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Happy Eating on a Budget in Spain

by Lu Sobredo

Memories of Food in Europe

The light buttery croissant melted joyfully in my mouth at breakfast in Paris, I couldn’t possibly have eaten just one. The titillating taste of homemade lemon gelato soaked in the tongue in unrestrained frolic. That was just to cleanse the palate before dinner while in Varenna. While in Stavanger, I deliberately closed my eyes to savor the freshly cooked fish, still hot to the touch. It was fish-and-chips unlike any other I had ever tasted which triggered images of sea to table ala farm to table.  It was fresh, moist, flaky and seasoned simply yet perfectly. I still remember the pleasure from every bite.

But even with the many precious memories of food that delighted my senses in Paris, France; Varenna, Italy or Stavenger, Norway on our family vacations before a chronic illness nearly consumed my life starting 2013, it was the food in Spain during my 2010 and 2016 travels that left my tastebuds longing for the experience once I returned to California.

For travelers with discriminating taste who are on a budget, remember this: you can enjoy an exquisite food experience and not break the bank. Writing about the gastronomic delights of Spain compelled me to relive the experience. I relished the idea that what I was about to share might just help others. I don’t think staying on a modest budget without sacrificing deliciousness is unique only to my family, and it  shouldn't be. How my family navigated our food needs while traveling abroad became an adventure in itself.

While in Spain, forget about diet. I am certain I ate more and often during my one month travel abroad in the summer of 2016, than at any other travels. And even with my limited mobility this time because of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), I actually lost some weight. This is not surprising. According to Lisa and Tony Sierra, Spanish Food Expert writers: “Spaniards love their food! In fact, a typical Spaniard probably eats more food than any one of us in the USA, but they take their time eating, spread their meals throughout the day, and walk between meals.” (Meals and the Culture of Spain,, 2016).

Yes, visiting iconic places like Paris conjure up images of gastronomical adventures bar none. Although, it has been a dozen years since I have had the privilege of being in France, I still have vivid memories of some fine dining with my husband and our then-10-year old son. Most memorable for our son was letting him stay up at midnight to join us when we strolled the promenade by the River Seine and listened to the music of a string trio performing for the crowd by the Notre-Dame Cathedral. And later when we snacked on crepe Suzette near our boutique hotel at Ile Saint-Louis, an awesome treat for a young boy and the adults with him.

But it was in California where I turned the search for the taste of Spain into an adventure. My darling husband, a foodie in his own right, agreed like a trooper to go on a treasure hunt of sorts in the San Francisco Bay area in California. The goal was to find food that could fool the palate into thinking we were back in Spain. Clearly, another idea for a blog post that can wait.

Back in Spain, we explored many food sources. We have learned valuable lessons on how to avoid being taken or “ripped off” in tourist-frequented eating places and establishments.

When in Spain, Portugal and most places we visited in Europe, good meals were quite possible on a budget. Tipping is optional in Europe, unlike the custom it has become in the U.S. When in Europe, it is safe to assume that tip is already included in the price of a meal. However, for an especially enjoyable meal experience or if we connected uniquely well with the restaurant owner or service staff, we frequently added a tip. A fair reward for making the experience possible. We were fortunate to have been treated mostly with friendliness and warmth wherever we ventured for our meals. We were cognizant of the “ugly American tourist stereotype when abroad” and we mindfully aimed to dispel the image at every turn. Besides, tact and courtesy go a long way, something that holds true whether at home or abroad.

For those who have not been to Spain, do not expect to find a huge breakfast, unless you are at a full service hotel that serves brunch. The typical breakfast is coffee and/or orange juice with bread, croissant or churros.

Churros con Chocolate. ©James Sobredo, 2016
If presented a menu in English, also ask to see the menu in Spanish. Doing so has helped me widen my Spanish vocabulary. Moreover, I tended to be cautious when printed menus come in different languages. I’ve learned that the menu in English might show prices that could be higher than usual. Although my family only noticed this twice during our 2016 travel. There really was a difference. The first time it happened, we were the "tourists that got taken" in Barcelona. The second time was in a small town in Galicia. We noticed the disparity before we committed to ordering our meal, and we walked away. That one could have been very costly for no reason. Instead, we ended up going to a place recommended by an American friend turned European citizen. And we feasted on Galician cooking at Barrilete restaurant. The pulpo or octopus dish was just as scrumptious as the best we've tasted in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. You can't go wrong with seafood at cities and towns near the Atlantic Ocean in Galicia. So, paying close attention to prices printed on the menu is always a good idea. Decide only after reviewing the menu first. Not eating at the first place you find is also a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with comparative shopping, especially when trying to stay on a modest budget. Besides, why pay for an overpriced meal when another tasty meal can be had at a lesser price?

