Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and a lot of us have been – thanks, covid), you’ve heard of the traditional Spanish type of food, tapas. But unless you’ve an expert on Spain or hail from the vibrant country, you might not know what exactly tapas are and how to enjoy eating them. We’ve got you covered with some tapas basics. And further in this post: Which tapas restaurants are the best ones to visit if you’re heading to Spain.
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On a side note, it is apparently correct to say „tapas is“, but that just doesn’t roll off of my keyboard very well, so I will be sticking to „tapas are“ unless the grammar gods enlighten me to do otherwise.
What exactly are tapas?
Without further ado, here is a quick tapas lesson:
- Tapas originate in Spain.
- Every Spanish region wants the claim to fame, but nobody can say for sure which city tapas originated in.
- A tapa is a small portion of food. On average two to three bites. Going out for tapas typically entails ordering drinks and a bunch of tapas for everyone to share. So tapas aren’t a type of food, it’s a way of eating.
- Tapas can be finger food or eaten with utensils, it just depends on the type of dish it is. It can be everything from a serving of olives to a miniature paella.
- Tapas can be eaten as a snack or, if you eat enough of them, make up your whole meal. The latter is referred to as tapear (verb).
- There are several theories on how tapas came to be, but if we look at the actual word tapas, it points us in the most probable direction. Tapar means to cover in Spanish. Back in the day, small plates with snacks (or slices of bread according to some sources) were used to cover patrons’ drinks to keep pesky flies out. Over time, the small plates stuck and what was once a humble necessity is now Spain’s trademark.
- In Basque country (in the north), tapas are most often called pintxos and involve a bit of bread with a topping, held together by a toothpick. They are also a little different than tapas: even smaller, not usually shared, and always on a toothpick. They are also never free (see below). Most often, pintxos aren’t ordered from your table as tapas usually are. You go up to the bar and pick and choose from the ones that are on display.
- There are certain types of tapas with their own name: banderillas as little tapas skewers, usually with olives, a pickled veggie or two and some meet or cheese. But if you can impale it, it can go on a banderilla. A montadito is a little open-face sandwich. Cazuelas are tapas that come with a sauce, like meatballs and tomato sauce.
- In some places like Granada or Jaén, tapas come free when you order a drink in a bar. The theory is that by giving guests savory snacks, they will drink more. It is also why beer and wine is so expensive. This is not common practice in other parts of Spain.
- There is such a thing as jumping from one tapas bar to another in a single night, similar to a pub crawl. The Spanish sometimes use the term ir de tapas for tapas bar hopping.
- Tapas are a testament to the Spanish culture where eating (especially dinner) is a social affair. Spending time with friends and family and have long conversations is a daily occurrence in most people’s lives. Just imagine sitting with your buddies, everyone reaching into the center of the table and nibbling on all the tiny dishes. Add drinks, and you get instant interaction.
- A ración is a larger portion of a tapa. You can order racións in order to accommodate a bigger group (for sharing) or have it as a main meal for yourself.
- Tapas differ from region to region, but some of the most traditional include patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a spicy sauce) or tortillas de patatas (a potato omelet). Nowadays, tapas can be so much more than a simple snack, with even haute cuisine variants including molecular gastronomy and fusion dishes.
Top tapas restaurants around Spain
We really took one for the team here guys. After grueling testing of an explicit number of tapas bars and restaurants, here is our list of the best ones in seven popular Spanish cities. You’re welcome.
1. The best tapas restaurants in Malaga
Malaga is a foodie city, so you’ll never be stuck for choice. The city is big but the Old Town is walkable, with Calle Granada the central street to anything tapas. Some gems, though, will require you to look elsewhere.
Tip: We cooked up a guide for Malaga so you can actually see things between all the eating.
Besides El Pimpi, which is an established tapas legend, you can try out:
There are three Casa Lola locations in Malaga, but the original one (Calle Granada, 46) is the best. It’s a bustling tapas bar, always full and with a huge range of tapas. The wooden tables with bar stools out front make for a great place to people watch and enjoy some food and conversation. In the evenings especially, make sure to have a reservation or be ready to wait in a long line.
