Tapas menu in a traditional bar.

Gastro-tapas – sardines with chilli threads.

You haven’t experienced Spain until you’ve tried tapas. These ingenious, tasty little morsels, enjoyed with a group of friends in a lively bar, allow you to sample life in this colourful country – you can tell a lot about people by the food they eat, and how and where they eat it.

Tapas bars have a buzzy atmosphere, with plenty of lively conversation.

The idea is that each person orders one or two dishes, and you all share. You’ll usually find a wide range of options, from meat and fish to vegetarian – and increasingly, vegan – whether centuries-old recipes, or avant-garde creations. Indeed, it can hard to choose, but the beauty is that you can try a bit of everyone’s. If you don’t like a tapa you ordered, no problem – someone else will eat it, and you can sample theirs. But if, on the other hand, you love one of the little dishes, you can repetir – order it again!

Tapas bars have a buzzy vibe – no reverential hush-hush; the volume in Spain is set to high, with diners discussing the relative merits of their dishes in animated terms. In décor they vary hugely between spit-and-sawdust places, where the décor is traditional and atmospheric (wooden barrel tables and Holy Week posters), and the tapas are classic – pork loin and tortilla; and gastrobars, with slick contemporary décor offering unusual combinations such as tuna with wasabi guacamole and beetroot, or bull’s tail ravioli with parmesan foam.

Always ask about the daily specials, which may be listed on a blackboard, or reeled off verbally (listen carefully, and ask your server to speak more slowly if necessary (“podrias hablar mas despacio por favor?“).

Size (of tapa) matters

In many bars, you can choose between ordering a tapa, media ración (half portion, for two people) or ración (portion, for three to four), although portion sizes vary considerably: a tapa can be anything from a dainty bite to a generous, full plate. Always watch what those at the other tables are eating, so if it looks good, you can ask the waiter – I’ll have what she’s having (roughly translated, “quiero eso“).

You’ll be happy to hear that in the eastern Andalucia provinces of Granada, Jaen and Almería, you get a free tapa with each drink.

Here is a list of our top 10 favourite tapas.  You can pair them with either a beer, or glass of wine, or Sherry – many tapas bars have a decent selection of local wines and craft beers.

LF: lactose-free; GF: gluten-free; V: vegetarian; (V) can be adapted for vegetarians, or versions available; VG: vegan. (Please also check with the bar or restaurant – they’re obliged by law to have a menu which details allergens in each dish.)

Gambas al ajillo – prawns in garlicky olive oil.

Gambas al ajillo LF GF
A spicy dish, this features juicy shrimp cooked in hot olive oil flavoured with garlic, chilli and salt. It’s served sizzling hot to your table in earthenware or metal dish, so take care not to burn your mouth! It’s easy to make at home, with just five ingredients. The most essential part? Crusty bread to soak up that gorgeous oil!

Espinacas con garbanzos LF V VG
Perfect for vegetarians, vegans, lactose and gluten intolerant, this tapa dates back to Seville’s Sephardic Jewish population, who lived in barrio Santa Cruz. It’s a healthy concoction of spinach, chickpeas, olive oil and, cumin – full of fibre, iron and protein. You can find this in most traditional tapas bars; it’s often served with fried bread.

A contemporary version of gazpacho – with beetroot.

Gazpacho LF V VG
Originally made from bread and water, over time this incorporated tomatoes, peppers and cucumber, to make the ultimate refreshing and healthy summer smoothie. All Spanish women keep a container of chilled home-made gazpacho in the fridge during the sweltering summer months – it’s served in tall glasses, like a drink. Another version, ajoblanco, features almonds, more avant garde restaurants might feature a strawberry or beetroot version  on their menu.

Montadito de pringá 
This little sandwich is most carnivores’ idea of heaven. A succulent mix of pork, chorizo or salchichón (pork sausage) and pork fat slow-cooked for hours, it’s tender and juicy and usually prompts noises of pleasure not usually associated with eating. In Seville, classic Bodeguita Romero is the place to try pringá.

Croquetas (V)
Potato croquettes come in every conceivable flavour – black squid ink, pork stew, cheese, mushroom, spinach. Being small, tasty and unscary-looking, these are an excellent option for kids. Most places will serve you a side plate of chips.

Patatas aliolí/bravas V
Another life-saver if you’re travelling with picky-eating kids (and we speak from experience), these little fried cubes of potato will always go down well. They’re usually served with either alioli (garlic mayonnaise) or bravas (spicy) sauce, so be sure to ask for the sauces on the side, to keep all ages and tastes happy.

Traditional tapas bar with hanging hams, which are then carved into wafer-thin slices.

Jamón iberico LF GF
Worshipped throughout Spain (unless you’re a veggie) for its tender, melt-in-the-mouth nuttiness, the Iberian pig (pata negra, or black hoof) has foraged for acorns (bellotas), putting away 6 or 7kg a day, which give it the yellowy skeins of fat containing superfood monounsaturated oleic acid.

Cazón en adobo
Dogfish or shark marinated in vinegar has a sharp bite to it, but its crunchy coating and the soft texture of the fish balances out the acidity. Pair with beer.

 

Salmorejo LF (V)
A thicker, smoother version of gazpacho, originally from Cordoba, made with only tomatoes, bread, olive oil and vinegar, garnished with boiled egg and chopped jamon. These days, you can find Insta-perfect versions made with sweetcorn, squid and avocado– try the Salmoreteca stall at the Lonja de Barranco market in Seville, and the Mercado Victoria in Cordoba.

Mini potato tortillas

Tortilla de patatas V
The ultimate classic Spanish tapa – a potato omelette: filling, nutritious and tasty; perfect late-night after-drinks snack. Should be soft and creamy in the middle. The classic version is plain (with or without onion), but you can also find it with spinach, chorizo and other additions.

A list like this is highly subjective – everyone has their preferred tapas. Do you agree with our choices? Tell us which tapas you can’t resist in the comments below.

Good to know

When you book your trip to Spain with us, you’ll receive our complimentary Spain Savvy destination guides, which include our recommended places to eat.

If you want to find out more about tapas, we can recommend our partners Devour Tours, who offer tapas tours in many Spanish cities.

A great option if you want to learn Spanish while having tapas is our partner LaCasa Sevilla – Cristina offers Tapas Spanish classes in a bar or market in Seville.

For recipes, check out Spanish Sabores by Spain-based American gastro-entrepreneur Lauren Aloise.