Handy tips on tipping customs, shopping hours, restaurant etiquette, taxi and transport, and more
One should perhaps not take too seriously rules about how to behave. On the other hand, it can be dangerous to be totally ignorant about local customs and traditions when travelling in a foreign country. So here are a few half serious, half light-hearted tips about how things work in Spain. What are the Spanish customs for tipping? How do you get a taxi? What should you do and not do in a restaurant or a café to get the best service? Etcetera.
But take it with a pinch of salt.
Tipping in Spain
Tipping in Spain is entirely optional, but can be done – is often done – if service is good.
Tipping in restaurants
Usually, people tip in restaurants. Tips are not included in the prices on the menu. It is common to tip in Spain, especially if the service and/or the food have been good. If service has not been good people usually don’t tip.
The amount of the tip is, of course, dependent on the total bill. Usually, it is something around 5%. To give a very small tip is seen as an insult.
Tipping in cafés and bars
It is not necessary, not even expected, to tip in cafés or bars, but it is of course appreciated. If you have a coffee at the counted you can give one or a few copper coins, 10 ct, 15 ct, 20 ct… (A coffee at the counter in a café costs ~1.3-1.80 euro.) Or not. For other things, at other prices, it is correspondingly different tips.
Tipping in taxis
You typically don’t tip in a taxi. You can if you want. Rounding up to a “convenient” total can be good, if service is good, of course. (NB: see the taxi advice also.)
Tipping in hotels
Typically, hotels in Spain don’t have porters. Only very luxurious ones do. You can tip a few euros but are not obliged to (how much depends on the cost of the room of course).
Almost everyone takes Visa and MasterCard although most prefer cash, especially for smaller sums. Spanish law stipulates that paying with a credit card should always be an option if the sum exceeds 30 euro. If it is less, then the shop/restaurant can refuse a card payment.
Fewer merchants and restaurants take American Express cards. Travelling in Spain with only AmEx would be difficult.
What they charge to the credit card is always exactly what it says on the bill. You cannot put tips on the card and you cannot ask a shop to charge more to your card than what you bought in order for you to get some cash in return.
It is safe to use credit cards in Spain. All restaurants have mobile card terminals that they bring to the table, except a few where they ask you to come to the counter.
Restaurants and restaurant etiquette
Simpler restaurants have a menu outside so that you can see what they offer. Most restaurants have a set “today’s menu” in addition to the a la carta menu (where you choose yourself and compose your own menu). You can always ask for it if they don’t give it to you automatically. It usually is a more economical choice.
The fixed-price menu is called menu del día. In more gastronomic restaurants it is often called menu degustación, as opposed to a la carta.
Except in the very, very cheapest restaurants, you would always wait to be seated by a waiter. You don’t just walk in and sit down, that’s very rude. Even for outside seating. As always, there are exceptions.
A traditional Spanish meal has four phases: 1) the starter, aperitivo, that often is some kind of tapa (which is the singular for tapas); 2) the first course, primer plato, often a salad or ham and chorizo (embutidos) and cheese, or soup; 3) main course, segundo plato, and a side dish with potatoes or vegetables. You always have to order the side dish separately, otherwise you get just the main ingredient (eg a fish but no vegetables); 4) dessert, postre. Coffee is served after dessert, not with the dessert. Of course, you are not expected always to eat all this in a restaurant. You can e.g. order just a segundo with a side dish.
Sometimes the restaurant offers you an orujo, a brandy or liqueur, to the coffee. This is more common in restaurants that mainly have Spanish guests and when you have spent a lot of money on the meal.
Food is a serious issue in Spain that Spaniards treat it with respect and pride. When having dinner with friends you always fall into a discussion of what good food you have eaten before and which restaurants you would recommend. Spanish people are very demanding about what is on the plate and if it is not up to the expected standard you don’t ever come back (rather than complain).
In Spain, you eat bread together with the food. In many restaurants, you get bread and some olive oil so that you can soak your bread in a bit of oil before the meal. They are very proud of their olive oil – Spain is after all the world’s biggest olive oil producer – and tasting the olive oil is important for many.
