Discover Spain’s unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

Discover Spain's unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

In Spain, a new era of small plates awaits © Alexander Spatari / Getty

Zesty olive oils, boat-fresh seafood, one-of-a-kind sherries, herb-infused cheeses, some of Andalucía’s most irresistible tapas – this is just a taste of what’s on the menu in the soulful southern Spanish town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which has recently been named the 2022 Capital Española de la Gastronomía (Spanish Capital of Gastronomy). 

For the last decade, each year Spain has been shining a spotlight on a lesser-known city or region working wonders with local produce and flavors and promoting its delectable gastronomy as a key tourism draw. Now, the Capital de la Gastronomía is one of the most-awaited events on Spain’s thrilling culinary calendar, bringing in food competitions, chef’s tables, tapas routes and more. As Sanlúcar steps into its unrivaled new foodie shoes, here’s a look at Spain’s drool-worthy gastronomic capitals. 

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Discover Spain's unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

The fresh paella at EntreBotas in Cádiz, Spain © EntreBotas

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Andalucía

Picture this: you’ve crammed into a heaving tapas bar, then a wafer-thin, shrimp-filled fritter fresh with chopped parsley and onions appears on the countertop. This is Cádiz province’s beloved tortillita de camarones, a signature speciality in salt-scented Sanlúcar, perched at the mouth of the Río Guadalquivir in western Andalucía. Even better when washed down with a glass of manzanilla, the Atlantic-influenced sherry is produced only in Sanlúcar.

Fried acedías (plaice) and chocos (cuttlefish), arroz con pato (rice with duck) and seafood-fuelled stews and rice dishes such as arroz caldoso count among Sanlúcar’s endless delights. Velvety local potatoes pop up in papas aliñás, a punchy potato salad dressed with olive oil, onion, parsley, Jerez vinegar and, usually, melva (tuna). Dive into it all on lively Plaza del Cabildo, whose buzzy tapas bars – Barbiana, Casa Balbino – spill out onto one enormous terrace, or head to Bajo de Guía, the celebrated open-air restaurant boulevard strung along the Guadalquivir, where Casa Bigote is a classic. For a creative spin on sanluqueño produce, try El Espejo (in the historical Barrio Alto) or EntreBotas (hidden inside the Bodegas Hidalgo–La Gitana sherry winery), both by chef José Luis Tallafigo. Sanlúcar Smile, meanwhile, runs expert-led food tours and the town’s Mercado de Abastos is a feast of fresh Andalucian produce. 

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Discover Spain's unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

Marinera is a Russian salad on a bread roll with anchovy and olives, typical of Murcia, Spain © Miguel Garcia Garcia / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Murcia

Tucked between Andalucía and Valencia, with almost 300km of sun-washed Mediterranean coastline, Murcia is known for its magnificent huerta (Moorish-era vegetable gardens), always-fresh seafood, delicious bomba rice and paprika made with ñora peppers. Here in Spain’s 2020-21 gastronomic capital, you’ll be digging into frito murciano (pisto), vegetable-loaded scrambles, fresh sardines, pastel de carne (a meat-stuffed pastry), paparajotes (fried battered lemon leaves) and glorious arroces (rice dishes), served laden with game meat inland and laced with seafood along the coast. 

Get started with terrific tapas at La Pequeña, El Pasaje de Zabalburu, Perro Limón or Alborada in Murcia city, where Alicante chef Nazario Cano’s design-led fine-dining restaurant Odiseo recently won a Michelin star. Leading Murcian chef Pablo González-Conejero works creative wonders with local produce at two-Michelin-star Cabaña Buenavista, set in a finca outside the centre.

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Logroño–La Rioja

Having snagged the original gastronomic crown in 2012, La Rioja offers much more than some of Spain’s finest red wines. Fired by simple, earthy flavours, this tiny northern region’s cuisine centres on locally grown vegetables (potatoes, cauliflower, asparagus, wild mushrooms); succulent meats, often served a la riojana (stewed with peppers, garlic, tomatoes and onions); and pork products, including morcilla, chorizo and jamón. 

Hit the pintxo (Basque-style tapas) bars around Calle del Laurel in elegant Logroño (Bar Torrecilla, Tastavin, Taberna del Laurel and Bar Soriano should get you started), and don’t miss the Mercado de San Blas, founded in 1930. Or settle in at La Cocina de Ramón or Íkaro for an innovative, seasonal spin on La Rioja’s gastronomy. 

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Discover Spain's unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

Spanish snacks (pintxos) on the counter of the tapas bar © Rrrainbow / Getty Images

Toledo, Castilla-La Mancha

Toledo might be renowned for its splendid architecture, but it’s also a city of unstoppable interior-Spain gastronomy. Reigning foodie queen for 2016, Castilla-La Mancha’s Unesco-listed capital cooks up a storm headlined by Manchego cheese, rich meats, savory stews and fuss-free ingredients. Stewed patridge, cochifrito (stewed-then-fried lamb) and arroz a la toledana (rice with pork) are just a few classics on Toledo’s tables; another star is La Mancha’s DO-protected saffron. 

Kick-off your Toledo food tour with old-town tapas at Bar Ludeña, El Trébol and El Botero; go for elegant restaurant-and-winery Adolfo, set in a lovely finca with views across the city; or hunt down a centuries-old home for contemporary-Spanish creations at Alfileritos 24. 

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Almería, Andalucía

On Spain’s sun-soaked Mediterranean shoreline, this eastern-Andalucian city has a traditionally-rooted, now-emerging gastronomy that earnt it Capital Gastronómica status in 2019. Almería’s delectable creations pull in super-fresh seafood, on-the-doorstep vegetables and spectacular platos de cuchara (‘spoon dishes’). Tomatoes, prawns and migas (made with fried semolina here) mingle with tropical fruits (watermelons, mangoes) grown along the coast and mountain meats and jamón serrano from inland villages. 