Pulpo on Steamed Potatoes: A Galician Specialty. ©James Sobredo, 2016

How far you can stretch your dollars for food could depend on the dollar-euro exchange rate. We found the cost of food tended to be less in rural towns, or places away from major cities or tourist attractions. My family knows all too well when the exchange rate deeply hurt our wallet. That happened to us in 2010, as well as during my husband's travel in 2013. Luckily, the dollar was almost at parity with the euro in the summer of 2016 and it still is at the writing of this essay.* Furthermore, I have learned to use a credit card or a bank card that does not incur an additional service charge abroad. When using a bank card, you will likely have a choice of paying in dollars or euros. We chose to pay in dollars so we would know exactly what to expect on our bank statement.

Any mention in this essay of an eating establishment or food source is in no way an attempt at endorsement. I am mainly sharing my family’s experience. I hope that many will find our experience helpful in easing the new traveler’s introduction to Spain.

How Travelers Eat on a Budget

MENU OF THE DAY: The Menu of the Day or Menu-del-Dia is the best culinary value for your dollars or euros. Most places will have the menu-del-dia scrawled on a chalkboard right outside the restaurant. You can find this option in many restaurants all over Spain. This is my family’s choice for a big meal of the day. It is a two or three-course meal at extremely reasonable prices and served during lunch up to 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. Many places serve generous portions of salad or appetizer, a main dish, plus a dessert. In most places, included in the price of a meal, is a beverage such as wine. We found such places in the big cities as well as in rural areas along the path while hiking the Camino de Santiago.

In my family’s experience, the cost ranged from €7 to €15, but could be as low as €5.50. For example, the average price we paid was around  €9.95 per person in Pamplona, a town known for its Fiesta of San Fermin, more popularly called the running-of-the-bulls. The Fiesta served as the backdrop of Ernest Hemingway’s first successful novel, The Sun Also Rises, published three years after his first visit in 1923. I’ve read how the writer returned for the fiesta eight more times thereafter. My family took photos by Hemingway’s bust right outside Pamplona’s Bullring, a most imposing structure. The town honors him in various ways. The Bullring is located at Paseo de Hemingway, named after the famed American writer.

Pictured is a sample menu-del-dia’s first course from our meal in Palais del Rey, one of our stops after Pamplona during our pilgrimage. The first course was equivalent to a salad or vegetable dish served with a generous helping of hearty bread and locally bottled red wine. If I remember correctly, the main dish my family chose was roast or stewed pork for my husband, braised chicken for our son and I chose steamed fish (hake). The side dish was usually boiled potatoes. We each had our choice of dessert; flan was always one of the choices.

Menu del Dia: First Course. ©James Sobredo, 2010

BUFFET: Buffet is a good choice especially if you are doing plenty of sightseeing or other activities for the day. It is one of the better ways to fuel up. The place we liked in Barcelona was Lactuca Buffet** across the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, near a Starbucks. Located in a touristy area, the tourists seemed to gravitate less to buffet places and more to little cafes with the menu posted right outside. For some reason, it is less intimidating for the inexperienced traveler. Those willing to venture into a buffet place like we did, often found that the choices were plentiful and the price reasonable around €11 per person. A much better choice compared to the inflated prices at cafes frequented by unsuspecting tourists. I should know. In my husband’s eagerness to treat me to “churros con chocolate” for which I have been craving, he opted to have breakfast at a cafe closest to the famed Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. We became the tourists that got taken. Or as our Spanish friends would say: the "guiri" that got taken; "guiri" being a pejorative term for unsuspecting tourist. The bill for the three of us amounted to €29, the same price we would have paid for a three-course menu-del-dia for the whole family.

CAFE WITH BAKERY: If you must eat in crowded areas full of tourists, find a cafe that serves baked goods and sandwiches. Local friends have told us that workers in Madrid go to lunch in places like Rodilla in Puerta del Sol for a simple but good-tasting sandwiches. My son and I did exactly that. We shared a light lunch of ham and cheese, and a chicken salad sandwich that came with French fries and soda for about €8.

