When I tell people I grew up in Spain they always say two things: don’t you miss the weather? And what about the food? I grew up in the North, and therefore there wasn’t much weather to miss. OK, the summers were perhaps a little better than the UK, but I seem to recall it rained just as much as it does now that I live in the Cotswolds. However, when it comes to food, yes! I miss it a lot! It is well known that Spain is synonymous with good food. The healthy Mediterranean diet, great seafood, paella, tapas, and really great meat. However, food in Spain can be expensive if you are not careful, which is why I wanted to share you with you my tips on how to eat in Spain on a budget.
For me, what is key about Spain is that locally sourced seasonal produce is king. People take great pride in their regional specialties, and there seems to be a much stronger connection to what is seasonal than what I have become accustomed to in the UK. In fact, I am so used to getting any fruit or veg at any time of year that I don’t even know what is in season when anymore! This won’t be the case in Spain!
The aim of this blog is to help you enjoy the culinary delights of Spain, whilst remaining within your budget. The tips I share are from both the experience of having lived in Spain for 17 years as well as the many trips I have taken back there over the years. So without further ado, here are my 5 tips to help you make the most of you Spanish trip!
1. Make the most of the Menu del Dia
The menu del dia was born to offer a nourishing, affordable meal to the workers who couldn’t make it back home for lunch. It has become a staple across Spain and is a fantastic way to eat on a budget!
The most important meal of the day is lunch, where you will typically eat a “first dish”, a “second dish”, and a pudding. If you think that the first dish is a starter and the second a main, it doesn’t quite work like that.
In the UK we have become accustomed to eating our veggies and meat together. It isn’t uncommon to have some meat, carbs, and veg on the same plate. This is actually quite a weird concept in Spain, and therefore you will often eat veg separately.
I used to dread veg days at school as we would be served a bowl of green beans (yes, just green beans!) or a bowl of just peas! Some of you might love the flavour of either of those to enjoy them on their own, but I didn’t get fat by eating too many vegetables! Please let me eat them in the same mouthful as something else!
Veg aside though, the first dish could also be any of the following:
- Spaghetti con tomate – Pasta with chorizo and tomato sauce (or any other sauce)
- Arroz a la Cubana – Rice with tomato sauce and egg
- Alubias or fabada – Bean stew (or other legume stew)
- Patatas a la Riojana – Potatoes and chorizo
- Ensalada – Salad
The second dish is generally where you will be served your meat or fish options (I haven’t found rural Spain particularly vegetarian or vegan-friendly, so apologies for the lack of non-animal product examples!). Your choices could include:
- Filete or Entrecot con patatas fritas – Steak and chips. Please note “filete” is not the same as filet steak! It is a thin cut of steak which I don’t believe we use in the UK.
- Chuletas de cerdo con pimientos – Pork chops and roasted peppers
- Marmitako – Fish stew
- Bacalao al pil pil – cod in garlic sauce
You will typically get between 3 and 5 choices for each dish, sometimes written on a board or a menu, and other times simply read out to you. You will also get a few options for pudding too, and the wine, water, and bread are also included in the price.
Best way to stretch your budget in Spain, is to eat el Menu del Día!
You will typically pay between €10 and €15, a little more at weekends. The closer you are to the tourist attractions, the more expensive it will be, so I recommend working up an appetite by exploring a little further afield!
The portions are so substantial that I ate a Menu del Día most days, especially as they don’t eat lunch until late (typically not before 2 pm). I would often sit down for lunch closer to 3 pm meaning I could quite happily skip dinner.
2. Did you say free food?
I don’t recall which King, but one of the Spanish kings was travelling through Andalucía when he stopped for a drink at a bar. It was very windy that day with dust and sand being blown about, so the barman, not wanting the sand to get in the king’s wine, covered it with a slice of jamon. The king loved this idea so much that he ordered that any time he was served a drink from then on, it should be accompanied by a slice of jamon or cheese to cover the glass.
This tradition has spread across Spain, and tapas have become an integral part of Spanish tradition. It is typical to head out for a drink or two (or several) before lunch, going from one bar to another and having a small beer or wine in each one as well as a tapas (or a pintxo in the Basque Country).