Start with the buzzing 1890s Mercado Central, then hop between old-town Almería’s tapas bars, most of which serve a free tapa with every drink; try El Quinto Toro, Casa Puga, Casa Joaquín or Jovellanos 16. For something more creative, seek out Tony García’s Espacio Gastronómico, and venture out to José Álvarez’s cutting-edge, Michelin-starred La Costa in El Ejido. 

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Burgos, Castilla y León

The rich, inland flavors of this north-central jewel revolve around locally sourced meats (grilled on open flames or transformed into charcuterie – jamón, chorizo, morcilla), as well as Burgos-made queso fresco (cow’s cheese), Bay of Biscay seafood and homegrown crops including lentils, beans, tomatoes, apples, peppers and cherries. No surprise then that Burgos triumphed as Spain’s second Capital Gastronómica back in 2013. Head for packed city-centre tapas bars such as Cervecería Morito and La Favorita or creative El Huerto de Roque. Traditional Casa Ojeda is famous for its cordero lechal asado (roast lamb), as is Asador San Lorenzo just outside Burgos, while La Jamada, Cobo Estratos and El Fogón de Jesusón give local produce an innovative makeover. 

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Huelva, Andalucía

Wedged between Seville and Portugal, often-overlooked Huelva city won Capital Gastronómica in 2017 for its delectably unpretentious, seafood-rich cuisine. Fried chocos, exquisite jamón from the Sierra de Aracena, wild mushrooms, gambas blancas (white shrimp), daily-fresh fish (especially tuna) and locally grown strawberries fuel Huelva’s bounty; stroll around the Mercado del Carmen for a tantalizing glimpse. 

Top Huelva restaurants include tapas haven Azabache and traditional Juan José, for the perfect tortilla. But many of the province’s best restaurants are hidden in the rolling Aracena hills (Jesús Carrión, Experience by Fuster, Restaurante Arrieros) and along the Atlantic Costa de la Luz in sun-toasted places such as Isla Cristina (try Rufino or Hermanos Moreno). Local chef Xanty Elías, who put Huelva on Spain’s food map with Michelin-starred Acánthum (now closed), is behind sustainability-first Finca Alfoliz in the countryside outside Huelva city. 

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Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country

Crowned in 2014, the Basque Country’s little-explored regional capital combines an unstoppable food scene with a lively, art-and-monument-filled old town. Here, it’s all about fresh Basque ingredients (from Idiazábal cheese to wild mushrooms to river-fresh trout) and an irresistible fusion of traditional flavors with forward-thinking creativity. 

Savour the gastro-style bars at the Mercado de Abastos, linger over Rioja Alavesa wines on Plaza de la Virgen Blanca or jump on the pintxo-pote trails, a string of food-lovers’ itineraries for sampling divine pintxos, drink in hand. Prize-winning Sagartoki, creative Toloño, buzzing PerretxiCo and Andalucía-inspired El Tabanko are just a few beloved pintxo haunts, while El Clarete seduces with original season-fired menus and El Portalón serves traditional staples in a 15th-century mansion.

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Discover Spain's unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

Tapas are great for every meal in Spain © Chalffy / Getty Images

León, Castilla y León

While sharing similarities with Burgos’s cuisine, the mouth-watering food scene in lively 2018 winner León puts its own twist on Castilla y León’s beloved recipes. Standout ingredients range from cecina (a jamón-like cured cow’s meat) to pungent Valdeón cheese made in the remote Picos de Europa mountains and wines from the province’s two grape-growing regions. León’s awe-inspiring Barrio Húmedo (old town) is also one of Spain’s liveliest tapas hubs; must-try stops include Camarote Madrid, La Trébede, Ezequiel and Racimo de Oro. Venturing into gourmet León, boundary-pushing Cocinandos is the city’s first Michelin-star restaurant.

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Discover Spain's unsung food capitals: 11 culinary cities worth the trip

Ceviche Rojo de Caravineros y Encurtidos at Torralbenc in Alaior, Menorca © Torralbenc

Menorca, Balearic Islands

Awarded 2022 European Region of Gastronomy, the beach-wrapped Balearic island of Menorca is a powerhouse of Spanish cuisine. Fresh, local ingredients and a sustainable ethos have been at the heart of Menorcan cuisine for centuries, from artisanal Mahón cheeses to on-the-up wines reviving ancient grapes. Take a deep dive into Menorca’s endlessly inspiring food scene with Cómete Menorca; visit the fresh-produce markets in Ciutadella and Maó; and seek out Ciutadella’s Mon (by Menorcan Michelin-star chef Felip Llufriu), rural Torralbenc (a luxuriously restored farm), Maó’s lively Ses Forquilles (a wine-and-tapas fave) and more. 

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Cáceres, Extremadura

On the border with Portugal, little-touristed Extremadura produces some of Spain’s most prized jamón ibérico (Iberian ham), and the ancient monument-strewn city of Cáceres (named 2015 culinary capital) is a magical place to taste it. Feeling plucked from the Middle Ages, Cáceres’s Unesco-listed Ciudad Monumental also delights with artisanal Torta del Casar cheese, local morcilla (blood sausage), La Vera paprika, grilled meats, honey from Extremadura’s hills and Jerte cherries. 

Hidden between Renaissance palaces, Atrio ranks among Spain’s most inspired and sustainable restaurants, with chef Toño Pérez at the helm. Other Cáceres temptations include creative La Cacharrería, traditional Alma del Sabor, classic-with-a-twist La Tahona and smart Tapería Yuste.

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