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Spain (Spanish: España) is a diverse country that shares the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. It has the second-largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites after Italy and the largest number of World Heritage Cities.
Spain is famous for its friendly inhabitants, relaxed lifestyle, its cuisine, vibrant nightlife, and world-famous folklore and festivities. Among many places worth visiting are Spain's thriving capital Madrid, the vibrant coastal city of Barcelona, the lively third Spanish city Valencia, the famous "Running of the Bulls" at Pamplona, major Andalusian cities with Islamic architecture, like Seville, Granada and Córdoba, the Way of St. James to Galicia and the idyllic Balearic and Canary Islands.
Spain is a diverse country with contrasting regions that have different languages and unique historical, political and cultural traditions. Because of this, Spain is divided into 17 autonomous communities (comunidades autónomas), plus two autonomous cities. Some of the autonomous communities — notably the ones which have other official languages alongside Spanish — have been recognised as "historical nationalities" that have a unique historical identity. These include the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, the Valencian region, Andalusia and the Balearic Islands, but more recently also include Aragon and the Canary Islands.
Spain's many regions can be grouped as follows:
|Green Spain (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria)
|Northern Spain (Aragon, Basque Country, Navarre, La Rioja)
|Eastern Spain (Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia)
|Central Spain (Community of Madrid, Castile-La Mancha, Castile-Leon, Extremadura)
|Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, Formentera)
|Canary Islands (Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, La Gomera, Lanzarote, La Palma, El Hierro)
|Cities, islands and crags in North Africa (Ceuta, Melilla, Crag of Vélez de la Gomera, Crag of Alhucemas, Chafarinas Islands, Alboran Island)
Spain has hundreds of interesting cities. Here are nine of the most popular:
- Madrid — the vibrant capital, with fantastic museums, interesting architecture, great food and nightlife
- Barcelona — Spain's second city, full of modernist buildings and a vibrant cultural life, plus nightclubs and beaches
- Bilbao — former industrial city, home to the Guggenheim Museum and other cultural features; main Basque city
- Málaga — the heart of flamenco with the beaches of the Costa del Sol
- Córdoba — The Grand Mosque ('Mezquita') of Cordoba is one of the world's finest buildings
- Granada — stunning city in the south, surrounded by snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, home of La Alhambra
- Seville — a beautiful, verdant city, and home to the world's third largest cathedral
- Valencia — paella was invented here, has a very nice beach
- Zaragoza — fifth largest city of Spain that held the World Expo in 2008
- Costa Blanca — 200 km of white coast with plenty of beaches and small villages
- Costa Brava — the rugged coast with plenty of seaside resorts
- Costa del Sol — the sunny coast in the south of the country
- Galicia — historic cities and small towns, world-famous seafood, and more Blue Flag beaches than any other autonomous community
- Gran Canaria — known as "a continent in miniature" due to its many different climates and landscapes
- Ibiza — a Balearic island; one of the best places for clubbing, raving, and DJs in the entire world
- La Rioja — Rioja wine and fossilized dinosaur tracks
- Mallorca — the largest island of the Balears, full of amazing beaches and great nightlife
- Sierra Nevada — the highest mountains on the Iberian Peninsula, great for walking and skiing
- Tenerife — offers lush forests, exotic fauna and flora, deserts, mountains, volcanoes, beautiful coastlines and spectacular beaches
With great beaches, mountains, campsites, ski resorts, superb weather, varied and fun nightlife, many cultural regions and historic cities, it is no wonder that Spain is the most popular tourist destination in Europe for any kind of trip. A country of large geographic and cultural diversity, Spain may come as a surprise to those who only know of its reputation for great beach holidays and almost endless sunshine. There is everything from lush meadows and snowy mountains to huge marshes and deserts in the south east. While summer is the peak season, those who wish to avoid the crowds should consider visiting in the winter as not only is it normally mild and sunny, attractions such as the Alhambra Palace in Granada and La Gran Mezquita in Cordoba will not be overcrowded. However the ski resorts of Sierra Nevada do get very crowded. The Mediterranean climate that predominates in Southern and Central Spain is noted for its dry summers and (somewhat) wet(ter) winters, so visiting in the winter or spring brings the added benefit of the vegetation looking much more healthy. Northern Spain (e.g. Asturia) on the other hand gets quite a bit of rain year round and is ripe with lush green vegetation even in August.
