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If it’s your first time here, let me start by saying – I’m obsessed with Spain. I absolutely love everything about it, and it makes me feel so at home that I always want to go back. It’s an extremely fascinating destination that has a lot more to it than just a few touristy spots. There are also quite a few things to know about Spain before planning a trip.
It might seem like another European country, but before visiting a new destination, it’s crucial to read some travel tips about local culture, Spanish food and drinks, the country itself, things to do or not to do, and anything that will help you make the most of your trip. So here are 55 things to know before traveling to Spain that will hopefully make your traveling life a little bit easier.
Traveling to Madrid? Here are 20 essential tips for visiting Spain’s amazing capital!
If you’re a book lover, check out these 25 novels you should read before visiting Spain!
A FEW FUN THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SPAIN
SPAIN LIVES IN THE WRONG TIME ZONE
Why not start off with a quirky fact?
As a tribute to Germany, the general Francisco Franco changed Spain’s local time zone to Germany’s time zone in 1940. This change was made permanent and up until today, Spain lives in Germany’s time zone.
SIESTA OR NO SIESTA?
This whole siesta thing has made people think that all Spaniards do is sleep, and that’s not entirely true. Pensioners and small business owners do have their time to chill at home, but even they might only be eating their lunch instead of actually sleeping.
It also depends on where you’re traveling because big cities do not shut down for 2-3 hours in the middle of the day. Moreover, restaurants are usually open during this time because that’s when the Spaniards eat their lunch. In smaller towns and villages, the locals are more likely to take a break and enjoy their siesta.
DO YOU LOVE GOING OUT TO BARS? THERE’S A WHOLE LOT OF THEM!
The statistics are constantly changing, but supposedly, there’s 1 bar for every 129 Spaniards. That means Spain is one of the top countries with the highest density of bars in the world. Pretty incredible, huh?
THERE’S AN IMPRESSIVE NUMBER OF UNESCO SITES
Spain is home to more than 60 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They include all types of landmarks from Moorish palaces and historic centers to national parks and pre-historic caves. Before your next trip, take a look at this full list of UNESCO sites in Spain.
THERE ARE FIVE CO-OFFICIAL LANGUAGES IN SPAIN
Although Spanish is the official language in Spain (and is spoken by 99% of Spaniards as a first or second language), there are a few other official languages used in various regions: Aranese in Catalonia, Catalan in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, Basque in the Basque Country, Valencian in the Valencian Community, and Galician in Galicia.
Three other local languages are recognized in Spain, but they are unofficial. Apart from these nine languages, Spain also has many different dialects all around the country like Andalucian and Cantabrian.
IT PRESERVES THE HERITAGE OF 3 RELIGIONS
Although Spain is a Christian country, there had been times when it was ruled by the Moors and times when it was home to a thriving Jewish community. Many Islamic and Jewish monuments are well-preserved and must be on your bucket list.
Amongst the Moorish landmarks are the Alhambra complex in Granada and the village of Albarracin. And Jewish landmarks can be found in cities like Cordoba, Toledo, and Girona. Of course, you can also visit many Christian monuments such as the cathedrals in Santiago de Compostela and Sevilla.
GENERAL TIPS FOR VISITING SPAIN
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT MADRID AND BARCELONA
One of the most important things to know about traveling to Spain is that Madrid and Barcelona are not the only cities you should visit. As much I love these two cities (and believe me, I do), there is so much more to see in this incredible country. There are actually 17 regions in Spain, and each one of them deserves to be visited and explored. Check out my full Spain bucket list to learn what each region has to offer. In case both cities are still on your radar, read this post that will help you decide where to go next – Barcelona or Madrid.
SPAIN ALSO HAS ISLANDS
There’s a lot to discover in Spain’s mainland, but it doesn’t hurt to have even more options for a Spanish trip. Two of Spain’s 17 regions are the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands. While the Balearic Islands are located in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands are located in the Atlantic Ocean near Morroco (yes, they are a part of Spain!). Most people consider them only as summer destinations, but their excellent weather allows you to enjoy them all year round.
YOU CAN ENJOY SOME SURPRISING LANDSCAPES
If you think that Spain is just about visiting cities or beaches, think again. The truth is that in Spain, you can also find many different types of views. While areas like northern Spain offer you vast green scenery dotted with lakes and rivers, places like the Bardenas Reales allow you to enjoy desert landscapes.
Spain is also home to several volcanoes that can be found in the Canary Islands and unique lunar-like landscapes like the ones in the Minas de Riotinto municipality. Do you get why I love this country so much?
