Spain is one of the top foodie destinations in Europe and is famed for its small tapas dishes and sharing culture. The roots of Spain’s culinary scene are a delightful fusion of the cultures that have reigned in the country over centuries.
Going out to a bar to have tapas and beers is as strongly rooted in the Spaniards as it is to breathe. So you should not get surprised to find tapas restaurants jam-packed with loud, chattering locals at lunch and dinner times.
Many tourists think that tapas are special types of dishes, but they are not. You can basically get anything served as tapa size as you can as a ración (full-size plate) - except for paella, which is customarily served for a minimum of two people.
The country is strongly associated with meat and seafood, though they also have several naturally vegetarian and vegan dishes. Supermarkets, especially in the cities, are selling more and more vegetarian and vegan options, as well as gluten-free.
Restaurants have tables, and most bars offer seating by the bar on stools too.
Local restaurants mostly offer free bread with meals and tap water on request, but in touristy areas, you can expect to pay for bread and only be offered paid bottled water.
Most restaurants take both cash and credit cards. However, smaller, more local bars and restaurants might only take cash. Unless you are in a touristy area, it is a good idea to ask up-front.
In local bars and restaurants, you can often see locals sit and eat and drink for hours to end. However, more fancy restaurants might have an expectancy that guests typically spend 1-1.5 hours at a table before they leave to make space for new guests.
Spaniards are loud, and this includes when they go out eating. So there is no need to tell your kids to use their inside voice (that is a term that doesn’t exist in Spain.) Drinking beer and wine with a meal is normal even when children are around. Yet, you seldom witness outrageous drunkness except for some individual local alcoholics (that both the regulars and employees will know.)
Menus show prices that include service charges, so what you see is what you pay. However, be aware of a common scam in larger cities like Barcelona where the prices are not marked on the menu and when it comes to the time to pay, you get an outrageous bill - so always ask for the price upfront if it is not marked on the menu to avoid unpleasant surprises.
It is not expected to tip waiters in Spain. However, rounding up the bill and telling them to “keep the change” is customary e.g. If the bill comes at 9.50 Euros, you can pay with 10 Euros and tell the waiter to keep the change of 50 cents. And if your bill comes to 47 Euros, you can pay with 50 Euros and ask them to keep the 3 Euros in change. This only works when paying cash.
You do not leave a tip with a card (though sometimes the machine gives you the option,). Instead, leave a couple of Euros on the table. Locals would never leave more than 5 Euros unless it is for a big party.
Spain is a country that is extremely bound to its mealtimes, especially when it comes to lunch and dinner.
Typical kitchen opening times:
*Note that these times will typically vary with 1-2 hours give or take.
That said, large cities and touristy areas have places open for food all day to serve tourists with different mealtimes. So, if you go to places like Madrid, Barcelona, or Costa del Sol, you will find food all day long, though not in the local neighbourhoods.
If you go to lesser touristy areas, and even in more traditional cities like Seville and Cordoba, you might find it hard to find food outside local eating times.
In the big cities and touristy areas, you will find plenty of international restaurants as well as local bars and fine dining.
Traditional Spanish bars, especially in the small towns and local neighbourhoods, are not at all fancy, but that does not mean that you might not stumble across the best meal on your trip to Spain.
These places are often family-run and make delicious homemade food ( “comida casera”) - as a rule of thumb, the more locals you see eating, the bigger the chance that it is worth it.
In the cities, there are many more alternatives, especially if you are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. In the villages, they often haven’t even heard about this. Then you need to know what to order - and know that they might use the same knife to cut the tomatoes and the ham.
For more alternatives and more educated personnel, you must go to the cities and touristy areas like Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol.
Here are a few of the typical dishes you might want to try. Some are naturally vegetarian/vegan and others can be ordered vegetarian/vegan.
Paella: a rice dish usually served with seafood, but also other versions. Often only available to order for 2 or more persons. Can be ordered vegetarian/vegan, but make sure they do not use fish oil, non-vegetable stock, or other animal products when they cook it.
Gambas al Ajillo: shrimp simmered in garlic and olive oil, often served as tapas.
Croquetas: deep-fried rolls stuffed with bechamel sauce, and meat, fish, mushroom, or cheese inside. These can be vegetarian but might be deep fried together with meat and seafood.
Jamón Serrano: whole ham legs are a familiar sight in Spanish bars and restaurants and one of the most popular appetizers and tapas you can try.