How to get free tapas
In some areas you need to pay for these nibbles (typically €1 or €3, unless a specialist bar); however, other regions will serve you a bite to eat with each drink for free. This can vary from some crisps, to a jamon sandwich, some cheese, a croquette, smelly sardines, or even a Russian salad! I was served free tapas everywhere other than in the Basque Country. I hear it is not common in Andalucía either, however, I must have lucked out as I even got treated to a bite there too!
And you don’t just get these with wine or beer, you get them with any drink. I predominantly drank grape juice or Fanta, which didn’t stop them from feeding me! I would hazard a guess that the more touristy bars wouldn’t do this, which is again another reason to find the locals’ favourites! In fact, avoiding tourist traps is the best way to travel on a budget, not just in Spain, but anywhere!
3. Stay on budget by making friends in Spain!
Talking to people pays off! Every time I got chatting with the bar or restaurant owner, I got free food. They loved that I spoke Spanish despite being English, and they also loved that I was interested in what they did.
In Valdehuesa, the restaurant owner insisted I try the venison, which is what that area is most famous for. It was delicious and filling, and he didn’t let me pay! In Algodonales I got chatting to a hiking group who said they had more than enough to go around, so I joined them. In Asturias it was the reverse though, I ordered some croquettes and was served enough to feed an army! As it happens, I had got chatting to a group of men at the table next to me and they were more than happy to help me finish them off.
Talk to strangers, show an interest, it always leads to a good story! But don’t get in a van if they offer you candy! 😉
4. Avoid tourist traps
If they have pictures, run a mile! If the menu is in English, also walk away fast! And if you are thinking, “but I don’t speak Spanish!” then I suggest using Google translate. Honestly, your taste buds and wallet will thank you!
The rule for finding a good bar, back in the day, was to look at how dirty the floor was. The more pieces of paper and discarded bread, the better, it means it had been busy. You can’t really use this rule anymore though, as they have advanced and now use bins! It was customary to throw your napkins, toothpicks, etc., on the bar floor rather than leaving the “dirt” on the counter. My granny was so shocked when she spotted my stepdad doing this that she promptly started picking it all up!
Luckily, although we can no longer use the state of the floor to judge how good a bar is, you can ask a local. Go into the local supermarket or “panaderia” (baker) and ask them what bar or restaurant they would recommend. Chances are you will end up somewhere great, but even better, it might lead to an adventure all of it’s own! Like the time I got invited for lunch with the entire family!
5. Order what they are good at
This one won’t necessarily get cheaper food, but it will certainly get you better food. Most restaurants are family businesses that have passed from generation to generation with little change to their great-grandmother’s recipe. It is that one dish that the restaurant will really excel at. The rest is just there to bulk out the menu.
Finding out what that dish is is the best way to guarantee yourself a good meal. If you ask the waiters/waitresses, they will tell you what their specialty is, and I highly recommend going for it.
For example, one of our favourite local restaurants in Alava does the most amazing steak. It is always cooked perfectly, and the quality of the meat is second to none. However, we made the mistake of assuming they would do as good a job with fish. WRONG! If that had been the first thing we had ordered when we first went, we would never have returned!
So tip number 5 to help you eat well in Spain is to choose the restaurant based on their best dish! After all, if you are spending your budget you want it to be worthwhile!
Now that you know how to make your budget go further in Spain, you might want to read up on how to blend in like a local! If you plan on driving in Spain then you might also want to read up on some roadtrip tips too!
Whether these tips help you explore Spain on a budget, or simply eat better, I hope they come in useful during your next trip. Have you got any additional tips?
Great blog and good advice. I ate the same way when I drove around Northern Spain a few of years ago.
Hey Alycin, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I bet the trip around Spain was epic, such a beautiful part of the country. How long did you explore for?
I loved all the tips on how to eat free in Spain. We love to saver money where we can so we can splurge on other things. So getting more for our money always helps. Good tip at the start about how the Spanish dishes are a bit different. Tapas are one of my favourite ways to get small tastes of new foods. My hubby always asks what a restaurant is known for as soon as we site down. Better food is a good option too!
