Welcome to the ultimate Spanish food guide! We’ve got a lot to cover.
Did you know Spain claims to have more bars and restaurants per capita than any other country in the world? Talk about a foodie’s paradise! When it comes to tapas and top-notch Spanish cuisine, you’ve got to know where to look, especially when it comes to big cities like Madrid and Barcelona. You could miss out on some amazing culinary experiences if you get stuck dining solely at tourist spots. But not to worry, this Spanish food guide has got you covered!
You’re in Spain, I get it. You want paella, you want churros, you want sangria. Have at it! Just don’t let it be all you try. Spanish cuisine has much more to offer. Like many European nations, Spain’s culinary practices are intertwined with its rich history and vary greatly across its diverse regions.
I wanted to dig past the paella and sangria to find a deeper knowledge of Spanish cuisine and discover what is unique about food in Catalonia, Andalusia and Madrid. Turns out, it wasn’t so easy to do! That’s why I’ve put together this Best Ever Spain Food Guide so you’ll know what to try, where to try it, and when restaurants will be open. (The hours are a bit unexpected.) So, let’s dig in!
Spanish Food Culture
First up in our Spanish food guide, we’ll explore the culture surrounding Spanish cuisine. Spaniards take a great deal of pride in their cuisine and the customs and rituals surrounding it. In Spain, it’s not just about what you eat, but who you’re eating it with. Sorry to all my solo travelers out there, but to the Spanish, eating a meal alone is a very sad thing. (Don’t worry, you can always make friends on a food tour!) This approach is evident in many of their culinary practices.
In Barcelona, locals often go to bodegas together to share their aperitif of choice (usually vermouth) before lunch, but it isn’t something they would do alone. They call this fer el vermut which roughly translates to “to do the vermouth.” It’s not something you drink as much as something you do. While doing my research, I came across this sentiment quite often.
The Spanish also have a charming concept called sobremesa. Sobremesa is the time spent at the table after a meal. This is often when they may start long conversations about any topic; Time spent sharing life. In Spain, you’re not just sharing a meal, you’re sharing a piece of our most precious resource: time. And seriously, how sweet is that?
Regions of Spain
Spain is a nation made up of 17 unique autonomous regions. While the country is a constitutional monarchy with a Prime Minister, each region has its own President, customs, history, and of course, cuisine.
In this Spanish food guide, we’ll focus on the regions of Catalonia, Andalusia and Madrid.
- Andalusia is the southern region of Spain where much of the heavy Moorish influence can be seen in its historical monuments and architecture. This is also the birthplace of flamenco and the central hub of bullfighting.
- Madrid, the country’s capital is its own community and a melting pot of sorts.
- Catalonia is home of Barcelona and the fiercely independent Catalans, and has drawn influence from places like neighboring France.
What Do Spanish People Eat?
While each region has their own unique flavors and cuisine, there are some things you’ll find no matter where you are in Spain.
Below, are some of the country’s traditional staples:
I hope you like ham, because the Spanish eat it with everything. Dry-cured ham is a staple of Spanish cuisine. Jamon serrano is most similar to prosciutto, and the most expensive type, jamón iberico de bellota, comes from acorn-fed black pigs and practically melts in your mouth.
Fried dough with cinnamon and sugar. Even better when dunked in thick, creamy hot chocolate. Mmm!
My favorite cheese! Semi-hard with a sweet caramel and nutty flavor. Made from milk of the Manchega sheep from the La Mancha region of central Spain, it pairs magically with honey and fruit.
In Spain, a tortilla is actually an omelet. A typical Spanish omelet is made with just eggs, potatoes and sometimes onion cooked in olive oil. It resembles more of a quiche than an American omelet. Such a simple dish, and never with an overwhelmingly eggy flavor. My food tour friends and I were in awe of how good and different this was from what we’d expected.
These are traditional Spanish sandwiches made with baguette-like bread. (And probably some jamon.)
