Have you ever brought your family to a bar for breakfast? Probably not unless you’ve been in Spain. Although people do drink alcohol in bars, that’s not the Spanish bar’s main function as it might seem to be in other cultures.
Bars are very important in Spanish social life. It’s been like this throughout Spain’s history. Spain is the country with the most bars per person in the world. In this article, I will tell you about the history of these places, the types of bars in Spain and why they are so popular.
The records of the first bars are from ancient Greece and Rome. These establishments, before evolving into what we know as the modern bar, used to be a place to get some refreshment and food while travelling.
When we think about bars in the past, the bars in the American Wild West come to mind. It was there that the bar was first used as protection for the bar-man from being shot by bandits. The name bar comes from the word barrier because of that.
The Guinness Book of World Records credits Spain as having the oldest bar in the world. It’s called El Botín and you can visit it in Madrid. It was founded in 1727 and many celebrities have been in this popular bar, and not just for a visit. The Guinness Book states that the famous artist Goya worked as a kitchen porter there when he was an apprentice painter.
When we talk about bars in Spain, we talk about the kind of establishment where people gather to have a drink, normally accompanied by some food, in the company of friends or family. There may be some tables, but there aren’t waiters like in a regular restaurant. The customer normally has to order at the bar counter. Bars are really loud in Spain. When I ask my students to describe bars in Spain, the first word they say is, “loud!”
There are many types of bars, but I'm going to describe three of them to you:
Las Cafeterías: These are bars where people usually go to have breakfast. Along with the coffee, people usually order a small sandwich (pulgas, pitufos) or toast (tostada). You can also enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and churros.
Las Tabernas: These bars normally have a local identity and are a good place to visit as a tourist to feel closer to the Spanish culture. You can have a meal in a very informal context at the bar counter. The tabernas are usually quite tiny with not many tables. Ask for a tapa de tortilla española, ensaladilla, patatas bravas, or try some iberic ham or cheese with a nice glass of wine.
Los Chiringuitos: These are the bars that you find on the beach. They have table service, but you can also have a drink and some fish at the bar, very close to other people. It will be very difficult not to get involved in a conversation with locals.
But, why are bars so important in Spanish society? Bars in Spain are considered a place to socialize. Whereas in other places social clubs exist, in Spain this role is played by the bar. People don't go there just to have a drink but to talk with other people, watch a football game or celebrate an event. Even though the economic situation in Spain has been bad these past several years, most bars have managed to stay open.
In every neighbourhood or on every street you can find at least one bar, and the “peak” hour is just before or during lunchtime. People stop by either to have a drink and an appetizer (called tapa o pincho) before lunch or to actually have lunch. During the evenings, when people finish their workday, they also meet at bars to have a drink and chat before heading home.
Normally people usually go to the same bar or bars, and the relationship with the waiter is very close. It's rare that a regular customer in a Spanish bar doesn’t know the waiter's name, and conversations between bar staff and customers are a part of this bar culture in Spain.
The TV is another important element in Spanish bars, but really nobody watches it; its sound is always a background noise--except when there’s a football game on. Many people prefer to watch football (the main sport for most Spanish) in bars with friends, and arguments between different football team fans are usual, especially between Real Madrid and Barcelona fans. But, these arguments are always good-natured.
Another very important element in bars is la terraza, a set of tables outdoors where people can sit to have a drink or eat when the weather permits, and luckily, in Spain that happens very often.
But, of course not everything is 100-percent perfect in bars, and as in the rest of the world, alcoholic drinks are served, and many people associate bars mainly with alcohol. There are people who go to the bar only to drink; we can't hide from that fact. But, what I wanted to tell you in this article is that there is something good about these places because there are many traditions to talk about when it comes to bars in Spain.
Along with this, please watch this advert made by a very important brand to celebrate Spain's National Bars' Day.
You’ll have a chance to practice your Spanish skills and, at the same time, you’ll able to relate to many of the topics covered in this article.