Eating is one of the greatest joys of traveling in Spain. Although it's often known for its sun-drenched beaches and hot weather, Spain has a more varied geography and climate than many people think. Between the snowy Pyrenees Mountains in the north, the lush and rainy coastal northwest that borders Portugal and the rolling hills of the central plains, the country boasts a great diversity of landscapes. This means, in terms of food, Spain has a splendid offering.
Regional culinary specialties abound, so depending on where you are, there are always delicious things to try. Valencia is the home of paella, the famous rice dish traditionally made with rabbit and shellfish and colored yellow by saffron. Galicia is known for its stunningly fresh seafood and crisp wines, both of which are reflections of the rugged coastline and wet climate of this less-visited yet beautiful northwest corner of Spain. Basque Country is known for its sheep's milk cheeses, Espelette red peppers and incredible array of fresh produce, and don't forget about Ibérico pigs, which produce jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. Both are on par with Italy's Prosciutto di Parma and represent some of the world’s best examples of cured ham.
Spain is also one of the largest producers of high-quality olive oil and wine, and given all this, you’re nearly certain to have a tremendous combination of flavors and culinary delights at your disposal here!
The Dining Experience in Spain
There's no doubt Spaniards know how to enjoy life, and much of this is reflected in the dining experience. The pace here is delightfully slower, and the hours are later—especially compared to other nations in Western Europe. It isn't unusual for Spaniards to sit down to a leisurely dinner at midnight, especially on the weekends. In fact, restaurants open for dinner no sooner than 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. The culture of a midday nap or siesta—where businesses shutter their doors for a few hours in the early afternoon before reopening in the evening—is still practiced in many places, especially during the heat of summer. Although not as prevalent as it once was, don’t be surprised to encounter this cultural tradition.
Another difference is that Spaniards often prefer to snack and to eat small plates (tapas) instead of each person eating his her how own main course. There's a reason tapas are so popular! Eating this way allows people to taste a variety of dishes. It also encourages sharing, sampling and a more convivial eating experience. Additionally, drinking and eating are commonly done together. In many bars throughout the country, it's customary to be given a free plate or two of olives, crackers, cheese or another snack when you order a beer, wine or cocktail. In fact, some bars are as known as restaurants for their snacks and tapas!
Because people are often eating and drinking slowly but often here, meals are leisurely. Embracing Spanish dining culture might keep you up a bit later at night, but it’ll also expose you to wonderful flavors, as well as encourage you to slow down, soak it in and relax!
Traditional Spanish Dishes
While dishes differ all over the nation, certain ingredients are common throughout the country. Pork is king here, and it’s found in all manner of dishes and preparations, including cured ham, smoky sausage (chorizo) and blood sausage (morcilla). Other common ingredients include eggs, potatoes, olive oil, seafood, bread and nuts. Additionally, the Spanish palate is not one for spice or strong flavors, so don't expect to have your mouth burning from chili peppers or to taste highly seasoned dishes. Flavors here are mild and simple, allowing the diner to appreciate the quality of the ingredients.
While there are regional specialties, here are a handful of dishes commonly found throughout the country:
Although this dish has its roots in the coastal city of Valencia, it has become a standard of Spanish fare, and it’s likely one of the most well-known foods to tourists. Countless varieties of it exist, and one could taste as many versions as there are cooks. There are, however, a few essential elements: a base of sofrito (a slowly stewed mixture of onions, carrots, garlic, bell peppers or all of the above), rice, saffron (which gives it the yellow color) and some combination of seafood and meats. There are vegetarian versions as well.
Spain’s sunny, hot climate makes gazpacho particularly tasty and refreshing for much of the year. This cold soup is made from ripe and juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, olive oil, bread and bell peppers. The ingredients are blended until silky smooth, chilled and served in bowls or glasses. In Andalucía in southern Spain, people have it every summer day, and there are always jugs on the counters in tapas bars.
No, this isn’t the type of corn or flour tortilla used in Mexican cuisine. In Spain, tortilla means “omelet.” Traditionally it's just eggs, potatoes and maybe onions, but other common additions include chorizo (smoky sausage), ham or vegetables. Tortilla is served at all times of day and in all manner of dining establishments. Usually resembling a frittata (thick and well cooked), a Spanish tortilla is often served at room temperature.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of tapas, patatas bravas vary quite a bit around the country, but all versions involve chunks of fried potato served with a creamy sauce. In Madrid, bravas sauce is made with sweet, spicy pimentón (Spanish paprika); olive oil; flour and stock (never tomatoes). Some people add garlic. Some opt for a dash of sherry. Others still insist on jealously guarding their secret ingredients.
Gambas al Ajillo
You’ll no doubt see, if not smell, this popular dish soon after you enter Spain. This sizzling platter of fresh prawns is made by sautéing garlic in olive oil, adding the prawns (the bigger and fresher the better) and finishing it off with a sprinkle of parsley. The dish is simple but delicious and found throughout the country.
Backroads Pro Tip
Pairing a regional Spanish dish with the corresponding region's wine makes for a wonderful dining experience. For example, you can almost taste the salt and sea of northern Spain's famous Albariño wines, which pair well with fresh seafood or tasty cheeses, whereas the full-bodied reds of Rioja represent the sunny, hot climate of central and southern Spain and would complement roasted and cured meats and dishes with tomatoes. Wherever you are, eat and drink the local specialties, and you can't go wrong!
