Eating Tapas in Spain – Is This Heaven?
I went to Andalucia Spain for the first time when I was 15. I was part of a large group of around 100 teenagers, and we toured many of the great sites in southern Spain for 2 weeks. I was hardly a foodie at 15, so food was not the major focus of travel then like it is for me now. Eating tapas in Spain is a foodie’s dream. During that first trip to Spain however, it was paella and then paella and then more paella. As you can imagine, it was much easier feeding a group of 100 teenagers dishes of paella, rather than several hundred small tapas plates each time our buses pulled into a restaurant. I left Spain that first time pretty tired of paella.
But on my return to Andalucia 40 years later – a confirmed foodie – eating tapas in Spain was a major focus. I now equate travel with food. I seek out great meals with as much attention as I do seeking out great sites and experiences. Having watched the small plates movement take over US restaurants, I was looking forward to finding out what eating tapas authentically in Spain is truly all about.
A Tapas Food Tour
So on our very first day in Seville, we went on a lunchtime tapas food tour. I wanted to learn how to tapear (the Spanish verb for eating tapas) right out of the gate. I found a great tour with a company called With Locals. This company specializes in private tours with local guides in various cities around the world at very reasonable prices. We met our excellent guide Alvaro in Seville’s Triana neighborhood, and he took me & Mrs TT on a 3 hour tapas crawl – three tapas bars, 7 different tapa, and 3 different kinds of Spanish wine.
Put A Lid On It
Alvaro taught us that the word tapa means “lid”. Many centuries ago, the original tapas were pieces of bread or meat served on top of a wine glass, meant to keep out the fruit flies.
Nowadays, tapas are small individual-sized servings of the bar’s menu items. Order a tapas of Artichokes with Shrimp & Jamon, get a small plate of it. Want more? Then order a 1/2 Racion instead and get double the amount. Want even more? Then order a Racion (or Plato) for a large serving.
Alvaro also taught us that the most traditional way of eating tapas is while standing inside at the bar. You can eat at the tables outside, but some places may charge extra for the privilege, and some places may only allow you to order the larger racion if eating outside. (Though through our stay, we never found this to be the case, and almost always ate outside).
And while I had heard that some parts of Andalucia offer a free tapa with each ordered drink, he explained that this long-ago tapas tradition is now mostly limited to Granada. In Seville, you pay for your tapas. But each tapa is quite inexpensive – usually around $3-5 USD.
Our First Tapas
Here’s a look of some of our tapas from that afternoon….
Salmorejo – a thickened and cold Spanish soup made from tomatoes, stale bread, garlic, and olive oil, topped with chunks of boiled egg and Iberian ham. This became my favorite tapa while in Spain. So much so that Mrs. TT gently requested that I stop ordering it.
We had the chance to learn how to make Salmorejo a few days after our tapas tour. You can click here to read about our Spanish Cooking Class in Seville.
Mushrooms with Aioli – this tapa was served alongside glasses of Manzanilla Sherry. Sherry is Spain’s famed fortified wine.
We had the chance later in our trip to learn more about Sherry. You can click here to read about our Bodega tour and Sherry tasting in Jerez de la Frontera – the home of Sherry.
Iberian Ham and Payoyo – here two tapa are served together on one plate. Slices of Iberian Ham, which seemed to be one of the most popular tapas with the locals wherever we subsequently ate. And Payoyo – an aged cheese made from a mix of goat and sheep’s milk.
Pork Sirloin with Mushrooms – Pork Loin served with various kinds of sauces was another very popular tapa on most menus.
First Meal on our Own
Later that evening, it was our first chance to take our newly acquired tapear knowledge and put it to the test. We were staying in the Jewish Quarter of Seville, not far from the Seville Cathedral. Along the streets near the Cathedral, you’ll find a high concentration of tapas bars. We chose this quaint looking place on a side street – Casa Tomate.
Because Alvaro had done all the ordering for us earlier in the day, we hadn’t seen an actual tapas menu yet, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. But, gratefully we had the option for an English version, and ordering turned out to be very easy. Each menu item was available in either the tapa size or the racion size (“plate” on the menu below). We ordered 5 different tapas and shared.
I was too enthralled as each tapa came out of the kitchen to take good photos. The quality and presentation of each far exceeded our expectations for a $4-5 plate of food.
But I did remember to have Mrs. TT snap this one of me enjoying my last fried anchovy (caught fresh that morning our waiter assured us).
We were stuffed after sharing those 5 tapas, plus olives & bread, along with two glasses of wine each. All for only $35. As we walked away, I decided that I had pretty much fallen head over heels in love with Spain already.
Learning to Tapear
Over our month in Seville and other parts of Andalcuia Spain, we became experts at eating tapas. Here’s how our tapas journey evolved:
We found that 4-6 tapas each meal were generally enough to fill the both of us. Though small, there was enough food on each tapas plate for us each to feel satisfied with our portion, and it gave us the chance to try lots of different tapas at each meal.
We usually made it a point to try different tapas and not stick to the same one over and over (well…except salmorejo…sometimes I just needed it). While there are common tapas that show up on every menu throughout the region, every tapas bar offered several unique selections too. Consequently, we tried easily over 100 different kinds of tapas while there.