DON’T EXPECT ALL 17 REGIONS TO BE THE SAME
Obviously, in different regions, you’ll see different places and views. But each region also has its unique flavor, history, typical food, etc. For example, the southern region of Andalucia has a Mediterranean vibe and a rich Christian, Jewish, and Islamic history. Don’t expect to find the same atmosphere and characteristics in Madrid or the Basque Country. Celebrate each region for what it has to offer. This diversity is what makes Spain such an interesting destination.
EACH REGION ALSO HAS DIFFERENT WEATHER
It might sound like an obvious fact, but if you want to enjoy your trip, it’s important to know what the local weather is like, and it’s definitely not the same in all 17 regions. If you’re planning a summer vacation, know that Andalucia is the hottest region and northern Spain has milder temperatures and pleasant weather. Also, some regions like the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands offer excellent weather even during winter.
YOU SHOULD TAKE A ROAD TRIP
As much as I love city breaks, and as possible as it is to explore Spain by public transportation, sometimes there’s nothing like a good old road trip. In fact, one of my biggest dreams is to take a road trip in each one of Spain’s regions. Sure, it comes with expenses, but it also allows you to stop wherever and whenever you want, get to places that are not necessarily accessible by public transportation, and overall be a lot more flexible with your itinerary.
DON’T GO FOR A BIG CAR WHEN HIRING ONE
The entrance and exit lanes of parking lots in Spain can be quite narrow, so parking could get tricky if your car is too big. If possible, pick a smaller car, and be very careful when entering or going out of a parking lot.
YOU MIGHT HAVE TO USE TOLL ROADS
Taking a road trip in Spain, you’ll probably have to use a few toll roads. Apart from taking that into consideration when planning your trip budget, you should also have some loose change to pay for them.
RURAL ACCOMMODATION CAN BE VERY ECONOMICAL
In case you are taking a road trip, know you can find pretty cheap accommodations in small towns and villages. The price typically includes breakfast and free parking (as opposed to city hotels that can charge up to 20 Euros per day for parking!). Apart from the economic benefits, staying in these rural places that provide you with stunning morning views and serenity can be a unique experience.
IF POSSIBLE, AVOID DRIVING IN THE CITY
I think this one is an international travel tip that suits every country. Going on a road trip, try avoiding getting inside the city with a car. It’s usually not a pleasant drive, the traffic can be frustrating, and finding parking can be quite a headache. If you have no choice, try to park away from the city center and use public transportation to get around.
FLIGHTS CAN BE CHEAPER THAN TRAIN RIDES
I know it sounds weird, but that’s the truth. Sometimes national flights in Spain can cost you less than a train ticket. So before purchasing a ticket, compare both flight and train fares on Omio (formerly GoEuro). It helped me save a few dozen Euros by booking a flight from Madrid to Barcelona instead of taking the train.
YOU CAN VISIT SOME SITES FOR FREE
This is also true for many other countries in Europe, so it’s a great thing to know in general.
Many sites in Spain offer free admission on weekends, on a certain day of the week, or every day on specific hours.
For example, a ticket to Madrid’s Prado Museum (one of the greatest art museums in Europe) will cost you at least 15 Euros. But from Monday to Saturday at 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. and on Sundays and holidays at 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. you can visit the museum for free. Although you can save a lot of money, take into consideration that these times can be more crowded than usual.
To know if attractions or sites offer free admission (and when) it’s best to consult their official website.
BOOK POPULAR ATTRACTIONS IN ADVANCE
This tip is one of the most crucial things to know when traveling to Spain. Some of Spain’s most visited sights are the Royal Palace in Madrid, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and Park Güell in Barcelona, and the Alhambra palace complex in Granada.
Now, I assume you don’t want to wait in a long, tedious line to buy your tickets, so be sure to book them in advance online. I promise you it’ll save you both time and headaches. You can purchase your tickets on the attraction’s official website or on websites like GetYourGuide and Viator.
Pro tip: Some sights limit the number of visitors per day and require you to pick a specific time slot for your visit. To slightly avoid the crowds, I recommend picking a morning time slot in the middle of the week. Also, make sure you get there exactly on time, or you’ll have to buy a new ticket.
WATCH YOUR BELONGINGS IN BIG CITIES AND PARKING LOTS
This is one of my biggest travel tips for Barcelona in particular, but it applies to other cities as well. Pickpockets are a common thing in many places in Europe, and big cities in Spain suffer from this problem too. Other places like car rental parking lots can also attract thieves, so be sure to never leave your belongings unattended.
