The Spanish are incredibly passionate about their food and wine, and fiercely proud of their native cuisine. Generally you're looking at food that's quite light, packed with healthy vegetables, as well as a huge variety of fresh meat and fish. Spanish cuisine relies on high quality ingredients rather than spices and seasoning, so some people find it a little bland. The variety of restaurants in big cities - Italian, Chinese, American fast food, etc. - tends to make up for it.
One thing that can be difficult to get used to when on a gap year in Spain is that the locals tend to eat on a different timetable to what you might be used to.
Remember the following when you travel there:
Breakfast (el desayuno): for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (similar to a cracker) or magdalena (a sweet muffin-like bread). Later in the morning, some will go to a cafe for a pastry, but only if it's not too close to lunchtime.
El aperitivo: A light snack eaten around midday. The Spanish take this seriously, and it can include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a "pincho de tortilla".
Lunch (la comida): Starts around 1.30-2:30pm (though it can be pushed even later) and was once typically followed by a short siesta, usually during summer when temperatures can soar in the afternoon. This is the main meal of the day, consisting of two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 4pm at the latest). However, since life has become busier in Spain, the traditional siesta has become far less common.
Dinner (la cena): Starts later than you might be used to, usually at 8.30pm or 9pm, with most restaurant-goers coming after 9pm. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 9pm and many customers may not arrive until after 11pm.
There is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called la merienda. It is similar to a tea time, including cakes or something light, and is enjoyed around 6pm or so.
Between lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes will close. It can take some effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time, though less so in big cities that cater to tourists and backpackers. If you find yourself hungry you can always look for a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches, which can be filled with ham, cheese or any kind of embutido, and bocadillos calientes, hot sandwiches, filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and similar options with cheese. These are substantial, cheap, and tasty, especially if you find a great place.
In big cities you can expect restaurants to stay open until midnight during the week and often until 2-3pm on the weekend.
A traditional Spanish breakfast is fairly modest, including coffee and orange juice, and some pastries or a small sandwich. If you're heading off on a backpacking adventure and need your energy, you might want to keep your own private stash.
In Madrid it's fairly common to have hot chocolate served with delicious churros or porras. It's not the healthiest breakfast in the world, but who cares, you're on holiday! Holiday calories don't count.
Whereas at home you might be used to tapas as a main meal, in Spain they're thought of more as side orders to keep your drink company. Be sure to play the field; some bars offer a wide range of tapas while others specialise in a certain kind (such as seafood).
You could try a 'tapas-crawl,' having one dish and a small drink at one bar, and then moving onto the next to do the same. If you're in a group you can order raciones, which are larger dishes suitable for sharing.
Fast food isn't quite as prominent in Spain as elsewhere in Europe, but you'll still find the usual McDonalds' and Burger Kings in bigger towns and cities. The menu might surprise you, as it includes more salads, yoghurt, and even beer and wine to please the locals. Generally speaking fast food is more expensive in Spain than you might expect, and it isn't always the cheapest option for eating out.
Pizza is a popular choice in Spain, and alongside chain outlets in bigger towns you'll find independent or smaller chains that are well worth checking out.
Seafood: As you'd expect from a country dominated by coastline, fresh seafood is widely available and generally affordable. If you're further inland you should beware of frozen and poorer quality seafood - you might need to pay more to get the best. The best area in Spain for seafood is around the north Atlantic coast.
Here's a few seafood specialities to try if you're feeling brave: Pulpo a la Gallega is boiled octopus served with paprika, olive oil, and rock salt. There's also Sepia, which is cuttlefish, or the famous calamares (squid).
Meat: Spain's farming largely revolves around free range livestock, so meat is generally of a high quality. We highly recommend ordering a beef steak, as its likely to be one of the best you've ever had. Pork cuts are also a good choice; look out for Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico on a menu, an absolute must if you can find them.
Soups: Soup isn't hugely popular in Spain, with the exception being gazpacho, a refreshing soup served cold, which can really hit the spot on a hot afternoon.
Many restaurants offer a complete lunch for a fixed price - 'menú del día' – and this can be a great option if you're on a budget. Mineral water or wine is commonly included in the price.
If you travel to big tourist destinations like Costa Brava and Costa del Sol, you'll find that many of the Spanish traditions don't apply. This means drinks are more expensive (sometimes up to double) and quality of food is often poor. It can be difficult to find proper Spanish food in the tourist centres, but look a little harder and you can still find some exceptional restaurants.
Cheese: Spain offers a wide range of regional cheeses, which you should be able to find sold all over the country. Queso Manchego is extremely popular, while Cabrales, Mahon, and Tetilla are also highly thought of.
Chorizo: Sold in supermarkets all over the world, this cured sausage is made from pork, ham, garlic, pepper, and salt, and comes in a huge range of varieties, including different sizes, shapes, lengths, spice levels, and colours. Try different types and see what suits you.
Jamon (air dried ham): Serrano ham is obtained from the back legs of a pig, salted, and air dried. It's one of the most popular Spanish delicacies, and something you really have to try while on a gap year in Spain.
Morcilla: These aren't for everyone. They're black sausages made with pig's blood and flavoured with rice or onion. It comes in fresh, smoked, or air dried varieties.
The Spanish are surprisingly passionate about the quality, intensity and taste of their coffee, so you'll find a good cup available pretty much anywhere.
The usual choices are solo, the milk-less espresso version; cortado, solo with a dash of milk; con leche , solo with milk added; and manchado, coffee with lots of milk (sort of like the French cafe au lait). Asking for caffee latte will likely result in less milk than you are used to - it's always OK to ask for extra milk.
Good tea in Spain is usually more expensive than you might expect, so if you want a good cuppa you may need to loosen the purse strings.
The legal drinking age in Spain is 18. Obviously anyone below that age can't legally buy and drink alcoholic beverages, but you'll find that enforcement of this rule in tourist and clubbing areas isn't strict. Drinking in the streets in most places isn't allowed, but a blind eye is turned in popular nightlife areas.
Beer: Spanish beer is well work a try. There are bigger brands that you may recognise from back home, like San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Estrella Damm, Ámbar, Estrella de Galicia, Moritz, Keller and many others.
There are also local brands available in most cities, though these will likely cost you a little more. Try Mezquita or Legado de Yuste if you can find them. They're delicious!
In non-tourist areas you'll often find that servings of beer are smaller than you're used to. This ties into the culture of having a drink with a tapas dish and then moving on.
Cava: This is a well-known Spanish sparkling wine that's only not called champagne because it isn't French. Either way, it's delicious, refreshing, and not always too expensive.
Horchata: This is a milky non-alcoholic beverage made from tigernuts and sugar. It's widely available, but Alboraia, a small town near to Valencia, is considered the best place for horchata production.