Bars & Cafes

What you should when having a dring in Spain

Bars & Cafes

One of the delights of living in Spain is the many excellent pavement cafés and bars, and in particular, their delicious coffee and inexpensive prices. Few countries can match Spain for the variety, quality, economy and number of its watering holes. Drinking habits vary considerably from region to region, although it isn’t uncommon to see Spaniards taking a brandy with their morning coffee.

Spain’s cities and resort areas contain a wealth of bars and pubs, including over 8,000 in Madrid alone and reportedly more than the whole of Norway. They include cocktail bars, piano bars, disco bars, live-music bars (e.g. jazz, rock or flamenco), bar-cafeterias, bar-restaurants, cabaret bars, casino bars, beach bars, wine bars ( bodegas), taverns ( tabernas), mesones (a bar specialising in serving wine and tapas), cervecerías (a bar specialising in beer, usually with a wide selection of imported beers on tap), gay bars, roof-top bars, pool-side bars, youth bars, topless bars, and a huge variety of foreign bars and pubs. Pubs tend to be flashy bars, often with live music, satellite television, expensive drinks and usually no food.

For homesick Britons there are numerous pseudo British bars in resort areas, usually equipped with satellite television systems showing English football, cricket and other sports events. Television can be even more obtrusive in Spanish bars, where customers are fed a constant diet of soccer, bullfights, game shows and dubbed foreign films. Don’t expect to have a quiet conversation in a bar with a TV. Note that it’s cheaper to drink while standing at the bar; sitting at a table may be 50 per cent more expensive and a table on a pavement terrace ( terraza) can be double the bar price. You may not be permitted to buy a drink at the bar and take it to a seat outside.

Eating is also more expensive at a table than at the bar. Bars are usually open from noon to 4pm and from 8pm until midnight or later, although some are open all day while others only open in the evenings. In resort areas, many bars (and restaurants) are closed outside the high season. There are no official licensing laws in Spain and closing time is usually when the owner decides to shut up shop or when the last customer goes home, which is usually in the early hours of the morning (although some town halls fix bar closing times, e.g. 2am).


Traditional café life can still be found in Spain, where a café is rarely simply somewhere to grab a cup of coffee and a pastry. Its myriad roles include a place in which to read the newspaper (without buying one); a convenient place to make a telephone call or go to the toilet (due to the dearth of public toilets in Spain); somewhere to pass the time; a business or social meeting place; a place to write or study; an academic or debating arena; a refuge from the sun or rain or simply somewhere to watch the world go by.

Around 5pm is the hour of tertulia, the café get-together that’s a national institution. Note that it’s customary to buy a drink when you use the toilet in a bar or cafe, although owners don’t usually mind non-customers using their facilities. Cafés often have a billiard room and some even entertain customers with a live orchestra or chamber music.

To attract the attention of a waiter ( camarero) or waitress ( camarera) in a busy bar or café, it’s customary to call out ‘attention, please’ ( ¡oiga, por favor!) or simply to shout your order at the waiter. In small family bars and cafés, you’re usually served by the landlord or landlady ( dueño/dueña), who won’t usually accept tips ( propinas). Tipping is, however, common in bars, although tips are usually small and often consist of the small change left in saucers. Tips are often kept in a communal tin or box ( bote) and shared among the staff, although this practice isn’t common in restaurants, where waiters prefer to keep their own tips.


Spain is a Mecca for coffee lovers and Spanish coffee is invariably superb and among the best value in Europe. It’s served in cafés, ice-cream parlours ( heladerías), bars and restaurants and is freshly made, piping hot and actually tastes of coffee beans. A ‘normal’ coffee is an espresso which is served black ( café solo), while a coffee made with half milk is a café con leche, usually drunk by Spaniards for breakfast. Coffee with a dash of milk is a café cortado.

If you want a large black coffee ask for a doble or a grande. Should you wish to drink weak milky coffee ask for a manchada, which is literally ‘stained milk’. Decaffeinated coffee ( descafeinado) is widely available, which may be from a machine, although many bars just serve a sachet of instant coffee poured into a cup of hot milk. Iced coffee ( café con hielo) is also available and is usually served black. In some areas, a coffee is routinely accompanied by a glass of cold water.

A coffee usually costs from €1, although in tourist haunts and fashionable terrazas it can be as much as €3. It’s often served spiked with brandy, whisky or anisette, when it’s called a carajillo, and may be served with a small slice of lemon and a coffee bean floating on top.


