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Tapas Guide: Beginner Tapas Tips For Eating In Spain

Going out for tapas is me and Caleb’s favorite thing about Spain, especially Madrid. During the MANY times we’ve visited the country, we spent most of our time in lively tapas bars, eating way more tapas than we needed, but is there really such a thing as too much tapas? We’ve done a lot of tapas crawls and learned the ins and outs of how to eat tapas like a local in Madrid!

In this Tapas 101 guide, we will share everything we know so you two don’t walk around with an “I’m a tourist” sign stamped on your head or get so overwhelmed that you miss out on the best Spain has to offer!

Let’s start with a video of some tapas bars we love so you can get the vibe!

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So, what are tapas anyway?

Tapas in Spain can be almost anything in the world. Still, they are usually a small piece of food -think the size of a small appetizer or snack – that is traditionally served with an alcoholic drink but sometimes soda as well. 

Caleb and I have experienced ALL kinds of tapas during the almost 10 times we’ve been to Spain. We’ve had hot, cold, and big tapas that come with meat, small tapas that are just a bowl of olives, tapas bread, and pretty much everything in between.

And, we are tapas all inclusivists, so we are here for ALL OF IT.

The funny story of how tapas came about

The origination of tapas really depends on who you ask, as everyone seems to have a different version of the “tapas legend,” depending on what story their grandparents told them. It’s kinda like the “I walked uphill to school both ways” story here in the USA.

When we were on our favorite food tour in Madrid, we were told that the legend goes that the Castilian King Alfonso X was traveling on a windy day. He stopped for food and a glass of wine, and the waiter was worried that sand would blow into his drink, so he covered it with ham (my thought: why not a napkin? But, I digress.)

Anyway, the King loved it so he asked for another glass with a “tapa” and so “tapa” was born from the word “tapar” which means to cover. Google Arts and Culture illustrates this one well.

According to Wikipedia, another legend is that the doctor of the same King prescribed him to drink wine and eat small bites of food when he was sick, so then the King made it a law in Spain that a small tapa had to be served with every drink.

So, truth be told, no one REALLY knows how the word came to be. One thing we do know is that we want to find out what doctor the King used so we can make him our primary care provider.

Interior of a classic Spanish bar with a variety of wines and spirits lining the shelves, a detailed menu board, and customers engaged in conversation by the wooden bar counter

Tapas vs appetizers: what’s the difference?

Tapas are not the same thing as appetizers. In Spain, tapas are the meal, a much more social event and way of life. In other parts of the world, appetizers are ordered BEFORE the main meal.

Don’t get it twisted, my friends. You’re not going to go to Spain and find a menu full of nachos, buffalo wings, or ‘tater skins followed by the “main dishes.”

And praise the Lord for that.

Tapas Culture in Spain

Eating and drinking is a HUGE part of their culture, and this is where tapas come in. It’s also why we think Spain is one of the best places in Europe for couples who love to eat, like us!

Tapas are not just about the actual food; it’s about coming together, hanging out with each other, and pretty much just enjoying life. The Spanish go out for tapas, which means they go to multiple tapas bars together in one evening, taking their time to eat, share, enjoy, and mingle with each other to fully embrace life.

You know how here in the USA, the waiter makes you feel rushed, asks you “how the first bites are tasting” before you’ve even had the first bite, then puts the check on the table before you’ve even finished, and you barely get the chance to talk over your food? 

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Yea, that’s not Spain, and Caleb and I are HERE FOR IT.

You’ll also find many sports games (especially European football, which is USA soccer) on tapas bars because Spanish people love getting together to watch games, and almost no one watches sports alone at their homes.

La Hora De Vemut

One thing you need to know about tapas culture in Spain is about the “Hora De Vermut” or the “Vermouth hour.” Or, as Caleb and I renamed it, “the best hour to be alive.”

