Spain is so rich with regional diversity that each city can feel like you're in a different country. And this applies especially to food.
Regional specialities vary wildly around Spain. And even the eating culture can be quite different, especially with the region or city's approach to tapas.
How Does Spanish Cuisine Vary Around the Country?
Spain has a lot of coastline, but also a lot of cities that are nowhere near the sea. Until rail (and later air travel) brought express fish deliveries to Madrid, central Spain's cuisine was dominated by meat, not seafood.
Even among seafood, you have a big difference between the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. Fish from the warmer Med is best deep fried, while cold water fish in the north of the country tend to be cooked 'a la plancha', on the hot plate.
And it's not just the use of fish and meat that varies around Spain. The east coast of Spain is most famous for its rice dishes (not just paella), the Basque Country is known for its inventive pintxos and steaks while Andalusia has a whole host of local specialities, such as gazpacho and migas.
To tapear or not to tapear?
Tapas is intrinsic to the world's perception of Spanish culture. But tapas varies hugely throughout the country: in some cities, it is virtually unheard of, while in others it has risen to a gourmet high art and in a select few you get given food for free!
In this list you'll find my advice on what - and how - to eat in each of Spain's most popular cities.
Catalan Cuisine in Barcelona
Barcelona is a, shall we say, difficult place to eat in, particularly for a visitor to the city. Many of the best places have closed down over the years to be replaced by tourist joints that aim to make a quick buck at the expense of good quality, knowing you'll likely never come back.
But if you do find a good traditional restaurant in Barcelona, such as La Cova Fumada in Barceloneta, what should you eat? What is traditional Catalan as opposed to Spanish cuisine?
Traditional Catalan Dishes
Pan con tomate (tomato-covered bread), calçots (a type of spring onion or scallion) and sausages (cured and not cured) are all popular in Catalonia.
In the picture above you see a few popular dishes: esqueixada (salted cod), artichokes, botifarra (more like sausage meat as you might have in the UK or Germany than the cured chorizo you expect in Spanish cuisine) and squid in the background, all washed down with vermouth!
Taking its cue from French cooking, Catalan cuisine also has a strong emphasis on sauces.
Tapas Culture in Barcelona
Barcelona doesn't really have a tapas culture in the truest sense of the word: a very small serving of food to be eaten with your drink.
However, raciones, basically large tapas intended to be shared, are common and, if you're eating in a group, indistinguishable from the classic small bites idea. The good tapas tours in Barcelona (such as Food Lovers Company), are really offering you raciones. But that's fine: in fact, it's better than you'll eat at most centrally located tapas bars that cater for tourists and mass tour groups and are avoided by the locals.
So What's Eating in Barcelona Like?
Despite what the tiresomely parochial Catalan nationalists claim, there isn't any difference between how the Catalans and the Spanish eat. It tends to be raciones and menus del dia like in the rest of the Spain, with a lower emphasis on tapas.
Whatever you order, don't forget to get a portion of pan con tomate with it!
Man vs Food in Madrid
As with most capital cities, it's possible to find almost any kind of cuisine in Madrid.
Traditional Madrid Dishes
What you should go for is anything with 'Madrileña' or 'Madrileño' in the name. Callos a la Madrileña is one, but it's tripe. I'm not trying to be insulting, it actually is pig intestines.
Alternatively, Cocido Madrileño is the ultimate man vs food challenge. It's a silly amount of food. The picture above, at Malacatin in La Latina, is for one person. (Don't worry, any waste is given to a local charity).
Another dish to seek out is the bocadillo de calamares, which is fried calamari squid rings served in a baguette. The most famous place to get it is at El Brillante in front of Atocha train station.
What's Tapas Like in Madrid?
Madrid has a tapas culture that, though not as ubiquitous as in Seville or San Sebastian, is very strong. This means that while there are lots and lots of good tapas bars, you can't walk into just any restaurant and expect to get tapas. Many restaurants are more about menus del dia at lunch time and raciones at night.
How to Eat in Madrid
Try the full gamut of Spanish food in the capital! This means going for menus del dia at lunch time and tapas or sit-down meals with shared raciones in the evening. You could head to a paella restaurant, you could try Asturian food and cider, or whatever takes your fancy. In Madrid, the world is your oyster! (And there are good oysters too.)
Modern Tapas Culture in Seville
Welcome to the land of tapas!
What is Tapas Like in Seville?
Seville is full of fantastic tapas bars where the culture of grabbing a small bite over a glass of wine or beer and then moving on to the next bar is at its strongest.
Tapas bars in Seville vary greatly. In some, the tapas comes a close close to those of San Sebastian and Logroño in terms of flamboyance and intricacy of preparation. In others, the dishes are classic peasant food like grandma used to make.