THERE’S NO NEED TO GET UP TOO EARLY
When it comes to important things to know about Spain, consider the fact that most attractions, sights, shops, and cafes don’t open before 9:30 AM or even 10 AM. Take that under consideration when planning your itinerary or find another activity that is always available (exploring a neighborhood, strolling in a park, etc).
WHAT ABOUT SUNDAYS?
In big cities (like Madrid and Barcelona), you’re less likely to experience a quiet Sunday where everything is closed. It feels a lot more relaxed than other days and some businesses are closed, but many shops, restaurants, and even attractions and sights are open. In smaller cities and towns, most businesses will probably be closed. Sunday is also the day when many markets take place like the El Rastro flea market in Madrid and the Plaza Redonda market in Valencia.
THE BEACHES ARE NOT ONLY MEDITERRANEAN
Spain’s 8,000 km (4,970 miles) of coastlines and 3,000 listed beaches are no joke, and I have much respect for its Mediterranean coast. However, if you’re looking for something a bit less touristy and crowded, the Cantabrian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean provide both southern and northern Spain with some of the dreamiest beaches. Amongst them are La Concha, Rodiles, Torimbia, and Rodas, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO VISIT SPAIN ONLY IN SUMMER (AND YOU SHOULDN’T)
Yes, Spain is a perfect beach destination. But it’s also an amazing ski destination and a great place to celebrate spring and watch fall foliage. It means, of course, that you can enjoy this magnificent country in all four seasons!
As for beach destinations in Spain, know you can visit some of them all year round. Places like the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands have excellent weather even during winter, so why not book an off-season vacation?
YOU CAN PLAN A TRIP AT ALMOST EVERY BUDGET
A budget summer vacation in popular beach destinations in Spain might be a bit challenging to plan, but other than that, there’s no reason why you can’t book a budget-friendly trip to Spain.
Whether you’re planning a city break or a road trip, you can almost always find budget-friendly places to stay and eat. Also, many attractions and sights in Spain can be visited for free. Traveling off-season (even slightly off-season) also helps with maintaining your budget low.
YOU CAN LEARN SPANISH WHILE TRAVELING
One of the best experiences I’ve had in Spain was improving my Spanish at a language school called Enforex. They are spread all across Spain, and they offer many different types of programs for all levels. Learning Spanish in Spain allows you to effectively work on your Spanish, meet people from all over the world, and of course, travel. If you’re looking for a new adventure, this experience could be a great option for you.
Tip: The study period varies from one week to an entire year, so you need to explore your long term visa options if you want to stay in Spain for longer than the standard visa-free three months.
WORD PRONUNCIATION AND ACCENT ARE DIFFERENT THAN IN LATIN AMERICA
Each Latin country has its accent and local way to say different words. However, if you’ve learned Spanish in a language school or through an app that was more oriented towards Latin American dialects, you might find the Spanish accent and word pronunciation a bit funny or difficult to understand.
To understand the differences, you can use online translators like SpanishDict that allow you to hear a recording of a word both in Latin American pronunciation and Spanish pronunciation. Many words sound the same, but when you hear complete sentences, it can get trickier to keep up.
YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY ATTEND A SPANISH FESTIVAL
If anyone knows how to throw a party, it’s the Spaniards. Seriously, Spanish festivals are insane (and there are so many of them!). Amongst the big and famous ones are the fire festival called Las Fallas, the tomato battle called La Tomatina, the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (the second biggest carnival after the one celebrated in Rio de Janeiro and one of the best things to do in the Canary Islands), and the Andalusian fair called Feria de Abril.
You can also attend lesser-known festivals and celebrations that usually take place in small towns and villages like the autumn festival in Jerez de la Frontera called Fiestas de la Vendimia or Cervantes Week in Alcala de Henares.
YOU SHOULD ATTEND A FOOTBALL GAME
Let’s start by making things clear – in Europe, you should call it football and not soccer. Football is a huge deal in Spain and a significant part of the local culture. You can see entire families going together to games. It’s that important.
Attending a game is truly an epic experience thanks to an enticing atmosphere and the love of the local fans for their team. Tickets are available on each team’s official website, and you should purchase yours a few weeks in advance, if possible.
A few other things you should know:
- Barcelona and Real Madrid are the ultimate rivals. Seriously, it’s even beyond football.
- Don’t wear the wrong team’s t-shirt!
- Atletico Madrid has some of the best fans in Spain, so attending one of their games is a must. The vibe is absolutely insane and you will never forget it.
THE BEST PLACE TO WATCH FLAMENCO SHOWS IS ANDALUCIA
Flamenco is one of my most favorite things in Spanish culture. The guitar, the dance, and the singing all together can literally make me cry, and I just love watching flamenco shows. While you can go to shows all around Spain, you’ll have the most authentic experience in Andalucia, the region where the flamenco was born.