RESTAURANT AWAY FROM TOURISTS: If driving or you find yourself near camping grounds, stop in to check out their cafe or restaurant in the premises. We savored some of the best paella prepared the way it’s done in Valencia, Spain. No wonder, our Spanish friends rave about the authentically paella Valenciana. And when in the city center, walk a few blocks to neighborhood cafes, sometimes just kitty-corner from the town square or main street where tourists congregate. In the summer of 2016, our favorite go-to restaurant while in Madrid was three blocks from our hotel in Puerta del Sol and located in what might look like an isolated alley and less frequented by tourists. What we found was a place where locals go for their evening out, La Gloria de Montera recommended by a hotel staff. We gave it a try for dinner after we rolled in from Porto, Portugal. The food selection was exquisite and at reasonable prices. The service staff were friendly, attentive and charming. We returned more times for lunch (hours open: 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.), and dinner (hours open: 8:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m). Menu-del-dia for lunch could cost €11 per person. Dinner at €40 for three was delicious and filling. A €70 dinner, ordered family style for three when we splurged, was out of this world. And the staff kept telling us, if there’s any menu item that was not cooked to our liking or expectation, the chef could prepare something else at no additional charge. The total cost depended on what menu items you ordered. My husband and our son shared a bottle of wine and a couple of appetizers in addition to the main course. When too satiated, we shared a dessert. Otherwise, when not too full and feeling like splurging, we each ordered a dessert.

SUPER MARKET: After a long day of galavanting, sometimes my family would stop by a neighborhood market, mercado in Spanish, to purchase food to take back to our hotel. Dining-in means savoring the tasty french breads or local hearty breads and pastries, Manchego cheese and Iberian ham, strawberry yogurt, apple juice, organic apples and bananas. When the hotel room is equipped with a refrigerator, we bought enough to make sandwiches for the next day. Packing sandwiches for snack or lunch was so handy while sightseeing anywhere and any time of day. It was also ideal for a packed lunch to take on the train or bus. Just don’t eat while in the train or bus unless it is clearly allowed. Some bus drivers were quite strict; although a more graphic description comes to mind. The option to purchase food items at a super market saved us money and saved us from the need to decide where to stop for a meal while sightseeing. Our go-to mercado in Spain is Gadis, which I would liken to a Safeway in the U.S. Another go-to market is the grocery section inside Corte Ingles, their version of a huge multi-story department store. Our daily budget for a jaunt to Gadis ranged from €9 to €11 while in Foz, Galicia area, enough to feed all three of us with some left over for the next day. Corte Ingles has a few more tempting choices with a variety of vendors at their food stations. The deli has an amazing selection of fruits, cheeses and ham. The price of ham is commensurate to its quality. We usually opt for ham at low or mid-range cost and the taste was still incredible. Maybe someday, we will try the €100-a-pound Iberico ham for a very special occasion.

PICNIC AT THE PARK: There are beautiful public parks in Madrid or in the outskirts of Madrid. A favorite among the locals and visitors is Buen Retiro Park. For this venture, we have filled a backpack with sandwiches, pastry treats and drinks from food items purchased from a super mercado. In small cities or neighborhoods in the outskirts of the major cities of Madrid and Barcelona, the small markets offered reasonably priced items. We stocked up on snacks and drinks of wine, juice, orange soda and gazpacho. And of course, chocolate bars, yogurt, apples and galletas (biscuits).

HOME COOKED MEALS: At first, I thought including this option might not apply for the typical traveler. But with Airbnb and others like it, short-term apartment rental and vacation house swapping becoming commonplace, travelers might have access to a kitchen. Our family was blessed to be welcomed to homes of friends in Madrid, Spain and Porto, Portugal. So home cooked breakfast was a treat for us.

