If you are traveling alone, tapas bars both pull and repel: you want to be a part of the mob scene, eating and drinking, but you feel you’ll stick out, or it’s so crowded you don’t have your own mob of friends to help push you in.
Many times in the past I’ve wandered by a packed tapas place in Spain’s cities and was dying to go in but felt intimidated as a solo female traveler. But after 22 years of facing the invisible barrier, I’ve overcome the psychological obstacles that held me back.
Here are 5 tried and true tips to have a marvelous time joining the mob scene at tapas places and enjoying some of Spain’s best cuisine:
1. Pick the tapas place well.
Many cities in Spain have certain streets known exclusively for their tapas. Ask around for these spots. Once there, go into the places that are mobbed with warm, gregarious locals. This is always the sign of a place with great tapas and a welcoming attitude.
2. Read the menu from the outside.
From the edge of the bar, locate the chalk board or printed listing of tapas being offered and decide what you want. Memorize it, as well as what you want to drink. Then slowly move in.
3. Don’t be intimidated when you order.
Everyone is packed in? No room at the bar to place your order? No matter, Spanish bartenders are some of the most aware and mindful people on the planet. Have faith in them and patiently worm your way toward the bar.
As you do, one of two things will happen. Either the bartender will make eye contact and expect you to tell him what you want to drink and eat, or, the sea will start to part and you’ll eventually get to the bar counter and can place your order there.
Then, hold the spot for as long as you like. Or, pay up and carry your drink and tapa out to the edge again. I prefer holding the spot. It’s more central and fly-on-the-wall-ish.
4. As you eat and drink, exude confidence.
Do whatever it takes, a silent mantra, if necessary: “I belong here, I am a part of this afternoon/night, I belong.”
Suddenly, you do belong, you have a place. Spaniards love confidence and honestly. Even if no one is meeting you there or talking to you, you obviously are there for some good reason. That confident look says it all. Relax, soak it up, watch people, take in what they are eating and drinking, what they are wearing and talking about.
In doing this, you expand the sensory experience of these rich, vibrant places.
5. When you are done, move on.
Check out the next place that strikes your fancy. Or, locate the perfect spot for dinner and when you are seated, exude the same confident posture and look. It’s infectious.
One last parting word of advice: In the big cities and the really swank and touristy parts of town, always know where your wallet is and don’t have anything on you that can be easily pick-pocketed or that is of great value. This foresight also makes for a more relaxing and enjoyable night out.
For more on Spain, including blogs, local travelers to connect with, local experts to show you around, and volunteer opportunities, please check out Matador’s Spain page.