How to eat like a local in Spain
Updated: Feb 2
Headed to Spain soon? Your future self will thank you for prepping ahead of time so you can swap pricey tourist foods for real, authentic Spanish delicacies. I guarantee it will be one of the best parts of your trip.
Having spent years living in Spain (and marrying a Spaniard along the way) I've learned a think or two about the food culture here, and I want to help you get the very most out of your trip.
Here's a look at what we'll cover:
Tip #1: Eat on Spanish time
First and foremost, if you want to learn how to eat in Spain, you've got to know when to eat in Spain.
The Spanish run on a slightly different horario (schedule), and as difficult as it may be, adjusting to their meal times can truly make or break your gastronomic experience.
Here's a typical day of eating in Spain:
Desayuno (breakfast): 8:00- 9:00am
Almuerzo (mid-morning snack): 10:00am-12:00pm
Comida (lunch): 2:00 - 4:00pm
Merienda (afternoon snack): 5:00 - 7:00pm
Cena (dinner): 9:00 - 11:00pm
While you do not need to wait until 10 or 11 pm for dinner, you should know that most restaurants close in the late afternoon and won't even open for dinner until 8:30 pm. So if you're set on eating your last meal of the day before then, you'll likely find yourself dining in a tourist trap.
Tip #2: Sharing is caring
In Spain, it's typical to order several entrantes (appetizers) and raciones to share with the table rather than having a main meal for yourself.
As a traveler, this is a great way to sample all kinds of food. Be sure to ask the waiter approximately how many dishes you should order for your group, as meal portions will vary between restaurants and regions.
Helpful hint: Many restaurants won’t split the bill, so one person will need to pay for the whole table or you'll need to have cash handy.
Tip #3: Eat intentionally
Something I love about the Spanish is that they are incredibly purposeful with food, something we Americans could learn a thing or two about. They believe that food is meant to be enjoyed under optimal circumstances, and they certainly put in the effort to make it happen.
To eat intentionally means to ...slow down. The Spanish are big on taking their time at meals. Typical lunches can last between 2-3 hours, or even longer! Social connection is an important part of their culture, and sharing food is one way they do so.
Not only do the Spanish plan their days around meals, but they are also particular about when and how they enjoy certain meals. For example, they'll reserve certain platos (dishes) for either the winter or summer season, while others are exclusively lunch or dinner meals.
Tip #4: Eat regionally
Paella may be known as the national dish of Spain, but did you know the Spanish typically eat paella in the region of Valencia?
Now, this doesn't mean it's impossible to find good paella in Madrid (though it is unlikely), but for the most authentic gastronomic experience, your best bet is to eat as regionally as possible.
Let's look at a few regions in Spain and the foods they're most known for.
WHAT TO EAT IN MADRID
Madrid is where I've spent most of my time and where I truly learned how to eat in Spain — which could be an entire university course, by the way.
While the city has a very international feel and is full of restaurants from around the world, it's also home to some very traditional, very delicious Madrileño meals.
Cocido is to Madrileño families as chili and football are to Midwesterners.
Typically enjoyed by Spanish families on Sundays during the fall and winter, cocido is a hearty winter stew made with chickpeas, meats, and vegetables. It's a heavy meal that requires a decent amount of preparation and is often followed by a siesta.
If you don't have a Spanish family to spend Sunday with, head to one of the best restaurants in Madrid to eat Cocido.
Cocido Madrileño (Photo credit: Fotero)
Callos a la Madrileña
Another famous winter dish is callos — a stew consisting of beef tripe, chorizo, and blood sausage. You can eat callos in many bars and taverns throughout the city.
Bocadillo de calamares
Bocadillos or bocatas are Spanish sandwiches. But instead of deli meat, lettuce, and tomato, they'll add jamón, cheese, or even fried calamari. Bocadillo de calamares are a crowd favorite in Madrid, despite not the city not being near a beach.
Head to the famous Bar El Brillante in Atocha for their signature bocadillo de calamares or the lesser known Bar Los Pinchitos in Sol.
Chocolate con Churros
If you're in Madrid, you must stop by Chocolateria San Ginés in the center or one of the many churrerías in the city. Can you think of a better afternoon than one spent dipping fried strips of sugary deliciousness in a cup of creamy fudge?
Helpful hint: The chocolate is a little rich for me on its own, so I order a glass of milk to pair with it!
Churros con Chocolate and milk (Photo credit: Haley Harrison)
WHAT TO EAT IN NORTHERN SPAIN
Northern Spain is home to the regions of Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias, Navarra, and the Basque Country. Tourists tend to neglect this part of the country, but if gastronomy is why you're visiting Spain, I advise skipping the big cities and heading north.
Marisco and seafood
The northern towns have historically been fishing villages, and their proximity to the water means they have the best seafood around.
Seafood lovers have a wide array of platos to try such as pulpo (octopus), percebes (barnacles), gambas (shrimp), tellina or coquinas (clams), mejillones (mussels), vieiras (scallops), angulas (baby eel), merluza (hake), bacalao (cod), bueyes de mar (crab).
If you happen to be in Asturias, a glass of cider will go well with any of these dishes.
Tellinas/Coquinas (Photo credit: Haley Harrison)
Pinchos or pintxos
Pinchos are the north's take on Spanish tapas, and you can find thousands of variations.