Mmm octopus. This is one of my favorite dishes and there’s nowhere that prepares it better than in Spain (okay, so maybe Portugal). Try a warm octopus dish like the Galician Pulpo a la Gallega: boiled octopus, salted and oiled, served over potatoes. Thank me later.
Gambas al Ajillo
Sure, you’ve had garlic shrimp before, but have you ever had it made from plump Spanish coastal shrimp that’s brought to you, still sizzling, in a cast iron dish, carried by a hunky waiter with a hot accent? Didn’t think so.
Literally meaning ‘brave potatoes,’ this dish consists of cubed white potatoes smothered in a delicious, spicy tomato sauce, almost like an aioli. Despite the intimidating name, I don’t actually find this dish to be all that spicy.
Mmm croquetas. These little balls of fried deliciousness can be found in a variety of flavors. The most common is jamon (of course!) that comes packed in a bechamel cream sauce. My favorite ones, however, are filled with squid or cuttlefish ink. Give them a try!
Regional Spanish Food Guides
Next up in our Spanish food guide, we’ll dig into three of the largest regions in Spain. Let’s explore their commonalities, differences, and the best regional dishes in Andalusia, Madrid and Catalonia.
Andalusia Food Guide
Traditional Andalusian cuisine features a wide variety of dishes, from refreshing summer soups to fresh Spanish seafood and mouthwatering pastries. Andalusia is Spain’s second-largest autonomous community. Here, you’ll find influence from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultures.
The Moors (a term used to describe Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula) ruled this area for a number of centuries during which they introduced today’s iconic Spanish ingredients like almonds, dates, saffron, and cinnamon.
Later, expeditions to the Americas brought back items like potatoes, peppers, corn, avocado, cocoa, and vanilla. Andalusia also has many locally grown and sourced products like olive oil, raisins, chickpeas, jamon (you already know), and mackerel. This melting pot creates a culture and cuisine that is seriously one of a kind!
Don’t leave Andalusia without trying some of the dishes below:
Gazpacho is the salsa of soup. Shoutout to Trader Joe’s for my initial introduction to this flavorful cold soup. Might sound weird, but trust me, it’s incredible.
A cold, creamy tomato soup often topped with olive oil and ham. It differs from gazpacho with the addition of bread, making the texture much creamier. (Oh, bread is in it? No wonder I’m so obsessed with it.)
Another cold soup made with almonds and garlic. Some describe it as a tomato-free version of salmorejo.
Rabo de Toro
Literally meaning ‘tail of the bull,’ this is the Spanish take on oxtail. It’s a heavy, flavorful stew with minimal ingredients and braised oxtail.
Solomillo al Whisky
Solomillo is the Spanish word for sirloin. A Sevillan specialty, this dish contains roasted beef sirloin prepared in a whisky sauce and accompanied by potatoes.
Roasted suckling pig. Personally, I did not have the heart to try this, but have heard it is absolutely delicious.
FOODIE TIP: If you visit Seville, be sure to check out the food tours run by Devour Tours. These guys are seriously the best!
Catalonia Food Guide
While Catalonia, and its capital Barcelona, are part of Spain, they form a unique region that has fought to maintain its distinct identity throughout the centuries. It’s easy for visitors to come to Spain and miss out on true Catalan cuisine, not knowing there’s more to it than paella and sangria.
Catalan dishes are known for combining seafood and other meat, as well as many sweet and savory elements. They focus on high-quality ingredients and use a lot of locally grown products like tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, peppers, artichokes, mushrooms, beans, chickpeas, and calçots.
Here are a few traditional Catalan dishes:
- Allioli a la Catalana: The Catalan version of garlic aioli, allioli is made from pounding garlic and salt in a ceramic mortar before adding olive oil drop by drop, creating a perfect emulsion. Fair warning: You’ll want to eat this with just about everything.
- Bocadilla botifarra: Catalan is well-known for its pork and cured meats. This simple breakfast sandwich is everywhere in the region.