This is a specific time to drink vermouth, traditionally just before lunch, around 12pm-2pm. This marks the start of the afternoon with the first alcoholic beverage, and it’s an aperitif, which is believed to help the digestion of the upcoming lunch.

La Hore De Vermut is about stopping and enjoying a social time during the middle of the day with friends and is a huge part of the culture. Of course, you can drink vermouth any time of the day, like we always do during our own tapas crawls at night! 

Caleb and I HIGHLY recommend adding a stop for a Hora De Vermut at Taberna La Concha when visiting Madrid! We recommend buying some vermouth and bringing it home to remember your trip! It’s almost impossible to find Spanish vermouth here in the USA!

How to Order Tapas in Spain 

Reading the Menu

When you go out for tapas, you’ll see a lot of different words on the menu. Caleb and I were SUPER confused about ordering tapas the first few times we went to Spain. Once we learned how to navigate the menu, our experience got so much better!

Here is how to read a tapas menu so you don’t look like a tourist fail:

  • Tapa – this is usually the smallest size of food on the menu and a true tapa. It’ll be a very small serving, typically only enough for one person. These can be hot or cold.

IMPORTANT

You will often get a free tapa when you order a drink. Caleb and I have experienced this to be anything from a small plate of olives or a few slices of manchego cheese to more filling tapas like patatas bravas (Spanish fried potatoes), tortilla Espanola (potato omelet), or any variety of toasts with olive oil and toppings!

  • Raciones – These can either be large portions of tapas that are designed to be shared, or it could be an individual-sized dinner like our American entrees. 

Note: Although most Spaniards will “go out for tapas,” it usually means going out for “raciones,” as tapas are usually very small and single-serve, which means they are harder to share.

  • Media-raciones – these are plates that are in between tapas and raciones. They are like a tapa that is enough for two people, not just one. We love these at El Sur.
  • Pintxo or pincho – This is the Basque version of tapas. It’s usually a skewer of something served on top of bread and can be hot or cold. 
  • Tostas – This means you are ordering some kind of toast or open-faced sandwich.
  • Tablas – The Spanish version of cheese or charcuterie plates that, speaking from personal experience, are especially delicious washed down with a glass of Spanish Rioja.
  • Conservas – the unsung hero of Spanish tapas culture! “Conservas” are canned goods like sardines or anchovies served with different marinades and sauces. Don’t think of our American canned tuna because this is NOT THAT.
  • Para Picar – This loosely translates to “something to nibble on” and describes food that you could share and eat with a toothpick. You’ll usually see this to describe meat and cheese plates.
  • Surgencias de la Casa – When you see this on the menu, it means “chef suggestions.”

How to Eat Tapas

If you want to experience tapas like a true Spaniard and not be an overwhelmed tourist, you need to know how to do it right. Because we want you to LOVE Spain as much as we do, here is the step-by-step guide for how to order and how to eat tapas exactly like Caleb and I do when we visit Spain:

Step 0: Walk into a tapas bar and just find some space. Tapas bars are busy, and you may need to squeeze between people and stand at a bar. It’s different than in the States, and that’s OK.

Step 1:  Once you’ve found your spot, check if you can order food at the table. Caleb and I have noticed that many tapas bars only allow you to sit if you plan to order food. If you just want a drink, you have to stand at the bar.

Step 2: Grab the waiter’s attention either with a small wave or just go right up to the bar. Caleb always sticks his hand in the air when he makes eye contact with a waiter, which works every time.

Step 3: Order your drink first. We recommend doing this for a few reasons:

  • Having something to sip on is nice while you look at the menu.
  • Then, you can see if you get a free tapa with your drink.
  • It gives you some time to see the food that waiters bring to other people. Sometimes you didn’t know you needed something until you see it, you know? No more FOMO!

PRO TIP:

you don’t get free tapas with water and sometimes not with soda. So get some wine, beer, or vermouth. You know…for culture and stuff.

