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In every place, every culture I have had the blessing to explore, there has been one constant: the love of food. Food brings people together; food is the great equalizer. Now, add wine to the mix, and you have stolen my heart. This is one of the plethora of reasons I am madly in love with the Spainish culture. There is no shortage of laughter, good times and cheap tapas with adult beverages.
Tapas, in a word, are diverse. It is not one dish. I cannot google the word tapas for a recipe. Instead, tapas is a blanket word used to describe any small portion of food, meant to be eaten with your hands, and shared amongst friends.
The origin of tapas is still a mystery, as many stories have evolved staking claim to the creation of tapas. Stories range from King Alfonso X using tapas and wine to help him recover from an illness, to Felipe III mandating small portions of food be served with alcohol to curb rowdy behavior of soldiers and sailors.
A life without tapas, is like a heart without love.
What is clear is the word tapa comes from the word tapadero, meaning to cover. This leads me to believe the origin story of a king traveling through Andalusia who stopped for a beer and was served with a piece of cheese on his glass. This was to keep dust and bugs out of his drink, but he ate the cheese as an appetizer. He liked the idea so much, he asked for tapas everywhere he went. The idea stuck and we now have an evolved idea of tapas today.
Eating in Madrid
I absolutely love tapas, as I love diversity in my food. I like a little of everything. Lucky for me, I would be spending close to one month in Spain for holiday! I have eaten my fair share of cheap tapas across the land, as it is the typical dinner for many places.
Lunch is typically the larger portion meal, with many places offering a cheaper 3 course meal called the Daily Menu. With such a large meal at lunch, many Spanards choose the smaller portion tapas for their nightly nourishment. It wasn’t until I got to Madrid I heard of free tapas. Yes you read that correctly, FREE tapas.
The journalist in me had to find out more! I had to go try all the free tapas and cheap beer. I mean, it’s for research, right?? This is what I discovered about tapas in Madrid. Please remember to drink and explore responsibly.
General Travel Tips for Spain
I want to start with giving a few general tips about traveling in spain.
Water is NOT free. If you need water at a restaurant, expect to pay around 2€. However, you can get a large bottle water at any market for about 0,80€.
Bread is also not free in many places. If you do not want to be surprised with a small charge on your bill, decline the bread basket you receive at your table.
Tipping is not the social norm in Spain, as wait staff make at least minimum wage, or the tip will already be included on your final bill. If you really enjoyed your service, a 5-10% tip is succificent.
Pickpocketing is alive and well in most areas of Spain. Please keep your valuables safe at all times.
Siesta time is REAL! The best local spots will often close between around 2:00-5:00 each day. Each region has their own siesta preferences, so you should check with the local customs. Please build your day around this.
Sundays, and often time Mondays, are slow business days. Options can be limited.
Each region in Spain has a their own dialect of Spanish, but most can understand basic Spanish. If you don't speak Spanish and you’re lucky, you will find English speakers as well.
If a little old lady tries to sell you rosemary plant, aggressively decline. Also, do not let her put it in your purse or on your arm. If she is successful, she will demand money. You have to be firm in the “NO”.
What about the FREE tapas?
Now, on to these free tapas! You can go on your own adventure for a non touristy option in Madrid.
To my delight, I did find free tapas absolutely do exist… As long as you buy a small beer or wine. You cannot just walk into a bar and get food without a drink purchase. These drinks usually cost about 2€.
Unfortunately, not every place is created equal. Some places offer much tastier options and larger portions. It is 100% dependant on the person pouring for the day. Also, not every bar offers free tapas. It is a true adventure figuring out which place will give you free tapas.
What to Look for on Your Own Journey...
There are three important indicators you are in the right spot for some local tapas. They aren’t a guarantee, but a pretty darn good clue. My suggestion with any of the bars you find with the following 3 indicators, order one drink, see what they bring you. If you value the tapas you are given, order another drink. If not, move to the next stop. Whatever you do, don’t just stay at one spot. Go explore and see what delicious treats you can find.
There are several older Spanish men standing around the bar.There will be very few women out and about in the day time. The men congregate, drink, and socialize. Not many local people sit at the tables in the bar. If you see a group of old men hanging out, you are probably in the right place.
There is a small amount of rubbish on the counter. I know this sounds weird, as many people are often looking for very clean places to enjoy food items. However, a SMALL amount of rubbish indicates there have been many locals indulging in cerveza and tapas… Enough the bartender has a little trouble keeping up with demand and tidying. This does not mean go to a dirty place. There is a difference in dirty and untidy.
There is a glass encasement filled with delicious looking tapas. The Spanish are very smart folks. They are going to make their life easy. This includes grabbing tapas after their patrons are served. They usually pour a beverage and just reach for the closest tapa to give their guest. So, if you like what you see, I suggest putting in an order.
Where I Suggest You Should Go
While visiting Madrid I fell in love with the La Latina and Lavapiés neighborhoods. These two neighborhoods are older, grittier and deeply rooted in culture. Every corner seems to have a local watering hole with a seat just for you. These neighborhoods also are much more diverse and young.
4 bars with free I found tapas (but there are many more, I am sure):
Name: Taberna J Blanca Comidas y Cenas
Atmosphere: It is a medium sized bar with patrons flowing out the open front do
ors to smoke. It is smokey and a bit dingy. It is a place the whole Spanish family will go.