- Crema Catalana: The Spanish version of creme brulee. The Catalan version is thickened with milk, egg yolks, and starch instead of whole eggs and cream.
- Arròs negre amb allioli: This yummy, soupy rice and seafood dish features squid or cuttlefish ink alongside that scrumptious garlicy allioli I mentioned above.
- Mongetes amb botifarra: Many Catalans will tell you that this dish of white beans and sausage is their national dish!
- Pollastre amb Llagosta: Chicken and lobster together? This is an essential type of Catalan dish which locals refer to as mar i muntanya, meaing surf and turf! I can get behind that, wbu?
- Esqueixada de Bacallà: Cod (bacallà) is everywhere in Spain. (Portugal too.) This dish features shredded fish paired with olives, tomatoes, and onions. Definitely worth a shot!
FOODIE TIP: When in Barcelona, you absolutely must check out what’s available from Devour Tours. I had the best time on their Tapas & Taverns Tour!
Madrid Food Guide
While Madrid is its own autonomous community, as the capital of Spain, it’s known for being a melting pot where you can find the traditional cuisine from every region of the country. Andalusian salmorejo and gazpacho is everywhere along with Galician octopus, Catalan pork, and Valencian paella. There are plenty of culinary adventures to be had in Spain’s capital city. However, Madrid does have its own traditional delicacies as well.
When you’re exploring the city, make sure you try some of the dishes below:
This traditional winter stew is packed with flavor from veggies, chickpeas, chorizo, and pork. The dish is usually served over multiple courses, the broth served with vermicelli noodles, followed by chickpeas and veggies, and finally, the meat.
Translating to broken eggs, this dish consists of somewhat runny fried eggs broken up a bit so the yolk runs over the accompanying jamon and potatoes.
Bocadillo de Calamares
Calamari sandwich? Say less, I’m in. This well-known Spanish dish is popular near Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol.
Churros con Chocolate
Again, I’m in. Chocolateria San Gines is the most highly recommended spot for this delicious Spanish dessert.
Callos a la Madrileña:
Another savory winter stew, this dish is packed with strips of beef tripe, blood sausage, and chorizo. If you’re keen on trying it, don’t google what tripe is. Just don’t.
FOODIE TIP: There is no better foodie experience than the Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour of Madrid!
When Do People Eat in Spain?
If your trip is highly food-motivated (and even if it’s not) there are a few important things to know. Spain has a unique set of rules when it comes to dining out.
Breakfast spots open around 9am, lunch is from 1:30-3:30pm and dinner spots don’t open until 8:30pm.
Below are the traditional meals and their timing. (However, note that many big city office workers now eat similarly to other Western countries with a lighter lunch and large dinner.)
- Breakfast (El desayuno): A small meal typically eaten around 9am. Toast with tomato is an easy classic.
- Lunch (La comida): This is the largest meal of the day, eaten between 1:30 and 3:30.
- La Merienda: A late afternoon snack typical for young children.
- Dinner (La cena): A light meal that doesn’t start until 8:30.
- Tapas: Small snacks before and during lunch and dinner. (1:30-3:30 & 8:30-12)
The Spanish Siesta
Have you ever been jealous of the Spanish siesta? I know I have. During a sleepy afternoon in the office, nothing sounds better than my bed. However, did you know the Spanish siesta is fading? This tradition came from the days of agricultural work without air-conditioned buildings to escape to. Back then, a large meal and nap to refuel midday were essential. All of Spain enjoyed this afternoon break from schools to shops to government officials.
Nowadays, big cities and long commutes have changed the game. Many in places like Barcelona and Madrid work a standard 8-hour day with a 1-hour lunch break. If you’re on vacation, there’s no need to let that hold you back from a midday nap, though! Just be sure you get a good lunch in before restaurants close. They won’t reopen until 8:30 pm. Happy napping!
What Do People Drink in Spain?