Interestingly enough some of the earliest known remains of Homo of any kind in Europe have been found in Spain. Spain is also thought to have been the last refuge of the Neanderthals as well as one of the few places that were inhabitable and inhabited throughout the ice ages.
Early Spain and Roman Era
The earliest inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula we have any profound knowledge of were Iberians, Celts (related to the Gaulish, Britannic and Central European Celts in language and culture) and Basques. As most of these groups had little to no written records we only know of them due to the descriptions of the Greek, Punic and later Roman settlers and conquerors, who colonized Spain from the South starting in the 3rd century BC. Roman culture lasted on the peninsula for roughly half a millennium, when in the age of migrations the Visigoths conquered the Roman province of Hispania.
Interestingly enough most inhabitants of the area kept speaking Latin or rather Latin-derived languages/dialects and only a handful of Germanic words entered the Spanish language ("ganso" being the most commonplace). Soon after their conquest, the Visigoths formed a number of rival "kingdoms" and petty noble states in almost constant in ever-shifting shaky alliances with or against one another, giving rise to constant wars.
Muslim conquest and "al-Andalus"
In 711 one Visigoth ruler apparently called for the Umayyad Muslims to "help" in his fight against some rival or other. (The historical records for this era in Spain are rather bad and there are for example no contemporary Muslim sources whatsoever.) This proved more successful than he could have imagined, and by the end of the 8th century most of the peninsula was in Muslim hands. While the almost eight hundred years of both Christian and Muslim rulers on the Iberian peninsula was by no means peaceful, the modern narrative of a somehow concerted effort to "regain" the "lost lands" for Christendom was never the first, second or any priority for the majority of the Christian rulers. As a matter of fact, many times Christian rulers entered into alliances with Muslim rulers against other Christian rulers and vice versa. While the situation for Muslims in Christian lands and vice versa and Jews in either depended very much on the mood of the ruler and could lie anywhere on a range from benevolent ignorance to murder and expulsion, religious minorities had it a lot better in Spain than in most of the rest of Europe at that time. In fact the Sephardi Jews (named after the Hebrew word for Spain) were at that time not only one of the most important groups inside Spain in terms of science and education, but also dominant among the Jewish people, worldwide. During that time an estimated 90% of Jews were Sephardi. In the 19th century, on the other hand roughly 90% of Jews were Ashkenazim (German and Eastern European, Yiddish speaking). However, this period ended when through conquest and marriage the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon as well as a couple of other, minor, Christian lands were united and their rulers started a war of conquest against the Muslim rulers.
Some of the most glorious historical attractions in Spain date from the period of Muslim rule, including the The Mezquita, built as the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Medina Azahara, also in Córdoba and now in ruins but still visitable as such and built as the Madinat al-Zahra, the Palace of al-Andalus; and the Alhambra in Granada, a splendid, intact palace. There are also two synagogues still standing that were built during the era of Muslim Spain: Santa María la Blanca in Toledo and the Synagogue of Córdoba, in the Old City.
Reconquista and Imperial era
This so called "reconquista" was completed in 1492 with the fall of Granada, and all Jews were forced to leave Spain or convert that year; by 1526, all Spanish Muslims had suffered the same fate. 1492 also marks the point when Spain started to become the world's strongest Empire with territories in North, Central and South America, Africa, and the Philippines (named after Spanish king Felipe). The "new Christians" as they were called were often not sincere in their (forced) conversions (go figure) and to ensure religious "purity", the famous/notorious Spanish inquisition was set up. Genetic studies made in modern times suggest that a large percentage of modern Spaniards have at least partial Jewish and/or Muslim ancestry, which might surprise some, as the concept of being a "true Christian" (rather than a "converso") soon began to get hereditary overtones, with the expulsion of all the descendants of forced converts from Islam in 1609.
