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What is tapas, anyway?

I happen to be one of those people who thinks that going on vacation is a license to ignore things like calories and fat content. The whole point of being in another country is experiencing the culture, and one of the best ways to get in good with a culture quickly is by getting familiar with the local cuisine. One of the most famous Spanish foods is tapas, but what is tapas, exactly?

The word “tapas” comes from the Spanish word “tapa,” meaning “lid” or “cover,” and one story is that the word originally referred to the thin slice of ham which was served covering a glass of sherry at bars and inns in order to keep out dirt and flies. Another story is that the tradition of covering a drink glass with a piece of flat bread was embellished when someone eventually decided to put a little bit of food on the top of that bread as well. Whatever the etymology, today when you see the word “tapas” you can be assured that what it means is that there are small sample-sized plates of Spanish food on offer.

The individual dishes that you’ll find in any tapas bar, however, will vary widely depending on where you are in Spain. Just as every other menu item is regional, so is the tapas selection. You’ll likely find both meat and veggie options wherever you are, and of course the great news about getting small plates is that if you don’t love something you don’t have a giant portion of it in front of you.

Going tapas tasting is an excellent way to introduce yourself to the local cuisine. Plan a visit to a tapas bar early in your stay in any given city to see what the regional specialties are – and then keep track of the things you really love, as well as the things you really don’t! Then when you sit down to a meal, you can hunt for the things you liked in other menu items.

For most Spaniards, stopping at a bar for some tapas is something that’s done between leaving work and having dinner. Remember, dinner in Spain can begin as late as 11pm! But for tourists, doing a tapas and wine tour is a great way to experiment with lots of different kinds of local dishes and create a whole dinner. Simply stop at several different tapas places, getting a little something to drink and a few plates to nibble on at each one, and after a few hours you’ll have had an entire dinner! Even better for budget travelers, check around to find out which bars (if any) have free tapas offers where you’ll get one tapa with your drink, or even sometimes unlimited tapas with the purchase of a drink.

Much of the time, you’ll eat your tapas and drink your chosen beverage while standing – tapas is usually not a sit-down affair. But some tapas bars are set up so that there isn’t a place to stand, so you’ll just need to look around and mimic what everyone else is doing. Just don’t be surprised if you see lots of people standing to eat.

>> For some common tapas dishes, see our list of famous Spanish foods and our first timers’ guide to tapas etiquette.

original photo locations, top to bottom: protocol7 on Flickr and wili_hybrid on Flickr