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Dec 8, 2011 06:06 PM

Need help planning a foodie trip to San Sebastian plus north of Barcelona

Promised my wife a special foodie trip to Spain but am not familiar with the restaurants, so I need some help. From gazing at the Michelin awards we were thinking of flying into either Madrid (cheaper from the US on the airlines we have FF miles with) or Barcelona (closer to the stars) and hopefully dining at at least four of the top 6 restaurants.

Thinking El Celler de Can Roca and Sant Pau north of Barcelona, then taking a couple of days to wander over to the Atlantic near Bilbao and San Sebastian, either by driving or by train, and dining at two of these four a few days later (I can only dine on food this rich two days in a row before needing some time off from the trough): Mugaritz, Akelarre, Martin Berasategui, or Arzak. In a real pinch I think I can sacrifice and maybe make it five meals.

First question is how tough is it to actually get reservations for these restos? El Bulli tough? French Laundry tough? Or actually possible for an average Joe to secure reservations a couple of months in advance via the internet?

Second question is does this plan actually make sense? Assuming the 2 north of Barcelona are doable, which two of the four Atlantic restaurants would you choose, or is this clearly overkill and we should just stick to two or three places? I enjoy the molecular stuff when done well (Alinea is our favorite resto in the USA) but often it’s not done well. Still enjoy more classical food preps like Guy Savoy or Per Se or French Laundry, so a mix of styles would be nice. Not that familiar with these regional Spanish/Basque foods.

What is a good time to go, ‘good’ meaning not too crowded, good local produce and meats/seafood available, decent weather, easier to get reservations … I’m thinking May but can pretty much go any time.

Finally, are all of these fairly easy for an English speaker to handle? I see a couple have multi-lingual waiters, hopefully all of them? I speak a little French (traveled to France six times) and a little less Spanish (been to Mexico and South America many times but generally to places where English was widely spoken) and can make out the main menu items, but am lost when they start asking about sauces or preparations etc. That’s at ‘normal’ restos, I’m sure I’d be even more lost at a molecular place.

Thanks for any help you can provide. Any good foodie links to these places would also be appreciated.


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  1. 1. Reservations: none are El Bulli like that requires a lottery. El Cellar de Can Roca is probably the most difficult of the group. Just give them a couple of months and somewhat flexible on the days and you'll should be fine.

    2. Which ones to choose near San Sebastian: Mugaritz, Akelarre, M. Berasategui or Arzak. They are each uniquely different, therefore, depends what you are looking for in terms of food and ambience. The cooking at all four are Basque inspired using forms molecular techniques. Much have been written previously on this board as well as many other webistes and dining blogs. I would read not if one is better than another but to get a picture of what each one offers. El Celler and Sant Pau are easily reachable by trains from Barcelona but the return train does not run late enough for dinner, therefore, lunch would be the option. As for those around San Sebastian, Arzak is in the city while the others will require a car or long taxis.

    3 What is a good time to go: weather wise, April, May, June would be ideal. As for the cooking, I wouldn't worry about produce, etc; they are world class restaurants and source their ingredients accordingly..

    4. The staff of all these restaurants speak English; they will translate the menu for you. Fine dining in Spain is rather informal, therefore, just relax and they'll take are of you.

    My advice is to have some general understanding of traditional Basque and Catalan cooking. Othewise, what you will be eating will have very little meaning or context.

    1 Reply
    1. re: PBSF

      For a great primer on Catalan cooking and produce check out the Catalan government's food site,
      It's very well done. You'll find a good overview of the cuisine plus seasonality charts, schedules of food related festivals (there are many), info on "routes" for food/wine tours, regional specialties, recipes, shopping info (though you'd be better of here for that) and more.

    2. Willyum,

      PBSF's advice is always good. Just a few comments about getting to some of the restaurants in San Sebastian that were named above (Mugaritz, Akelarre, Martin Berasategui, Arzak).

      If you use a Google map, you can see how far the restaurants AND plot your transportation pretty easily. For example, Akelarre is about 5 miles from the centre of San Se. We took a taxi there for less than 10 euros and #16 bus back. Arzak is about 2.5 miles away. Mugaritz is the farthest, at 7 miles.

      Imho, I would pass on Martin Berasategui only because he has a string of restaurants that spans the globe and I prefer restaurants where the chef is actually in the house. He is a very nice man and wasn't as flustered as I was when we collided at the door of one of his restaurants in Barcelona, LOL.

      7 Replies
      1. re: Aleta

        LOL again! He (MB) was really friendly, and not flustered, when I bumped into him at the bar at Pinoxto in the Boqueria!