It may come as a surprise, but there are a few things you should know about the Spanish dress code:
- Dress according to the season (don’t look like it’s August when it’s only April).
- Don’t wander around with just your swimsuit.
- Most people don’t wear flip flops if they’re not at the beach.
SEE LESS, BUT ENJOY MORE
As a person with major travel FOMO, I get it. It’s super tempting to try to see everything in a short amount of time, but there will always be more to see in Spain. If you want to enjoy your trip, you need to prioritize (a word that I’m learning to embrace). It’s better to see less but to experience to the fullest each and every place you visit.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE GOING TO SPAIN ABOUT SPANISH FOOD AND DRINKS
THE SPANIARDS LOVE THEIR COFFEE
In the morning, in the afternoon, and even after meals, coffee is an essential part of Spanish culture and you should know how to order it. From ‘cafe con leche’ to ‘cortado’, here’s a full guide to ordering coffee in Spain.
TRY EACH REGION’S LOCAL DISHES
Trying local food is a huge part of traveling, but don’t fall for tourist traps. Do some research about the typical dishes served in the region you’re visiting and have them instead of Spanish food from other regions.
Take paella for example. It’s most likely Spain’s most famous dish, and it’s served in restaurants all over Spain. However, you’ll enjoy the most authentic (and delicious) paella where it was born, in Valencia. Sure, you might find a restaurant or two serving a decent paella in Madrid or Seville, but if you want to have the best food experiences, celebrate each region’s local dishes.
TAPAS AND PINCHOS ARE YOUR BEST FRIENDS
What would a trip to Spain be without tapas? These small portion dishes can be the appetizers or form a full meal, and they’re typically shared by several people. In northern Spain, pinchos (or pintxos) are more common. These individual portions consist of a topping pinned with a toothpick to a piece of bread. Both tapas and pinchos are a huge part of Spanish culinary and social culture because people usually order them while they’re hanging out with their family or friends.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE LOCAL DRINKS
I always love exploring the local food scene when I’m traveling, but like other destinations, Spain also has some amazing local drinks. Here are a few you must try:
- Sangria: Red or white wine mixed with fruits.
- Vermouth: Sweet fortified wine drunk as an aperitif before lunch. It’s more popular in Madrid and Barcelona.
- Cava: A sparkling wine typical to the region of Catalonia.
- Agua de Valencia: A typical Valencian cocktail made from cava or champagne, orange juice, vodka, and gin.
- Cerveza (beer): Spaniards and beer are best friends, and you have to try a few Spanish beers like Cruzcampo and Estrella Galicia. To get to know the different types and sizes of glasses you can order, here’s a useful guide to ordering a beer in Spain.
- Tinto de Verano (‘Red Wine of Summer’): Red wine mixed with lemon-lime soda.
- Clara de Limon: Beer mixed with lemon soda.
- Sherry: A typical Andalusian fortified white wine.
- Sidra: Apple cider. In Spain, it is more typical in northwestern regions.
- Horchata: A Valencian non-alcoholic sweet drink made from tiger nuts.
DIRTY BAR FLOOR IS A GOOD SIGN
This is one of the quirkiest things to know before visiting Spain, but if you want to know where the locals eat, it’s a helpful tip. Bars (and only bars) with things like napkins and olive pits thrown on the floor are usually good places loved by locals. However, not all bar owners are fine with throwing trash on their floor, so don’t do it yourself unless you’re 100% sure it’s okay.
YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO EAT ONE COURSE AND ASK FOR THE CHECK
Spaniards can spend hours in restaurants. Not only do they usually eat a full 3-course meal, but after it, comes the ‘sobremesa.’ This is a time of at least 30 minutes of relaxing at the table after having a heavy meal. Typically, it also involves having some coffee or tea. So if you don’t want to look like a total tourist, don’t just have one course and leave the restaurant. Take your time and enjoy the experience of eating out, just like the locals do.
CHURROS ARE NOT A DESSERT
If there’s one thing I’m obsessed with, it’s churros with hot chocolate. These crispy, fried pastries are one of my most favorite things to eat in Spain. The thing is, that they’re normally eaten as breakfast or as a snack during the day, so don’t expect to find them on the dessert menu. Churrerias (churro shops) will serve them all day long, and some cafes will only serve them in the morning.
HAVE AN ECONOMICAL LUNCH WITH THE ‘MENU DEL DIA’
Menu del Dia is a lunch menu offered by restaurants in Spain that includes an entree, a main course, a dessert, and a soft drink all for 9-14 Euros. Usually, you’ll have several options for the courses, and sometimes the price will also include coffee.
