Tapas bars are an integral part of Spanish culture, not just culinary culture. While in Madrid, it’s worth visiting some of them, ordering good wine and sampling local delicacies to share with friends. It’s not just about fantastic food – it’s simply an excuse to be together, socialize, and discover unique venues, many of which boast a long history and an atmosphere unlike anywhere else.

What are tapas?

The name “tapa” comes to describe a small snack that is served along with a drink, usually an alcoholic beverage such as wine, vermouth, which Madrid residents love to drink as an aperitif, or tinto de verano (a drink that is a mixture of red wine and soda water, popular in the summer especially among the young). Tapas are sometimes added gratis to a drink (in which case they are usually small and modest portions, e.g. a few olives, a small sandwich) while in other places they must be ordered separately – in which case they are larger and more elaborate dishes. Customs regarding the serving of tapas can vary greatly depending on the region of the country. Madrid’s bars represent a whole cross-section of different traditions typical of Spanish cuisine, so exploring them can be very interesting.

At the tapas bar…

For a foreigner, it can be a bit tricky just to choose the right time to go for tapas. Some bars serve them at lunchtime, in which case they are called vermú, while others focus exclusively on customers ordering lunch menú del día during this time. After lunch, Spaniards relax; during siesta time, eating establishments are closed. Life in them flourishes in the evening. In some places you’ll order freshly prepared tapas from 5-6pm, but it’s best to come a little later, around 7-8pm.

Tapas bars in Madrid
Tapas bars in Madrid. Photo: wurliburli from Pixabay.

The best tapas bars, unfortunately, are very crowded. If you see two venues next to each other, one of which shines empty and the other is loud and bustling, choose the other one! Wait until a seat at the bar becomes vacant, push your way to the counter, place your order and enjoy good wine and delicious food. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll have to eat them sitting squeezed between strangers or standing up – but it’s a good opportunity to talk back to new people, make friends. Tapas bars may not be the best choice if you’re planning a long, elegant dinner – but that’s not the point. A new tradition is to visit multiple tapas bars during one evening.

Where did tapas culture come from?

There are a great many legends and anecdotes associated with the rise of tapas bars. The most well-known of these revolve around the figure of King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile, whose reign dates back to the 13th century. To strengthen his body after the illness, he was to be advised to eat only small portions of food. After his recovery, he was to issue a decree that drinks should always be served along with a small snack.

Another version of the story emphasizes lower-class laborers who spent their wages at inns on alcohol rather than food, often causing problems under the influence. To meet the expectations of establishment owners, Alphonse X the Wise was to decree that each glass of alcohol must be served with a plate of food. In response, customers began ordering only small portions of dishes as appetizers. How was it in reality? Unbeknownst to you, however, this should not prevent you from enjoying good wine and delicious food

Classic Spanish tapas – what to eat in Madrid?

Serrano ham is among the popular Spanish tapas
Serrano ham is among the popular Spanish tapas. Photo Pixabay – Conquero
  • Tortilla de patatas – an omelet prepared with eggs, potatoes and onions, served cold or hot. A simple and filling dish, you can easily prepare it with ingredients available in Poland, although nowhere does it taste like it does in Madrid’s tapas bars. The ideal one should not be too dry. There are many variations, you can add your favorite ingredients, for example, chorizo, spinach or sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Patatas bravas – crispy fried potatoes served alongside a spicy tomato or bell pepper sauce.
  • Jamon Serrano, Jamon Iberrico – raw Spanish aged hams dried by traditional methods under strictly controlled conditions. They are often served alone on a plate sliced thinly or on a baguette.
  • Croquetas – breaded croquettes stuffed with béchamel sauce, potatoes and selected toppings: the most popular are with serrano ham, chorizo or blue cheese.
  • Pimientos de Padron – Padron peppers, simple but delicious, usually served lightly fried and dusted with salt. When ordering a plate, you never know if you’ll end up with mild or super spicy!
  • Seafood – such as gambas al ajillo (shrimp in oil), pullpo a la Gallega – cooked octopus in Galician style. Although Spain’s capital is not by the sea, delicious and fresh seafood is delivered here every day, and the selection is huge.
  • Queso Manchego – cheese made from sheep’s milk, originating in the plains of La Mancha.
  • Olives in all forms.

Tapas bars worth visiting while in Madrid

Which tapas bar in Madrid to choose for a meeting with friends? It’s best not to limit yourself to one! During you can take a round of the bars and try something different in each of them! In addition to the popular sites shown below, it is worth exploring other lesser-known sites scattered around various neighborhoods. Sometimes they will surprise you very positively!

  • Casa Toni – is one of those places in Madrid that offers a very authentic culinary experience. With my hand on my heart, I can say that this is cuisine that is no longer served. The menu, which has hardly changed for decades, namely includes offal alongside “typical” tourist certainties: the place is famous for pork ears, tripe or thymus grilled with garlic and parsley. If you don’t dare to try it, no worries! You can also order delicious chorizo, mushrooms or patatas bravas.
  • La Casa del Abuelo – if you love shrimp, you should definitely take a look at “Grandpa’s”. Founded in 1906, the bar is the birthplace of one of Spain’s most famous tapas: gambas al ajillo. Although today we associate fresh seafood with fine dining, during the Civil War era it was eaten out of necessity. When bread and other basic foodstuffs were in short supply, the then-owner created a menu from what was readily available in abundance. To this day, you can still be assured of high quality – all dishes are made from scratch on site – which includes in-house wine and oil production.
  • Casa Labra is worth visiting for its historic atmosphere. The restaurant has been in continuous operation since 1860 (its interiors saw the founding of Spain’s largest leftist party, the PSOE, in 1880) and is famous for its delicious salted cod. This is one of the few places in Madrid where, according to old custom, food and drinks are ordered at separate counters.
  • Taberna Real – another unique spot is located right next to the famous Palacio Real, in a building that originally served as quarters for palace servants. Above all, it’s worth dropping in here for the first-class vermouth, which pairs perfectly with local olives. For more hunger, order a piece of empanada.
  • El Tigre Sidra – iconic especially among students and young people. It is, admittedly, neither famous for its long history nor for the exceptional quality of its products as some of the previously described establishments nor, but it is very popular. Prices are relatively low, and when you order a beer or a glass of tinto de verano, you get a large plate of appetizers free.
  • Mercado de San Miguel – not a typical bar, admittedly, but a place that is hard not to mention when writing about tapas in Madrid. It is the city’s most famous market and a culinary mecca, a point of visit for tourists and foodies from around the world. Opened in 1916, the food market is housed under a stunning iron and glass structure, which is impressive in itself. Inside, in addition to the typical fruit and vegetable or meat stands, you’ll find good restaurants, bakeries, wine bars, beer bars, and a huge variety of tapas to choose from! The seafood offerings are downright stunning. It is better to come hungry.
Tapas in Madrid - Mercado de San Miguel.
Tapas in Madrid – Mercado de San Miguel. Author: Andreas Garger wikimedia.org


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