        1. re: erica

          Hi Erica,

          See, this man (MB) really gets around! This summer, after my visit to Spain, I went to Shanghai and my parents hosted a lunch at Restaurant Martin. I half-expected to bump into MB again on the way to the washroom.

          I love Bar Pinotxo, especially their xuxo. Next time, I'm going to order 2 -- 1 to eat there and the other to eat later. I've looked in other bakeries and haven't found anything comparable. Mauri on Rambla de Catalunya is supposed to have good ones...

          1. re: Aleta

            Escriba and Tapas24 have similar xuixos.

            1. re: caga tio

              Thanks, Caga Tio, but I didn't see any at Escriba. I always stop there for the bikini ibericos. Have you had it there?

              1. re: Aleta

                Unfortunately, I have not had one there! I did enjoy the one at Tapas 24.

                1. re: caga tio

                  Sorry to persist over such a small thing but the Boqueria and Escriba have become my regular stops in Barcelona. As you know, Pinotxo has limited days/hours of operation. If I could find another source of xuxos, I certainly would! When I asked about xuxos at Escriba, I recall they said they didn't have any. I didn't ask for further clarification since there's always something else good to eat there.

                  Do you think that Tapac24 gets their xuxos from Escriba? Thanks in advance.

                  1. re: Aleta

                    To be honest, I was going by a picture of a xuixo that I had seen from Escriba. I have not seen them in person.
                    I do not know where Tapas 24 gets theirs, but it did look slightly different than the one from Escriba.

      2. A couple of points, in addition to the excellent advice so far.

        First - at 3* restaurants in Spain, lunch is typically identical to the evening meal, so by going at lunch you'll still get the 'full treatment' - and at both Can Roca and Sant Pau you can do each in a daytrip by train from Barcelona (so you wouldn't need a car in Barcelona - it's not an easy place to drive).

        So I support both of those as destinations - some tourist sights in Girona, so go early - but watch the time of the last train back. Sant Pau has a beach - and that's about it (excluding the restaurant).

        Getting to San Sebastian by train requires going through Madrid (I think) - certainly nothing direct from Barcelona. Driving is certainly easier (but more stressful) - it's actually faster to go through France!

        If you fly, relatively few flights to San Sebastian - most are to Bilbao - so will probably have to rent a car anyway (and San Sebastian is much easier to drive in). If you do go to Bilbao, I'd add Etxeberri to your 'potential' list as it's totally different from everything else (also possible from San Sebastian if you have a car) - EVEYTHING is grilled there - but that vastly undersells it.

        My favourite in San Sebastian is Akelarre - in addition to great food it has an unsurpassed location. Except it falls somewhere between Can Roca (less molecular but still significant) and Sant Pau. Again works for lunch!

        I also would go back to Mugaritz before Arzak or Berasategui (actually wouldn't return to Berasategui at all). Not because it's necessarily 'better' but because it's 'different'. It stands out as being 'the most interesting' - but I found it more patchy than the others - some of the best dishes - but a few 'what was he thinking' (I found the same thing at Alinea - where I still get annoyed at some of the pillows and burning leaves etc.).

        Last time I tried, Can Roca and Mugaritz (in that order) were the hardest reservations. Get those first and fit the others around them. If you decide on others you can always cancel (as I'm sure you would).

        6 Replies
        1. re: estufarian

          You can take a direct train between San Sebastian and Barcelona. The train leaves from Sants in Barcelona and takes about 5 1/2 hours.

          1. re: caga tio

            Fantastic - I didn't know that.
            Filed for my next trip.

          2. re: estufarian

            Estufarian's comments are worth copying and pasting, as always.

            Iberia has almost an exclusivity on flights into San Se's nearest airport (Hondaribbia) and they'll gauge you for the convenience. However, if you buy your ticket way in advance, fares can be as low as 100 euros r/t. I like using this method of arrival or departure because it gives me a chance to stop in Hondaribbia, which has some very delicious pintxo bars: Bar Gran Sol (which won previous year's pintxo competitions) and Bar Goxodenda (which won a competition 2 months ago).

            1. re: Aleta

              From 25th March 2012, Vueling ( is connecting San Sebastian with Barcelona. You'll find flights from 30€ one-way. I recommend you to book through their web; You can book it through Iberia's website but it is more expensive. Right now, the route is operated Air Nostrum (commonly known as Iberia Regional) which is usually quite expensive.

              Enjoy Spain!

              1. re: renevallve

                Wow! that's great news! Thanks, Renevallve.

