Identifying the best Spanish tapas is of course an impossible task, but pointing to some favorites is marginally easier.
There isn’t a corner of Spain without its tapas, from the more traditional to the truly local and specific.
But first, exactly what is tapas in Spain? Simple. They’re little bite-sized portions of food you pick at while you’re having a drink in a bar. If they’re larger than one or two bites, it is no longer a tapa but a ración, or portion.
If you’re wondering where to find tapas, just head for any sign that says ‘Bar’. Most bars have them. Some restaurants do too, but not in the same way – you might be able to get one or two but you likely won’t be able to pick and choose from a wide variety as you would in a bar.
Going out to eat tapas, or ir de tapeo, as Spaniards say, is a quintessentially national pastime. As a teenager growing up in Madrid, I would meet my friends in a tapas bar after school, have a few, and move on. (Tapas are typical after-school snacks in Spain.) As young adults, we just stayed out later but the practice of the tape didn’t change.
Lunch is a giant meal in Spain but often, supper is skipped in favor of tapas appetizers because after you’ve had half a dozen, there isn’t much room left for a late meal. You can eat tapas at any time of day, but the best time is early evening after your day is done and before going home. And if you’re wondering how to eat tapas, you usually pick them up with your fingers, especially if they’re on break, but if they’re wet or creamy, don’t worry, the utensil will show up right alongside the tapa!
From Galicia in Spain’s northwest to its southeastern corner in Almeria, you’ll be eating tapas all day long if you let yourself.
Let’s take a brief clockwise trip around the country and do what the Spanish do – hop from one “bar de tapas” bar to the next.
What are tapas in Spain, and where did tapas originate?
No one really knows the history of tapas. Some say they came from placing a piece of bread over a drink to keep out the flies (tapa means both ‘lid’ and ‘to cover’ in Spanish).
Other legends date tapas back to either King Alfonso X or XIII so… how did tapas originate? Who knows!
What is undeniable is that tapas have taken the world by storm.
Back in my Spanish tapas bar days, we had a dozen or so traditional tapas and you’d find them everywhere, along with a few regional specialties.
Today, many of the best Spanish tapas would have been unrecognizable a few decades ago, made as they are with ingredients from all corners of the world.
And finally, if you still feel you need a tapas definition, think of them as bite-sized morsels, usually on a plate (or, in northern Spain, known as pintxos and served on a chunk of bread with a toothpick holding it together) – but beyond that, almost anything edible that’s sold at a bar in Spain can be considered a tapa.
And now, let’s begin our tapas tour of Spain.
Seaside tapas of Northern Spain
Up in Spain’s northwest, in the wild and less-touristed region just above Portugal, lies the province of Galicia, a perfect place to start our tapas tour.
Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is known, of course, as the endpoint of the Camino, where pilgrims converge after weeks or months of walking across Europe. It is also known as one of the best tapas destinations in Spain.
A typical Santiago tapas bar is filled to the brim with Spaniards, tourists, pilgrims, and a mixture of classical and modern tapas. I’m a classical girl myself: give me a pintxo of local ham, a deep-fried chicken croquette, a slice of tortilla española (Spanish omelet), or a plate of steamed or sautéed seafood and you’ve bought me for life.
Plenty of large bars cater to visitors and provide every kind of tapa imaginable. The smaller bars do the same. They may have less variety, but they make up for it in succulence. I tried to go wrong in Santiago by walking into overcrowded, badly lit, or smelly tapas bars, looking for tapas I wouldn’t like.
Heading South, looking for things to do in Pontevedra could lead you straight to this proposal from chef Rubén González Vallejo of El Cafetín: smoked carballolaurel scallop on algae rice. Perfect in design, it is equally delectable, redolent with the sea flavors Galicia is so famous for.
In fact, this tapa is so good both professional and public juries acclaimed it over seven competing tapas from other Galician cities at the 2018 Gala Show Cooking in Santiago de Compostela.
You could also try El Cafetin’s tasting menu. Grilled Ons Island octopus, carpaccio of scallops with lemon spherifications, cod with sweet onions, cow steak, and chocolate coolant are just a few of the perfect dishes offered by this eatery located right in the Plaza de España, on Rúa Alameda.
Another of the underrated corners of northern Spain is Oviedo, in the province of Asturias, not too far from Galicia.