How to Eat in Seville
It's all about the tapas!
Order a dish at a time and stand at the bar for the best experience (some places won't let you sit down unless you're ordering full meals). Unlike in Granada, you're not obliged to get a drink with every tapa - you pay for your tapas individually.
To truly tapear (go for tapas), don't stay in one place but bar hop instead.
Note that a menu of 'montaditos' means that the dish is a filled small bread roll. These will often be slightly cheaper and more filling than normal tapas, but you're really just stuffing yourself with bread.
Where are the Best Tapas Bars in Seville?
There are tapas bars throughout the city, but to get the best experience, head for one of the streets or plazas with a large number of tapas bars. Paseo de Catalina de Ribera and Plaza los Terceros are my favorite two tapas spots in Seville.
Traditional Seville Dishes
Seville food is classic Andalusian fare. So expect gazpacho and its thicker cousin, salmorejo, particularly in the summer, as well as lots of fried fish. Solomillo, a cut of pork steak, is very common, particularly covered in a sauce of whiskey or roquefort.
Paella and Other Rice Dishes in Valencia and Alicante
Sample Spain's most famous rice dish at its birthplace - but try the others too!
Paella and other Rice Dishes in Valencia
There is a whole world of rice dishes in Spain, particularly on the east coast, of which paella is the most famous.
My advice is to go for paella valenciana, the original meat-and-vegetables paella (I bet you thought seafood was the original, right?)
But there is a lot more to rice dishes in Spain than simply paella. There are also 'sticky' and 'soupy' versions (meloso and caldoso) variants too.
Where to Eat Paella in Valencia
Paella is available all over Valencia and Alicante. There are countless lists of the best paella in each city. I've tried a few restaurants from those lists and can't say there's a big difference between those that have the marketing power to appear on them and those which don't.
Hotel Hospes Palau de la Mar came second in an international paella competition, so that's one that's worth trying. Also, the numerous restaurants around the central market can be depended on to make consistently good paellas with ingredients bought fresh every day.
Tapas in Valencia
There is virtually no tapas culture in Valencia at all.
Get What You're Given in Granada
Another kind of tapas...
What is Tapas Like in Granada?
Tapas in Seville and San Sebastian (see the previous pages) is about well prepared, small dishes that can look like a course at a top class hotel. Tapas in Granada is a different affair. Every tapa in Granada comes for free. This means the plates can't be as extravagant as in Seville, but don't expect you'll just be getting olives or a slice of ham. I've had giant prawns, paella, deep-fried dogfish and stew, as in the photo above.
How Should You Eat in Granada?
Go for tapas!
It's best in Granada if you, firstly, are not fussy when it comes to what you eat and, secondly, have a good appetite for alcohol.
Usually, you get what you're given in a tapas bar in Granada: either the bar will give you whatever is fresh from the kitchen, or they'll have a system where you get bigger and better dishes the more rounds of drinks you buy. But a lot of the younger bars are starting to have a menu you can choose your dish from, so look around for a chalkboard when you walk in. If there are no prices, everything you see comes for free (with your drink order).
To keep your alcohol consumption down, order a caña (the smallest beer size, usually around 200ml or around 6oz) or a tinto de verano (half red wine and half sparkling lemon).
Traditional Dishes in Granada
Granada's cuisine is classic Spanish, with fish and seafood, rice dishes and stews. The local jamon, from the Alpujarras mountain range, is particularly good.
Pintxos in San Sebastian
Spain's most cutting-edge city for tapas.
Traditional Dishes in San Sebastian
You don't eat in San Sebastian for 'tradition'. Basque chefs pride themselves on inventive uses of ingredients, mixing sweet and savoury, local and exotic, to make gourmet morsels of food at a fraction of the price you'd expect.
What is Tapas Like in San Sebastian?
First off, they're not called tapas here, but 'pintxos' (it's a local nationalism thing).
Pintxos come in two styles in San Sebastian: the classic Basque bar-top pintxos (see the picture above) and freshly cooked little dishes ordered from the menu.
Wash it down with red wines from nearby La Rioja or locally produced Txakoli whites.
How to Eat in San Sebastian
Make sure you have at least one afternoon or evening of pintxos. The old downtown, particularly around the street Calle 31 de Agosto is the best place to go.
But San Sebastian food is not just about pintxos. It also has the highest concentration of Michelin stars of anywhere in the world (per capita). Plus, there are the Basque Cider Houses (see later in this article).
Fried Fish in Cadiz
Cadiz is fried fish heaven!
Traditional Dishes in Cadiz
In Cadiz, it's all about the fish: usually deep fried. You will get all sorts of fried fish all over the city, including cazon en adobo (dogfish in a vinegar batter and my personal favourite), bacalao (cod), gambas (shrimps) and huevas (fish roe, which I personally think tastes horrible when deep-fried).
