With high-quality ingredients, deep-rooted food traditions, and a passion for gastronomy, the Spanish know how to do food. For this reason, travelers understand that any trip to Spain is not complete without a crash course into this culinary wonderland. But where do you start? With distinct eating times, food customs, and lingo, a first-time visitor can easily be overwhelmed. Read on- we’ll break down a day in the life of Spanish food from ‘tapa’ to bottom so you can navigate Spain’s mealtimes with ease and confidence, and eat like a local in Spain.
The legacy of Spain’s food scene has been brewing for hundreds of years. With its influential position on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain has played home to the Romans, Visigoths, and even the Moors. All bring different religions and customs. Later on, the country’s role in the “discovery” of the Americas further transformed the cuisine. Spain became one of the first places to be influenced by New World cooking practices before it migrated throughout the rest of the continent.
Larger than California but smaller than Texas, Spain’s diverse culinary scene is packed into a relatively small country. Here, cities just a few hours apart might be known for entirely different foods. This makes culinary travel across Spain rewarding and plentiful. Like a scavenger hunt for foodies, the Spanish celebrate the highest quality local ingredients, and they will travel specifically just to have them. If paella is what you want, make sure to visit Valencia, where this well-known dish defines the region. On the other hand, if you find yourself in Burgos, you must try the morcilla. (Yes, it’s technically blood sausage but don’t worry about that.) In Galicia, ‘pulpo a la gallega’ (Galician octopus) it is!
As you can see, Spanish food is an extensive study on the importance of local ingredients and the influence of different cultures. So if you want to eat like a local in Spain, just make sure to stick to a few rules: eat regionally, look for the highest quality ingredients, and do as the Spaniards do. Sounds simple right? Here’s everything else you need to know.
How to eat like a local in Spain: Timing is Everything
In most cities around the United States, there is no need to stick to a specific schedule to ensure high-quality and tasty meals. Most restaurants are open for the entire day, giving you the ability to grab breakfast at 7 a.m. or 10 a.m., and dinner at 5 p.m. or 8 p.m., whatever you prefer on that given day. This isn’t the case in Spain. Here, most restaurants (especially the best ones) are closed between meals and only open for the hours during that meal service. Did you decide to take a nap during the middle of the day? Good luck finding a place to take you in for a late lunch. Starving, and it’s only 6 p.m.? Hold tight; there are still a few more hours until dinner service!
Paying attention and sticking to mealtimes and opening hours of restaurants will not only save you from getting ‘hangry’, but it will also give you a better chance of eating at the best spots. Any restaurant in Spain that will serve you a meal outside of what’s typically acceptable is most likely made for tourists anyway.
But first, coffee.
The Spanish aren’t the earliest risers, given their typically late bedtime, so don’t be surprised if you can’t find yourself a hearty plate of carbs and protein at 7 a.m. Instead, many Spaniards will opt for a coffee and a light bite (usually toast or a pastry) at home for their first meal.
The most common way to have coffee in Spain is a ‘cafe con leche,’ meaning ‘coffee with milk.’ Typically made with espresso and equal parts hot milk, this coffee is both not too strong and not too filling, perfect to accompany some quick toast on your way out the door.
Second breakfast is the best breakfast.
Around mid-morning, many Spaniards emerge from both their homes and places of work to head out to a local cafe to grab a larger bite to eat (and another coffee). Since lunch is still hours away, this is the perfect time to try some of Spain’s simplest but most delectable combinations. Order a ‘pan con tomate‘ or toasted bread served with olive oil and smashed tomatoes, for one of the most popular. Top your bread with spoonfuls of the tomato, slather it in olive oil, and top with salt. This simple Spanish food is both filling, satisfying and quick. ‘Tortilla española’ is another popular staple. Composed of potatoes, egg, and onion (sometimes!), this potato omelet is perfectly simple. Since everyone has a slightly different method for making it, try it at a few different places to see which way you like it best. With onion and somewhat runny on the inside is our favorite. Alternatively, go big and order some ‘churros con chocolate.’ These fried pieces of dough are then dipped into semi-dark liquid chocolate, almost as thick as molasses, before being devoured immediately.
