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How to Act Like a Local in a Spanish Bar

Spain Travel
by Ana Bulnes Jan 22, 2015
1. Get pissed if you don’t get free food with your drink

This free tapa could range from some chips or olives to an authentic dish of callos, but you have a right to it. After getting your drink, if the waiter doesn’t come back with something to eat, not even after staring at him for a few minutes, you have two options: ask for some chips or decide to never come back. Remember: You’re in a country with more bars per person than anywhere else. Chances are you’ll find another bar on the same street where you’ll be served your free snack or tapa.

2. Don’t worry about the tip

No, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t leave a tip. Tips are nice; waiters will love you. But they are not compulsory, and if you just had a coffee you’re not really expected to leave anything — especially if you’re a regular costumer. And in case you do want to leave a tip, forget all those complicated calculations to find the perfect quantity. You’ll get your change back in a small plate. Take some coins and leave the rest.

3. Read the newspaper

Not the newspaper you brought with you. Bars in Spain always have several newspapers for their customers to flip through while sipping coffee. You’ll have plenty to choose from: national newspapers like El País or El Mundo, and regional and local newspapers as well. You can leave the bar knowing what’s going on all around you.

4. Don’t ask why the TV is on with the sound off

Weird, right? Why the hell is there a TV on with no sound? Why this combination of image from one source (TV) and sound from a different one (usually some music)? Try to act as if that was normal. It is in Spain. You could even be watching some music videos on the screen and hearing different songs coming from the speakers. Unless there’s a football match going on, then the sound returns.

5. Order coffee properly

A latte machiatto, you said? No wonder the waiter is looking at you as if you came from another planet! Coffees in Spain have their own vocabulary, and they don’t even match the types of coffee you know how to order in Italian. We have café solo (just coffee, like an espresso), café con leche (coffee with milk, and it’s exactly that, don’t expect any foam, but know that you can have it with hot, warm or cold milk), and then everything that comes in between: manchado (lots of milk, just a bit of coffee; you can also order it as corto de café), and cortado (lots of coffee, a bit of milk). Then you have descafeinado (decaf), which can be de sobre (instant decaf coffee), or de máquina (decaf espresso). And of course, carajillo: coffee with alcohol.

6. Go for breakfast, coffee break, aperitivo, lunch, merienda, dinner or at night

In some countries, bars are a place to drink alcohol, so depending on the hour and frequency you visit them, you could be seen as an alcoholic. Not in Spain. You can go for breakfast, for your coffee break, to have some drink and snack before lunch, to have lunch (some plato combinado, menú del día or bocadillo), to have coffee after lunch, to merendar (supper), and even for dinner. And then, of course, to drink at night. Some bars seem to be open 24 hours…because they are!

7. Take your children

Who would take a child to a bar? Remember: Spanish bars are not only to drink alcohol. It’s neither wrong nor weird to take kids (even a baby!) to a bar for breakfast or lunch. The most dangerous thing they’ll see is that eternal old man by the bar drinking a carajillo.

8. Throw toothpicks and napkins to the floor

Or maybe don’t. Bar owners are trying to end this centuries-old habit of filling the floor with garbage. And also remember that there are different kinds of bars in Spain, and that what would be okay in a taberna wouldn’t be appropriate in a cafetería. The best advice: look at the floor. Is it dirty and scattered with paper napkins and toothpicks? You can do it. Is it clean? Leave it that way.

9. Talk to the owner if you sit at the bar

Going to a Spanish bar, especially if it’s not crowded and you choose to stay by the bar, is like taking a taxi. Taxi drivers want conversation, and so do barkeeps. Topics range from the weather to politics to football. Have a look at the local newspaper cover to know what you should be talking about. Or have a glimpse at the soundless TV and comment on the images. If you’re successful, you might find more customers join the conversation!

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