A gastronomic staple, particularly in the Basque Country, these bite-sized delicacies are bread-based finger foods topped with vegetables, meats, seafood, and more. You can find good pinchos at any bar throughout the northern region of Spain.
Bar of Pinchos (Photo credit: Ryan Sedgwick)
Pulpo a la Gallego
This famous seafood dish is popular throughout Spain but has its roots in the northwestern region of Galicia. Fresh octopus is cut into bite-sized portions, boiled until tender, served with potatoes, and topped with olive oil and paprika.
Most restaurants in the north will serve pulpo a la Gallego, but I think you'll enjoy the dish most at an outdoor restaurant in one of the north's many charming coastal villages.
Pulpo a la Gallego (Photo credit: Haley Harrison)
Pimientos de Padron
Pimientos de Padrón are peppers named for the town where they're grown: Padrón, Galicia. They are served slightly crisped and hot out of the fryer with sal gruesa (coarse or kosher salt.) Most pimientos de Padrón are mild, but occasionally, you might be hit with a spicy surprise!
WHAT TO EAT IN VALENCIA
Most people think of paella as Spain's national dish, but it is traditionally eaten in the Valencian region on the Mediterranean coast.
Paella Valenciana is a rice dish that is cooked in a paellera and typically has chicken, pork, rabbit, green beans, lima beans, garlic, paprika, and saffron. Add a bit of lemon and *chef’s kiss*.
If you ask around, many Valencianos will tell you that true paella can only be made in Valencia. This is because the water in Valencia is high in calcium and credited with giving the rice its unique flavor.
Paella Valenciana (Photo credit: Haley Harrison)
Apart from paella, the Valencian region is home to other arroces (rice dishes).
Arroz Meloso — a risotto-style dish cooked with lobster or crayfish
Arroz al Horno — baked in a cazuela with tomato, morcilla (blood sausage), red pepper, chickpeas, meat, and seasoning
Arroz a Banda— A side dish of plain rice cooked in fish broth and served with aioli.
Arroz del senyoret – Rice with shellfish
Arroz negro – Rice with prawns, squid and squid ink
Arroz al Horno (Photo credit: Haley Harrison )
Nothing says summer in Spain like Valencian horchata.
Officially known as horchata de chufa, the popular drink comes from the chufa plant that grows in southern Europe and several parts of Africa. It can be served cold or as shaved iced.
WHAT TO EAT IN CATALONIA
Catalonia is more than just Barcelona, and whether you’re staying in the city or venturing off the beaten path, you can enjoy some mouthwatering dishes.
Pa amb tomaquet
You can find Pa amb tomaquet on Catalan dining tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Slices of toasted bread are topped with grated tomato, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. The Catalans even grow a special tomato for this staple: tomàquets de penjar.
Calçots are a type of green onion that grows in the city of Valls, south of Barcelona. Catalan families enjoy this dish in the winter by placing the calçots onto the barbeque pit and letting them cook until they are charred and black.
Then, they might dip the vegetable into a tomato-based romesco sauce.
Calçots (Photo credit: Kio LoSa)
Escudella i carn d’olla
This Catalan Christmas meal staple consists of a two-course soup. First comes the savory broth, made by boiling meat, bones, herbs, vegetables, and chickpeas, and then using the broth for cooking thin noodles. This pasta soup is served first in a bowl, then comes the carn d'olla, the second dish of meat and chickpeas.
Botifarra amb Mongetes
Eaten across all of Catalonia, particularly in the mountain region around Vic, is Botifarra (Catalan sausage.) The pork sausage is typically grilled and served with the mongetes (white beans.)
Botifarra amb mongetes (Photo credit: encantadisimo)
WHAT TO EAT IN ANDALUCÍA
Peruse the cobblestone streets of Andalucia while you enjoy the captivating sounds of Flamenco music, lingering signs of Moorish rule, and some excellent cuisine.
Gazpacho and Salmorejo
One of the best ways to cool off during the hot southern summer is with cold soup. Both gazpacho and Salmorejo are tomato-based soups with vinegar, peppers, online, oil, and spices, but the bread added to the mix in Salmorejo makes it thicker and creamier.
You can top off your gazpacho or salmorejo with bits of hard-boiled egg and jamón.
The southern coast is lined with chiringuitos (beach bars) and incredible spots for fried fish. Andalusians love their fried anchovies so much that residents of Málaga are often referred to as boquerones (fried anchovies).
Cazón en adobo
Cazón en adobo starts with marinating dogfish or monkfish in a mix of vinegar, peppers, garlic, oregano, and other spices. The fish is then dipped in flour and fried to perfection. These are bite-sized snacks that are perfect for sharing with the table.
Cazón en Adobo + Shrimp (Photo credit: Haley Harrison )
At this point, you've picked up on the fact that the Spanish love their seafood.
One of the most popular tapas in the south is Chipirones — baby squid. You can typically order chipirones fritos (fried) or chipirones a la plancha (grilled) with spices.
Chipirones (Photo credit: Creusaz)
Hey, I'm Haley!
I'm a freelance copywriter and content marketer from Cincinnati, Ohio. When I'm not writing for my clients, you can find me deep in research for my next adventure, daydreaming on my travel blog, or watching a National Geographic documentary.
Have travel-related questions, or interested in working together? Shoot me an email or DM me on Instagram.