What makes Northern Spain the ultimate destination for foodies

Whether you’re looking for a fine dining paddock-to-plate immersion, or street food for next to nothing, it is the ultimate in gourmand getaways

By Paul Ewart

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Photo by Paul Ewart
Photo by Paul Ewart

Published: Thu 15 Dec 2022, 9:52 PM

When it comes to gourmet getaways, our appetites are growing by the day.

According to a recent report into global food tourism by market intelligence agency, Mintel, culinary travel is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing tourism sectors today with 95 per cent of us seeking out a foodie activity while on holiday. And for hungry travellers, Northern Spain is the place to go.


Renowned as being home to some of finest cuisine in the country, both Catalonia and Basque Country have been at the forefront of global gastronomy for decades, with each region and province serving up their own tasty local treats.

From paella to pintxos, tapas to tortilla, read on for top foodie tips on how to get the most out of your Spain sojourn — and where to eat, stay, and play.


BARCELONA

World-class museums, a great climate and, arguably, some of Europe’s best eating and drinking. Check, check and check! Barcelona is not only an incredible destination in its own right, but it’s also easy to reach by plane.

A bastion of culture, the city’s unique fusion of diverse barrios (neighbourhoods) and small-town character mean that there’s something for everyone.

EAT:

Kickstart your Barcelona gourmet getaway by getting to grips with the city’s most iconic snack: tapas. EatWith’s Barcelona food and tapas tasting tour (eatwith.com) is concentrated around the El Born area, which is one of the most iconic neighbourhoods for tapas.

Wandering the area’s historic, narrow streets, you’ll learn about the history of the famous dish whilst tasking traditional Catalan tapas staples, such as pan con tomate (bread with crushed tomato and olive oil) and patatas bravas (fried potatoes).

Having worked up an appetite exploring, your thoughts may be turning to lunch but don’t even think about eating before 2pm. And for a lavish late lunch, hit up fine-fining institution, Enoteca (enotecapacoperez.com).

This two Michelin-starred restaurant pairs water views with traditional-meets-modern Mediterranean cuisine. Taking inspiration from the freshness of the sea, and the farm-to-form philosophy, diners here can expect seasonal, locally-sourced produce, set in a magnificent white tablecloth-clad dining room.

While haute cuisine is amazing, when it comes to foodie travel, you can’t get more authentic than eating with a local in their very own home. Eat With (eatwith.com) connects tourists with local cooks, so you can pull up a seat at an authentic Catalonian dining table and taste home-cooked fare while getting insider tidbits.

At Joe’s Table, chef and owner Joe takes visitors on a culinary journey over a delectable seven-course dinner that reflects the seasons, his Catalan heritage and his globetrotting adventures around the world.

STAY:

For being in the thick of the action — whilst also soaking in serenity and 5-star luxury — you can’t trump Mandarin Oriental Barcelona (mandarinoriental.com).

Mere steps away from the bustle of the city’s ritziest shopping street, Passieg de Gracia, this slick hotel oozes luxe. Think butler services, an in-house Michelin-starred restaurant, a guest roster of celebrities, and a wow-worthy, serene basement spa. The perfect retreat from a day of pavement-pounding, the spa houses an indoor lap pool, gym, designer steam room and seven treatment rooms.

On the roof there’s an outdoor pool — one of the largest rooftop spots in the city and definitely lap-worthy. It’s here that Terrat, a Peruvian restaurant, serves Spanish-meets-Peruvian cuisine (think oysters, ceviche and yummy bao buns) paired with incredible 360 views of the city.

Once you’ve had your fill of city living, make a literal sea change and migrate to the beach — Barcelona is one of the world’s best destinations for pairing a city break with a side of beach bumming.

The 5-star Hotel Arts Barcelona (hotelartsbarcelona.com) is located next to the marina and overlooks Barcelona’s famous beaches. Though easily walkable to the city’s centre, its proximity to the sea is hard to top.

Towering 44 floors above the sea, the 5-star hotel’s striking skyscraper design is impressive enough, but then there’s outstanding facilities, including two outdoor pools, lush gardens and the sky-high, The Spa.

Facilities include eight treatment suites, and hydrotherapy pool, steam baths, dry saunas, ice fountains and relaxation zones — almost all with jaw-dropping sweeping views of the Balearic Sea.

PLAY:

To offset some of the overindulgence, head to AIRE Barcelona (beaire.com). Paying homes to the city’s ancient Roman roots, this former warehouse turned water wellness temple is a candlelit maze of pools, steam rooms and float pools. It’s the stuff of an Arabian Nights fantasy.

GIRONA

Set on the winding River Onyar, this beautiful-walled medieval city may be small, but it offers more than enough to fill a few days worth of exploring (and eating).

One of four provincial capitals of Catalonia, Girona is famous for its postcard-perfect multi-coloured riverside houses and beautiful, cobbled ancient alleyways.

Though only a short train ride from Barcelona, the tourist population is sparse and the pace of life is slow.

STAY:

Base yourself in the heart of the history centre at Nord 1901 (nord1901.com). Easily one of the best and most centrally-located properties in town, this 4-star, family-run hotel is an easy five-minute walk from Girona Cathedral. Proximity aside, the check-in also offers a lush garden terrace and small lap pool (perfect for a cool respite during Spain’s warmer months) and a buffet breakfast of local delicacies.

EAT:

To get an expert overview of Girona’s food landscape, book a Girona Food Tours (gironafoodtours.com) experience.