Lunch: The most important meal of the day.
No matter where you find yourself in Spain, lunch will be considered the largest meal of the day and typically happens between 2 and 3 p.m. This is the perfect time to take advantage of the ‘Menu del Dia‘ at local restaurants. Typically served during the week, the Menu del Dia offers hungry travelers and locals the opportunity to have a three-course meal at a fair price. Most restaurants offering the Menu del Dia will give you a few choices depending on if you eat meat, fish, or vegetarian, but it is essentially just that – a set menu. Trust the chef, order a glass of wine and enjoy. A lengthy local lunch spent with good conversation and even better wine is a quintessential Spanish experience.
La merienda – snack time!
With dinner as late as 9 or 10 p.m., ‘la merienda’ is the time when Spaniards enjoy a small bite to eat after work to keep their appetite at bay. Of course, what you eat for this afternoon snack can vary, but one thing remains the same: taking another opportunity to slow down and enjoy something delicious either at home, a café, or a nearby park.
For something filling, opt for a sandwich of cured meats, fried seafood, or a slice of tortilla. Alternatively, take this opportunity to indulge in Spain’s local delicacies of jamón ibérico, queso manchego, or manzanilla olives. For the sweet tooth, stop by a bakery for an assortment of croissants, napolitanas (a chocolate stuffed pastry), or other Arabic-style sweets popular throughout the south of Spain.
Don’t go to bed yet; you’ll miss dinner.
A few factors are at play when it comes to influencing Spain’s late dinner time, like the midday siesta and summertime daytime heat, but one of the fundamental reasons may catch you by surprise.
In 1940, General Francisco Franco moved Spain’s clocks one hour ahead to correspond with Nazi Germany. This put Spain on Central European time when technically it was much better suited for Greenwich Mean Time. Already late dinner times were pushed one hour later. The sun rose one hour later in the mornings, and in turn, the midday siesta took on even more significance. Even with calls to change the clocks back, this war-time decision still influences the unique timing of meals all around the country.
Habitualized night owls, the Spanish come alive at night. With lively streets, tables of outdoor dining, and jam-packed bars, Spain is a treat for the senses when the sun goes down. To get yourself started, opt for an ‘aperitivo’ of sweet vermouth. This fortified white wine flavored with herbs and spices is a great way to get your appetite moving. Snack on salty olives or crunchy potato chips to wash down the sweet herbal concoction.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, it’s time to chart your course for the rest of the night with an important decision: sitting or standing. To sit, the option most of us are used to, grab a table at one of the many popular restaurants in town and indulge in local seafood, divine cured meats, cheeses, stews, and more. For a dish to soak up the day’s alcohol, opt for ‘huevos rotos,’ an indulgent combo of fried eggs and jamón atop fried potatoes.
Alternatively, take to your feet and embark on a tapas crawl for dinner, visiting multiple small establishments and standing at the bar to have a drink and a small bite. The tapas culture can vary somewhat drastically depending on where you are in Spain. In some regions, like in Granada, tapas are always a free treat provided with the purchase of a drink. Sometimes these can be simple bites made from local ingredients, but other times they can be full-flung masterpieces. In some other areas, like in the Basque Country, tapas are available for purchase at each bar and usually come on a slice of bread. These are referred to as ‘pintxos.’
As you can see, tapas culture can be as complicated as the mealtime schedule itself. Regardless, there’s one tip that can help you whenever you find yourself in Spain: follow the paper napkins! Like breadcrumbs along a trail, the amount of crumbled napkins on the bar floor is usually a good sign to the Spanish. Instead of symbolizing a messy hole-in-the-wall, a bar full of rolled-up napkins says that the establishment has been graced with heavy foot traffic and is putting out fast and fresh food.
After you’ve visited a few tapas bars, it’s time to end your crawl before you do just that: crawl your way home. Besides, the earlier you get to sleep, the earlier you get to wake up and do it all again. Luckily in Spain, the tastiest meal of your life is never more than a couple of hours away.
Do you have any other tips on how to eat like a local in Spain? We’d love to hear them- add them in the comments!