Step 4: Start with just a couple of “raciones,” depending on how many people you are and how many tapas bars you plan to hit (read our tapas tips below for more details here!) Ordering more options will allow you guys to try more food together! Caleb and I LOVE sharing more options!

Step 5: Once done, flag down the waiter and ask for the check (“La cuenta Por Favor) as, unlike the USA, the waiter will NOT just bring it to you. It’s considered rude in most parts of Europe (and we LOVE that.)

Step 6: Pay for your meal. Regarding tipping, if you sit down and eat, then 10% is considered the norm. If you stood at the bar, then it’s OK to just leave some change.

IMPORTANT

If you are at a pintxos bar, which are common in the Northern Basque Country like San Sebastian, the tapas usually come on sticks with different colors on the sticks. The colors tell the waiters the price of the pintxo.

When you pay at the end, you will pay by how many sticks you have left on your plate, so DO NOT throw them away!

Our Personal Tapas Tips

To make it easier to cross a DIY tapas crawl off your Madrid to-do list, here are the “pro tips” that Caleb and I have learned over all our tapas adventures:

  1. Don’t order everything at once – Many tapas are already prepared, and you could have a whole bunch of tapas arrive at once. You want to take your time and make an evening out of it, and you don’t want some of the food going cold if it’s meant to be hot!
  2. Order in rounds and not individually – you usually get the free tapas when you order for everyone at the same time. So, if you’re traveling with other couples in a group, keep this in mind!
  3. Leave your backpack or big purse at home – we learned this QUICK when we kept knocking people around with our backpacks in a crowded tapas bar. NOTHING screams, “Hi! I’m a tourist,” like a backpack or big purse. 
  4. Don’t just stay at one spot all night – this literally changed the game for Caleb and me, as we used to have our entire dinner at one spot. We learned the locals go from bar-to-bar just eating the main tapa or two that the bar is known for, then moves on. It got much more fun and delicious when we started “tapas crawling” ourselves!
  5. Don’t start early – many tapas bars don’t even open before 8pm, and it won’t be the most fun and authentic experience if they do. Embrace the Spaniard life and start late!
  6. If you don’t know what to order, ask! If you’re in a tourist area of Spain where they speak English, the servers are usually happy to help. 
  7. Embrace the awkwardness – You’ll likely have to stand around and wait for a table sometimes or go up to the bar and order yourself. It’s OK. Just go with it, and you’ll have more fun than if you feel weird about it and leave ASAP just because you didn’t get a table.

If you want to ensure you have an awesome tapas experience without any kind of stress or overwhelm by doing it “wrong” or “like a tourist,” we HIGHLY recommend this food tour. We’ve done it twice and it’s always SO AWESOME and delicious.

A customer from a rear view looking at a glass counter filled with trays of 'tapas', showcasing a variety of Spanish appetizers, inside a bustling tapas bar.

Some questions you might have

How Many Tapas To Order Per Person?

We recommend 2-3 tapas per person if you are making an entire meal out of it.

Are Tapas Free in Spain?

Tapas are free when you order a drink in some areas of Spain, such as Granada. However, this is a dying tradition, and finding free tapas is harder now. You should never ask for a free tapa and accept it graciously if given to you.

What time do you Eat tapas?

The two main times to eat tapas are before and during lunch, from 1:30 pm until 3:30 pm. The most common time is in the evening, from around 8:30 pm until midnight.

How We Can Help You Next:

We hope you found this tapas guide helpful and feel less overwhelmed about going out to eat in Spain! When you go on your tapas adventure, you’ll quickly realize it’s one of the best parts about visiting Madrid!

Now that you know how to eat tapas, you have to tie it all together with making sure you drink vermouth like a local! We can help with our ultimate guide to how to drink Spanish vermouth!

So, what tip did you find most helpful?

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A couple embraces while watching the sunset behind the Crystal Palace in Madrid's Retiro Park, a moment of romance and tranquility by the reflective waters.

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