What do they drink in Spain? Glad you asked. This might be one of my all-time favorite subjects! Honestly, I could create a whole Spanish food guide devoted solely to Spain’s many wines, beers and spirits, and the customs that surround them. As a first, second (and let’s be honest, even third) time visitor to the country, it’s overwhelming trying to get a firm grasp on this topic. Especially because as much great info as a food tour gives you, they, um, also give you a lot of alcohol.
Although this is changing in big cities like Barcelona and Madrid, Spain doesn’t have the same sort of cocktail scene as a country like the United States. If you’re brave enough to venture away from the tourist hotspots, you’re likely to encounter wines you find rather questionable like vermouth and sherry. Before you give up and just go for the overpriced sangria, take a look at the list below. You’d be surprised what you can discover on a foodie adventure in Spain!
(PS: I’ve tried to condense things into a manageable list great for your first few trips to Spain. If you’re interested in further details, leave a comment. Maybe sometime soon I’ll dig deeper!)
The Truth about Sangria
Okay, we have to talk about it. Do the Spanish really drink a lot of sangria? The answer may surprise you. Thanks to the appearance of sangria at the 1964 World’s Fair, Americans associate the drink closely with Spain. However, this drink is a bit time-consuming and not something the Spanish typically make all that frequently. It might be prepared before a get-together at someone’s house, like your average punch. While some more recent big city cocktail bars are starting to add their own sangria to their menus, in general, sangria isn’t treated with any special regard by the Spanish.
Instead of ordering sangria at a Spanish bar, try tinto de verano. (Red wine with soda.) That’s likely what you’re being served as “sangria” anyways, but at a higher price point. There are two types of tinto de verano: tinto con casera (red wine with sweetened soda water) and tinto con limon (red wine with citrus soda).
In Spain, wine is highly accessible and inexpensive, but just as delicious as other major European players! The country has over 70 recognized wine regions meaning they produce tons of different wines. Spaniards tend to drink local and regional wines. The most well-known region is La Rioja, known for its rich red wines. Meanwhile, Catalonia is home to regions like Penedes where other fine dry reds and whites are produced along with other wines like vermouth and sherry.
Leaving out Cava from a Spanish food guide would be a crime! This bubbly wine is Spain’s version of Champagne. Over 90% of Cava comes from Penedes, outside of Barcelona. When visiting the area, you should visit as many Cava bars and cellars as possible!
Spain’s aperitif of choice! Skeptics, hear me out. This isn’t the bitter vermouth of martinis that you’re used to. Spain’s sweet vermouths are something totally different, and definitely worth trying!
In Spain, the most popular choice is a sweet, red vermouth (vermút rojo). While it begins as a white wine, vermouth earns its darker color when it’s infused with caramel and other spices and botanicals. Each vermouth has its own flavor profile of things like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, sort of like a cold mulled wine! Take your vermouth straight, on the rocks, add a slice of lemon or orange, or with a bit of sifón (Spain’s club soda) to heighten the aromatic flavors.
With Catalonia being an important region for the production of vermouth, Barcelona is one of the vermouth capitals of the world. It’s the perfect pre-lunch or dinner drink, thought to aid in appetite and digestion. Enjoy your vermouth with a traditional tapa to feel like the most Spanish version of yourself. Salud!
If you’re anything like me, you’ve just made a face reading the word ‘sherry.’ Do people actually drink sherry? Isn’t that just for cooking? you may be wondering. Spanish sherry is actually a dry, refreshing wine with a slightly nutty flavor. A fortified wine (that means wine that’s had a spirit, like brandy, added to it), sherry may be a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s worth a try, especially if you’re in its birthplace of Andalusia. When in Seville, be sure to pair some Manzanilla sherry with a scrumptious seafood dinner.
Beer is somewhat new to Spain. Mahou, a pilsner, is the most commonly consumed beer. While most Spaniards still seem to prefer wine (tbh, same), craft breweries have been popping up in big cities like Barcelona and Madrid.
Restaurants in Spain
I couldn’t write a Spain food guide without covering Spain’s dining customs! Dining in Spain can be a bit unexpected. For example, did you know bars are actually the best place to grab breakfast? It’s true.