Here, the place to be is Cider Street, with its quaint restaurants and waiters who serve cider from on high with arms outstretched (it aerates the drink properly).
Sometimes, simple is best. Of course, you’ll find plenty of original tapas all around town but you’ll also be drawn to the city’s excellent traditional Spanish tapas, possibly the most traditional of which is the Spanish omelet, or tortilla Española, a potato omelet (with or without onion) served on or with some crusty bread. For one of the best, head to Tierra Astur on Cider Street. This is definitely one of those tapas you should try…
The Great Tortilla Debate
I was brought up in Spain and love its food, so it’s probably no surprise to find me embroiled in a major culinary controversy.
Tortilla is the quintessential Spanish tapa, the perfect all-around snack food, as ubiquitous in Spain as a burger in America.
But there is a hotly debated issue among tortilla aficionados: to add onion or not to add onion.
Personally, I am a cellist. An onion-lover.
When I was offered the opportunity to spend half a day cooking at BCN Kitchen in Barcelona, I strategically positioned myself at the tortilla end of the table and learned to make the perfect Spanish tortilla.
“You don’t cut the potatoes, you cut into them with the knife and snap the rest off with a flick of the wrist,” our chef Alvaro Brun explained patiently.
I also found out that you don’t pan fry potatoes but deep fry them. You caramelize the onions without sugar and don’t add salt until the end to avoid releasing water. And you add twice as many eggs as I thought. No wonder mine always came out stodgy and stiff.
Alvaro is the perfect teacher. A Basque by birth and a Catalan by adoption, he has worked in the kitchen since his mother first taught him to cook.
Alongside the onion debate, you’ll find an equally crucial Tortilla Texture Controversy, which to some aficionados is just as important.
It goes like this: do you like your tortilla well-cooked and firm, or do you prefer it babosa, runny?
Tempers can flare during this discussion, and when ordering a tortilla from scratch, a picky eater will go to great lengths to explain just how her tortilla should be cooked.
In the end, the only guarantee of a perfect tortilla is… the one you make yourself.
Just remember, it’s all in the wrist: the cutting, the whipping, and eventually the flipping over onto the plate.
Get that flick wrong and your tortilla will splatter unceremoniously all over the floor. I know this for a fact.
Heading eastward you’ll reach San Sebastián, undoubtedly one of the nicest places to visit in the Basque Country. Here, pintxos reign rather than tapas and have been taken to a whole new level: going around town to eat pintxos is a culinary and cultural experience that should not be missed.
Ganbara is one of the best pintxos places in town and if you eat meat, don’t miss out on lomito, a small piece of the most mouthwatering, melt-in-your-mouth beef, salted, peppered, and barbecued to perfection and placed on a small slice of local, delicious bread. It may not be the cheapest or the most filling bite in town, but it is one of those most worth trying.
Another perfect pintxo place in San Sebastián is La Cuchara de San Telmo, so popular you’ll probably have to stand in line.
Despite its popularity, it is hard to find. Look for the Museum San Telmo, go around the corner and you will see the small terrace at 31 Agosto 28 bajos. Try to grab one of the outdoor seats but if you fail, you can always stand at the bar – there are no seats inside.
According to World Wide Wendy, you mustn’t leave without trying the navajas, or razor clams, which are cooked to perfection with just a hint of dill. (Her next suggestion is to try the pig cheeks!)
Navaja means knife in Spanish, and these are obviously razor clams. But oh so tender, smoky and tart, with a slight rubbery texture that you swallow rather than chew. Purists eat them grilled with a drop of lemon juice but I’m anything but a purist.
My razor clam recipe? Buy a portion of Navajos, sauté them whole in hot olive oil and garlic for one minute, remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and chopped parsley, and suck them out. Repeat.
Heading towards Catalonia
Barcelona and the surrounding Costa Brava are among the most popular destinations in Spain. Of course, you’ll find all the typical Spanish tapas and you can discover them in these excellent and affordable tapas restaurants in Barcelona.