Under the House of Habsburg, Spain became a personal union with the Austrian Empire, and reached its height of power in Europe during the 16th and early 17th centuries, controlling much of Benelux and Italy. Spain was weakened as the House of Habsburg lost the Thirty Years' War in 1648.
The colonization of Central and South America as well as Mexico was particularly profound, with the deaths of millions of native people through disease, war and outright murder as the Spanish sought riches in these 'undiscovered' lands. Today many of the countries in this area are defined by Hispanic language and culture (Spanish is today the world's second most spoken native language after Mandarin and before English). The 19th century saw independence movements fight back against the kingdom of Spain, with leaders such as Simón Bolívar or Augustín de Iturbide successfully creating new independent nations throughout Latin America. By 1898 Spain lost the majority of its remaining territories during the Spanish-American War: it lost Cuba and then sold Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to the United States. The war of 1898 was a huge shock to Spanish culture and shattered Spain's self-image of a first-rate power, and it thus inspired a whole literary movement known as the generation of '98.
The 20th century
Spain experienced a devastating civil war between 1936 and 1939 that killed half a million Spaniards and ushered in more than 30 years of dictatorship under General Franco. The civil war originated from a mostly failed coup in Spanish North Africa (today part of Morocco) against Spain's left wing popular front regime (a popular front was in those days a regime including communist/socialist parties as well as liberal, Christian Democrat or even conservative parties and originated in France as a response to fascism). Initially, The fascist side was not led by Franco, but a number of other generals; however, the other leaders soon died in plane crashes or were otherwise pushed to the side. Although the League of Nations (a precursor of today's United Nations) attempted to make intervention impossible, Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany gleefully ignored this by aiding the nationalist (Franco) side and the Soviet Union and to some extent Mexico provided aid to the Republican (popular front) side. Another thing the Republican side tried to do to help win the war was to call for volunteers in the so-called "international brigades", and around 20,000 Brits, Americans, Frenchmen and even Germans did in fact join the fight on their side. However, the Republican side was plagued by lack of weapons and ammunition (some of their rifles were produced in the 19th century) as well as infighting between communists and anarchists and Stalinist purges ordered by the super-paranoid "supporters" of Republican Spain in Moscow. As many people of that generation fought in the Spanish Civil War (including George Orwell, Earnest Hemingway and later German chancellor Willy Brandt) there is a lot of well written literature (and some films) that while not always historically accurate manages to perfectly capture the spirit of vain idealism that made many of the interbrigadistas go to Spain in the first place. After the war was won for Franco through superior fire-power as well as military aid by the Nazis (such as the war-crime of bombing Guernica), Franco managed to unify the not at all homogeneous nationalist forces behind his less-than-charismatic leadership and hold onto power through the Second World War (in which he stayed neutral) until his death, upon which he was to be succeeded by King Juan Carlos. The Spanish Civil War is still in some sense an open wound as it was hardly ever talked about during the days of Franco's regime and to this day Conservatives and Catholics (the Republicans were pretty anti-clerical) are sometimes apologetic toward Franco and the "necessity" of the war. Franco's legacy was that the historically important regional identities and languages (such as Catalan and Basque) were brutally suppressed and a policy of strong national identity under the Spanish/Castillian language was promoted. While violent groups such as ETA (see below) were active even during Franco's time, there was hardly any organized opposition, either violent or peaceful, for most of Franco's reign. Additionally, Franco oversaw Spain's rapid economic expansion with its industrialization in the 1960's. Spain also entered NATO (though not the EU or any of its predecessors) while still governed by Franco. Spain's messy divorce (to say the least) from its African colonies that happened in the latter days of Franco's life is also one of the reasons for the conflict in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony.
With the peaceful transition to democracy in 1978 the restrictions on regional identity were lifted, with autonomy granted to many regions. The nature of the transition meant that there was little justice for those who had suffered under the Franco dictatorship and divisions still remain. Shortly after King Juan Carlos - to the surprise of many - insisted on the country becoming a parliamentary democracy with a figurehead king as nominal head of state, a number of right wing generals in what is now known as 23F tried to overthrow the democratic transition on 23 February 1981. The coup failed mostly due to lack of popular support and because the king - in his capacity of commander in chief - appeared on television in full uniform to order the soldiers back into their barracks, thus throwing his lot in with democracy.
