What are Spanish tapas? Guide with frequently asked questions

If there is one thing the world knows about Spanish food, it is tapas. But do you really know what Spanish tapas are? Depending on the Spaniard you ask, you will probably get a different answer.

In some places they serve tapas that are practically complete dishes, in others they are small bites. Sometimes cold, sometimes hot. In some cities they charge for them, in others they are free. The answer to the question "What are tapas? is complicated to answer, but if you want to get as complete an idea as possible, keep reading this post.

What are Spanish tapas?

The Real Academia Española de la lengua defines a tapa as "A small portion of food served as an accompaniment to a drink". In many areas of Spain it used to be customary to offer some food when ordering a drink at the bar, thus encouraging greater consumption of drinks.

Nowadays this custom has almost disappeared and only in some regions is this tapa still offered free of charge with a drink. The word tapa comes from the verb tapar, similar to to cover, and has its origins in the custom of covering the glass of wine with a slice of bread or a slice of ham to prevent insects or dust from getting into the drink.

What is a tapas bar?

In Spain, a tapas bar is an establishment where drinks and food are served in a less formal way than in restaurants. The best tapas bars tend to be very crowded and most people stand or sit on high chairs. As such, it is quite common to see tapas bars that are almost full and where it is difficult to even walk between diners, so drinks and tapas are usually served directly from the bar.

What are the most traditional Spanish tapas?

Spain's most classic tapas dishes are often very simple. Some don't even require cooking: think of plates of olives, or plates of cold meats, freshly sliced ham or different cheeses.

Other traditional Spanish tapas include potato omelette, Russian salad, fried squid and anchovies, anchovies in vinegar or croquettes.

What types of tapas can I find?

The types of tapas you can find are very numerous, but to make it a little easier for you we have divided them into the following categories:

Warm tapas

Hot tapas are dishes that need to be cooked beforehand and are served hot, normally ordered à la carte, although in some tapas bars they serve what is being cooked, even without asking the diner. Some well-known hot tapas are callos a la madrileña, gambas al pil pil, chorizo a la sidra, croquetas or boquerones fritos (fried anchovies).

Cold tapas

On the other hand, cold tapas are usually prepared in advance to give them time to cool down. Some common cold tapas in tapas bars are boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar), ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad), huevos rellenos (stuffed eggs) or salmorejo cordobés (Cordovan gazpacho).


Pintxos come from the Basque Country, where this word is often used instead of tapas. Many pintxos are served on a piece of crusty bread with a toothpick. Like tapas, pintxos can be hot or cold. It is common to find pintxos in restaurants in the Basque Country displayed in a glass case or on top of the bar.


Another popular bread-based option, tostas are slices of toasted bread with all kinds of delicious toppings. They are a particularly good option to enjoy in a crowded bar with little space to set your plate down, without the need for cutlery.


Tables with a variety of dishes, usually with cold meats, pâtés and cheeses. They are an excellent way to sample some of the most delicious products of Spanish gastronomy, such as pata negra ham. They are also a perfect accompaniment to a glass or glasses of wine.

Canned food

In many countries, preserves are a canned food to eat when you don't have time to cook or when you have nothing else to put in your mouth. In Spain this is not the case, there are hundreds of gourmet preserves made with all kinds of products from the sea and the garden. Some of the preserves that you will usually find in the best tapas bars are Cantabrian anchovies, cockles, razor clams, pickled mussels or Navarrese artichokes. Even in Madrid and Barcelona you will find tapas bars that exclusively serve canned or tinned food.

What drinks are the tapas served with?

Some people are surprised to learn that the most common drink to accompany tapas in Spain is beer. The most common is to order a caña to drink, which is simply a very cold beer served in a small glass. Beer is served in small glasses so that it does not have time to warm up, as in Spain in spring and summer it is usually quite hot.

In addition to beer, tapas are usually accompanied by red wine, most often tempranillo from La Rioja or Ribera del Duero, and to a lesser extent white wine.

One type of wine that has come back into fashion in Spain in recent years is vermouth, a spicy wine with a sweet and sour taste that goes perfectly with canned fish, olives and chips.

Finally we mention sangria, although this drink is not really consumed by Spaniards when going out for tapas and is more of a drink that is usually prepared for celebrations such as birthdays and other parties.