But next to the classics you’ll also find some more original tapas, like this grilled eggplant with goat’s cheese, under the not-easily-pronounced berenjenas a la Brasa con queso de Cabra. Garnished with hazelnut and basil oil, this tapa is a perfect combination of flavors and textures and a nice change from many of the fried tapas. Try it at Mussol Arenas Restaurant on the Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes, 373 in the Les Corts neighborhood, not far from the Camp Nou stadium.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, economic disparity in Barcelona and environs came to a head with violence. In the rough, waterfront La Barceloneta neighborhood, La Cova Fumada (The Smoky Cave) was the meeting point for a lower class, anarchist crowd. They drank heavily, boasted of illegal exploits, hid from the authorities, and traded contraband. From behind the bar came potato and meat croquettes, plated with aioli and blood-red spicy brava sauce in the shape of a bomb: La Bomba tapas. The product was a cheeky tribute to the lit fuses, explosions, and bloodshed outside the door.
La Bomba tapas are still served at La Cova Fumada in newly gentrified surroundings. While today’s anarchists may have gone on to more mundane activities such as residential squatting and educational workshops, La Bomba tapas serve to remind foodies in the know of heady days when revolution was in the air. La Cova Fumada: Career Baluart 56, La Barceloneta. Open at various times depending on the day. No sign out front; point and eat.
A favorite Spanish tapa is pulpo gallego, or octopus, and while it hails from Asturias, these days you’ll find regional tapas across Spain.
This version is delicately cooked and beautifully served. The octopus is boiled for 60-90 minutes, then sliced, sprinkled with salt and paprika, and drizzled with olive oil resulting in tender, meaty chunks of octopus with just the right amount of crunchy salt. Claire Sturzaker of Tales of a Backpacker suggests a side of Catalan bread with tomato and a good glass of white wine.
The bar itself is unassuming from the outside, and would be quite easy to walk past, were it not for the delicious smells and constant chatter drifting out. Hidden away in the maze of the Gothic Quarter, Bar Celta is fun and friendly, and definitely informal. On busy nights you might have to share a table, and there is no menu: simply point at what you want from the tapas available at the bar. Bar Celta Pulperia is on Carrer de Simó Oller, 3.
Less visited but at least as enchanting as Barcelona is the smaller city of Girona, which has excellent Catalan cuisine and prides itself on its tapas (it used to host a yearly tapa contest for restaurants). But, in fact, the best tapa in Girona may actually be a Basque-style pintxo.
For some of the best pintxos in town, head to Zanpanzar. While you’ll always find a great selection of pintxos on the bar, the best are those that are made to order. For a real treat, try this one: of Spanish cured ham, or jamón, on top of a slice of bread, topped with seared foie gras and a grilled prawn. It’s a heart-stopper, but so worth it, especially when washed down with a cold cider. Zanpanzar is on Carrer de la Cort Reial in the center of Barri Vell, or Girona’s Old Town.
Despite Girona’s sophistication, you can also go to the other extreme – the simplest: Catalan tomato bread. In Catalonia it’s known as pa amb tomaquet and in the rest of Spain it’s called pan con tomate.
Like all great food, it was invented as a way to extend the life of food. Stale bread is brought back to life by toasting it, rubbing a bit of garlic on it and topping it with grated tomato and quality salt.
You can get this all over Girona for free when you order a drink. Sometimes they’ll also top it with a piece of jamón or something else but on its own it is delicious. Konig is a chain of restaurants in Girona, nothing fancy, cheap, and cheerful and on Independence Square, it has an outdoor patio to enjoy the autumn sun. Perhaps you can try the pa amb tomate recipe yourself, or simply wander down to Konig at Plaça de la Independència, 2 in Girona.
Continuing our tour around Catalonia and along the highly-visited coast, restaurant owners know what visitors want. Popular here is the simple but delicious gambas al ajillo, or prawns (shrimp) with garlic. Your nostrils will usually lead the way to a bar that serves this so incredibly simple yet flavorful dish. And of course, you’ll mop up all that garlicky olive oil with a crust of bread.
The town of Sitges loves its seafood so much it’s hard to choose the most outstanding gambas. Noel Morata of Travel Photo Discovery says you’ll find some of the best tapas in Sitges at El Pou, El Cable, and El Trull, iconic restaurants that serve the best tapas in town, gambas al ajillo included.
As you leave Catalunya (as Catalonia is called here) and head generally southward, you may take a side trip to one of Spain’s truly underrated cities: Zaragoza, about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona.