Regional Foods and Specialties
The foods of the different Spanish regions reflect the country’s topography, climate and geographic diversity, as well as the semiautonomous ethnic and linguistic communities that have resided in those regions for years, if not centuries. The notion of a singular Spanish identity is complicated, and this has resulted in a population comprised of regional people with their own distinct dialects and cultural and culinary heritages.
In terms of food, the Basque region in central north Spain (bordering France) is probably best known for its culinary delights. The plethora of fresh produce, myriad local cheeses and wines, proximity to the seafood of the Atlantic Ocean and cultural pride in its food have resulted in some of the nation’s tastiest foods and dishes. In fact, San Sebastian (the cultural capital of Basque Country) has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris! Visitors just have to wander through the charming streets and pop into any bar or restaurant to taste some of the best of what the country has to offer.
Catalonia, another semiautonomous region in the northeast, has Barcelona at its heart, and this area also has its own flair. While its language (Catalán) sounds like a mixture of Spanish and French, the food is uniquely its own, and it’s often quite different from what diners will eat in the rest of the country.
In Spain’s northwest corner, bordering Portugal to the south, is Galicia. Much of the population here has roots in the Gaelic and Celtic cultures of Ireland and Britain, making bagpipes and kilts not unusual here. Some of the crispest, most refreshing white wines are made in Galicia. Also, because of its rugged coastline, there’s an abundance of seafood in much of the local cuisine.
Another region is Andalucía, which is in southern Spain. This includes the beautiful and historic cities of Sevilla, Cordoba, Ronda, Granada and Malaga. The Moors (North African Arabs who lived in Spain for centuries) had a strong influence on much of the culture here, including its food. The sunny, hot climate produces wines very different from the north, and this region is also a prime growing area for olives. Spain is, after all, one of the largest global producers of olive oil.
Some local specialties from each region include the following:
- Bacalao al Pil Pil - Salt cod is one of the most famous Basque ingredients, and bacalao al pil pil is one of the area’s most famous dishes. It's basically cod fried in garlic and olive oil, but by cooking it just right and gently shaking it in a frying pan, the gelatin-like oil from the cod infuses with the olive oil to make an emulsion. This creates the perfect sauce accompaniment. The dish is called pil pil because of the sound it makes when the oil’s spitting and the frying cod skin is popping and crackling.
- Pa Amb Tomàquet - To most Catalans, bread’s as essential as breathing, and pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato) is a source of great national pride. Once merely a way of jazzing up stale bread, pa amb tomàquet is a thing of beauty when done well. Barely a mealtime goes by without it, and it’ll always be served with some kind of grilled meat. While pa amb tomàquet is available in other parts of Spain, Catalans will tell you theirs is unique.
- Botifarra Amb Mongetes - This is a simple but popular Catalán dish. (It’s especially revered in Barcelona.) This meal is similar to English bangers and mash, but the pork sausage is usually grilled and served with white beans instead of potatoes. If you explore the Catalonian countryside, you’ll likely encounter this popular regional dish.
- Pulpo a Feira - Forget any preconceived notions of octopus as rubbery or hard to eat. The Galicians have mastered how to cook tender, succulent octopus. This dish is typically served in markets all over Galicia, but it’s also found in many tapas bars. The octopus is boiled until melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the tentacles are sliced into discs, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with smoked paprika and placed atop a bed of perfectly cooked potatoes. This dish is eminently simple—and delicious!
- Migas - While the aforementioned gazpacho is Andalucía's most famous culinary export, other wonderful dishes are available to try. Migas might have started out as breakfast leftovers, but over time, it has transformed from an ancient dish (similar to North African couscous) into a popular lunch or dinner option. Made from a base of bread crumbs, it often features bacon, sausage, olive oil, garlic and dried red pepper. It’s best prepared over an open fire or hot coals, giving it that distinctive smoky flavor. In rural areas, it’s traditional after butchering an animal to make this with fresh blood and offal. Sound too much for your stomach to handle? Then head back to the cities of Andalucía, where it simply appears on tapas menus (often fried and served with salty sardines).
Spanish Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
- Racion: Shared plate
- Pintxo: Basque word for “tapa,” it’s usually served on a skewer or toothpick
- Caña: Small draft beer
- Menu del día: Lunchtime set menu that usually consists of three courses
- A la brasa: Charcoal grilled
- Postre: Dessert
Words to Know When Dining Out
While many Spaniards (especially in touristy areas) speak some English, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. Here are some to get you started at a local restaurant:
- Could I have the bill, please?: La cuenta, por favor.
- I’m a vegetarian.: Soy vegetariano.
- Thank you: Gracias
- Waiter/waitress: Mesero/Mesera
- Water: Agua
- Restroom: Baño
- Bon appetit!: Buen provecho!
Tipping is not expected or required in Spain. Restaurant and hospitality employees are generally compensated adequately and provided with health care and benefits. That said, leaving a bit of change at the end of a meal is acceptable.
In general, dining etiquette in Spain is very similar to what you’d find in the rest of Europe. One difference, however, is that bread plates are not used in Spain. Etiquette mandates you place your bread on the edge of your main plate or lay it directly on the table next to your dish. When it’s included in a meal, bread is typically not served with butter, so enjoy the taste of your bread on its own.
The pace of meals is much slower than in the United States, and there isn't as much emphasis on courses as there is in France or other places. People prefer to eat and to drink slowly, with many tapas and small plates continuously being ordered and getting passed around and shared. In general, family-style eating is much more common than everyone ordering large plates of individual food.
Want to Know More about Spain?
Read the full “Spain: Travel Guide Overview”.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Spain adventure!