Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain

Valentina Ruffoni has lived in Madrid for three years and runs the highly successful food and drink community, Eat Out Madrid. She shares her top tips for dining out like a true Spaniard.

Eight steps to dining out like a local in Spain
Photo: Valentina Ruffoni / Eat Out Madrid

Whether you have been in Spain three years like me or just three weeks, understanding and adapting to the Spanish dining culture can be difficult but follow these tips and you will be on your way in no time!

Dining times

Photo: Pablo Lopez/Flickr

Dining times here in Spain are much later than what you are may be used to. Lunch is usually between 2-4pm and dinner from 8.30pm onwards. Most restaurants will open at these times and close between the seatings to reset for dinner and give their own staff a chance to rest and eat, so if you are like me and like to eat an early dinner (6-8pm), this could be difficult to find unless you are in the centre of one of the big cities such as Madrid where kitchens are open all day. This is one of the biggest hardest cultural differences many expats find it difficult to adjust to.

Menu del Dia

Photo: CPGXK/Flickr

Translated to “Menu of the Day”, you will see many chalkboards offering these outside most of the traditional Spanish restaurants at lunchtime. For a set price you can enjoy a starter, main course, dessert or coffee, a drink and bread. These can range from €9 up to around €15 depending where you are but are a common choice for most workers as it is usually a large meal which will set you up for the rest of the day. In Spain, lunch is considered their largest meal and dinner is often something smaller. Many attribute this as one of the main reasons why Spanish people enjoy such long life expectancy.  

TOP TIP: Out with a group of 2 or more? Order “agua, vino y casera” which basically gives you a large bottle of water, a bottle of wine and a bottle of casera (a sweet fizzy soda water). This allows you to have more than one drink for the same price. Word of warning: Alcohol is prevalent throughout the day even during working hours, the drinking culture here is as common as going for a coffee (plus the prices are very reasonable, thanks to the many local brands of he country)


Where are the vegetables?

Coming from the UK I grew up on meals which consisted of meat, potatoes and vegetables. Here in Spain a portion of vegetables with your meal is quite uncommon and even hard to find as a side dish on most menus. Aside from a couple of pimientos de Padron (Small green peppers cooked in oil) or a side salad (iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion and tuna – yes tuna is a common ingredient in salads) the absence of vegetables on plates is very evident. 

That said, potatoes is a main staple with most meat and fish dishes and a meal is always served with bread (but not butter).

TOP TIP: If you don't want potatoes, it's worth asking if they have an alternative as an accompaniment. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Eating al fresco


One of the perks of living in Spain is undoubtedly the climate and the joy of eating in the sunshine even in March or October. 

The streets and squares of Spain are lined with terrazas and it is tempting to choose to eat al fresco. However, if you do decide to sit here be aware that you could be charged a premium, something that isn't always explained when you sit down and order.

After dinner drinks

Photo: OscarDC/Flickr

Dining out in Spain is a very social experience, many locals will often meet for an aperitivo and then spend at least 2 hours eating lunch. After lunch is finished, it is common to order a “chupito” which usually would be something creamy, similar to a Baileys or something more herbal. In many restaurants, especially more traditional Spanish ones, you will be offered these for free. But after dinner is the time to order “copas”: Long drinks such as gin and tonic or rum and coke.

To tip or not to tip?

Photo: orellopics/flickr

Unlike other cultures tipping is not something that is compulsory or expected here, and many could argue that as a result of this the customer service does not always meet the standard you'd desire. However, if you do feel you want to give something and the staff were particularly friendly and efficient then a handful of small change is more than enough.

Throwing serviettes on the floor

Particularly in traditional bars where stools are placed at the counters or there is a large space to stand, you will start to notice serviettes or tissues on the floor, and I don’t mean just a few here and there. This was one of the most difficult things to adjust to and actually I still question it now. Someone once told me that if a someone is to throw one on the floor it is a sign of a good experience. This always confused me as there are bins at floor level, yet none of these were any-where close.

Enjoying the “Free tapas”

Photo: AFP

Spain is well known for giving out a small “tapa” for free when you order a drink. Now, depending where you are, you can experience very different things. Smaller offerings can include olives or crisps (chips) but this could also span to tortilla, potatoes or some sort meat or fish with bread.

TOP TIP: When going to a bar where you know you will order food, only order a drink to start and wait a while to suggest you are interested in food. By doing so, you are more likely to get that “free tapa” with your drink at the beginning, rather than risk missing out because the staff  know you will be ordering food and don't want to fill you up with a freebie.

Valentina Ruffoni is a Madrid based foodie who is originally from the UK. She is the founder of Eat Out Madrid, the largest online community of English speaking food lovers in the capital who are on the search to find the best places to eat and drink. Get recommendations for your next eat out experience and share your favorite places to go by joining the community.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Despite being known for its year-long sunny weather, Spain is the EU country with the fewest homes with natural light, often intentionally. Why is it that when it comes to spending time at home, Spaniards seem to love being in the dark?

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Spain – the land of sunshine. The country gets between 2,500 and 3,000 hours of sun per year on average, almost double the 1,600 hours the UK gets, for example.