What are Tapas Like in Cadiz?
The availability of tapas per se, as portions for one, vary wildly. In some places they will do you small portions, in many others you'll need to order raciones, not great if you are traveling alone.
How to Eat in Cadiz
If you don't know which fish might be your favourite, head to Freiduria Las Flores in Plaza Topete (also known as Plaza Las Flores) or their sister establishment on Calle Brasil, and ask for an assortment, or point to the ones that appeal most, as it is all served up to you from a British-style enclosed glass warmer.
For a sit-down meal with friends, visit Calle Virgen de la Palma, a fantastic tree-lined street in the Viña part of town, where every restaurant has tables outside and you can sample all sorts of fried fish.
If you'd like something that's not fried, check out Taberna La Bombilla, a fish restaurant next to the market. Though they have a full menu, their unadvertised specialty is the fact they will cook anything for you that you've bought yourself from the market!
And if you don't like fish, well, um, I can't help you, I'm afraid. Have you heard of McDonalds...?
Go for lunch and Cadiz and then make the trip to nearby Jerez for the evening, where you can try sherry in the city it was invented, in the most wonderful vintage bars you'll find anywhere in the world. Read more about Where to Drink Sherry in Jerez.
Hearty Meals in Segovia
Segovia is a long way from the sea (and doesn't benefit from the twice-daily flights of fresh fish to Madrid) so the diet here is heavy on the meat.
Classic Dishes in Segovia
The signature dish in Segovia is cochinillo asado - roast suckling pig. If you don't manage to get it at El Botin in Madrid, get it in Segovia.
Cochinillo takes nearly three hours to cook, which means a restaurant needs to know they will have diners who will order it when they put it in the oven in the morning. Only order cochinillo asado at restaurants that are known for it, such as at Restaurante Claustro de San Antonio El Real or Mesón de Cándido.
The classic three-course meal of Segovia starts with Judiones de la Granja, a stew/soup of white beans and various pork cuts, in a similar vein to Asturian Fabada. If you're not full after your cochinillo, try ponche segoviano, a dense sponge and cream dessert .
This meal is included on this Segovia Food and Wine Guided Tour from Madrid.
What's Tapas Like in Segovia?
Surprisingly good. A free tapa with your drink is common in many bars in the city. La Tasquina in Segovia's old town is one of the best free-tapas places I've ever been to.
Something gourmet in Logroño
The new king of tapas in Spain?
Traditional Dishes in Logroño
Logroño has adopted San Sebastian's inventive gourmet style, so there aren't really traditional dishes here.
What's Tapas Like in Logroño?
In the past five years or so, Logroño has risen to be a genuine contender for best tapas city in Spain, perhaps even beating San Sebastian to the number one spot.
Seafood Fresh from the Atlantic in Santiago de Compostela
Seafood in the north of Spain is less focussed on frying the heck out of everything.
What to Eat in Santiago de Compostela
Seafood in general is the order of the day in Santiago, with pulpo a la gallega - Galician-style octopus - as the quintessential dish everyone has to try.
I don't think I've met anyone who expected to like the unusual texture of boiled octopus - nor have I met anyone who, once they'd tried it, didn't enjoy it in the end. When the octopus is this fresh, and cooked by chefs with such experience, it is always fantastic.
Other dishes worth checking out is tetilla, a local cheese, and pimientos del padrón (small peppers from Padron).
Tapas in Santiago de Compostela
Restaurants with a bar area in the old town often give you small bites to eat with your drink. You'll need quite a light appetite to get your fill from these bites (or a desire to drink quite a bit!). Check out the bars on Rua do Franco and Rua Nova. La Tita is famous for its tortilla.
Espeto de Sardinas in Malaga
Another south coast city and another place known for its fish.
Classic Dishes in Malaga
Malaga can't quite compete with Cadiz in the quality of its fried fish, but it does have a signature dish that you won't find elsewhere: the espeto de sardinas.
A skewer of fresh sardines barbecued in an an old fishing boat, this dish is not only tasty but a great photo opportunity as you walk along the beach on a sunny Andalusian afternoon.
What's Tapas Like in Malaga?
In the center of Malaga, pretty much all you'll get is fried fish. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of restaurants selling freshly prepared pescado frito. They might have salad too(!)
Portions are not really tapas size, but 'raciones' and 'media raciones' (servings and half servings) which mean you'll eat much better if you can get a large number of you to order several dishes and share them all.
Steak and Cider in Astigarraga, San Sebastian
Yes, San Sebastian has already featured in this list, but the oft-proclaimed gastronomical capital of Europe deserves two appearances.
