Originally, tapas in Spain, which means “tops”, or “lids”, were tiny snacks such as a piece of cheese or a sliver of ham placed on top of drinks in bars.
This tradition has evolved into a whole culinary movement of specialty bars and restaurants serving small sharing plates to accompany drinks. Nothing beats a feast of hams, cheeses, and sizzling shrimps in a sunlit square in Barcelona, or a bowl of spicy patatas bravas in the cool of a cellar bar in the gothic quarter of Palma, Mallorca.
Note that tapas are small sharing plates, while pintxos, the Basque country’s answer to the dish, are smaller snacks often served on cocktail sticks. Raciones, meanwhile, are much bigger versions of tapas, so if you’re going for these, you won’t need such a wide variety.
Here are 29 of the best tapas to seek out when you’re in Spain.
Spain’s firm, salty sheep’s cheese comes in many varieties. It’s an enduringly popular tapa served in slices and dipped in either runny honey or sweet quince preserve.
This provides a wonderful sweet and salty contrast and goes perfectly with a glass of cold fino or sherry. Different parts of Spain have their own versions of cheese that are served as a tapa, from Mahón in the Balearic Islands to Majorero in the Canaries.
A platter of thinly sliced, air-dried ham is the perfect start to any meal. The most prized ham is pata negra, which means “black foot”, and comes from pigs that have been fed exclusively on acorns and chestnuts.
The ham is cured for at least 12 months, and often for longer. The best hams are considered to be those with extensive fat marbling on each slice.
If you fall in love with this salty delicacy when in Spain, you can pick up vacuum-packed jamón Ibérico at the airport to take home.
Gambas al Ajillo
Shrimps served sizzling in hot garlic olive oil is one of the most popular tapas in Spain, and connoisseurs would argue that the more sizzling the oil and the more pungent the garlic, the better.
The shrimps may be served head on or head off. Chili peppers or smoky paprika are often added to further pep up the dish.
Gambas al ajillo is usually served with crusty bread, which is used to mop up any remaining sauce.
This spicy shrimp dish is similar to gambas al ajillo, but chilies and pimiento, or cayenne powder, are added to the oil, providing a hit of both garlic and spice.
You’re most likely to find gambas pil-pil in Southern Spain along the Andalucian coast.
Champiñones al Ajillo
A good vegetarian alternative to gambas al ajillo is mushrooms cooked in a similar style, cooked in a clay pot and served in sizzling hot oil, rich with garlic and sprinkled with fresh parsley. Mop up the oil with slices of crusty bread.
Croquetas, or croquettes, may seem like nursery food, but everybody loves them, and they are by no means restricted to the kids’ menu.
A creamy bechamel is prepared thick enough to roll into balls by hand once cooled. Sometimes, it’s further thickened with mashed potato, and then coated in fine breadcrumbs, deep fried, and served hot.
Croquetas may come flavored with cheese or ham. Spinach, chicken, and shellfish are popular, too.
These small pastry parcels, stuffed with chicken, seafood, beef, cheese, or vegetables, are eaten as a snack at any time of day, as well as with drinks as a tapa. In some restaurants, whether or not you’re sampling tapas, a plate of empanadas will be brought to the table.
One of the most traditional is empanada gallega, filled with tuna, green olives, and sofrito, a sauce made from tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onions, and olive oil.
Colorful paella originated in Valencia, a city that’s surrounded by paddy fields where arborio rice is grown. It’s usually served as a main course, prepared in enormous, flat-bottomed pans.
This well-known Valencian dish is rich with meat and seafood, golden saffron, green peas, and strips of red bell pepper. You may find it offered as a tapa or a larger ración in establishments with longer menus.
Often, it’s prepared to order, so the dish may not arrive at the same time as your other tapas. You’ll quickly realize that a small portion of paella is rarely enough.
These small, slightly bitter green peppers from Galicia in northern Spain are fried in olive oil with lots of salt until they’re wilting. They’re the perfect tangy accompaniment to a cold glass of wine at the beginning of a meal.
Another enduring favorite that Spain is known for, patatas bravas are cubes of potato that have been cooked three times (boiled, fried, left to cool, and fried again), served with a rich tomato sauce, spiced with paprika, or pimiento.
The best patatas bravas come with plenty of garlicky mayonnaise, or aioli, too. There are dozens of variations; some restaurants serve them with just the tomato sauce, some with just the aioli, and some with both.
As you travel around, grazing on tapas, you’ll soon learn which are the most memorable patatas bravas.
Tortilla, unrelated to the Mexican version, is a chunky wedge of Spanish omelet served at room temperature and studded with cubes of potato, red pepper, onion, and tomato.
Tortilla is highly nutritious, surprisingly filling, and makes a great option for vegetarians. As well as being a staple on most tapas menus, you can buy it in Spanish supermarkets, ready made, to eat cold as a picnic dish.
Berenjenas con Miel
This tasty tapa is another vegetarian favorite. Slices or matchsticks of eggplant are soaked in milk to remove the bitterness, patted dry, dusted with flour, and fried until they’re soft.
Finally, the hot eggplant is drizzled with honey, or for a vegan version, molasses.
Russian salad is a popular Spanish tapa. Small cubes of diced carrot, green peas, and sometimes potato are served in mayonnaise, usually formed into a scoop-sized dome shape.
The dish is designed to calm the palate and provide contrast to a spicy pimiento flavor that you might encounter in gambas pil pil or a tangy chorizo.