I’m glad you enjoyed it. It makes such a difference ordering what a restaurant is good at! We will normally splurge on one meal during a trip (although as we don’t drink alcohol it is never really that expensive!), but otherwise try and save our cash for other activities!
Great tips!! I definitely use the “avoid pictures on menus at all costs” all the time when traveling! Or if the menu is in 12 different languages lol. Good to know about the menu of the day!
The only place where did give in to picture menus was China, as otherwise we kept getting inedible things like gristle! Aside from China though, no pictures, no multi language, and no “I love Spain” t-shirts lol!
Loved reading these tips. I remember when I visited my friend who studied in Madrid we eat super cheap (basically free). I remember those 1 Euro sandwich offers and all the free tapas which came with our drinks. The portions were massive and I never felt hungry.
You can eat so well for so little in Spain. At the same time you can spend a lot of money too!
These are such great tips! I love that the Menu of the Day is more affordable. In the US, there are “specials” listed on a board, but they are usually fancy and more expensive.
You do get restaurants with specials too, however, the Menu del Dia was created to feed the wording class and therefore always had to be affordable!
I spent six weeks studying in Spain a few years ago and I wish i knew these tricks, I never thought to order with el Menu del Dia! Could have definitely saved a few bucks haha. Thank you for sharing these for my next trip!
Menu del Dia is so great, and so filling that you won’t need any more meals that day!
Wow, I love these tips, they’re super helpful. Saving this for when I get to Spain! Thanks so much for sharing.
I hope you enjoy Spain when you go!
You had me at “eat for free” haha. We spent a few days in Barcelona and spent entirely too much on food. That delicious tapas and wine combo sure adds up! Wish I had read this article before our trip!
Barcelona is one place I haven’t been. I reckon it will be harder to find free food there since it is so touristy. Maybe I should go just to try and prove that theory wrong!
Thanks for this post! 😛 I am always up for free food/great deals! I don’t really drink alcohol, so I’m glad to know that you can potentially get food with nonalcoholic drinks as well! I like avoiding tourist traps whenever possible — definitely one of the best ways to save money!
Hate a tourist trap, always overpriced and never authentic! A lot of the non-alcoholic drinks are the same price, or more expensive than local wine and beer in a lot of Spain which is probably why you still get the tapas for free.
I love all of your tips. I generally tell people to walk at least five blocks from the main tourist area to begin to find the places where the locals eat. The food there is generally better from the tourist fare that many places offer.
That’s a great rule of thumb! I’ll use it next time!
Some great tips here! The menu del dia is most certainly the way to go if you want to eat cheap 🙂 I feel like Spanish food is really underrated still but over the years that has changed but it’s still not nearly enough. And don’t get me started about chorizo in paella… Great post!!!
I love chorizo in paella! Having grown up in the Northern mountains it was more common to have a meat paella than it was to have seafood, as chorizo was local and seafood wasn’t. So I’m afraid I vote for a chorizo and chicken paella LOL! Can we still be friends?
I love the food in Spain!Thanks for the budget tips!
I love Spanish food too, so yummy!
Tips on how to eat for free….si! I agree, I travelled to Spain 10 years ago, as a vegetarian, and there was not a lot of options for me. I’m sure it has improved a bit, but you’re right, depending on where you travel to there might be more options.
I think in the cities it is now quite easy to get veggie and vegan options, but the rural areas still have quite a lot of catching up to do! Growing up they’d call a vegetarian sandwich one that had ham in it as they didn’t class ham as a real meat!
These tips are SO great! I had no idea about the menu el dia, and I also had no clue that snacks are served when you order a drink! Saving this post for the next time I go to Spain. Always love a good budget-friendly tip!
Major touristy spots are likely not to give you free tapas as they know everyone wants tapas so will likely pay, but when you head off the beaten path you will be in for a treat. My roadtrip took me from the Basque Country down to Andalucia through the west of the country (just for reference of where my free snacks were coming from!).