Anthony Bourdain's Favorite Travel Destination Was An Iconic City

For someone who traveled the world in search of great dining experiences and stories as much as Anthony Bourdain, it must have been difficult to pick out a favorite foodie destination. But while the late chef appreciated the sheer quantity of high-quality options in cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, he was also "really passionate" about the Basque Country city of San Sebastián (via National Geographic).

"You could make the argument that there is no better place to eat in Europe," Bourdain said while visiting San Sebastián for his show "Parts Unknown" (via YouTube). It's a city as famous for its Michelin stars as it is for its bar snacks, known as pintxos. During his visits, Bourdain was fortunate enough to meet and dine with some of the region's most celebrated chefs, giving him a great insight into the area and its culinary heritage.

Part of what makes the food in San Sebastián so special is "the insistence on the very best ingredients," Bourdain believed (via YouTube). With its location on the Cantabrian coast, surrounded by stunning mountains, the area is naturally blessed with a cornucopia of fresh delights, from fish and seafood to grass-fed beef, making it one of the European cities steak-lovers must visit. And these local specialties appear on all sorts of menus — whether it's a high-end restaurant or a more casual joint.

San Sebastián is a mecca for Michelin-starred dining

While Tokyo is the city with the most Michelin-star restaurants in the world, San Sebastián has the second highest density per capita, making it a top European destination for lovers of fine dining. As of 2024, the coastal city is home to 18 venues with stars, including three in the area which have been awarded the maximum of three Michelin stars.

One of these three-star establishments is Arzak, which first obtained a star back in 1974. It's run by chef Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, both of whom Anthony Bourdain greatly admired and built a close personal relationship with over the years. Bourdain described Juan Mari Arzak as a mentor, and in 2024 Michelin agreed, presenting the renowned chef with a Chef Mentor Award.

Offering a tasting- as well as a set menu, Arzak is renowned for its creativity, innovation, and experimentation, including its use of a "flavor workbench" consisting of over a thousand ingredients (via Michelin). But Bourdain was also a fan of the city's more low-key restaurants too — such as Casa Urola in the Old Town where he enjoyed a Basque menu of dishes such as seared mushrooms with egg yolk, and grilled tuna with Marmitako sauce.

San Sebastián is famous for its pintxos

San Sebastián isn't just about fancy restaurants. The city is much-loved for its pintxos, which are not the same as Spanish tapas. Originally consisting of a slice of baguette topped with different ingredients and held together with a cocktail stick (known as a pintxo – hence the name), the little bites have evolved to become more like fine dining dishes in miniature.

Each bar has its own specialty when it comes to pintxos, and the idea is that you go on a crawl from place to place, sampling a bite in each, washed down with a small glass of wine or beer. Anthony Bourdain enjoyed a selection of pintxos in bars across the city, with combinations of ingredients such as fried quail egg and blood sausage (the same as black pudding) with peppers, or sea urchin with onion and cava.

A particular favorite destination was the first place the chef ever visited while in San Sebastián, and where he returned on each subsequent visit: Bar Ganbara. There, Bourdain tucked into "extraordinary" crab tartlets, as well as the house specialty of seared wild mushrooms served with foie gras and a raw egg yolk — a dish he believed it was impossible to improve upon (via YouTube). High praise indeed, making it easy to see why Bourdain was so impressed by San Sebastián's stunning food scene.