3 Underrated, Must-Visit Spanish Cities for Food and Wine Lovers
Just remember to bring insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst with you
I love Spain.
Which is a weird thing to say because it's so diverse it's like 17 countries in one. Each of its regions has a unique culture, history, and frequently even its own language.
But somehow it all comes together in a uniquely Spanish way. And it's the Spaniards' love of food and wine - and the good times that come along with copious amounts of the aforementioned - that I can't get enough of.
Barcelona and San Sebastián have rightfully become bucket-list foodie destinations but there are plenty of undiscovered gems that are waiting for you to fall in love with them.
Here are 3 of my favorites.
Logroño, La Rioja
Weirdly, Logroño, the capital city of Spain's most famous wine region, Rioja, is somewhat unknown, even to food and wine lovers.
It's not helped by the fact that it doesn't have an international airport and it's several hours bus journey from any of Spain's other major cities. But trust me, it's worth making the journey.
I fell in love with the bustling little streets the first time I visited and have been back many times since, even making it my home for 5 months last year.
The heart of the city is Calle Laurel a tiny old street home to more pincho bars than I can count. Each has its own specialty to set them apart from each other. There are unexpectedly delicious combinations like Juan y Pinchame's langoustine and pineapple skewer, or Bar Soriano's famous garlicky mushroom and shrimp pincho.
There are piggy treats galore like La Tavina's crispy pig face (so much better than it sounds that I can't even explain) or Bar Lorenzo's Tio Agus - a sandwich with spiced pork kebab doused in herby secret sauce named after the founder's uncle Agus.
And the king of Calle Laurel's pinchos: Torres' Bocata de Calamari. A soft bun filled with tender fried squid and lightly spiced bravas sauce. You simply cannot walk past and not order one.
All of which of course are washed down with a glass of local wine at outrageously cheap prices. Try €0.90 ($1) for a delicious glass of biodynamic red while you're at Bar Soriano. Or explore Torres' extensive list with some of the best wines of the region to be enjoyed for less than €5 ($6).
And that's just a few of my favorites from one street. Explore Calle San Juan, stopping for a warm welcome from the guys at Torres' second site Gastrobar, the fantastic Tastavin with iconic wines by the glass and inventive pinchos, and newly opened Roots - one of the best wine bars in town.
Then there's Calle Maria Teresa Gil de Garate - referred to by locals as Pauvre Laurel - as it was always the poor people's street of cheap dive bars. But in recent years it's exploded with some of the best places in town including Neska (great tortilla de patata), Odisea (delicious Vermouth and preserved seafood), Carbonera (perfect croquetas), and Kiro (Michelin-starred sushi).
There are simply too many great places to eat and drink in Logroño to mention in one article. Just go and experience it for yourself.
Jerez - or Jerez de la Frontera to give it its full name - is home to one of Spain's other famous wine exports: Sherry.
It's also home to Flamenco, and the two are inseparable.
Whereas in nearby Seville you might buy tickets to a flamenco show, in Jerez it's all more spontaneous.
I've witnessed dancing break out in the streets, especially after everyone's enjoyed a few glasses of Fino. Bystanders furiously stamping, clapping, and singing to accompany the dancer's moves. It's powerful and tear-jerkingly moving.
One thing is undeniable. Jerez is a city with soul.
And like Logroño, it is a city whose life is lived out on the streets where food and wine are always at the heart of everything.
Try a small plate of Jamón Ibérico - the Spanish ham so deep in flavor it has to be tasted to be believed - alongside a glass of mahogany-colored Oloroso or Palo Cortado Sherry for a mindblowing combination. The walnut-like flavor of these styles of Sherry perfectly complement the natural nuttiness of the Jamón from precious acorn-fed pigs.
Or a glass of deliciously salty Fino Sherry alongside some green olives or a tapa of aged sheeps' cheese. Umami heaven.
There are of course dozens of fantastic little bars to discover in the small winding streets of Jerez. But there is one perfect spot where food, wine, and flamenco all come together: Tabanco El Pasaje.
When you taste the food and Sherry together in Jerez, it makes all other wine pairings seem mediocre. More than just being a good match, there's an intense feeling that they belong together. It's an almost spiritual experience.
Bilbao, Basque Country
Bilbao has long been in the gastronomic shadow of San Sebastián just along the coast. The small town with the highest density of Michelin stars in the world has rightfully been the Basque Country's culinary pride for decades.
So Bilbao has been generally overlooked - only making it onto tourist itineraries because of the famous Guggenheim museum. But it's got an amazing food and wine scene begging to be discovered.
There's Baster, the perfect spot for a mid-morning, is-it-socially-acceptable-to-start-drinking-yet, vermouth. It would be rude not to order something to eat too so grab some of their perfectly fluffy, creamy jamón croquetas.
Head to Basaras, home to some of the most insane anchovies you'll ever taste. Enough to convert even me - a self-confessed anchovyphobe. They have a few gems on by the glass too, like Gramona Cava and Remelluri Rioja.
I'd never thought of Basque and Asian food making a successful fusion but the stunning food at Kimtxu convinced me otherwise. Their perfectly prepared dumplings filled with Sukalki (a Basque meat stew) and served in an aromatic broth are some of the best things I've tasted in the city. The wine list perfectly complements the food with a nod towards lower-interventional organic and natural wines. A new landmark restaurant.
Mugarra doesn't seem to really be on anyone's radar and it deserves a lot more recognition. I discovered it in that annoyingly, slightly smug, happenstance way of just walking past and noticing some interesting wines on the shelf. I immediately booked a table for dinner that evening and was so glad I did- the food more than matched up to the quality of the wines. Cod cheeks braised with fresh peas were a particular highlight.
No trip to Bilbao could be complete without a boozy stop at Cork Bar - by far the best wine bar in the city and one of my favorites in all of Spain. Owner Jonathan pours an incredible selection of iconic wines, not only from Spain but around the world. So much love and care go into the wine selection that you really feel it. The pintxos are fantastic too, with an emphasis on fresh local fish and seafood.
If the best way to discover a country's culture is through its food and wine, that is probably truer in Spain than anywhere else. Food and wine are so ingrained in how its people go about their day that they have actually become their culture.
So, go armed with an insatiable appetite and unquenchable thirst and discover these 3 underrated Spanish cities.