Many consider the quality of the bread to be an important aspect to judge the quality of the restaurant. There will always be a bread basket on the table, from the beginning up until you have finished the main course. What kind of bread you get varies, not least because all Spanish regions have their own typical type of bread. In Spain, they never put butter on the bread, so there will be no butter on the table. If you ask for butter they most likely will not have any. But they do have olive oil.
You never get a carafe of water on the table. Instead, you buy still mineral water, agua sin gas, or bubbly, agua con gas.
If you want coffee after the meal, you’ll get it after the food. In Spain, you never serve coffee with dessert. You have it either after dessert or instead of dessert. Usually, you take a café after dinner but you have to specify what kind you want: cortado, largo, con leche, americano etc
You usually have to ask for the bill (la cuenta por favor or la nota, por favor). Curiously that is often the item that takes the longest time to arrive on the table. It would be very rude of the waiter to bring you the bill without you having asked for it (unless he’s going off shift) so you do have to ask for it. There are exceptions of course…
You cannot add tips on to the credit card charge if you pay with plastic. If you want to tip you have to do it in cash. However, you can without a problem split a bill on several cards. Just tell them how you want it split, e.g. 50/50 or specific amounts on each card. A Spaniard would never bother to do a detailed calculation of how to split the bill. Instead, you just split it according to the number of people present. It would be considered penny-pinching to do calculations of what each and everyone has had. It will anyway even out in the long run, is the reasoning.
It is good manners to say hello when you arrive and goodbye when you leave. For example, buenas dias, or buenas tardes that is often used after 2 PM, or buenas noches after around 9 PM in the evening. You say the same thing when arriving as when leaving. Hasta luego is very informal and is best not used to people that you don’t know.
When you leave or when you arrive some think it is nice to say buen provecho or buen apetito to the tables you pass (even if you don’t know them), have a nice meal. According to formal protocol, it is not done, but it is still very common outside big cities and tourist areas.
Restaurant opening hours
Spain is very different when it comes to the times of the day you eat, and it is very difficult to deviate from Spanish norms. But if you come to Spain, why not relax and do what the Spanish do, even though the hours are crazy?
Lunch hours are usually between 14.00 (2 PM) and 16.00 (4 PM). In Catalonia, you can find restaurants that open earlier, since they consider themselves to be more open to the world… To survive until a late lunch (i.e. a normal Spanish lunch) many take an aperitivo in a bar around noon or 1 PM.
In the evening, restaurants usually open at 21.00 (9 PM), sometimes 20.30 (8.30 PM). But it is not unusual to sit down for dinner around 10 PM. If you have an “emergency” you can usually find an open restaurant (e.g. near a train station or tourist district) that has service all day long. Also, tapas can be an alternative for an earlier dinner.
Food plays a very important role in Spain. You can still find many open-air markets where people shop for food, but even in supermarkets the food range and quality is often impressive and very reasonably priced.
In Spanish cooking, it is the basic ingredients that play the leading role. Compared to some other food cultures (e.g. Scandinavian or American) Spaniards put less spices on the food and much less salt. To pan-fry meat and just serve it with a pinch of salt is common. This is because the ingredients themselves (for example the meat) are of good quality and it is their own flavours that should be emphasised and not be covered in excessive spicing and salt.
This sometimes leads to that foreigners can think that Spanish food lacks in “flavours”. This is a mistake. In fact, the food is cooked to bring out the delicate and delicious flavours of the ingredients. The Spanish would say that adding a spicy barbecue sauce or too much spices and salt would be like putting too much makeup on or body-building with steroids. Not good. Spanish cooking rarely uses sauces.
The chef has created the food for you, according to how he thinks best.
Spanish cuisine has become internationally renowned in the last 20 years thanks to star chefs like for example Ferrán Adriá, Joan Roca, Martín Berasategui, Juan Mari y Elena Arzak or Pedro Subijana, and many more.
Each region has its own traditional dishes so the menu will be different. For example, the most typical dish in Andalucia is the gazpacho. In Valencia, you have the paella. In Rioja, it is lamb and white beans, in Galicia fish and seafood (mariscos) etc. In the north, the cuisine is more refined (or elaborate) than in the south. It is said that this is because of the cooler and wetter climate.