The Basque country in Spain's north that had begun violent resistance in 1959 against Franco continued its campaign of bombings and assassinations into the democratic era with the terrorist ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna; Basque for Basque country and freedom) group, despite the region having been provided with a high degree of autonomy. The group declared a ceasefire in 2011 and the armed struggle appears over for the time being. Even in the "democratic" 1980s, (under longtime Prime minister Felipe Gonzálaez [PSOE 1982-1996]) the Spanish government responded with methods that are now known to have included "death squadrons" to combat terrorism.
Uncertain times in the third millennium
The 2000's saw more economic expansion as well as a housing price boom that subsequently collapsed, leaving Spain with high unemployment and economic difficulties. As a member of U.S. President G.W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" in the "war on terror", Spain was hit by a terrorist attack on a couple of suburban trains in Madrid on 11 March 2004 (now known in Spain as 11M) just a few days before a general election. Prime minister Aznar's (Popular Party, conservative) insistence, that the perpetrators were Basque terrorists whom the social democratic oppositional PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) wanted to negotiate with led to an upset win for Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of the center-left PSOE. His government, however broke down in late 2011 as an early result of the economic crisis that hit Spain particularly hard. Currently Spain is led by a rather unpopular conservative government under Mariano Rajoy, who lost the elections of late 2015, which resulted in a hung parliament and no new government as of April 2016. The economically important Catalan region is also increasing in its demands for independence from Spain.
Spain holds a historical attachment to its neighbors within the Iberian Peninsula, Andorra and Portugal, to its former colonies, to former citizens and their descendants, and to a special category of former citizens, namely Sephardic Jews.
The population of Spain is growing in large part due to migration by people from relatively poor or politically unstable areas of Latin America, such as Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador or Peru; other parts of Europe, especially Eastern Europe; and Africa and Asia, particularly areas that have a historical or linguistic attachment to Spain. There is also an important segment of immigration that consists mainly of retired people, and people running businesses for them and foreign tourists, coming from wealthier European Union countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Benelux and the Nordic countries, established all along the Mediterranean shore, especially in the Costa Blanca (Alicante), Costa del Sol (Málaga) and the Balearic Islands.
Internally there have always been migrations from poorer rural areas (such as Andalusia) to the cities and to jobs in construction and tourism. Due to the economic crisis of the 2000s and 2010s, youth unemployment has risen to unbearable levels in the 50% range and quite a number of young people have semi-permanently fled the country to other European Union countries such as Germany to study, work or do internships either until things get better in Spain or forever.
Minimum validity of travel documents
Spain is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty – the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. Please see article Travelling around the Schengen Area for more information on how the scheme works and what the requirements are for your nationality.
In autumn 2015 an exceptional number of refugees entering the European Union has prompted some countries to reinstitute border controls within the Schengen area and traffic by some border crossings is much less smooth than normally. Delays may occur in particular in the south-east of the European Union.
EU, EEA and Swiss nationals who enter Spain on a national identity card, who are under 18 years old and travelling without their parents are required to have written parental consent. For more information, visit this webpage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Spain.
Citizens of Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Mauritius, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Seychelles are permitted to work in Spain without the need to obtain a visa or any further authorization for the period of their 90 day visa-free stay. However, this ability to work visa-free does not necessarily extend to other Schengen countries.
When entering by air from a non-Schengen country, you will be expected to fill out a brief form which includes an address in Spain, such as a hotel or hostel. This does not appear to be stringently checked, but you will not be allowed in unless an address has been entered.
A stay of longer than 90 days for non-EEA or Swiss citizens almost invariably requires an advance visa. If one stays for longer than 6 months, a residence permit (Titulo de Residencia) must be obtained within the first 30 days of entering Spain.
