Food is to Spain as Picasso is to art; there’s no question that the two of them belong together. Spanish foods are unique, hearty, and wonderfully satisfying. Whether it’s a bowl of homemade stew on a cold day or a table spread with half a dozen tapas, this country knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to food.
The best advice we can give? If you go to Spain, don’t miss an opportunity to travel to all the different regions and try as many famous Spanish dishes as possible. If you'd like, there are plenty of food tours in Spain to guide you along the way. If you want to do it on your own, to get you started, here is our list of 13 must-try famous Spanish dishes to eat while in Spain.
One of the most traditional and famous rice dishes in Spain, paella comes in several varieties, but if you can, try Valencia paella. Valencia is the region in which this dish originates so you’d better believe they know how to make this highly-sought after Spanish food just right. The most traditional variations are made with rabbit, chicken or seafood. The meat or seafood is simmered together with green beans, white beans, rice, and herbs like saffron and rosemary. It may take some time to prepare, but the slow cooking process highlights the distinctive flavors. You’ll easily be able to spot paella in restaurants by the bright yellow rice, which takes its color from the saffron.
Say what: pah-YAY-ah
Tip: Paella is almost always a lunchtime dish — do as the locals do and eat paella mid-day.
Best described as a cold tomato soup, this definition doesn’t really do gazpacho justice. You have to try it to find out why a seemingly simple dish is such a tasty favorite for so many people. A proper gazpacho is made from only fresh tomatoes, cucumber, red bell peppers, garlic, bread, and olive oil blended together into a smooth, refreshing liquid.
Say what: gahz-PAH-tcho
Tip: Gazpacho can be served as an appetizer or meal, depending on the size of the portion and what it’s served in, i.e. glass or bowl.
One of the most famous Spanish foods and one that Spanish people go absolutely nuts for, jamón is a cured ham made from either mountain pig or black Iberian pig, the latter of the two being more expensive. The legs from these pigs are salted and hung to dry in order to preserve them to be consumed throughout the long winter. Nowadays, Jamón is commonly served as an appetizer on its own, or with bread. The paper-thin slices allow diners to enjoy the salty, savory flavor in small yet satisfying doses. Spanish people consider jamón a staple in their diets; look for it in local tapas shops.
Say what: hah-MON
Tip: If you’re purchasing your own leg of Jamón, look for a leg with candle-like waxy fat that melts between your fingers.
Churros are a sweet, popular snack of hot fried dough coated in sugar crystals. They take on a long, spiral shape, making them perfect to munch on the go. The most common place to find these tasty treats is at roadside street stalls.
Tip: You definitely want to try dipping this already sugary treat in melted chocolate. After all, when in Spain, do as the Spanish do!
Patatas bravas or ‘brave potatoes’ is one of the most common tapas found in Spain and a must-try. These are small, fried chunks of potatoes with a generous topping of fiery red sauce; you’ve been warned. Some variations may come with a creamy garlic sauce.
Say what: pah-TAH-tahs brah-vahs
Tip: Patatas bravas is mostly eaten as tapas — small dishes or bite-sized snacks served at bars and cafes. Tapas help bridge the gap between the mid-day meal and dinner, which is typically eaten late; think 9pm – 11pm. Tapas quell the rising hunger, but are also seen as a huge part of Spanish social culture. Order a dish and then order a few more — it’s perfectly acceptable to pick and choose!
This pork sausage joins jamón as one of the most famous Spanish meats. This is not just any ordinary pork sausage — the secret ingredient is smoked paprika and it gives the meat a hearty kick. Other flavor enhancers include garlic, white wine, and herbs. After the pork is mixed with the other ingredients, it’s allowed to ferment and then slowly smoked. The last step is curing the sausage for several weeks. Then it is finally ready to eat. There’s no other sausage quite like this one and it’s definitely worth the wait!
Say what: choh-REE-soh
Tip: One of the great things about chorizo is its versatility; it can be served on its own or added to dishes like tortilla Española (see below), sandwiches, and paella. It can even be eaten ‘raw’ since it’s been smoked and cured!
We’re not talking about the chips! Tortilla Española is actually a traditional omelet made only with egg and diced and lightly fried potatoes. There is some controversy as to whether genuine tortilla Española contains onion, so a restaurant will usually specify whether their version comes with or without. Nowadays, it’s also not uncommon to find chorizo, cheese, chives, garlic, or other veggies accompanying the two or three original ingredients. Either way, this is a tasty, protein filled meal that is a must try.