Tea ( ) is available in most bars and cafés and is usually drunk black or served with a slice of lemon ( té con limón). If you want tea with milk it’s best to ask for tea with a little cold milk ( té con un poquito de leche fría), because if you ask for tea with milk you’re likely to get tea made with half water and half hot milk!

However, it’s best not to drink ‘English’ tea in bars and cafés at all, as it’s invariably awful. Herbal teas such as camomile ( manzanilla) and mint ( mentapoleo) are also widely available. There are tea rooms ( salones de té) in the major cities and afternoon tea is often served in luxury hotels, perhaps to a background of live classical music.

Soft Drinks

A wide variety of non-alcoholic ‘soft’ drinks ( refrescos) are available in Spain, including ubiquitous international brands such as Pepsi, Coca Cola and Fanta. Other common drinks include sweetened fruit juice ( zumo or jugo), fresh juice ( zumo natural), iced fruit juices made from fruit syrups or coffee ( granizados), orange ( naranja), lemon ( limón), tonic ( tónica) and bitter ( kas).

Mineral water is sold in sparkling ( con gas) and still ( sin gas) versions. A popular thirst-quenching drink is a horchata de chufa, a concoction made from the tuberous root of the chufa (known in English as ‘earth almond’) and served with crushed-ice (often served in special cafés called horchaterías). Others include a black and white ( negro y blanco), a combination of ice cream ( helado) and coffee, and creamy milk shakes ( batidos).


Beer is extremely popular in Spain and somewhat surprisingly most Spaniards prefer it to wine. In general, a bar serves one brand of local draught beer and possibly a few different bottled beers. A cervecería is a bar that specialises in beer and usually has several brands on tap and a wide range of bottled beers, including imported brands. Spanish beers come in light ( dorada) and dark ( negra) varieties, the most famous brands, including San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Dorada, Aguila, Estrella and Mahou.

Bars also serve non-alcoholic beer, inappropriately called sin (literally ‘without’). A small bottle of beer (300ml) is a botellín, while a small glass of draught beer is called a caña. A caña doble is twice as large as a caña (and is often served when you don’t ask for a caña) and a large beer is a tubo (tube) or jarra (mug or jar), although this can also mean a large jug or pitcher. In tourist resorts, customers who ask for a beer are often served a tubo. Spanish beer is quite strong and is usually around 5 per cent alcohol by volume. For something lighter try clara, a refreshing shandy made with beer and sweetened seltzer ( gaseosa).

Cocktails & Spirits

Cocktails and spirits are much cheaper in Spain than in most other countries and are served in larger measures (the Spanish don’t use official measures when pouring drinks, although European Union regulations are supposed to end this practice). An aperitif at midday or in the evening is a ritual in Spain. Most spirits are ordered by brand name, as there are generally cheaper Spanish ( nacional) equivalents for most international brands. When drinking cocktails, most people notice little difference between Spanish gin, vodka and rum, and more expensive imports.

However, Spanish whisky is terrible and to be avoided. Some bars and discotheques reportedly buy inexpensive spirits in bulk to refill well-known brand bottles and charge higher prices. Whisky (scotch, bourbon or rye) is less likely to be substituted, as it’s difficult to reproduce the flavour of a particular whisky and it’s less likely to be drunk in a cocktail. Drinks are usually served with lots of ice ( hielo), which those with sensitive stomachs may wish to avoid (depending on the water source).

Other Drinks

Wine ( vino) is sold by the glass ( copa) in bars and cafés and is ordered by simply asking for a glass of red, white or rosé ( una copa de tinto/blanco/rosado). If you don’t specify the colour, you’re usually served red wine. It’s inexpensive by northern European standards, costing as little as €1 for a glass of house wine ( vino de la casa or vino del lugar) often served from a barrel or a glass jug. If you fancy trying your hand at drinking from a wineskin ( odre/bota de vino) or porrón (a glass carafe with a pouring funnel) don’t wear your best clothes. Note that red wine is sometimes served chilled in bars; if you want it at room temperature ask for no frío or normal.

Table wine ( vino corriente or vino de mesa) is often drunk mixed with sparkling mineral water, soda or lemonade, called tinto de verano (literally ‘summer red’) when made with red wine. Sangría is a delicious punch made with peaches, oranges, seltzer, sugar, red wine and a dash of brandy. It’s available everywhere and can be surprisingly strong, although it isn’t usually well made in bars. A similar drink is zurra made with white wine, brandy, vermouth and sugar, garnished with orange and lemon segments and diluted with water and ice. Sherry ( jerez) is popular, particularly in the south, and cider ( sidra) is a common drink in the north of Spain. Pacharán, made from sloes, is a popular after-dinner drink.


