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7 tips for navigating the local food scene in Spain

Sara's take:

Whilst living in Europe, I visited Madrid and Toledo with my parents in 2008 and Barcelona with my friends in 2009, and if I could offer one word of advice for anyone going to study or travel in Spain, it would be this: tapas.

Tapas are snacks, canapés or small appetizers that can be hot or cold and vary from region to region.

The beauty of it is that you can order lots of different tapas and experiment with all kinds of food instead of getting just one dish, and you can then share in the deliciousness amongst family and friends.

And as food is such an important part of the culture in Spain (especially given the fact that you get two hours for lunch), this week, Joe Meringolo is here to share some tips on navigating the food scene in Spain.


Written by guest blogger Joe Meringolo

If you haven’t lived in Spain, or if you don’t speak much Spanish, you’ll find that differences in customs come not only come from language but also from culture.

So when you’re navigating Spain for the first time, you’ll want to have some working cultural context to better adapt and avoid misunderstandings when you're going out for a bite to eat.

After four school years of teaching English and completing my master's in Spain, below are some pieces of advice that could be helpful.

These lessons come from observations that I wish that I knew when I first arrived, so hopefully they serve you as you prepare to embark or consider making the leap.

Barcelona, Spain

Food scene in Spain: embrace the “menú del día”

This popular set meal tends to be offered at lunch and involves a first plate and second plate with a handful of options.

Some places offer a combination of A) a dessert B) a drink C) a coffee D) a choice of A-C individually or E) some combo of A-C.

Some places might offer a “menú” at dinner time, but you’ll get the deal at lunch!

To tip or not to tip?

Tips, generally speaking, aren’t necessary for smaller transactions.

For example, if you order a coffee, you’re welcome to leave the change, but it’s not obligatory.

However, if you have a big meal with others and want to leave some gratuity, typically 10 to 15 percent works.

Splitting bills

In the U.S., people typically pay for what they get and everyone splits the bill based on one's individual order.

In Spain, everyone buys their individual drinks and typically food to share in more informal settings, and at the end, everyone tends to split the bill equally, unless someone joined late and only ordered a drink.

Pro tip: have some smaller bills and coins ready!

Ordering food

Joe in Spain

Typically, a waiter or a waitress will ask what you’d like to drink and bring your drinks.

Then, he or she will ask you for your food order and then bring your food.

If you’re not ready for your drink order or your food order, you might have to wait until they come back around, but there tends to be fewer wait staff (and service can be slower) when places become busy.

Outdoor Seating Charges

This may come as a surprise, but most outdoor seating involves extra charges, typically 10 to 15 percent.

Cities charge restaurants and bars for outdoor seating, so the restaurants and bars tend to pass on this cost to the customers.

Always keep an eye out for these extra charges or ask in advance to avoid misunderstandings.

Take your time eating; no rush

If you’re looking for a quick meal, you’ll be better off going to a chain restaurant.

A lot of local places like people to stay and enjoy their place, so if you come in quickly and leave quickly, they might get the impression that you didn’t like their place.

Most places will welcome you to sit and stay for an extended period of time even after your meal is finished.

In Spain, the word “sobremesa” stands for the time that is spent after a meal enjoying the company of others.

Embrace the sobremesa!

But do show up on time

People tend to be less punctual in Spain, but that doesn’t mean that it’s outright excusable.

In one of my classes in Spain’s official language school, we learned how to apologize for our tardiness because the idea is that you’ll be on time, but when life happens, people are generally understanding if you’re a little bit late.

Transportation in Spain tends to be very reliable and it will be on time whether you are or not.

And while you won’t know all the cultural norms off the bat, just be patient and understand that learning is a process.

Most people are understanding, and if you do make an effort to speak Spanish, the locals will try to help you as best as they can.

Joe Meringolo guest blogger

Joe Meringolo is the Director of Program Development at EdOdyssey. He manages EdOdyssey’s marketing content, specializes in custom short-term programs for Peru and Spain and manages select partnerships and programs. Click here to learn more about EdOdyssey.


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1 Comment

Amazing! I know nothing about traveling all over the country, what a wonderful looking place to explore.


G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

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