SPICY FOOD IS NOT A PART OF SPANISH CUISINE
Yes to spices, no to spicy. Apart from a few exceptions, you won’t find spicy Spanish food. You might see people eating a plate of fried green Padron peppers, but the belief is that only 1 of 10 will actually be hot.
FORGET ABOUT BUTTER! OLIVE OIL RULES!
Did you know that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world? With more than 40% of the world’s olive oil production (primarily coming from southern Spain), it’s only natural that the Spaniards will consume it regularly, and so should you. A must-try breakfast in Spain is a toast with tomatoes and olive oil, and as simple as it sounds, it’s delicious! You will also find olive oil on your restaurant’s table and in most Spanish dishes.
YOU’RE GOING TO EAT LATE
It’s not just a myth; the Spaniards eat late. Traditionally, the locals eat their lunch at 2 PM and their dinner at nine or even 10 PM. Also, many restaurants only work between 1-4 PM and then open again at 8 PM. In big cities, you’ll find restaurants that work all day long, but in small towns and non-touristy areas, you should stick to the local meal times if you don’t want to desperately look for an open place to grab a bite.
WATER IN RESTAURANTS IS NOT FREE
As opposed to countries where water is automatically served, or where you can ask for tap water, in Spain, you’ll need to buy a bottle. Take that under consideration when planning your trip’s budget as it adds up to quite a few Euros.
BREAD BASKETS ARE ALSO NOT FREE
You might think waiters serve you a bread basket as an act of goodwill, but if you touch it, you’ll literally pay for it. Other snacks served to the table are usually free, but it’s not always the case.
IT IS AN IDEAL DESTINATION FOR WINE LOVERS
As the third-largest wine producer in the world, Spain is an absolute paradise for wine lovers. From Ribera del Duero to Rioja to Vinos de Madrid, Spain is home to more than 60 different wine regions and over a million acres of vineyards (which is mindblowing!). It is the perfect place to enjoy wines like Sherry, Cava, and Tempranillo, and even take a few wine tours.
BREAKFAST AT A CAFE CAN BE REAL CHEAP
Spanish breakfast is relatively small, and you can get one for ridiculous prices at small cafes and several local food chains. Pass on the hotel’s breakfast and go get yourself a combo of coffee, orange juice, and a croissant or a toast with tomatoes and olive oil for only 1.5-3 Euros.
AVOID EATING ON THE GO
You’re unlikely to see people eating while walking down the street or waiting for the bus. Every mealtime in Spain is significant, and you shouldn’t rush your meals.
DON’T ASK FOR A DOGGY BAG
Nothing says you’re a tourist more than asking for a doggy bag with your leftovers. Just don’t do it.
HOW MUCH TO TIP?
I’ve come across several versions stating how much you need to tip in Spain. Most of them said that if you’re only having breakfast, coffee, or a drink (beer, wine, etc) you don’t need to tip at all. Also, after an ordinary meal you should leave 1-2 Euros, and at fancier restaurants leave up to 10%.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO SPAIN ABOUT THE PEOPLE
THE SPANIARDS ARE LOUD
Some stereotypes about Spain are not really true, but there’s no denying the Spaniards are far from being quiet people. You’ll notice it mostly in restaurants and bars, so consider it normal to have a noisy dinner.
THE SPANIARDS ARE ALSO WARM AND FRIENDLY
There are always exceptions, but on my numerous visits to Spain, I’ve mostly encountered friendly and kind people. Not only service providers, but most people were always willing to help and were doing it with a smile on their faces.
YOU SHOULD LEARN A FEW BASIC PHRASES IN SPANISH
Another stereotype proven to be true is that most people in Spain don’t speak English or speak very limited English (even young people). Be sure to learn some numbers and a few fundamental phrases.
YOU MIGHT BE KISSED
If you’re meeting someone for the first time, Spaniards will not shake your hand but they will give you two kisses on the chics. They usually kiss their friends and family when they meet and say goodbye. As a tourist, it’s less likely to happen, but in case you’re introduced to someone local, don’t be surprised when you’re kissed.
IT’S ALL ABOUT LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
If there’s one thing the Spaniards know, it’s how to enjoy life. They always seem happy and relaxed, they love spending time with their family and friends, and they never miss a chance to go out. This vibe of theirs is pretty contagious and is one of the biggest reasons why I love traveling to Spain so much. It’s an inspiring way of life, and I’m certain you’ll soak it in even if you’re only visiting for a few days.
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