Tapas, a culinary treasure from Spain
If there is something that all non-Spanish know about Spanish gastronomy, then it’s tapas! Or any of the tapas ‘cousins’. Tapas are served in most bars and many cafés. Often with local specialities. Sometimes very simple, but sometimes amazingly sophisticated.
There is no real difference between tapas, pinchos and pintxos. It is primarily a question of language, depending on where you are in Spain. In the Basque Country, Rioja and Navarra, it’s called pinchos, or pintxos in Basque. Some argue that there is some kind of fundamental difference, but that is mostly a little bit of showing off with no real substance.
In some places, tapas are free (if you drink something) but in the majority of cases you pay for la tapa / el pincho.
There are both hot and cold tapas. It can be something very simple, for example, a jamòn ibérico (good examples are expensive) or the most strange creations. Omelettes (tortilla) can often be very good. Patatas bravas is another classic (fried potatoes with spicy sauce).
For most Spaniards, tapas is a small snack together with an aperitif before the meal, when stopping at a bar for a glass, before arriving at the evening’s restaurant.
But tapas can also be a very good alternative to a traditional seated restaurant dinner, especially if you want to start dinner a little bit earlier than when the restaurants open. You start with one tapa and then take another one and another until you are satisfied. A nice way to do it is to take one at each bar / café and then go to the next, making it into a real bar crawl, or rather a tapas crawl.
If you take several tapas, it is a good idea to remember what you have had so that you can tell (or point it out) to the waiter when you pay. He will not always remember. Or, you pay each time you order.
In most cases, all tapas are displayed on the bar counter. Sometimes some things can be cooked or heated behind the counter when you order it. It is impossible to know what one or the other tapa is called, so it’s often just as well to point to what you want. But even if everything is displayed easily within reach on the bar counter you never help yourself to it, you always ask for it.
Often, you eat the tapas standing up, very informally, order it at the bar and stand where you can find room. Sometimes it is with table service.
In Rioja’s capital, Logroño, there are two famous streets, Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan (plus Calle San Agustín and others nearby), full of bars offering tapas of many different kinds. Many bars are specialized in a certain kind of tapas. Going there in the evening (after 9 PM or so) is a peculiar, festive experience. More congested than on the subway. In Bilbao, Plaza Nueva in the old town and Calle Ledesma in the newer part of town, are the most famous tapa haunts.
But tapas are everywhere in all cities! It can be an even more fun experience to go somewhere where not all other tourists go.
Tap water is perfectly safe to drink, although Spaniards usually don’t drink it. In some places, the chloride contents are high and even if it safe to drink the taste is not fantastic.
Coffee in Spain – “un café por favor”
There are many different types of coffee in Spain, but it does not have quite the almost iconic status that it has in Italy. Many Spaniards complain (without good reason!) of the quality of their coffee, even though they belong to one of the top 20 countries that drink the most coffee per capita.
If you order “un café por favor“, then you will get a question back what kind of coffee you want.
For those who cannot be without Swedish-American-English (brewed) coffee, the best tip is to order a café americano. This is an espresso that is “stretched” (diluted) with hot water in a larger coffee cup and is what is most similar to a brewed filter coffee.
So when you get the question of what kind of coffee you want then it is wise to be fast, the one behind the counter is in a hurry because there is a queue of others who are also impatiently waiting to order their coffee.
Here is a short cheat-sheet of the most common types of coffee.
Café solo – An espresso coffee and is usually served in a cup. This delicious cafe solo is made by the waiter in front of you when you ask for it.
Café cortado – A cortado is the same amount of coffee as the café solo with a small dash of milk added to reduce the acidity of the coffee. It can be served in a cup or in a glass.
Café con leche – Coffee with milk. You can choose which kind of milk you want (cold, hot, with foam, low-fat milk, etc.). It is usually served in a cup larger than the cafe solo one.
Café largo – One dose of espresso coffee but where they let some more water flow through the coffee (or add a little), in a larger cup. So it’s a softer, slightly diluted version of a café solo.
Leche manchada – A cup of milk with some coffee added.