A traditionally Spanish restaurant with old-fashioned styling. It only sits 30 people and has no outdoor seating, and is always full for dinner. Reservations are recommended. There is a wide variety of tapas and the energy is very lively. The staff even sings! La Tanca is on the northern side of Old Town at Calle Carretería, 92.
Anyway Wine Bar
Last but certainly not least, the fantastic Anyway Wine Bar. My personal favorite, with excellent service and great wine, the waiters are very knowledgeable about everything they serve. You feel like a king here. The only bad part is that they set the bar so high that you’ll struggle to find another spot that won’t be a disappointment in comparison! Paseo Reding, 15.
2. The best tapas restaurants in Granada
I’m not sure what it is famous for more: the Alhambra palace or the free tapas. Even though Granada is a smallish city that you can see in a day, spending half of your time eating tapas could well extend your stay (If you do overstay, have no fear and book your hotel here!). In most places, one drink equals one plate of tapas.
The general rule is the more drinks you order, the better quality tapas you will get. In some places (like La Riviera), you will even be able to choose your free tapas from a menu, otherwise just wait and see what you get. Don’t make the mistake of ordering off the menu right away if you’re not sure if there are free tapas. Order a drink and see what happens. Plus, if you have to pay for your tapas, you are probably in a tourist trap restaurant. Get out!
Calle Navas is a street lined with tapas bars that all the tourists head to. But you know better, so steer clear. The tapas they give you are humble at best.
Try these tapas places instead:
The always-mentioned top spot in Granada is Bodegas Castañeda. These are the tapas bars we think are also worth a visit:
Taberna La Tana
A small but memorable bar. It gets full fast, so either make a reservation if you can or try to get in right when they open for lunch (less crowded than for dinner). The waiters are attentive and the jamon (dry-cured ham) is one of the best in town. A surprise highlight were the tomatoes. If Anthony Bourdain says to go, you go! Located at Calle Rosario 11 bajo, Placeta del Agua.
La Tana Bar Casa Julio and Bar Los Diamantes
For the best seafood tapas, these two places are a guaranteed hit. They are even located around the corner from each other, so if you don’t have a reservation, you can check which one has the shortest wait and then decide. The seafood was great in both places, though Casa Julio’s fried dishes were a bit oily. Both are off Pl. Nueva.
Cisco y Tierra
Feel like a local in this bar. The interior won’t leave a lasting impression besides maybe feeling like a man cave. But the bartender/owner is awesome, talking to guests, explaining the history of the place, plus the homemade vermouth is a kicker! You’ll feel right at home right away. Located on Calle Lepanto.
3. The best tapas restaurants in Sevilla
Sevilla has some fantastic tourist spots, but the tapas are top class as well. There are over 3000 tapas bars in the city. Below are some of our favorites. If you want to just wander, you can try Calle Mateo Gagos and Calle Harinas and the alleys around. They are good spots to go if you don’t want to be stuck in a tourist rip-off.
Like many Spanish restaurants, the interior will leave you a little meh, but sit at the high tables outside of Bodeguita Romero and feel like a local in the narrow alley. They are known for their pork and blood sausage tapas. No reservations are accepted, so get there at opening time (currently 12pm for lunch and 8pm for dinner) to grab a seat.
Dos de Mayo
This is an awesome seafood tapas place on Plaza de la Gavidia. Even the interior isn’t bad! The tiled floor is nice and bright and makes the bar feel cheery and even spacious (a relative term based on the tiny size of many tapas bars). The extensive bar takes up a whole wall. They serve not only tapas and seafood, with regional specialties on the menu as well.
A restaurant that will knock your socks off, it ain’t got a Michelin for nothing! Seriously, in a city like Seville that is known for its tapas, to stand out is not easy. Eslava is on another level though. Each tapa is crafted to perfection, the taste is like no other. You just stare at each one and admire it before shoving it into your face and rolling your eyes so far back into your head you look like a cartoon character. Located on the street of the same name.
Tip: Hotel Cevina is a great place to stay if you like modern, minimalist style, but still want to feel like you’re in Spain.