The most highly-rated walking tour in town, the experience takes tourists on an eating and drinking journey — peppered with anecdotes and historical facts — all told through the eyes of a local.

You’ll traverse hidden gems, taste signature dishes and visit local, indoor food markets, bustling bakeries and traditional family-run local eateries.

PLAY:

Situated on a bay in the middle of the Cap de Creus peninsula in the Girona province, Cadaques — being easily one of the most beautiful villages in the world — well worth a day trip detour.

PITSTOP: ZARAGOZA

Whether you’re driving or taking the train, it pays to make a pitstop en route from Catalonia to Basque Country.

The capital city of the Spanish region of Aragon, despite being one of Spain’s five largest cities, is also the least known globally. But while Zaragoza is very much overlooked as a tourist destination, it shouldn’t be.

A wealth of above and below ground Roman remains, museums, historical monuments and a bustling nightlife mean that it’s well-worth the detour.

STAY:

Base yourself for a few days of exploring at Hotel NH Collection Gran Hotel de Zaragoza (nh-hotels.com). Enjoying prime position near the Zaragoza Museum, Paseo Independencia and many designer boutiques, the hotel also offers a sauna and fitness centre.

EAT:

Join crowds of locals for their evening tapas fix at El Tubo, a district that comes alive at night with its narrow alleys filled with hole-in-the-wall tapas bars and street seating. Come hungry and keep moving — you should aim to hit at least three to four venues in one night.

BILBAO

Set amidst the rolling green hills of Basque country, Bilbao is a bustling city that’s both small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to keep you entertained.

Once known primarily as an industrial port city, the town has since then reinvented itself as a centre for modern art and architecture, primarily thanks to the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in 1997. Now, fast-forward two decades and its transformation from backwater to culinary and cultural centre is complete.

STAY:

One of the original Bilboa hotels, Ercilla (ercilladebilbao.com) has been a go-to for guests since it opened its doors in 1972. Set in a prime location in the city centre, attractions such as Chavarri Palace and Plaza Moyua are an easy stroll from the luxe, 4-star property.

One of the stars in Marriott’s Autograph Collection range, its wealth of in-house dining and drinking experiences — including sophisticated, The Bar, and hip rooftop, La Terraza — have proved to be a hit for both locals and visitors alike.

EAT:

We all know what Spanish tapas is, but how many of us have encountered pintxos? Less known internationally, pintxos are a Basque Country speciality. So called because of the wooden toothpick piercing them (pintxos is Spanish for ‘spike’), these bite-sized morsels are a nightly staple.

Go native and hit up the streets close to Plaza de Don Federico Moyua, or Diputazio Kalea, where you can find plenty bars serving an A to Z of these scrumptious snacks.

SAN SEBASTIAN

Framed by the aquamarine Bay of Biscay and twin peaks, the popular European beach town of San Sebastian is as lovely as it is rich in culture and cuisine. Named by many of the world’s top chefs as their favourite destination, the town unsurprisingly lays claim to the highest density of Michelin-starred restaurants (Tokyo aside) in the world.

STAY:

With more than 150 years of history, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (hlondres.com) was one of the first hotels in San Sebastian. A former palace, this Basque bay beauty is one of the city’s grandest buildings in the city and enjoys an elegant, Belle Epoque era interior to match.

The resident Mari Galant brasserie serves traditional Basque cuisine as well as tasty seasonal creations inspired by the richness of fresh, local produce, all enjoyed with spectacular seafront views.

Nearby, and also offering ocean proximity, is Villa Favorita (hotelvillafavorita.com). An original 19th century villa turned luxury boutique hotel, the property is a stone’s throw from the town centre, boasts ocean views in abundance, and a lauded two Michelin-starred in-house restaurant.

EAT:

There are two sides to eating out in San Sebastian. You can either go high-end with Michelin-starred tasting menus, or eat the local way with dish after dish of pintxos.

For the latter, head to the Old Town where the land of pintxo taverns awaits you. However, knowing where to begin — particularly as a newbie — can be tough. Avoid tourist pintxos pitfalls by joining a tour with Discover San Sebastian (discoversansebastian.com).

Newly crowned as one for the ‘top 10 food experiences in the world’ by TripAdvisor, owner and chief tour guide, Eskerne, takes guests to the best eateries in the city.

Eskerne also operates bespoke out-of-town tours to take in the wealth of foodie delights in the surrounding hills and green valleys beyond town. Delights including the family-owned Gaintza winery, who have been producing txakoli for four generations. Alongside, the best (and newest) restaurant in the municipality of Zumaya, Hamarratz (hamarratz-zumaia.com).

Here, chef Andoni Txintxilla pays homage to the area’s gastronomic legacy with unique, experimental cuisine, alongside a commitment to educating diners via the onsite kitchen gardens and fork-to-table philosophy. Indeed, his pioneering food has even won the appeal of celebrity chef, Alain Ducasse, who has lauded his gourmet creations.

While Hamarratz is one of the new guard of lauded eateries, Restaurante Arzak (arzak.es) has been a driving force in San Sebastian’s current status as one of the world’s culinary capitals.

Housed in a property that has been owned by the Arzak family since the 1800s, this three-Michelin-starred eatery has held a top spot on the ‘world’s best restaurants’ lists many times over.

Fast-forward four generations and the famed restaurant is now helmed by Elena Arzak — a chef who has previously nabbed the ‘best female chef in the world’ title.

Choose from the a la carte menu, or indulge in a seven-course tasting experience, and expect innovative dishes with Basque roots using the finest ingredients possible — come prepared for the epicurean experience of a lifetime!

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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