There are a number of ways to get into Spain. From neighboring European countries, a drive with the car or a train ride is feasible; from a number of Mediterranean countries more or less regular ferry connections are available; visitors from further away will probably be using air travel.
Spain's national carrier is Iberia, although there are many airlines connecting from most European countries, Africa, the Americas and Asia. Virtually all European low cost carriers provide frequent services to Spain including: Monarch, Thomson, Vueling, EasyJet, Ryanair, and Jet2.com.
If your final destination is in mainland Spain, Madrid Barajas (IATA: MAD), Barcelona (IATA: BCN) and Malaga (IATA: AGP) are your most likely ports of entry, as they have by far the highest amount of international flights. If your final destination is on one of the islands, you will most likely directly arrive at an airport on the island, without connecting through another Spanish airport.
see also rail travel in Europe
The train system in Spain is modern and reliable, most of the trains are brand new and the punctuality rate is one of the highest in Europe, the only problem is that not all the populated areas have a train station; sometimes small towns don't have one, in those cases you need to take a bus. Another issue with the Spanish Rail network is that the lines are disposed in a radial way so almost all the lines head to Madrid. That's why sometimes traveling from one city to another geographically close to it might take longer by train than by bus if they are not in the same line. Always check whether the bus or the train is more convenient. That being said the Spanish high speed rail system is more reliable than that of - say - Germany, because the gauge of traditional and high speed trains is different and thus high speed lines are only used by high speed passenger trains meaning fewer delays due to congested lines or technical problems. All lines that cross the border into France have either a break of gauge (thus making changing train or a lengthy gauge change necessary) or are high speed, thus making the high speed trains the vastly preferable option to cross the border. Trains between Barcelona and France are operated by both SNCF and RENFE and both sell tickets for any international train on that route.
Bus travel in Spain is increasingly an attractive option for people traveling on a tight budget.
There are lots of private bus companies offering routes to all major Spanish cities. If you want to travel around Spain by bus, the best idea is to go to your local bus station (apart from Madrid and Barcelona, most towns and cities have just one) and see what is available.
Traveling by bus in Spain is usually reliable (except on peak days when roads can be very crowded and you should expect long delays on popular routes), coaches are modern and comfortable. You can expect to pay about €8 per 100km.
As well as the UK, Spain is also well connected by Ferry to Northern Africa (particularly Tunisia and Morocco) and the Canary Islands which are owned by Spain. Routes are also naturally available to the Spanish Balearic islands of Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera.
- Renfe is the Spanish national rail carrier. Long-distance trains always run on time, but be aware that short-distance trains (called Cercanías) can bear long delays, from ten to twenty minutes, and especially in the Barcelona area, where delays up to 30 minutes are not uncommon. To be safe, always take the train before the one you need. Since 2013 it also manages FEVE narrow-gauge trains which mainly run near the northern atlantic coast (from Ferrol to Bilbao).
- FGC operates several local routes near Barcelona. On these places where both Renfe and FGC operate, usually FGC provides more trains per hour, has better punctuality records and stations are closer to the city centers; on the other side, trains are slower and single fares are more expensive.
- FGV provides local services in Valencia area uncovered by Renfe and a tram service in Alicante.
- Euskotren operates affordable services from Bilbao to Gernika, Bermeo and San Sebastian plus a line connecting San Sebastian with Irun and Hendaye (France). Note that the Bilbao - San Sebastian trip is about 2h40 while buses connect both cities in around just an hour, although bus tickets cost about twice as the train. All but the whole Bilbao - San Sebastian line run twice an hour with extra trains on peak hours.
The least expensive way to get around most parts of Spain is by bus. Most major routes are point to point, and very high frequency. There are numerous companies serving within certain autonomous communities or provinces of the country on multiple routes or on a single route going from a major city to several surrounding villages and towns. The following operators serve more than a single region:
- ALSA (formerly Continental Auto), ☎ . Largest bus company with point to point routes across the country and alliances with various other regional companies and/or subsidiary brands.