4. The best tapas restaurants in Gibraltar
Gibraltar was by far the most surprising destination in Andalusia for me, becoming one of the highlights of our trip. It’s a bizarre place, admittedly, being a British Overseas Territory. It’s like they transplanted London onto the Sunny Coast and added a huge rock with a view to Africa! It’s so unspanishly-well organized!
Jury’s Café and Wine Bar
I’m in love with Jury’s because even though it sounds strange, fish & chips and tapas in one restaurant is fun! We had both and were happy on all accounts. The service is friendly even though they were busy. There are tables outside which are great for people watching in a narrow alley. Located on 275 Main Street.
We really liked the ambiance at this restaurant. It’s bright, it’s modern, it’s not the typical tapas bar at all. The food isn’t typically Spanish either, more like British tapas with a Spanish twist, but not in a bad way. The service was incredible. They also have a good selection of wines. Centrally located on 30 John Mackintosh Square.
Little Bay Bar and Indian Tapas
Everything goes since you’re already in Little Britain, so why not go to an Indian restaurant?! Honestly the tables outside looked welcoming, set nicely in the shade on a wooden deck surrounded by palm trees. Set very close to the harbor and steps away from the infamous airport runway. The service here was what you’d expect from a more upscale restaurant, the staff was great. I wasn’t a huge fan of the interior, it looks a little like from an outdated ex-fancy hotel. Like halfway between trying too hard and going home early. So stay outside and enjoy the weather! The food was delicious and well presented.
5. The best tapas restaurants in Madrid
The Spanish capital has no shortage of tapas bars. There tapas are free at some places and not at others. The best way to find out is either ask (duh), or just order a drink and see what happens. If nothing happens, go ahead and start ordering from the menu.
The area around Calle de la Cava Baja is filled with bars and cafes if you just need a place to start wandering.
Tip: Book a hotel in the city center so you don’t have to walk far with a full stomach!
If you have an appreciation for unique or even outright wacky style, Madrid is where you will get your fill. I have to say I was surprised how many quirky spots we saw in the city, so we had to try them out. Try out these special spots:
Look for the colorful potted plants on the corner and you’ve found this bar. It’s not as small as the name makes it out to seem. Close to Palacio Real, it seems popular with locals as well as tourists. The tapas here are big, so order less than you think you need. The cod and prawns were really good. It’s cozy and has fun art on the walls, nothing too extravagant, but just enough to be interesting. It works for dinner too, but I’d prefer a lunch here.
Lola Si Mola
You take one look at the colorful sign and you’re sold. In a world of dark, traditional tapas bars, you sometimes need some color. Inside, the theme continues, but it isn’t overwhelming and just goes along with the owner’s attitude. He’s funny and talkative and hails from Venezuela, so you can feel and taste!) the South American vibes. Everyone seems to enjoy themselves at Lola Si Mola. Try the salmon ceviche, duck rolls or croquets. They also make cocktails. Located at Calla de las Huertas 55.
Inclán Brutal Bar
Don’t come here if you like classic or minimalist restaurants. This place is either amazing or a complete headache. There are several different areas, each with its own edgy vibe, all a bit strange but very well put together and definitely enjoyable. I really like that being in a big city you get these unique places that can risk being weird. If you order the octopus (really nice and tender), it comes on a plate standing on octopus legs. Your sangria will come out in a top hat and there might be a panda with a cigar holding your tacos. It all tastes really good and you get an experience for sure. Staff is loaded with fun, as was expected. Perfect for dinner and a night out. Located on Calle de Álvarez Gato, 4.
Similarly strange but in a more kitschy, Alice in Wonderland way is Rosi La Loca, not far from Inclán Brutal Bar. This place was a little too much for us, but for someone else it might work. I’m guessing they either have the same owners or one is a not-so-subtle copy of the other. The food reviews are great though.
For a quick snack, we stumbled upon a little place called La Más Croqueta close to the main square that does a million different croquet variants. We tried a few and were happy. Plus, they come out in egg cartons. Cute, right?