Say what:tor-TEE-yah es-pahn-YOL-ah
Tip: Tortilla Española is often cut into small bite sized pieces, stuck with a toothpick and served as a cold starter dish or tapa. However, bigger tortillas can also be eaten for breakfast or as a main dish, which is especially nice for non-meat eaters. Expect a bigger tortilla to be cut into wedges, like cake.
While technically not something you can eat, no trip to Spain is complete without a glass or two of sangria. Its legacy goes back some 2,000 years when water was not always safe to drink. Hence, wine was often added to the water with the hopes that the alcohol would kill any bacteria in the drink. Fast forward to current day and you’ll still find the red wine, orange juice, brandy, and sliced fruit mix being served in Spain. Order a glass or a pitcher and find out why the drink still remains a crowd-favorite.
Say what: san-GRee-yah
Tip: If you think sangria is a bit overrated, try tinto de verano — red wine, lemon soda water, and ice. This drink is similar to sangria, but more popular with the locals, and half the price!
A sort of eggplant casserole-type dish, topped with a Spanish twist of fried egg and chorizo, pisto’s typical ingredients include tomato, onion, eggplant, red and green bell peppers, and olive oil. Think of it as a Spanish-style ratatouille. The vegetables are stewed together slowly with olive oil. Although it sounds simple, making good pisto is an art — it’s all in the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the chef. It’s usually served with bread and eaten as a full meal. This is a great dish for vegetarians, as long as you hold the chorizo!
Say what: PEE-stow
Tip: Pisto is also what’s used to stuff empanadas, so you may have tried it in another form already!
Fabada astruiana is a rich, hearty Spanish style stew that’s perfect for cold winter months. This heavy dish of white beans, pork, chorizo, and saffron is typically served during the biggest meal of the day, which in Spain, is lunch. It can be presented as a starter, but can certainly pass as a full meal. While fabada is typically a cold weather food, you can find it all over the country and in any season. You’ll even see the canned version on the grocery store shelves, however this shouldn’t be your first choice!
Say what: fuh-BAH-duh AAS-toor-ee-ah-nah
Tip: Best enjoyed with crusty bread and red wine.
Another favorite tapa and perfect bar snack is this fried ball of delectable goodness. Think of it as the western version of chicken strips, cheese sticks, or something else fried, unhealthy, but irresistible. These deep-fried balls are stuffed with jamón, fish, and sometimes a traditional Spanish blue cheese.
Say what: kroh-KET-tahs
Tip: The more basic looking the bar, the better the croquetas!
If you speak Spanish you may already know what to expect when you order it. The verb empanar literally means “to wrap in bread”, which should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect with an empanada. This famous Spanish dish is sometimes served like piece of pie or wrapped up completely like a calzone. Empanadas are savory, filling, and one of Spain’s best comfort foods. The flaky crust gives way to a flavorful, sautéed stuffing of anything from chorizo, to sardines, to peppers. There is plenty of variety when it comes to empanadas, but it’s the slow-cooked onion sauce that gives the dish its trademark taste.
Say what: ehm-pah-NAH-dah
Tip: Originating in Galicia, the northeastern corner of Spain, empanadas are best tried here. However, this famous food is served throughout the country (and the world), so don’t worry if you can’t make it up north!
Literally meaning garlic with shrimps, gambos al ajillo is a seafood dish. Although any seafood dish in Spain is satisfying given that seafood in the country is always fresh, gambos al ajillo beats out all other for its widespread popularity among locals and mouth-wateringly delicious taste. The key ingredients are shrimp, garlic, and olive oil and will likely include a splash of dry sherry, paprika, lemon juice, and parsley. However, like most dishes this one too differs from cook to cook.
Say what: gahm-bus ahl ah-hee-oh
Tip: Often served in tapas bars as an appetizer.
Between famous Spanish foods like tapas, soups, seafood, and rice you’ll find it literally impossible to go hungry in Spain. Eating is a huge part of Spanish culture and the locals certainly know how to enjoy themselves when it comes to meal times. So, when you go to Spain, be sure to come hungry — just don’t expect to leave that way.