Café americano – A cup larger than that for café largo and with even more (hot) water added. It is a coffee that many students drink.
Café con hielo – A very common way to take coffee in the summer. It’s an espresso (café solo), but you get a glass of ice cubes on the side. The customer then pours the hot coffee into the glass with ice.
Café descafeinado – Decaffeinated coffee.
Taxi in Spain, and alternatives
You can hail a taxi on the street or call for one or take one at a taxi stand. Or ask the hotel or restaurant to call. There may in some cases be a surcharge (compared to the initial fee shown on the meter) for a suitcase or more, or for train stations or airports. (But not always.) This is not a case of the driver trying to rip you off; it is just how the pricing is defined. The rules are usually posted on one of the back-seat car windows. The extra charge is usually added at the very end, on top of the meter charge for the distance and time. Sometimes the fare from an airport is at fixed-price. To the airport, it is always on the meter. It’s a good idea to ask before you settle into the taxi.
Taxis don’t always take four persons. If they do, there may be a surcharge for the fourth person. Be sure to mention that you are four if you call or pre-order. Passengers normally sit in the rear (up to three). If you want to sit in front, do ask the driver first. It often functions as his/her office
Important: Most taxis only take cash, no credit card. If you want to pay with a card, make sure you say so when you call for the taxi and check before you step in.
Also, see the section on tipping.
Uber now exist in many cities in Spain. There is also something similar called Cabify. There have been quite violent protests against these alternative modern-era services.
Shops usually open at 9.30 or 10.00 and close at 20.00 or 21.30. In smaller shops and in smaller towns they often close for a lunch break between 14.00 and 16.00 / 16.30. In bigger cities shops usually don’t close for lunch. El Corte Ingles, the big department store chain, is open from 10.00 (10 AM) to 22.00 (10 PM) and bigger food and fashion shops sometimes do the same (Carrefour, Mercadona etc).
Most shops are open six days a week, Monday to Saturday. Bigger shops have the same shopping hours as on weekdays. Smaller ones can close at 14.00 (2 PM).
Sundays: Most shops are closed. In tourist areas, they may be open and some food and grocery shops are often open on Sunday mornings. But don’t count on doing any other shopping on Sundays. Unless you go to a Sunday (morning) market.
Bigger shops in some parts of Spain can be open on the first Sunday of every month from 10.00 (10 AM) to 22.00 (10 PM), as well as all Sundays in December.
Food Markets, mercadillos
It is still common with food markets, mercadillos. Larger cities have several, in smaller ones, there is always at least one. Within easy walking distance. It can be a real experience in food, colours and aromas to visit a food or clothing market, well worth an hour or two if you have time. The markets are usually open one or a few days of the week, in the morning. Often the market is open-air, on the town square, but there are also indoor markets. Ask someone about when and where the nearest market is. They often sell both food and other things, like e.g. clothes.
The Spanish language
Travelling in Spain and not being able to speak Spanish can be tricky depending on where you are going. In the big cities and among the younger Spaniards you can mostly find someone who understands English. But in rural areas it may be trickier to find someone. Nevertheless, people out in the villages tend to be very helpful and try to make themselves understood with their hands and feet.
Spaniards usually speak loudly. That does not mean that they’re upset, they just want to make sure they’re heard…
The Spanish language is a simple language to learn the basics of. You write like you speak. Together with Russian, Spanish has the world’s largest vocabulary. This is because, among other things, the same thing is called different things in different parts of the country. Not always easy.
Depending on where you are, Spain has different official languages. For example, in Galicia it is Galician (gallego), in Catalonia Catalan (catalan), in Valencia Valencian (valenciano), etc. But, of course, the “usual” Spanish, which everyone speaks, works everywhere (almost), and is commonly referred to as castellano, not Spanish…
So now you know it all. Welcome to Spain on a wine tour with us at BKWine to enjoy some of the world’s finest wine and food.
Travel to the world’s wine countries with the people who know wine and the local culture, with those who can give you the best experience. Travel with those who can take you to the best producers and the most beautiful spots. Where you get to taste the most exciting wines, personally meet the winemakers, and enjoy the true local gastronomy.
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