, I try to stay at one of the government-run paradores, refurbished historical buildings turned into hotels. About a half-hour drive from San Sebastian is the Parador de Hondarribia (http://www.parador.es/en), one of my favorites. It's a 10th century castle with an especially nice feel and views of France. Hondarribia is a fishing village, a picturesque town with stone streets, homey restaurants, specialty shops and great water views. A midweek night in April goes for about $249, but the paradores website offers many discounted packages.
What to do: In Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum (guggenheim-bilbao.es) is a dream for lovers of modern art. But even if that's not your thing, the museum is engaging and surprising in the way space is used. It's definitely worth a visit. If staying in Bilbao, try the Silken Gran Hotel Domine (tinyurl.com/silkenbilbao), just across the street from the museum. It's a luxury spot with a modern art feel and a bit of whimsy in a great location. Rates for a midweek night in April start at about $221.