The town of Astigarraga just outside San Sebastian is home to sagardotegi, cider houses where you get your cider from a giant barrel and eat copious amounts of chargrilled steak.
You'll need your own transport to get to these restaurants (they're a short drive outside of San Sebastian) and someone to make a reservation for you (English-speaking staff cannot be guaranteed).
Roast Lamb in Aranda de Duero
A meat not normally associated with Spain.
Traditional Dishes in Aranda de Duero
Usually, when one thinks of Spain, they also think of copious amounts of pork. But in much of Castilla, roast lamb (cordero) is the most highly regarded dish.
Aranda de Duero is a small city most known for its wine production. El Lagar de Isilla, a local winery, also owns a restaurant in the city that is famous for its lamb.
Make sure you ask them to let you into the underground wine cellars, a labyrinth of tunnels that criss-cross the entire city.
Beans and blue cheese in Oviedo
Oviedo is probably the city with the most unique dishes in the whole country.
Traditional Dishes in Oviedo
You have fabada, a famous bean-and-pork stew, cachopo (a kind of grandiose cordon bleu) and lots of dishes with the local blue cheese, cabrales. Plus, it's the other big area for cider, along with the Basque Country.
What's Tapas Like in Oviedo?
Pretty good! Not as formal as the 'drink-and-a-tapa' system of, say, Granada and Leon, instead you'll just get passed a portion of food when the kitchen has some. Sometimes you'll get a lot, sometimes you won't get anything at all
Tapas in Leon
More free tapas.
What's Tapas Like in Leon?
Everyone knows about the free tapas in Granada. Fewer are aware that the same system of free tapas exists in Leon too.
A little tip: while in most of Spain, one would order a 'caña' as the smallest beer, in Leon there's a size one smaller: a 'corto'. Order this and you'll get the same amount of food but for less money and inebriation.
Traditional Dishes in Leon
Morcilla is black pudding or blood sausage, but served more like a very wet pâté. The texture is not for everyone (nor perhaps the content!) but it is delicious if you can get over the rest of it. Also look out for cecina a cured beef 'ham', much like beef jerky!
A Ridiculous Amount of Meat in Avila
Can you eat it all?
Traditional Dishes in Avila
The main dish in Avila is the Chuleton, a giant beef steak served with a side of chunky chips (fries to some of you).
Yes, it's huge, but it's also tasty (if perhaps also not the leanest meat you'll ever eat). Get it as part of a two-person menú, served with starters of Castilian soup, a bean dish and a mashed potato dish to get the complete Avila experience.
What's Tapas Like in Avila?
I've had little plates of tapas given to me in a few places in Avila (at La Bruja, just outside the city walls, for example) but as most people only come to Avila as a day trip from Madrid, it makes sense to just go for chuleton and have tapas in another city.
Tapas in Ronda
Ronda, far from the maddening crowds up above the Tajo ravine, is an excellent spot for tapas.
What are Tapas Like in Ronda?
Ronda tapas is traditional Andalusian fare. Nothing comes for free here, but prices are low and quality is high.
How to Eat in Ronda
Avoid the touristy squares and eat either just above or just below these areas. There are a few good tapas bars north of the center, around Calle Lorenzo Borrego and Calle Molino (such as Patatin Patatin, La Vina and Bodega Socorro) or south of the center near the Gate of Almocabar and Plaza Ruedo Alameda (such as De Locos Tapas and Casa Maria). This makes it easy to tapear, to bar hop, taking a small beer and a tapa in each location.Traditional Dishes in Ronda
Ronda is in Andalusia, so expect to see a lot of the same dishes you'll see all over the region, as well as some slightly more hearty dishes to help cope with Ronda's harsh winters. Dishes described as 'a la rondeña' are at least being marketed as local. Bean stew, rabo de toro (oxtail), local pumpkins and chestnuts are all popular.
Soak up the Sherry in Jerez
Jerez is a city of drinking, not so much eating.
What is Tapas Like in Jerez?
Tapas is widely available in Jerez, but it tends to be very light bites and is often inappropriately priced.
Traditional Jerez Dishes
You can expect the usual Andalusian cuisine here, including gazpacho and fried fish. In particular, look out for anything that says it involves vino de jerez (sherry) or Pedro Ximénez (the sweetest kind of sherry, often used in sauces).
How to Eat in Jerez
Despite its proximity to Seville, Jerez is not the place to fill yourself up on tapas. Instead, treat tapas in Jerez as something to help absorb some of the alcohol from the fantastic sherry you'll be drinking.
My advice is to eat full meals at good restaurants such as La Taberna del Segura (where dishes are served in shareable raciones) and eat tapas only when you start to feel the sherry is going to your head.