When you’re in Spain, one phrase you’ll often hear in English (albeit pronounced with a Spanish accent) is Spain is different. When you live here, you’ll discover that this phrase rings true in many ways, but perhaps some of the quintessentially Spanish things many tourists first experience are the Spanish customs surrounding food.
From the moment you step off the plane and walk around the airport, you’ll find a variety of Spanish-style bars and restaurants. In fact, a study published in 2010 by La Caixa found that in Spain, there’s an average of 1 bar for every 129 Spaniards. This brings us to the simple fact that eating and drinking are a very important part of Spanish culture.
One thing foreigners should keep in mind is that in Spain most bars are restaurants, and vice versa. These establishments are social meeting places where people can have fun — watching a soccer game, having a coffee, eating, drinking, partying, and really just about anything is a good excuse to go to a bar, which explains why there are so many of them. A typical bar will always have a nice variety of pinchos or tapas that vary from region to region and are usually included in the price of the drink or offered at a discount. And, since many bars are also restaurants, most offer a menú del día (a three-course meal offered at a fixed price, the typical Spanish lunch), platos combinados (one plate with different types of food), and raciones (large plates of food to share with the entire group). Of course, another popular option, especially for Spanish dinner, is to irse de tapas/pinchos, which means hopping from one bar to the next, enjoying a pincho or tapa at each place until you’re stuffed.
Some visitors observe this Spanish way of eating with curiosity if nothing else, while others absolutely love it. No matter how you feel about it, there’s one word that describes most popular Spanish foods: Mediterranean. Spaniards are proud of their Mediterranean diet and often talk about how they have the best and healthiest food in the world. Mediterranean cuisine is known for its many ingredients; typical meals feature fruit, vegetables, or legumes; plenty of bread, pasta, rice, and other grains; nuts, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, fish, seafood, various types of meat, cheese, yogurt, and, of course, wine. This varied diet, traditionally found around the Mediterranean Sea, is considered one of the healthiest in the world.
Tourists will quickly realize that Spanish meal times are completely different from those found in other parts of the world. It’s important to remember this when you plan your activities for the day. In Spanish culture, breakfast is easily the least important meal, as it’s pushed back to 10 a.m. Many Spaniards skip breakfast, but if they do have one it’s usually something light and simple, such as coffee, hot chocolate, or fresh juice with a croissant, pastry, or toast with ham or tomato. Another traditional breakfast food you’ll often see in Spanish bars is churros, fried dough with sugar. After a light breakfast, between 10:30 a.m. and noon you’ll find the bars full of workers (of all stripes: office workers, construction workers, executives, etc.) taking their coffee break or pausa del café and enjoying a drink and a small snack to keep them going until lunchtime.
Lunch is the most important time of the day, and the meal generally includes multiple courses of Spanish cuisine. The first course is light, often soup or a salad, while the second course is more substantial, such as fish or meat. For dessert, options usually include fruit and sweet options like flan, arroz con leche, or cake, followed by coffee or a shot of a traditional liquor. The meal is always accompanied with bread, wine, and water. Lunch and the famous siesta take place between 2 and 4 p.m. That’s why we advise everyone who visits Spain to make their plans keeping in mind that most stores and other establishments are closed during this part of the day so the workers can go home to eat. Even though this break exists, nowadays siesta time is rarely used to sleep — instead, it’s used to get from one place to another, as people live farther and farther from their place of work.
Due to this long break at midday, many workers don’t get home after work until 8 p.m. Normally, they’ll have a snack or merienda when they arrive to hold them over until dinnertime. Dinner, which is similar to lunch but lighter, is eaten late in Spain, between 9 and 10 p.m. In the summertime, you’ll often see Spaniards having dinner as late as midnight! Once you get used to the meal schedule and the different Spanish eating customs, you’ll be ready to discover the vast diversity of Spanish food and culture.