You’d probably assume that finding a bright apartment in such a sunny country would be a piece of cake, but unless you’re renting or buying a modern home, it might be trickier than you realise.

More than one in ten Spaniards live in dwellings they feel are “too dark” – the highest percentage among all EU countries, according to figures from Eurostat.

As far as dark homes go, Spain is head and shoulders above the EU average of 5.9 percent, and higher than other nations with a high rate of gloomy homes such as France (9.5 percent), Malta (9.4 percent) and Hungary (7.7 percent).

At the other end of the brightly lit spectrum, it’s no surprise to see that countries with cloudier skies and darker winters such as Norway, Slovakia, Estonia, Czechia and the Netherlands have homes that let in plenty of natural light, and yet Spain’s sun-kissed Mediterranean neighbours Italy and Cyprus do make the most of the readily available light.

Dark homes are almost twice as common in Spain as the EU average. Graph: Eurostat.

So why are Spanish homes so dark?

Is it a case of hiding away from the sun, and keeping cool during the summer months? Or is it something else? 

Apartment blocks

The vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments as opposed to houses, often in tightly-packed cities with narrow streets.

In fact, in Spain 64.6 percent of the population lives in flats or apartments, second in the EU after Latvia (65.9 percent.)

By contrast the EU wide average is 46.1 percent.

By nature of apartment living, Spanish homes tend to get less sunlight.

Depending on whether they have an exterior or interior flat, they might not actually have a single window in the flat that faces the street.

If the apartment is on a lower floor, the chances of it receiving natural light are even lower. Internal patios can help to solve this to some extent, but only during the mid day and early afternoon hours. 

why are spanish homes so dark

A dark, narrow street in the centre of Palma de Mallorca. Photo: seth0s/Pixabay

Hot summers

During Spain’s scorching summer months, there’s no greater relief than stepping into a darkened apartment building lobby and feeling the temperature drop. 

In southern Spain, and in coastal regions, Spanish buildings were traditionally built to protect against the heat and hide away from the long sunny hours. White walled exteriors and dark interiors help to keep homes cool.

It’s often the case that bedrooms are put in the darkest, coolest part of the apartment, sometimes with just a box-window to allow for a breeze but no sunlight.

Spaniards’ obsession with blinds and shutters

Spain is pretty much the only country in Europe whose inhabitants still use blinds (persianas), even during the colder winter months.

In this case, rather than it just being down to keeping homes cool during the sweltering summer months, their usage is intrinsic to Spain’s Moorish past and the fact that they provide a degree of privacy from nosy neighbours. By contrast, northern Europeans with Calvinist roots such as the Dutch keep the curtains open to let in natural light and because historically speaking, keeping the inside of homes visible from the street represents not having anything to hide. But in Spain, the intimacy of one’s home is sacrosanct, especially when the neighbour in the apartment building opposite is less then ten metres away.

Keeping the blinds or shutters down also has the advantage of making it easier to have an afternoon nap (the siesta, of course) or to sleep in late after a long night out on the town. 

In any case, it seems hard to believe for some foreigners that many Spaniards are happy to live in the dark whilst spending time at home, regardless of whether they’re sleeping or not. 

A byproduct of this? Dark, gloomy homes.

why are spanish homes so dark

Spaniards aren’t fans of airing their dirty laundry, at least metaphorically speaking. Blinds have historically provided the privacy they’ve wanted from their homes. Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash

The long, dark corridors

Spanish apartments have plenty of quirks that seem odd to outsiders, from the light switches being outside of the room, the aforementioned shutters, the bottles of butane and last but not least, the never-ending corridors. 

Most Spanish homes built in the 19th and 20th century include these long pasillos running from the entrance to the end of the flat. They were meant to provide a separation between the main living spaces and the service rooms (kitchen, bathroom etc), easy access to all and better airing and light capabilities. But when the doors to the rooms are closed as often happens, these corridors become the opposite of what was intended: dark and airless.

Navigating these windowless corridors at night is akin to waking around blindfolded.

dark corridor spain

Light at the end of the tunnel? Dark corridors are a common feature of Spanish homes. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Are Spaniards rethinking their dark homes?

Times are changing, and modern designs are experimenting with more spacious, light-filled, open-plan apartments, especially as the Covid-19 lockdown forced many Spaniards to reconsider their abodes. 

It’s also increasingly common to see property adds stressing that the property is diáfano, which means that natural light enters the home from all sides.

However, the vast majority of Spanish homes are still gloomy for the most part, often intentionally.

A combination of traditional building styles, the crowded nature of apartment block living, the use of shutters, the desire to keep homes private, and the long windowless corridors mean Spanish flats can seem dark if you’re new to the country, and with good reason.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that Spanish society is one that largely lives its life outdoors. Living in smaller apartments, Spaniards generally spend less time at home and more time out and about in the street.

Native to a hot and sunny country as they are, Spaniards’ homes are a place of rest, relaxation and, crucially, sleep.

Spanish people have enough sunlight and heat in their lives; they like to live, therefore, in homes designed to keep cool and dark.

READ ALSO: Why are Spanish homes so cold?