- Grupo Avanza, ☎ 34 902 020999. Operates buses between Madrid and the surrounding autonomous communities of Extremedura, Castilla y Leon, Valencia (via Castilla y Leon). In some areas they operate through their subsidiary brands of Alosa, Tusza, Vitrasa, Suroeste and Auto Res.
- Socibus y Secorbus, ☎ . These two companies jointly operate buses between Madrid and western Andalucia including Cadiz, Cordoba, Huelva and Seville.
At the bus station, each operator has its own ticket counter or window and usually a single operator from here to a particular destination. Therefore, the easiest is to ask the staff who will be happy to tell you who operates which route and point you to a specific desk or window. You can also see what is all available on Movelia.es or see "By bus" under "Getting in" or "Getting Around" in the article for a particular autonomous community region, province or locale. It is usually not necessary or more advantageous to book tickets in advance as one can show up and get on the next available bus.
Wherever you are in Spain, from your private yacht you can enjoy gorgeous scenery and distance yourself from the inevitable crowds of tourists that flock to these destinations. May is a particularly pleasant time to charter in the regions of Costa Brava, Costa Blanca and the Balearic Islands as the weather is good and the crowds have yet to descend. The summer months of July and August are the hottest and tend to have lighter winds. There is no low season for the Canary Islands, as the weather resembles springtime all year round. If you would like to bareboat anywhere in Spain, including the Balearic or Canary Islands, a US Coast Guard License is the only acceptable certification needed by Americans to bareboat. For everyone else, a RYA Yacht Master Certification or International Certificate of Competence will normally do. Although a skipper may be required, a hostess/chef may or may not be necessary. Dining out is strong part of Spanish custom and tradition. If you are planning on docking in a port and exploring fabulous bars and restaurants a hostess/cook may just be useful for serving drinks and making beds. Extra crew can take up valuable room on a tight ship.
In major cities like Madrid or Barcelona and in mid-sized ones like San Sebastian, moving around by car is both expensive and nerve-wracking. Fines for improper parking are uncompromising (€85 and up).
Having a driving map is essential - many streets are one-way; left turns are more rare than rights (and are unpredictable).
Getting around by car makes sense if you plan to move from one city to another every other day, ideally if you don't plan to park overnight in large cities. It also doesn't hurt that the scenery is beautiful and well worth a drive. However do consider that gas prices have gone up considerably in the last couple of year and taxes on gasoline are considerably higher than in - say - the USA. With a good public transport network that connects to (almost) all points of interest for travelers, you might ask yourself whether driving is really worth the cost and the hassle, as you are often much faster by train than by car.
There are two types of highway in Spain: autopistas, or motorways, and autovías, which are more akin to expressways. Most autopistas are toll roads while autovías are generally free of charge. Speed limits range from 50 km/h in towns to 90 km/h on rural roads, 100 km/h on roads and 120 km/h on autopistas and autovías.
Intersections of two highways typically have a roundabout under the higher one--so you can both choose any turn and to start driving in an opposite direction there.
Green light for cars about to turn is frequently on at the same time as green light for pedestrians: every time you turn, check if the pedestrians pass you cross doesn't also have green light for them.
Filling procedure for gas stations varies from brand to brand. At Agip, you first fill the tank yourself, and then pay inside the shop. Gasoline is relatively inexpensive compared to other countries in the EU and Japan, but still more expensive than in the U.S.
Spain isn't a good country for hitchhiking. Sometimes you can wait many hours. Try to speak with people at gas stations, parking lots etc. They are scared and suspicious, but when you make them feel that they don't need to be afraid, they gladly accept you and mostly also show their generosity. In the South of Spain, in and around the Alpujarras, hitchhiking is very common and it is also very easy to get a ride. As long as you can speak a bit of Spanish and don't look too dirty/frightening, you should be able to get a ride moderately easily.
Renting a car
If you plan to move around large cities or explore further afield you will find many companies that offer car hire at affordable prices because of the high competition between car rental agencies, consider renting a car with GPS navigation--it will be even easier to drive than having an automobile map.