Bars and cafés in Spain aren’t just somewhere to get a drink, and many serve snacks and complete meals from morning until late at night. In addition to tapas (see below), bars (and cafés) serve a variety of snacks, including sandwiches and rolls ( bocadillos), toasted sandwiches ( tostadas) and various egg dishes, including fried eggs ( huevos fritos) and cold Spanish omelette ( tortilla de patata). In local bars, there’s often no menu and you just ask the patron what he has to eat. There’s invariably something, usually what the family is eating such as a home-made stew, grilled seafood or fresh salad. You can also find a wide selection of appetising snacks in food shops such as panaderías and croissanterías.


Tapas, meaning ‘lids’, as they were originally little saucers of snacks served on top of a drink, are the world’s greatest snack food. They’re a way of life throughout Spain, although more common in the north and the major cities, where it’s customary to drop into a bar after work to have a drink accompanied by tapas. Tapas consist of small dishes usually eaten at the counter in a bar with a glass of draught beer or wine, although they may also be eaten as an entrée before a meal. Among the best places to eat tapas is a traditional mesón or tasca, many of which are also restaurants, with a whole counter full of hot and cold appetisers.

If you don’t speak Spanish, it’s best to choose a bar where the dishes are displayed along the bar, rather than one where they’re simply listed on a blackboard. A dirty floor is the sign of a good tapas bar, as everything that’s left is simply dropped on the floor, including leftovers, seafood shells, olive stones, nutshells, cigarette ends and serviettes.

Tapas are served in various sizes: a standard tapa is an appetiser-like serving, a pincho or a porción a slightly larger serving, and a ración is the same size as a starter. Always state the size of serving you want. Tapas variadas is a selection of tapas and an excellent introduction for the uninitiated. Most tapas can also be ordered as sandwiches in French bread.

There are many varieties of tapas, including olives, mushrooms, pickled vegetables, kebabs ( pinchos morunos), ham, seafood (baby eels, tuna, squid, octopus, clams, mussels, lobster, prawns, anchovies), garlic potatoes, pieces of omelette ( tortilla), meatballs, tripe, huge potato crisps, peanuts, Russian salad, cheese, salami, nuts, pickled carrots, sausage, snails, stewed pimento, cubes of pork in sauce, pig’s ear and pickled artichoke hearts (to name but a few). In southern Andalusia, a favourite tapa is huevos revueltos, softly scrambled eggs made with a variety of flavourings, including wild asparagus, shrimps, ham, beans and mushrooms. Tapas are usually accompanied by draft beer, wine or sherry.

Some bars automatically serve free tapas with every drink, midday and evening, although this custom isn’t so widespread nowadays. However, it’s still possible to find places where you can get a small glass of wine ( chato) and a tapa. Tapa etiquette dictates that you don’t usually choose free tapas.


In a bar or café, it’s usual to ‘run a tab’ and pay for your drinks when you leave, although you may be asked to pay when you’re served in a busy establishment or a tourist spot such as a beach bar. Your account may be chalked on the counter itself or written on a pad kept behind the bar. If your waiter is going off duty, he will also ask you to pay.

Service and tax is included in the price and it’s unnecessary to tip, although most people leave their small change and a party may leave €1 after an evening’s drinking. When Spaniards have a drink together, usually the one who made the invitation or suggestion pays (although they may argue about it). The foreign habit of trying to work out who has drunk what and splitting the bill is alien to the Spanish, they don’t run a mental bill and make sure that everyone pays in turn. If you’re invited for a drink by a Spaniard, he will invariably insist on paying, even if he’s of modest means.

The legal age for drinking in Spain is 18, although it isn’t always enforced (children under 18 are permitted on licensed premises with an adult, but cannot consume alcohol). Although Spaniards are comparatively heavy drinkers by most standards, you rarely see them intoxicated. Drunkenness is associated with a loss of dignity and anyone who cannot hold his drink is scorned. Alcoholism is a serious problem in Spain, particularly among expatriates, many of whom are unable to control their drinking. Newcomers should be particularly wary of drinking too much, which is all too easy with Spain’s low prices and generous measures. A surfeit of sun and alcohol can be deadly.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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