Occasionally we would order a racion – if the menu item sounded really good, and we feared that we might not be satisfied with the smaller size. But we always accompanied a racion with a couple of different tapas, too.
Choosing Where To Eat
Seville is home to an estimated 3000 tapas bars. Yes, 3000! And they truly were everywhere. Walk along any street in Seville and it’s not hard to find one or two or 10.
So how did we decide where to eat? Usually when I travel, I do a lot of pre-meal research online, often before I even leave home. In Seville though, the sheer number of tapas bars made pre-trip planning seem overwhelming. So we winged it.
We would typically choose the area of central Seville where we wanted to eat for that particular meal, and head off in that direction. We’d look for places that seemed busy, taking that to be a good sign. If necessary, we’d wait for a table to open at a busy place, instead of settling for a table at a mostly empty place nearby.
I would also quickly find the potential choice on Google maps before choosing to sit down. I would make sure that its Google review rating was at least 4 stars or higher.
Many tapas bars have their menus displayed on a board outside – sometimes even in English. I usually found this helpful in choosing a place, too.
Every meal we ate in Seville was superb. Never anything even close to mediocre. So, either my method worked perfectly….or there is no bad food in Seville.
And we found that the service was always great. Most servers spoke some English, even though we always tried to communicate in our rudimentary Spanish as much as we could. Some spoke excellent English. Most were quite friendly, a few were a little aloof, but none were ever rude. We had the option for an English menu about 85% of the time. And often there was QR code on the table that brought up access to the English menu on our phones (along with several other languages).
Sometimes I find the process of eating in a different country just a little stressful, especially at first – trying to figure out the menu, while trying to figure out the food, while trying to communicate with the servers. It never was stressful in Spain.
What about Granada?
As I mentioned earlier, eating tapas in Granada Spain is a little different. Granada is one of the few remaining places in Spain where you can generally get a free tapa with your drink. We spent a week in Granada, and quickly learned a new way to tapear while there.
When we first arrived in Granada, the host at our AirBNB gave us a list titled The Tapas Route. This two-page list of tapas bars – organized according to Granada city districts – showed us the best places to get tapas in town.
We were very hungry when we arrived, and headed straight to the nearest bar on the list – Los Manueles.
Yep, Free Tapas!
We ordered our drinks, not entirely sure if we needed to say anything to get that free plate of food. But no, we did not. Shortly after our drinks came, the waiter then brought us a small plate of paella to share. It was true! A free tapa with a drink in Granada!
But, as we perused the menu, we didn’t find very many tapas offerings for purchase. Instead, the menu consisted of mostly raciones. Only a few items were offered in the tapas size – much different from the long list of tapas we had grown accustomed to in Seville.
Tapas Tips for Granada
After a week in Granada, these were some of our other discoveries for eating tapas in this part of Spain
- In all but one instance, we always received a free tapa at every Granada tapas bar we visited….
- …as long as we ordered alcohol. If we ordered water only, then no tapa. We don’t drink soda so I’m not sure what happens with a Coke.
- If we ordered a second drink, we were given another different tapa.
- Sometimes we could choose our free tapa from a “free tapa menu”, but this was less common than just taking what was given.
- The free tapas were generally smaller than tapas we had elsewhere in Andalucia.
Here’s a few more examples of tapas in Granada…
Raciones or Lots of Booze
And as with our first meal in Granada, we consistently found that a big menu selection of tapas for purchase was not common. Raciones seemed to be encouraged. Plus, raciones were more expensive in Granada than in Seville. (Drinks were similarly priced between the two cities)
Consequently, despite the free tapas, we would generally spend a little more money with each meal in Granada. We averaged $35 per meal for the two of us in Seville and $40 per meal in Granada. Still really inexpensive overall. And the quality of the raciones in Granada was always excellent as you can see below.
Granada or Seville?
We left Granada concluding that free tapas is a bit of an illusion. Sure, they are free. But the tapas bars make up the cost elsewhere.
And sure, we could order 3 or 4 drinks and fill up on free tapas – just like we saw plenty of university students do. But, moderation…..
We decided that when eating tapas in Spain, we much preferred paying for our better-quality more-diverse tapas in Seville. Especially since we spent less overall on each meal there.
Eating tapas in Andalucia Spain is indeed Foodie Heaven. Based on my previous experience in Andalucia, 40 years ago, I spent many years mistakingly equating Spanish food exclusively with paella. I’ve been to Barcelona too. The food was good in Barcelona. It just didn’t blow my mind.
This time, eating in Spain blew my mind! In fact, I consider this the best eating trip that I have ever taken. Yep, the best I have ever taken!
To read more about our adventures in Spain, check out my post about a misadventurous evening Searching for the Best Alhambra Viewpoints or my post about Staying in a Cave House in Setenil de Las Bodegas
I’ve also written a post for TravelDudes.com about some of the Best Places to Visit in Andalucia.
And to read about other food experiences we have had around the globe, check out my posts on the Food of Japan or the Food of Costa Rica
Mitch - Very Tasty World
Lovely! You’re right, tapas really are foodie heaven. This brought back happy memories of our delicious trip to Seville earlier this year. So much that we’re planning to try making salmorejo this week!
I still need to make Salmorejo too! Maybe this week…
Great blog. I should have tried the tapas when I was there haha. Ate a lot of paella instead
Next time 🙂