Huevos Republicanos, which translates as Republican Eggs, is a three-layer tapa popular in the city of Zaragoza because its colors highlight the stripes of Zaragoza’s own provincial flag
A puree of potato and red cabbage makes up the bottom purple layer. Stacked on top is a yellow omelet. The final layer of red, sautéed, and seasoned tomatoes are topped with chunks of Serrano ham. Served in a glass jar and eaten with a spoon, this tri-color treat is delicious — and to some, oddly patriotic. Try this signature dish at La Republicana, whose homey décor feels more like visiting an eccentric aunt than a restaurant. The hand-drawn menu only adds to the charm. You’ll find it at Calle Casto Méndez Núñez, 38.
Following the coast to the South
South of Catalunya, following the coast, we reach Valencia, a coastal city which is becoming increasingly popular.
One of the most typical and beloved tapas of Valencia are clóchinas, slightly smaller than the regular mussels you find throughout Spain. Known as the Mediterranean mussel, it is only be found in the seawaters around Valencia. Its flavor is more intense precisely because of the high concentration of salt in the Mediterranean.
Brogan Abroad says you’ll find these and some of the best tapas in Valencia’s Old town in Bar La Pilareta, in the Barrio del Carmen in Valencia’s Old Town. Bar La Pilareta is a turn of the 20th century establishment that still displays the original tiles, lamp fittings, and an impressive wooden bar of the era. It is also known as ‘Casa de las Clóchinas’ (House of the Clóchinas), so there is no better place to try them.
They are steamed in saltwater with a little bit of garlic and paprika and served with bread. It couldn’t be simpler.
In Spain’s deepest southern corner lies Almeria, once a backdrop for spaghetti westerns and still a location for many adventure films today, and even longer ago, the largest Moorish port in Andalucia.
But today we’re discovering its tapas, and especially some outstanding fusion tapas like tataki de atún, tuna that is lightly seared before being sliced, leaving it cooked around the edge but with raw tuna in the middle. It’s usually served with sesame seeds and some kind of sauce made of soy, a teriyaki-style sauce, or even with Salmorejo! Sides can also include a small seaweed salad.
In Almería, you may also be handed a list of free tapas, although if the tapa is particularly large or has more expensive ingredients, there may be a small additional cost. You’ll taste this delicacy at Cafe Cyrano, one of Almeria’s top places to eat, although you will find it elsewhere too.
Andalucía, where the sun shines almost every day
Sometimes, tapas from one region will be successfully transplanted to another. Take pimientos de Padron, peppers which originated in Galicia (and to my mind one of the best tapas in Spain). They are roasted and served with a tiny rivulet of olive oil and some crusty salt.
Once I sampled my first plate of pimientos de Padrón in Santiago, there was no turning back.
I’d heard of them but never tasted them, and for years I thought the name meant ‘peppers of the boss’ (padrón means boss in Spanish). It doesn’t. Padrón is actually a small town in Galicia, Spain’s northwesternmost province. I didn’t make it to Padrón the village, but I certainly had a number of encounters with its namesake.
The perfect pimiento de Padrón is piping hot, slightly crunchy on the outside, with a few burn marks and a sprinkling of thick sea salt. They’re so easy to prepare: wash, dry, toss in olive oil and crunch away.
While green peppers are supposed to cause indigestion, I’m obviously immune. A daily plate for a week did nothing to weaken my sturdy constitution or my hunger. Interestingly, while these peppers tend to be sweet, they can on occasion be hot and spicy, and that’s part of the fun: you never know how hot – if at all – until you take that first bite.
If you happen to be in Sevilla and are desperate for some Galician peppers but unable to cross the entire country, The RTW Guys recommend the landmark Casa Paco restaurant (everything else is delicious too). Try it as a tapa, but if you need a larger serving, ask for a ración, a larger plate. Or if you want something a bit more sophisticated, have your pimientos stuffed with cod. For a wine suggestion, try the Carramimbre Roble, a blend of Tinto de Pais and Cabernet Sauvignon.
You’ll find Casa Paco in Seville’s Alameda de Hercules square (or precisely at Alameda de Hércules, 23). Completed in 1574, La Alameda is the oldest public square in Spain and is also the heart of Seville’s gay neighborhood and nightlife in general.
One of Spain’s quintessential tapas is the croqueta, or croquette. It’s basically a deep-fried ball of bechamel sauce, often (though not always) bound with cheese and featuring a range of stuffings, from chicken to tuna to ham. They are much beloved and as I child I clamored for them from the kitchen.