Plan to Splurge on a Meal While Abroad

I mentioned that on occasion, my family did splurge on food. I’ve often heard well-traveled friends and family talk about Spain, that it is known as a gourmet food hub in Europe among other distinctions. Several cities and regions are touted as gastronomic capital of Spain: Toledo, Burgos, Lugo, Catalonia and Madrid to name some. Although I have visited all these places, I have not gone on a gastronomic guided tour. They offer such tours in Barcelona, Catalonia, and I would guess in other cities as well in Spain. These are often walking food tours. Since I was not up to testing how far I could push my physical mobility at a time of improved health, I’ll leave it to the imagination for now. But I think it would be a blast for the able-bodied foodie. Having hiked through the rural areas of Spain during our Camino de Santiago pilgrimage prior to my diagnosis of RA, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Spain still raises their farm animals and grows their vegetables the old fashioned way. Fruits and vegetables are so much tastier because they are unencumbered (for now) by Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) common in foods found in the USA. Chicken meat tasted like chicken, different from the hormone fattened ones. Even the chicken wings sold at McDonald’s in Madrid were tasty. Egg yolks clearly looked golden yellow; fruits and vegetables didn’t have an after taste because they were not covered with wax. The taste was fresh and natural. Imagine eating meat from naturally raised animals, freshly caught seafood or organically grown vegetables and yet stay on a reasonable budget. You absolutely can in Spain!

I am happy to attest that my family and I have had our share of high quality and wholesome food mostly on a budget at places where tourists frequent; restaurants in rural areas along the Camino while on a pilgrimage to Santiago; at cafes and farmer’s market tucked away from the center of tourist activities; deli treats from local super markets (mercado) and lunch counters at bus and metro stations. We usually opted for simple meals and sandwiches when unsure about the establishment. The quality maybe touch-and-go in certain locations, but in my experience, those were far and few in between.

Don’t dismiss the cafe or restaurant in a 5-star hotel. The food prices could vary vastly. At a hotel cafe, find a meal at under €10. At their full service restaurant, a brunch buffet might cost you €25 or more per person. It is one important tradition that my family has adopted while traveling in Europe: we splurge on a meal once in a while. Something we budget for. We might splurge at least once or twice when the moment or location calls for it. For example, when we discovered a uniquely welcoming restaurant in Madrid with the menu prices so freakishly reasonable and the food so incredibly scrumptious, we did not hesitate on pleasing our gastronomical impulses.

Luckily for my family, when at the home of our dear Spanish friends who generously hosted us when in Aranjuez, we were treated to delicious home cooked meals, as well as at iconic eating places when dining out in their hometown. So when with our friends abroad, we also feasted at high-end restaurants. How much to spend in these eating establishments could vary depending on what you order, but expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of €50 to €100 plus person. We are fortunate because our Spanish friends are connected with a Michelin Star chef in their town, the recommendations are mostly right on.

The good news for the typical traveler? The best of Spain’s gourmet landscape doesn’t have to be experienced in a Michelen Star restaurant. So, splurge at least once and experience deliciousness that Spain has to offer. Without a doubt the determined traveler will find good places to eat on a budget. What else is left to do? Immerse yourself in an incredibly scrumptious celebration, a fiesta for the palate!

©Lu Sobredo, Written: October 11, 2016. Guest Editor: Adrian Sobredo

*EURO - DOLLAR Exchange Rate as of December 13, 2016: € 1.00 = 1.062 USD
**Lactuca Buffet is no longer in the location as of the recent visit to Barcelona in July 2018. The new place is being constructed as a Big Five hamburger eating establishment.

SPECIAL DEDICATION: The essay is dedicated to my ever loving and adventurous husband James Sobredo; our beloved family/friends Noelia Jimenez and Ruben Lopez; and dear friends/community advocates Nuno Rebelo and Victoria Santos.

SPECIAL OFFER: Anyone who wants additional details or more information, write your thoughts in the Comment section. I also invite you to post your comments and questions in this blog page and in the Visitor Post segment of my travel facebook page:


  1. Thank you to Eleanor Fernandez for leaving this comment on my Lutravelsabroad FB page:
    Great blog post! I just read it and reminded me so much of my experiences too Lu! I stayed near the Ramblas section of Barcelona and relied on the market and grocery stands too 👍😊 Can't wait to read more and happy holidays again! Take care!

  2. Thank you to Elizabeth Ong, a friend of a friend whose reaction after reading this blog made me smile. Here's her comment posted on my Travel FB page:

    "Ola! If ever I tip, how much? BTW, your blog has got to be one of the best and genuine travel blogs that go beyond "this is fun" or "it was delicious!" You should have your own TV show!"

    I told her that she made me blush. I am happy to be able to provide information that could help someone make travel abroad worthwhile. Why add to the stress of travel if you don't have to. And yes, I answered her specific question about tipping.


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