Learn how to navigate Spanish supermarkets and make grocery shopping in Spain as easy as it is in your home country.
Trying to buy bread or milk during siesta can be frustrating, and having special dietary restrictions or relying on public transportation can add even more hurdles to the Spanish shopping experience.
The Spanish way of grocery shopping
If you’ve come from a country that boasts the convenience of 24-hour grocery stores and shops such as the US or the UK, living in a place where stores are open seemingly at random can be one of the most difficult adjustments.
Many new arrivals simply can’t believe that everything is indeed closed at lunch, or that come 14:00 on a Saturday, most businesses are shut for the weekend. Expats in Spain may also be surprised at being unable to go to the supermarket on a Sunday – though bars and churches remain open.
But over time, we usually begin to appreciate these differences. In the US, for example, shoppers visit massive stores where armies of staff work in shifts; in Spain, you go to the small, independent papelería for pens and notebooks, the ferretería a block away for a hammer or screwdriver, and el mercado for your groceries. Most of these small shops are run by families, which means 14:00 is time for a family lunch, and the weekends are a necessary break from their jobs. In other words, they’re not employees of a vast multinational company – they are independent traders with families.
A typical shopping excursion in Spain begins with a coffee at a local bar before heading to the panadería for bread. Next, you’ll walk to the local market, where there are multiple carnicerías for meat, charcuterías for hams and cheeses, fruterías for fruits and vegetables, and pescaderías for seafood. When your number is called, you receive a warm hello that leads to a conversation (if you’ve learned Spanish, of course!). Then, when your carrito is full with enough food for the next few days, you might head to the market bar for a small beer and a sandwich before returning home. Even the fact that everything is closed on Saturday afternoon can become a positive; you end up doing all your shopping in the morning, leaving the rest of the weekend free.
If you live in a city, doing your shopping on foot sounds healthy in theory – but it really works best when only visiting markets or small shops for a few items, not your big weekly haul at the supermarket. One reason for this is that you can’t take groceries from other shops into the supermarkets. However, most supermarkets have taquillas or lockers (for a returnable €1) to lock up your items. Sometimes, you can’t possibly fit everything into one of those tiny lockers, which means you need to do your supermarket shopping first – so make sure you plan out your list!
Very few people living in Madrid and many other Spanish cities have garages in their buildings unless they’re somewhat well-to-do and their buildings are less than 50 years old. But even if you have a car, you simply can’t drive shop to shop, 50 to 250 metres at a time, and dream of finding a parking space anywhere near the shop you’d like to visit.
The best solution is to shop on foot, which is not a bad trade-off for living in the Spanish city of your dreams.
Supermarkets in Spain
In most major Spanish cities, supermarkets are found in almost every neighbourhood as well as outside the city centre in centros comerciales. There are a number of popular Spanish supermarket chains.
El Corte Inglés Supermarket
The queues in the supermarkets are often very long and few cash registers open to accommodate the public; in Spain, you have to bag your own groceries. Neighbourhood grocery stores are small, so shopping may be limited.
Shopping out of town
Going to the centros comerciales outside of the city is a different experience altogether. You need a car to get there, and traffic in these areas can be congested, with difficulties parking in the underground garages.
As with the smaller supermarkets in the cities, the queues can be long, despite these places being much bigger. However, the selection of grocery items at these stores is great and the prices are economical. At Carrefour, customers have the option of requesting a pedido, which means having the food sent to your home either the same day or the next day. There’s a charge for this, but when filling a shopping cart with food and spending €150, the extra €5 delivery charge is nominal.
Specialty food stores in Spain for dietary restrictions
Some expats in Spain not only have to learn a new language and get used to the culture but also figure out how to find foods required for health or other dietary reasons. Luckily, the number of specialty food shops and product availability has risen, while prices have come down.
The first step is to ensure that you know the right Spanish words for your specific food requirement, whether it’s an allergy or religious restriction. If you want to buy in a physical store, you can find an herbalista in your city on Google or via Spain’s online yellow pages. Thankfully, large supermarkets have increased the range of items available for different dietary needs, but you may have to hunt them down: some items may be in a specialty section, while others are grouped with products in the same food group.
If you can’t find your product in a store, you can also check online as there are also dozens of specialty food shops available:
Foody.es: This shop offers a wide range of items, including organic, vegetarian and vegan food products, which you can sort by the type of diet or food restriction you have. Orders are delivered within 48 hours, and delivery prices depend on whether you’ve purchased refrigerated/frozen foods.
Alervita.com: This online shop sells both refrigerated and frozen foods for a wide range of dietary restrictions, including vegan products. The cost of delivery depends on the order. Orders over €100 receive free delivery unless you specifically request cold transportation of refrigerated products; in that case, free shipping kicks in at €200.
Senslac.com: This shop focuses on offering lactose-free products, but they do include egg-, gluten-, nut-, and soy-free items. The cost of delivery is calculated by weight and whether the order requires cold transportation.
Lactosa.org: With this website – it’s not a shop itself – you can find a list of shops all over Spain offering lactose-free products.
SinGluten.com: This online shop offers free delivery within 48 hours (except on weekends) on orders over €30.
GlutenFreeShop.es: This shop features has a wide range of gluten-free food items as well as organic cosmetics and more. Delivery prices are based on the total weight of your order.
Online grocery shopping in Spain
Online shopping has invaded the supermarket space, and it’s come to Spain. If you don’t have time to shop at the physical grocery store, try online:
Tu Otro Super features some (apparently) great discounts, but you should also compare the prices: these discounts may actually be on par with retailers’ recommended prices. If you don’t see your brand, check back in a couple weeks as it is constantly updating its stock. Delivery currently starts at €7.95, and deliveries can take up to 72 hours, so it’s not the best choice for urgent orders.
TuDespensa compares prices from major supermarkets, but it also allows you to purchase food items, including fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, directly from the site. Delivery for your first order is free, while orders over €120 always receive free delivery.
Registering and account or signing up for a newsletter will often result in a discount code for your first (and perhaps subsequent) order.
Some major supermarket chains have also begun offering online grocery shopping, including Alcampo, Dia, Eroski, Hipercor, El Corte Inglés Supermarket and others.
Some sites do not offer direct purchases but allow you to compare prices for existing supermarkets. Carritus compares prices at Alcampo, Caprabo, Carrefour, Condis, Eroski, El Corte Inglés, Hipercor and Mercadona. However, be careful of splitting your order across multiple sites: you may end up paying more due to delivery fees.