Sevilla probably has as many tapas bars as inhabitants and Andalucia is one of the few regions where you might still get a free tapa or two with your drink. According to Nicole Labarge of Travelgal Nicole, the ham croquettes at Bar Catalina are superb, made in this case with potato, salty cheese, and ham. No freebies here though – you’ll be handed a menu with a mouthwatering list. Just head to Paseo Catalina de Ribera No. 4.
Granada, like Sevilla, is also a city where you might find free tapas with your drink, which makes dining out an affordable luxury. A tapas favorite of Long Haul Trekkers is El Fermentador, located near the Plaza de Toros, away from the packed tourist restaurants on a quiet street. But given the number of visitors to the city, the bar is well-versed in dietary concerns, so finding a vegan tapa is no problem.
A classic and perennial favorite is champiñones, or mushrooms, in this case button mushrooms sauteed in olive oil (of course!), seasoned with a variety of herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary. They are cooked just long enough so that the juices release to create a quick mushroom broth, but one that doesn’t leave the dish soupy or drowning in liquid.
(Of course, this signature dish can be found throughout Spain, and if you happen to be headed to Madrid, when you’re in the Old Town where the Calle de Cuchilleros changes its name to the Calle Cava de San Miguel, make sure you stop at the Meson del Champiñon or House of the Mushroom. According to Tom Bartel of Travel Past 50, the mushrooms there are flash grilled in oil with a tiny bit of chorizo sausage in the cap and served hot off the grill with two toothpicks stuck in each one. Sounds divine.)
Canary Islands – still in Spain
They may not be part of the mainland, but the Canary Islands are an integral part of Spain – and of course, share many of its culinary traditions. In Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, try papas arrugadas con mojo, which literally translates to “wrinkly potatoes with mojo”. The name relates to the fact that the potatoes are baked in their skins until they shrivel up and become wrinkly (arrugada). They are then served with the delicious spicy “mojo” sauce, which is made from olive oil, salt, water, peppers, garlic, and a mix of spices like paprika, cumin, and coriander.
According to the Nomadic Boys, a perfect place for these and other local Spanish food is the unassuming but friendly and delicious Restaurante de Cuchara on Calle Alfredo L Jones 37.
Puerto de la Cruz
The Canaries haven’t escaped Spain’s addiction to octopus and while there are many different ways of cooking this, as we’ve already seen, eating it in a salad is wonderful when the weather is hot and you need something fresh.
Ensalada de polpo is an elegant salad of boiled octopus that has been cooled, chopped into bite-sized pieces, and stirred into crunchy salad vegetables such as red onions, different-colored bell peppers, and drizzled with a basic vinaigrette.
You’ll find this refreshing tapa at Brunelli’s, a restaurant in Puerto de la Cruz on the island of Tenerife at Calle Bencome, 42 in Punta Brava.
I lived in Spain for a large part of my childhood and my taste buds haven’t lost an ounce of their recall power.
Ensaladilla was one of my favorite tapas and I still make it today: cut cooked potatoes into cubes, let cool, add a tin of mixed carrots and peas, another of tuna, add in a chopped hard-boiled egg, scoop in abundant mayonnaise, add salt and mix.
Some people add olives but I think they overpower the delicate tuna taste. Break off the end of a baguette (yes, we did have them in Spain – they were just a little crunchier), slather with ensaladilla, and attack.
Don’t be fooled by all the Spanish ingredients: its name translates to ‘Russian salad’ and with reason; it originally came from Moscow but the Spaniards, as they do with all things they love, have adopted it and made it quintessentially Spanish.
I can always make room for Spanish tapas. They’re delicious, of course, but they also take me back to a carefree time when choosing which one to eat was perhaps the biggest decision I would face that day. It’s called childhood.
What are the best tapas in Madrid?
As you’ve seen, each region has specialties but… some of the best tapas in Spain are to be found in Madrid! (Yes, I am totally biased.) Here are six Madrid tapas bars you should try on your next trip.
Among the favorite tapas in Madrid, you’ll find croquetas (ham, chicken, or fish), tortillas, patatas bravas… all the classics.
And the best tapas bar in Madrid? An impossible question! But you’ll find some of the best Madrid tapas in the following neighborhoods:
- La Latina, of course, part of Madrid’s oldest district
- Lavapiés, a working-class neighborhood with a good cultural mix
- Malasaña, right downtown off the Gran Vía
- Tetuán, off the tourist circuit where only locals go
- Las Ventas, near the bullfighting ring
— Originally published on 15 September 2018