To have the type of dining experience you’re looking for, first, you need to know exactly what kind of establishment to seek out.
Here’s a breakdown of the types of establishments and what they serve.
- Bar: In Spain, a bar is a bit of a catch-all. It’s the most popular type of spot to go for a drink and informal meal. Head here for a simple breakfast, lunch or tapas and to grab a drink like beer, wine or vermouth.
- Bodega: Bodegas are my favorite! They’re local wine and tapas shops. The perfect place for an aperitif! Bodegas can be any size from small and intimate to a large shop attached to a vineyard.
- Taberna: Head to a taberna for a cozy, traditional Spanish meal or tapas. A taberna is best for dinner or a pre-lunch vermouth. (Well, okay, really anywhere is good for a pre-lunch vermouth!)
- Bar de Copas: Perhaps my favorite, this is a cocktail bar and a great spot to try one of Spain’s fabulous gin and tonics. Keep in mind most bares de copas don’t open until 10pm.
- Restaurante: This is where we go to get fancy. A restaurante is a formal affair for the Spanish. Although sometimes it could be a casual sit-down lunch, you’re more likely to find a multi-course dinner served here. While wandering around Seville, in particular, I noticed many large groups of Spaniards dining together, dressed sharply and often congregating on the sidewalk patios after meals to finish their drinks.
How do you avoid tourist traps in Spain?
A few more tips for picking out the perfect Spanish restaurant: If you want to avoid tourist traps, be sure to avoid places with photos of their food, anywhere declaring they serve typical or authentic Spanish food underneath the restaurant name, and overly long menus. And if you spot a dirty standing-room establishment, don’t be scared off too quickly. It’s common in Spain to toss things like napkins and olive pits on the ground, but only in certain places. Please don’t try that at a nice restaurant.
Do you tip in Spain?
Spanish people don’t commonly tip when dining out. If they are very pleased with their service, they may leave some small change after the meal.
Do you pay tax in Spain?
Yes, but it’s different from the tax system in the United States. Spanish purchases include a value-added-tax (VAT) of 4%, 10%, or 21% depending what you‘re buying. (In Spanish, it’s called IVA.) However, some restaurants may exclude VAT from their prices so be sure to check the menu for a note that will say “VAT/IVA-not-included.”
Digging In: The Nitty Gritty of Spanish Cuisine
What You Need To Know About Tapas
Next up in our Spanish food guide is the quintessential Spanish food practice: tapas! So… can you confidently define the term ‘tapas?’ Admittedly, I left my first trip to Spain feeling a sense of ambiguity. Many times, I’d ordered the same item at different places, sometimes receiving a full plate and other times, an appetizer portion.
While tapas are typically considered small, shareable plates, that definition just didn’t feel complete. Turns out, I was right to feel a bit confused. Tapas are actually kind of ambiguous by nature.
Ask anyone in Spain to define what tapas are and you’ll get many different responses. To make it even more complicated, tapas and their traditions tend to vary from region to region. Like other Spanish culinary practices, tapas are more of an act rather than a specification of dish. Tapas are a social experience that you share.
If you’re traveling solo, I highly recommend you find a tour to join. I can personally attest to the fact that these tours are a true bonding experience. While I have made plenty of friends on food tours in other countries, there really was something special about the experiences in Spain. Whether it’s the sharing of plates that creates a more social experience or some sort of mysterious Spanish magic, no one can leave a Spanish food tour feeling like they spent an evening with strangers.
What sorts of tapas are there?
There are hot tapas (think garlic shrimp or pork skewers), cold tapas (like gazpacho), tostas which are basically small open-faced sandwiches, tablas, a small charcuterie board of meat and cheese, and conservas which are canned, marinaded meats.
Lastly, we have to mention pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”). If you visit the Basque Country, this is their name for tapas. The word comes from the Spanish verb meaning to skewer or poke. These dishes are typically skewered and served over a small piece of bread. You may see this term used in other regions where it typically signifies that a tapa is just a “little pinch.”