Albondigas: Spanish meatballs, usually bathing in tomato sauce are popularly served as tapas.
Bacalao: salted cod served in different variants.
Tortilla de patatas: potato omelette, often served as tapas or in sandwiches/baguettes.
Berenjenas con miel: deep-fried eggplant drizzled with honey.
Churros con chocolate: deep-fried dough served with a cup of thick hot chocolate to dip them in. Traditionally, the churros are vegan, but not the chocolate. You can ask for churros without chocolate but ask first if their churros are vegan, as some places have started making fancy recipes with milk and eggs.
Gazpacho: cold tomato soup traditionally served in a glass to drink, but in some restaurants, they serve it in a bowl with a spoon.
Salmorejo: also cold tomato soup, but thicker than the Gazpacho and served as a cold soup (make sure it is NOT served with egg and ham topping - ask for it without!)
Pisto: the Spanish version of Ratatouille, often rich in tomato sauce mixed with vegetables cut into small pieces.
Patatas Bravas: larger than normal fries traditionally served with a spicy tomato sauce (Note! Some places have started to make an untraditional Brava-sauce mixed with mayonnaise, so make sure you ask upfront).
Spain is home to several delightful local beers and wines, not to mention Cava. Here are some traditional drinks you might come across and want to try:
Cava: Spanish bubbly wine, like France’s Champagne and Italy’s Prosecco.
Sangria: traditionally a mix between red wine, brandy, and fruit pieces, is popularly served in pitches with ice cubes to share.
Sherry: famous Sherry brands like Tio Pepe and Osborne come from the Sherry Triangle in the Cadiz province in southern Spain.
Local beers: some local beers to try are Estrella de Galicia, San Miguel, and Cruzcampo.
While costs for food vary greatly in Spain depending on where you eat (less touristy places are super affordable while tourist areas are a lot more costly), you can expect to pay around 20-40 Euros for a meal for two people, but more fancy restaurants can easily be double.
A typical Spanish breakfast consists of “tostada” (toasted bread/baguette) with olive oil and salt, plus different toppings like curated ham, cheese, and tomato. The most traditional drinks to have for breakfast are “café con leche” (coffee with milk) or freshly squeezed orange juice.
The price for breakfast can vary between 3-6 Euros depending on where you eat.
A lunch or dinner of 3-4 tapas and a couple of drinks can cost you between 6-15 Euros, depending on the place.
A lunch or dinner (not tapas) can cost 15-25 Euros with drinks, though meat and seafood dishes can make the price double that.
A glass of beer or wine costs between 1.50 Eros and 4.50 Euros depending on how touristy the area is.
A black coffee usually costs 1.50 Euros.
Note that restaurants in central tourist locations often cost a lot more than local restaurants, so prices might be higher depending on the area.
Being vegan in Spain is still not as easy as other places in Western Europe. It is getting better and especially the big cities and major tourist areas have vegan restaurants opening up constantly and non-vegan restaurants introducing vegan options on their menus.
However, there is some naturally vegan traditional food to try (see examples mentioned earlier) and you find more and more options of vegan cheese, vegan Tortilla de Patata, vegan sausages, vegan burgers, etc. in the supermarkets. The best supermarkets for vegan options are Carrefour, Lidl, and Aldi.
It is also getting easier to be a vegetarian in Spain, and a lot easier than being a vegan, as there are a few natural vegetarian Spanish dishes that include eggs and milk, like Tortilla de Patatas, some croquetas, and baked goods. Just be aware of pig fat used in some baked goods, especially in remote villages that follow old traditional recipes.
This can be a bigger challenge than the above, especially in smaller towns and villages. Be aware that even gluten-free dishes can use the same pots and spoons as other foods.
However, larger cities have more and more gluten-free and allergenic options on the menu and you can find gluten-free food in the supermarkets. The best supermarket for finding gluten-free food is Mercadona. They have marked all gluten-free food so you do not have to read the ingredients.
Madrid Gastrofestival - try delightful food from the city’s top restaurants, shops, and markets.
Barcelona Beer Festival - try some of the best craft beers on the market.
Vivid Wine Festival (Empordà, Costa Brava) - delightful wine tasting and nature experiences.
International Paella Competition (Basque Country) - an exceptional opportunity to try world-class paella.
Planning a trip to Spain? Read our Spain travel guides