The dos and don'ts of Spanish Tapas

When organising a trip to Spain, one of the first things that pops up in most people´s mind is: “Can´t wait to go out for a proper Spanish tapa!”

You can't blame them - there is no tourist or local alike that can resist these small Mediterranean bites of goodness.

Problem is, many visitors don´t fully understand how the Spanish tradition of tapas goes, or even what a tapa is. Should you order a tapa? Are they free? Can you ask for a specific one?

Below we will explain everything you need to know before going out for those highly anticipated tapas.

spanish bar tapas

What is a tapa?

Best way to describe a tapa is a small plate of food normally served as an accompaniment to a drink.

Tapas vary greatly depending on the region of Spain, especially in terms of types of dishes and also quantity served. They can go from either a small snack, such as some olives or nuts to an authentic miniature feast. 

Having tapas is a means for socializing in Spain, and it is quite common to bar hop and try all sorts of different tapas during your day or night out with friends and family.

 spanish tapas chorizo

Are tapas free?

It depends on the where in Spain you are travelling to as every region has its own traditions. In fact, it is so varied that customs may change after only a matter of several kilometres.

In Andalucia, for instance, you can expect free tapas in the eastern part of the region yet you will normally have to pay for them towards the west.

Granada, in eastern Andalucia, is well known for its free tapas and is one of the best places in Spain to try these little delicacies. Bars here compete with each other to see who offers the best and most varied list of tapas!


Can I choose my free tapa?

The waiter will normally bring you a small plate of whatever they have available to accompany your drink. You shouldn't ask for a free tapa and only kindly receive it if given to you.

In some regions of Spain, however, you are offered a choice between several free tapas, sometimes allowing each member of your party to choose one for each, but this is not so common.

If the bar does not offer free tapas, you may order yours by choosing one from a menu and paying the price for it. 

spanish bar

Is it OK to claim my tapa if I didn´t get one?

Free tapas are served as a generosity, and are therefore not something you are entitled to only because you have ordered a drink. 

You may notice everyone is receiving a tapa while the waiter seems to have forgotten yours, in which case you could kindly remind him, but it is definitely not a matter to get upset about.

Bear in mind that in many bars once you order food you stop getting your free tapa with your drink orders. This is mainly because tapas are meant to help you keep your stomach happy while you enjoy your drink. 

You should therefore not feel “punished” for ordering food (and paying for it), it is just how this tradition goes.


What if I don´t like the free tapa I am offered?

It is okay to leave your free tapa if you do not like it, but you normally would not ask the waiter to change it for you unless you ask kindly and not offensively.

Remember that a tapa is given to you generously and by no means should clients believe that waiters are obliged to offer you one of your likings.

 spanish tapas pulpo

Are there different kinds of tapas?

The tapas people love the most are called "tapas de cocina" (kitchen tapas) which are actually samples of a cooked main dish, such as a small portion of paella, or a taste of stewed meat with sauce, or meatballs.

Other types of tapas are just small snacks or aperitifs, such as olives, some chips, nuts or a few slices of chorizo.

The most typical tapas are neither one nor the other, such as a portion of tortilla de patatas, croquetas or patatas bravas.

The size of the tapas is also not standard: depending on the bar or even the region, you can expect larger or smaller portions.

spanish tapas calamares 

What’s the difference between a tapa and a pincho (or pintxo)?

Pinchos are more common in the north of Spain (such as the Basque country), and while a tapa comes in a small plate of food, pinchos are small skewers on a toothpick, most of the time presented as elaborate recipes on a slice of bread.

An example of a typical basic pincho is called “gilda”, which is a small skewer that combines one olive, one anchovy and one Spanish green chilli.

spanish pincho pinxo 

Curious Tapas:

  • Bull testicles (criadillas)

  • Raw broad beans in their pods (habas)

  • Boiled egg with a salt shaker

  • Lupin beans (altramuces


Funny things that can happen: 

A tourist once left the bar thinking he had already finished the lunch he had ordered, when in fact all he had eaten was his free (very generous) tapa. Once satisfied, he completely forgot about his order!