              2. re: Aleta

                If you have an extra 2 hours or so, the train might actually be more convenient, it runs city-center to city-center after all. It's definitely cheaper.
                Plus, you get the added bonus of getting to see the scenery through Lleida, Zaragoza, Pamplona and up to San Sebastian. There are plenty of little villages, country houses and natural scenes to keep you entertained and you can bring a picnic for the ride.

            2. Wow, lot of great info after just a few hours, thanks for all who replied.

              Still working through it and will likely have some follow up Q's later but this is very helpful for our planning. Special thanks to PBSF Aleta and Estufarian.


              1. Couple more Q's on the 'north of Barcelona' leg of the trip (I'm the original poster) ...

                1) I mentioned April - June and was about to begin looking for May reservations, but I saw somewhere that Sant Pau closes the first three weeks in May each year. So is April too early weather-wise and/or crowd-wise or is June a bit late for avoiding the crowds? Which month would you pick, all things considered?

                2) Looks like almost everyone does Sant Pau as a day trip from Barcelona, but how about Can Roca? Would it make sense to spend one night in Girona? I think this would double my chances at getting a reservation at Can Roca since we could do either lunch or dinner. Also Girona sounds like an interesting enough town to spend a day in. Any Girona hotel suggestions that are within walking distance of Can Roca?



                5 Replies
                1. re: willyum

                  Hello willyum,
                  First of all, I think you have a great trip planned and I'm sure you won't be wrong with whichever restaurants you choose in the end.
                  1. I haven't been to either Sant Pau or Celler de Can Roca, but both are definitely on my list...
                  But if you are flying into Barcelona why not take a day or two to explore the city and its many amazing foodie spots?!
                  I just made a food trip to San Sebastian and Barcelona 2 months ago (still trying to find the time to write a review here...) and after 7 days in the Basque Country and big tasting menus almost every day I was almost overfed by the time I got to Barcelona and quite happy to just do some pintxos in El Borne, grab a bite at La Boqueria and venture to one of my favorite spots "Quimet i Quimet"....
                  I do second estufarian's tip though, try to go to Etxebarri near Bilbao, it might have been my favorite meal in many ways.
                  And leave some time for pintxos in San Sebastian, it's a lot of fun to explore the old town and its many great pintxos bars at night!
                  I also loved Azurmendi which is not mentioned too often on here, Eneko Atxa's 2-star restaurant close to Bilbao.

                  As for El Celler, I would actually recommend to stay a night in Girona. I was there for the 1st time this year and was truly amazed by the old town, definitely worth exploring it a bit.
                  I don't think there is any hotels near El Celler, all I could find when I was looking was apartments, but we stayed at the "Gran Ultonia", which is conveniently located very close to the old town and not too pricey (don't bother with the breakfast though, we just headed to a cafe on the main square). There is other quaint hotels right in the old town, but we decided against them as we had a rental car and it's hard to find parking there.

                  1. re: willyum


                    It's a good thing you checked the restaurant calendars before booking your flights! If you can go in April, you should. Unless it's a holiday or there's a conference in town, hotel rates will be better in April.

                    The taxi ride from Girona up to El Celler de Can Roca won't be more than 10 euros, I recall. And as Luna said, no hotels up there.

                    1. re: willyum

                      El Celler de Can Roca is located just outside of the city proper of Girona. A taxi from the train station is as an above poster state less than 10euro. I've walked it from the station and it takes about 20 minutes. There are plenty of hotel in Girona if you prefer dinner. Girona is a beautiful medieval town in itself, worth a day.
                      The best advice is given above by Luna2308. One your trip, make sure to eat at a variety of places, from simple pintxo/tapas to traditional Basque and Catalan. If one visit these two areas and only at the the top restaurants, one will only get a tiny slice of what great food they offer. And Barcelona is a great city regardless of the restaurants. Leave plenty of time to enjoy it.

                      1. re: PBSF

                        Will be in the Barcelona area 5 days, with just these two 'special' meals lined up far in advance due to high demand, so plenty of time to sample the rest of the area foods. We have done this before, we know our limits ;) Usually we do two Michelin 3* restaurants (tasting menus) on back-to-back nights (have done this several times), then need to take some time off ... this will be easier since no need to schedule Sant Pau and Can Roca back-to-back.

                        Sounds like a night in Girona is a good idea, no? June is better for us since where we live the weather is pleasant in April but extremely hot in June. Will check the prices on the airlines and local hotels before choosing, though if it's April we probably need to make the San Roca reservation soon, right?

                        1. re: willyum

                          Make reservation for any of the top restaurants as soon as you know your itinerary. As for spending the night in Girona, it come down to if you prefer having lunch or dinner and other small logistics. Girona is interesting enough to spend a day.