Rich cheeses, cured meats, fresh seafood, roasted vegetables, and deep-fried delights, all for just a few euros a pop? Tapas in Spain is a food lover’s dream. But it’s more than just a cheap way to fill your stomach with some of the tastiest foods in Europe. It’s also an important social ritual with unwritten rules and dining etiquette. If you want to enjoy a real tapas experience, read our guide on how to order and eat tapas like a true Spaniard. You’ll be dining like the locals at the best Spanish tapas bars in no time!
1. Pick the right time for tapas
Tapas is traditionally a drink and bite to eat, so when you meet for tapas in Spain, it’s usually around 1:30 to 3pm or 8:30 to 10:30pm. If you stick to the traditional Spanish times for tapas, you’re guaranteed to get the freshest food and the best atmosphere. If you want to ask someone to meet for tapas in Spain, say “Quedamos para picar algo?” which means “Will we meet to pick at something?”
2. Find the best tapas streets
The best Spanish tapas bars are usually surrounded by other great bars in a tapas street or neighbourhood (barrios). This provides a great atmosphere for a spot of tapas hopping, and most bars have their own specialty dishes to try. It can be hard to know where to find these tapas streets, so ask your hotel staff or a local guide to give you their insider’s tips.
3. Choose a tapas bar
Once you’ve found the best Spanish tapas neighbourhood, you need to choose your tapas bar. The first thing you should look for is the people. A popular tapas bar has a high turnover of people and food, so you’re sure to get fresher tapas. Don’t worry about the decor, or if you see the floor littered with napkins and cocktail sticks – that’s the sign of an authentic tapas bar! If it looks like people are having fun and eating well, you’ve probably found the one.
4. Visit more than one bar
Tapas in Spain means you’re always on the move. Usually, you try one or two tapas (order the house speciality) in your first bar, then move on to the next place and repeat the whole process. You never need to book a table at a tapas bar as people are always coming and going, so you won’t have to wait too long.
Busy tapas bars are the way to go, but this can get overwhelming if you’re new to the tapas experience. Before you order, feel free to find a cosy corner or an open spot at the bar and make yourself comfortable. Many locals will stand by the bar as they munch on their favourite tapas. If it’s very busy, you may have to stand and order, but it’s always nice to sit and soak up the lively atmosphere of the bar.
5. Order your drink before your tapas
Once you’ve found your bar and claimed your spot, it’s time to order! But not so fast – in Spain, the first thing you order is your drink (this also gives you more time to check out the menu). Locals usually order a glass of wine or beer, but it’s great to try regional specialities too.
In Barcelona, why not try a glass of cava, or in Andalusia, sample the manzanilla sherry. In San Sebastian, order a glass of the famous Txakoli wine, while in Asturias, you might like to try a bottle of cider. The Spanish often order different drinks in each bar and we recommend doing the same. If you’re not drinking alcohol, you can order a ‘cerveza-sin’, which is an alcohol-free beer, or a ‘mosto’ which is a grape juice.
6. Wait to see if you get a free tapa
In some areas of Spain, you’ll often get a small free tapas like olives or chorizo when you order a drink. It’s common in Madrid, while in the cities of Leon and Granada, you’ll nearly always get a free serving of bravas, croquetas, patatas, salad or whatever the kitchen is serving that day. This is the bar’s way of letting you sample the food and encouraging you to stay and order more.
7. It’s finally time to order tapas
You’ve settled in and ordered your drink – now it’s time to eat! Here’s a quick guide on how to eat tapas the right way in Spain:
If you want to try a small plate of something like meat skewers, pulgas (bite-sized sandwiches), or encurtidos (pickled items like olives) order a pintxo. It gives you a taste of the dish and pairs well with an aperitivo before lunch or dinner.
If you’re with a large group or want to share with friends, order these communal plates. You never order a racion for one person as the plates are so big and are meant to be shared. Some of the most popular raciones are potatoes, albondigas (meatballs), roasted peppers, potato bravas, croquettes, garlic prawns, calamari, sausage and manchego cheese plates.
Take your time
There’s no need to order all your tapas at once. Take it slow and order as you go. Savouring your tapas is all part of the quintessential dining experience in Spain. The Spanish are masters of the art of enjoying food, so watch and learn how to eat tapas from the locals.
Share your food
Tapas in Spain is all about sharing your food with friends. But how much to order? Start small and get to know the portion sizes – you don’t want to stuff yourself and leave food unfinished. The best way is to order two or three tapas for the group to start (depending on your group size), then decide if you want to order another round or head to the next bar.
8. Embrace the regional diversity of tapas
You won’t always find your favourite tapas on the menu. Most regions have their own tapas specialities, while every great tapas bar also has their own special dishes. It’s always best to try the local favourites to get to know the culture and traditions of food across Spain.
For example, in Madrid, you should try their cured meats like chorizo, jamon and cecina, while in Seville you’ll want to order the seafood, like grilled shellfish, ajo blanco soup and pescaito frito (fried fish).
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9. Ask the wait staff
When in doubt, you can always rely on the wait staff to recommend the best Spanish tapas dishes. Spanish people will often ask the serving staff for their specials and recommendations because they trust their expert advice. If you’re not sure what to order, it’s also helpful to look around the bar at other people’s dishes and let the waiter know if you see something you like.
10. Time for dessert?
Spanish locals rarely order dessert after tapas, as it’s not usually eaten as a large main meal. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, look for a tapas bar that also offers a la carte dining. You’ll likely find some classic Spanish desserts like arroz con leche (rice pudding) or flan (creme caramel). You can always head to a churros stand or ice-cream parlour after your tapas session to get a delicious sugary fix.
11. Paying for tapas
When in Spain, you always pay for your tapas after you’ve eaten, not when it’s served. Relax and enjoy your food and drink, then simply say “la cuenta, por favor” (the bill, please) when you’re finished and ready to move on.
You’ll be impressed by the abilities of the staff to remember your order! Also, tipping is not compulsory (although definitely welcome) and locals usually just round up the bill if they’ve enjoyed their tapas.
Have you enjoyed a tapas experience in Spain? Let us know in the comments below…