Chorizo al Vino Tinto
Chorizo, a marbled pork sausage infused with lots of garlic and paprika, is synonymous with Spain. The sausage is a great way to pep up any stew or casserole but comes into its own as a tapa when cooked slowly in red wine.
The result is melt-in-the-mouth pieces of sausage in a rich, smoky sauce, which is absolutely delicious when mopped up with crusty bread.
This is a simple but tasty tapa to try in Spain if you’re a fan of squid. It’s very simple to prepare; squid rings are dunked in oil, lightly breaded, and fried until they’re crispy.
You’ll see people tucking into this dish in tapas bars or eating it as a snack on the go.
A satisfying sharing plate, Spanish meatballs made from beef or pork are combined with onion, breadcrumbs, and egg, lightly spiced, and braised in a rich tomato sauce. They’re deeply satisfying, especially on a cooler day.
Almejas a la Marinara
More popular in the north of Spain, this rich dish is made of clams served in a spicy sauce, usually cooked in a clay pot and flavored with garlic, onion, and tomato.
As with any tapa served in a sauce, you’ll want to soak up every last delicious drop with a thick slice of bread.
Angulas al Ajillo
Another typical dish of the north coming from the Basque region, tiny juvenile eels, or elvers, are cooked in garlicky olive oil spiced with chili pepper.
For many, elvers are an acquired taste and eating sensation. They’re also something of a delicacy, and some restaurants will substitute them with a less expensive fish.
Pimientos Piquillos Relleno de Bacalao
Piquillos are small red peppers that are sturdy enough to be stuffed and then roasted until they’re soft, but without collapsing. They’re a typical tapa of northern Spain.
Cod (bacalao) is the most popular filling, but other versions may include vegetables or sheep’s cheese with herbs, a concoction that oozes as it melts and combines with the smoky pepper flavor.
Anchovies are a popular dish around the coast and may come in different forms on a tapas menu. “En vinagre” means “in vinegar”, which provides a tender, tangy mouthful, often pungent with garlic.
Boquerones can also come coated in a light batter and deep fried, deliciously crispy and intended to be eaten in a single mouthful—or several mouthfuls—once you start.
You may come across a version of this theme in Andalucia in southern Spain, where pescaito frito, or fried, mixed fish, is served spiced and battered in a paper cone, designed to be eaten on the hoof.
Vegetarians will welcome pisto on any tapas menu. Not dissimilar to ratatouille in France, this vegetable stew is made from bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, and eggplant. It’s all slow-cooked until soft, served hot, and sometimes topped with a fried egg.
If you see pisto as a main course rather than a tapa, it may be served with rice.
Pan con Tomate
Pan con tomate, or bread with tomatoes, is a delicious tapa that makes for a tasty and impressive memory of Spain if you serve it at home. Slices of crusty white bread are toasted, rubbed with raw garlic, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with grated tomato.
The secret to keep the bread crispy is to grate the tomato into a separate bowl rather than straight onto the bread so that it’s not too watery.
Pan con tomate is another great vegetarian tapa, although some restaurants serve it with jamon Iberico sliced on top. If you are vegetarian, you’ll find that Spanish restaurants are increasingly accommodating nowadays, and you can always ask for “sin carne” if you want to try a dish without meat.
You’re most likely to come across this dish in Catalonia, or in the Balearic Islands, although its popularity extends throughout Spain.
The simplest of tapas, a small plate of olives in garlic or chili oil is something you’ll find on every menu.
The flavor is the perfect complement to a dry fino (sherry). It’s probably something you’d rarely drink at home, but in southern Spain, where it’s served chilled, takes on a whole new dimension.
Pulpo a la Gallega
Octopus is a popular dish in Spain, and in this dish, it’s cooked and then seasoned with various flavors of paprika and olive oil.
Connoisseurs claim that the different spices combined with the sweetness of the octopus create a unique flavor profile.
Espinacas con Garbanzos
This Seville specialty features garbanzo beans stewed with spinach and thickened with a puréed sauce made of fried bread, almonds, tomatoes, and cumin.
The dish dates back to the time of the Moorish occupation of Andalucia; it was the Moors who brought spinach, which originated in Persia, to Europe.
Mejillones, or mussels, are found all around the Spanish coast. They are served as tapas steamed with chopped onion and tomato, white wine, black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.
This dish, which translates as “wrinkled potatoes”, is typical of the Canary Islands, where a lot of potatoes are grown.
Tiny new potatoes are boiled in their skins in heavily salted water until they’re tender. The water is allowed to evaporate, leaving a fine dusting of salt, which flavors the potatoes.
They’re served hot, with a spicy mojo sauce, which is made from a base of tomato, onion, and chili.
Even if you don’t specifically go to a tapas bar or restaurant, you’re likely to be offered papas arrugadas, for example, to accompany a wine tasting.
The idea of a dish based on breadcrumbs takes some getting used to, and if you’re looking at an English translation of a Spanish menu, “crumbs” may seem confusing. But migas really are humble breadcrumbs flavored with spices and fried in olive oil.
They might come with anything else, from chorizo to bell peppers, onions, or garlic, and are a delicious starter to accompany your glass of chilled white or rosé.
Some tapas restaurants in Spain will serve tangy gazpacho, a cold soup based on tomato, garlic, and olive oil, in shot-sized portions. Try it; on a balmy evening or a long, sunny afternoon, gazpacho is deliciously refreshing, as well as being healthy, and is a great tapas option for vegetarians.
Ready to experience the local lifestyle and dig into a spread of delicious tapas in Spain? Browse Celebrity’s Spain cruises and plan your gourmet journey around Iberia.