Tip: For a serene hotel stay after all the crazy restaurant experiences, give 7 Islas Hotel a try. If unique is more your style, Only YOU Hotel Atocha is a top pick.
6. The best tapas restaurants in Barcelona
Barcelona is where you go to see architecture, art, the sunsets, the beach… but it’s not really known for its tapas. There are great tapas bars, you just need to know where to find them. Wink wink.
Unlike Madrid, the places that most caught our eye in Barcelona were more stylish and swanky, just like the city. Our most memorable tapas moments were at:
Loved Rao. The service and food was impeccable. The brick walls and leather chairs give it a cozy but masculine vibe. You just want to order a whiskey and spit on the ground. But you won’t, because it’s not that type of masculine. The chef here is a creative character, serving things like roast beef with mustard ice cream, a fantastic grilled octopus and tomatoes done in more ways than you thought possible. Staff were enthusiastic to talk about each dish. Great location close to Placa se Catalunya.
Vivo Tapas Restaurant Coctelería
If Barcelona were a restaurant, this is what it would look like. It’s stylish, arty, classic and cool all at the same time. It has a bit of an attitude and a rebellious streak, but remains respectful and classy, you know? They have traditional dishes as well as more creative ones. The cocktails are wonderful and I even have to acknowledge the glasses and plates that they use. Nicely done, Vivo. Try the smoky whiskey (with actual smoke coming out). Vivo is close to Casa Mila.
A funky little wine bar with live music in the evenings. It’s unpretentious, not one of the big hitters, just a small business with really good food and an enthusiastic owner. I encourage you to make your way there to this bar that is really more a bar than an actual restaurant. It’s simple, friendly, perfect for a pre-dinner snack or if you’re staying nearby, for a beer or wine before bed. Located on Calle del Consell de Cent, 140, west of the Gothic quarter.
Walking from the Passeig de Gràcia to Sagrada Famillia, we managed to get a spot at La Gilda. And even now, years later, I remember how amazing their tapas were. The place is small, not very memorable design-wise, just your typical tapas bar.
The service is friendly, nobody is in a rush, the server has time to chat about the tapas and the restaurant and give suggestions. I enjoyed the truffle toast and honestly can’t understand how someone makes baby potatoes taste so well. Octopus was lovely, too! Located on Carrer de Girona, 175.
7. The best tapas restaurants in Valencia
Valencia is the city of paella, art and science. If you’re tired from walking around admiring those futuristic buildings and museums, why not branch out and have some great tapas? They aren’t on every corner like in Andalusia, but they do exist. Where? Try these restaurants:
Bocadella Tapas by Mario
You feel like you’re in Italy, it looks like you’re in Italy, but you can have tapas! Then get a tiramisu for dessert and you’re set. It’s in a little courtyard, nothing super fancy, but Mario and the staff were extra welcoming and made us feel right at home. It’s a family run place. The sangria was tasty. It’s that type of neighborhood spot that everyone loves. Located at Carrer de l’Escultor Alfons Gabino, 19.
This is a Michelin restaurant, so you know you’ll be eating well. Casa Montana dates back to 1836 and the interior is classic, charming Spain. It used to be located in a fishing village, but now you are just close to the beach, which is a bonus, too. Wooden barrels and historic posters all over the place set the tone. We were recommended the broad beans, which might not sound too appetizing, but they were amazing. Also try the tuna and sirloin steak.
Book as far in advance as you can, it gets full fast and it is not a big place.
For a unique mix of Japanese and Brazilian food, head over to Kaikaya. The interior feels like you’re sitting in a garden and is cozy. We had the tasting menu which had a small portion of 6 main meals, great choice. It’s very international with staff from all over the world, our server was French. The fusion dishes are really interesting, you get the Japanese freshness with the boldness of Brazil. With some Spain thrown in for good measure. Reservation is recommended. Located at Plaça de l’Ajuntament, 10.
When in Rome
One final tapas tip: Forget what you were taught about eating late at night not being healthy. Move your dinner time back to at least 8:30 pm to avoid eating in an empty restaurant and to ensure that you are getting the freshest tapas and not leftovers from lunch.
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