Tapas 101: What and how to order tapas in Spain

Tapas 101: What and how to order tapas in Spain

Over the past couple decades, tapas have become well-known internationally. Before I moved to Spain, I thought tapas were just fancy overpriced small portions of food. Maybe that was the version of tapas I was getting in the states, but I’m here to tell you: Spanish tapas are much more than that. The tapas culture is social, creative, and…delicious! Read below for the history, culture, and how to’s when it comes to eating tapas in Spain.

What are tapas?

The simplest, most direct definition of tapas is small plates of Spanish food usually enjoyed with a drink. Most tapas consist of a small slice of bread with delectable toppings (often cheese/ham/fish + garnish). On the other hand, tapas don’t always come with bread, but size is important when it comes to tapas! Small plates are key. 

Spanish tapas assortment

Tapas culture in Spain

If I were to choose one thing that best encapsulates Spanish culture, it would be the tapas scene.

Tapas aren’t so much a food category as they are a way of living. It’s in the groups of friends gathered around a table, laughing and telling stories. It’s about the multi-generational bars that have been serving amazing tapas for decades. Tapas culture perfectly displays the Spanish “work to live” instead of “live to work” mentality. That’s one of the many reasons why I love Spain!

Tapas culture varies from region to region. With that being said, many regions in Spain traditionally considered tapas as a small appetizer before lunch or dinner, usually eaten at a bar.

Nowadays, it’s common to “go for tapas” instead of sitting down for a full dinner. In some cities in southern Spain like Granada or Jaen, tapas are free with a drink, which is a great deal!


Pinchos vs. tapas

Tapas refers to plates of food you can share with others, and pinchos refers to individual portions. However, the term “tapas” is still widely used for both.


The history behind tapas

There are quite a few stories that explain how tapas came to be.

One of the popular stories dates back to the 13th century when King Alfonso X ruled over Spain. He was recuperating from a terrible illness and found that he could only eat a small portion of food at a time. Other accounts say that the cure to his illness was to drink copious amounts of alcohol, so he ate small portions of food to lessen the effects of the alcohol. He then suggested to all Spaniards to practice this to prevent public drunkenness.

Another story claimed that tapas originated in a bar in Seville where bartenders began placing small plates over the beer to keep flies out, and eventually they used the place for a small snack like olives or ham.

This would make sense, as the Spanish word “taper” means to cover.

Whatever the history, I’m so grateful for the creation of tapas!


Where can you order tapas in Spain?

Tapas can be ordered in bars. Usually the tapas are all displayed in the bar, and you can point to the ones you want. Other times, you can order it from the menu.

Spanish vocabulary to order tapas: Me gustaría = I would like

Quiero uno de esos = I want one of those.

Queso = Cheese

Jamón = Ham

Pescado = Fish

Tapear = the act of going from tapas bar to tapas bar


How to order tapas

In more local spots or pinchos bars, you may see a little wooden stick in the tapa. This serves two purposes. First, all the ingredients are neatly held together. Second, you keep this stick and pay for your tapas when you’re finished based on how many sticks you have.

Otherwise, you’ll order from the bar or while you’re seated at the table. Order one or two tapas at a time to avoid everything arriving at once. The point is to slow down, sip some wine, and enjoy!


Delicious tapas to try while in Spain

Pimientos de pardon

Sweet, flavorful, and soooo yummy! Some are spicy while others aren’t.

Tortilla española

You’ll see this everywhere in Spain! It’s an omelet made with eggs and potatoes, optionally including onion. It is served as a meal, a tapa, or even in a sandwich.


Spain is home to some of the tastiest olives with many different variations. Have a serving during your tapas outing!


There’s nothing quite like fresh Spanish queso. Definitely try Queso Manchego.

Jamón iberico

Spaniards are very proud of their cured ham. So much so that it’s actually possible to become a professional ham slicer. They take it seriously. Be sure to order jamon iberico de bellota. The free-range pigs are fed only acorns during the last period of their lives, so the ham has an incredible taste. 

Queso con membrillo

Cheese with a dense, sweet jelly paste on top of a slide of bread. It’s a classic Spanish tapa you’ve got to try!


Meatballs served in red sauce. Perfect for sharing when ordering for the whole table, and great to pair with a glass of red wine.

Gambas al ajillo

Garlic shrimp. This one is great anywhere along the Costa Brava. Great for sharing!

Pan con tomate

Fresh bread with local tomato and olive oil drizzled on top. Divine.


Try it at home!

Here’s some tapas recipes for you to cook at home! 

Padron Pepper Recipe

Tortilla Española Recipe

Albondigas Recipe


Final thoughts

If you’re at the end of this article, desperately hungry and craving Spanish tapas, sorry I didn’t warn you that you shouldn’t read this article if you’re hungry. On the plus side, the tapas will be THAT much more delicious when you travel to Spain. Thanks for reading this article! Follow Lotus Compass on Instagram or check out our travel coaching and planning services if you’re traveling to Spain soon!


This Post Has One Comment

Leave a Reply