How do you know if something is a tapa or a full meal?
Well, you’ll find out when your dish is served. Just kidding! (Sort of.) Typically, the price point will give it away. Some places will list three serving sizes on their menu: A tapa will be small enough for one, a media ración is good for 2-3 people, and a ración for even more.
Are tapas free?
Not as often as they used to be. Granada is known for its free tapas and most tapas bars in Madrid will give you something small when you order a drink, but otherwise, there is typically a fee which can range from about $2-$10.
When do you eat tapas?
Tapas are eaten in the afternoon before and during lunch or in the evening from about 8:30 to midnight. You could have a tapa and drink before your meal or eat only tapas for dinner.
The Truth About Paella
My first trip to Spain was in 2019 when I spent a few days on a tour in Barcelona. Upon arrival, we were warned by our Tour Director that paella (like sangria) wasn’t even a regional specialty, but, of course, Barcelona being a big city, there were still fantastic places to get authentic paella. Thankfully, he recommended the perfect place to try the real deal (sadly I can’t remember the name). It was here that I tried the famed dish for the first time. Suddenly, I understood the hype.
Elated, my travel friends and I ordered the dish a couple more times wherever we went, but, all our subsequent experiences being smack dab in the middle of every tourist hotspot, it just didn’t taste quite the same. I’m sure you can imagine why.
If you’re dying for your paella fix in one of Spain’s big cities, I’ve got you covered. Head to one of the spots below to be sure your meal is top-notch.
- Madrid: Bar Gloria or Restaurante Casa de Valencia are sure bets.
- Barcelona: Head to Barceloneta for tons of authentic paella spots like Barraca. Try Los Pergaminos or La Fonda if you’re in the Gothic Quarter, Restaurant CruiX in Eixample or L’Arrossería Xàtiva in Gracia.
- Seville: Owned by a local Valencian family, you can’t go wrong with La Paella Sevilla.
Today, you can order any variation your heart desires, (it’ll always be seafood for me), but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if this is the only Spanish rice dish you try. Make sure you check out some of the options below:
- Arroz Con: Outside of Valencia or an authentic Valencian establishment, your best bet is a rice dish whose name will start with the words “arroz con” meaning “rice with.” With what, you ask? With whatever you want! Arroz con pez (rice with fish), arroz con pollo (chicken), the options are endless.
- Arroz Caldoso: Meaning brothy rice, this is a yummy, soupy rice dish that can come with almost anything, but most often prepared with seafood.
- Arroz Negro: My personal favorite, arroz negro or black rice, is made with squid or cuttlefish ink and usually paired with seafood.
- Fideua: A Catalan seafood specialty, this recipe swaps out the rice for vermicelli noodles.
How to Order Coffee in Spain
Finally, I’ve included in this Spanish food guide exactly how to order coffee in Spain. The Spanish love their coffee as much as the rest of us! If you absolutely must start your day with a cup of joe, make sure to note these popular drinks you’ll find on Spanish menus:
- Cafe Solo: A small cup of strong, rich coffee also known as: a shot of espresso.
- Cafe con Leche: A drink with equal parts espresso and steamed milk.
- Cafe Americano: A cafe solo with twice the amount of hot water. If you want milk, you can ask for a “cafe Americano con Leche.”
- Cafe Bombón: A super sweet coffee made from condensed milk and a cafe solo.
- Cafe Cortado: A small drink of cafe solo and steamed milk. (My personal favorite!)
- Cafe Carajillo: A cafe solo with some brandy or whiskey. You might be surprised by the number of Spaniards you’ll see ordering this first thing in the morning!
Now that you know exactly what and where to eat, it’s time to put this information to good use and get nice and full. Plan the perfect tapas crawl in Madrid, get inspiration for the rest of your stay in Seville or immerse yourself in the modernist paradise of Barcelona. Happy travels!