Spanish drivers can be unpredictable and some of the roads on the Southern area of Malaga and the Costa Del Sol are notoriously dangerous. Other drivers are not always careful parking near other cars, especially when parking space on a street is limited. Therefore you should consider a fully comprehensive insurance package with includes a collision damage waiver (CDW) and a vehicle theft waiver, as well as liability cover. Many of the car hire companies offer an insurance option where you can choose to reduce your vehicle excess. This means that if you are in an accident you would not be financially liable for the whole excess fee. Check your travel insurance and other insurance to ensure you aren't paying twice for the same coverage.
Child seats are also available with all vehicles so that any children in your party can travel safely and in comfort.
Air conditioning is a must in the hot Spanish summer months. Nevertheless you should make sure to take water with you at all times.
If you break down while on holiday you will want a car hire company that gives you the free roadside assistance of trained mechanics. Cars often overheat in Spain while the tires are vulnerable on the hot roads.
Car hire companies may accept payment in foreign currency when you pay by a credit card. Beware the normal costs associated with dynamic currency conversion
Spain is a suitable country for cycling, and it is possible to see many cyclists in some of the cities. Cycling lanes are available in most of mid-sized and large cities, although they are not comparable in number to what you can find in other countries in central Europe, for example. It must be taken into account that depending on where you are in Spain, you could face a very mountainous area. Central Spain is characterized by being very flat, but towards the coast the landscape is often very hilly, especially in the north. There are several options for touring in Spain by bicycle: guided or supported tours, rent bicycles in Spain or bring your own bike, or any combination. Supported tours are ubiquitous on the web. For unsupported tours a little Spanish helps a lot. Shoulder seasons avoid extremes of temperature and ensure hotel availability in non-tourist areas. Good hotels are 35 to 45 euros in the interior, breakfast usually included. Menu del dia meals are 8 to 10 euros eating where the locals eat. Secondary roads are usually well paved, good shoulders and as a rule Spanish drivers are careful and courteous around touring cyclists. Road signs are usually very good and easy to follow.
Currently, most municipalities in Spain, towns and cities are modernizing their streets to introduce special lanes for bicycles. Bike share systems with usually quite reasonable prices are also being installed in cities throughout the country.
All the major cities in Spain are served by taxis, which are a convenient, if somewhat expensive way to get around. That being said, taxis in Spain are more reasonably priced than those in say, the United Kingdom or Japan. Most taxi drivers do not speak English or any other foreign languages, so it would be necessary to have the names and/or addresses of your destinations written in Spanish to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show your taxi driver in case you get lost.
- See also: Spanish phrasebook
I'm so pregnant
Many English words have their origins in Latin, which makes it easy for English speakers to guess the meanings of many Spanish words. However, Spanish and English also have a number of false friends that one needs to be aware of to avoid embarrassing mistakes.
The official and universal language used in Spain is Spanish (español) which is a member of the Romance family of languages (others include Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, French, and Romanian). Many people, especially outside Castille, prefer to call it Castilian (castellano).
However there are a number of languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Asturian, etc.) spoken in various parts of Spain. Some of these languages are dominant in their respective regions, and, following their legalisation in the 1978 constitution and they are co-official with Castilian in their respective areas. Of these, Catalan, Basque and Galician are recognised as official languages according to the Spanish constitution. Apart from Basque (whose origins are still debated), the languages of the Iberian Peninsula are part of the Romance family and are fairly easy to pick up if you know Castilian well. While locals in those areas can also speak Spanish, learning a few words in the local languages where you are traveling will help endear you to the locals.
- Catalan (Catalan: català, Castilian: catalán), a distinct language similar to Castilian but more closely related to the Oc branch of the Romance Languages and considered by many to be part of a dialect continuum spanning across Spain, France, and Italy and including the other langues d'oc such as Provençal, Beàrnais, Limousin, Auvernhat and Niçard. Various dialects are spoken in the northeastern region of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia (where it is often referred to as Valencià), east of Aragon, as well as neighbouring Andorra and southern France. To a casual listener, Catalan superficially appears to be a cross of Castilian and French, and though it does share features of both, it is an independent language in its own right.
- Galician (Galician: galego, Castilian: gallego), very closely related to Portuguese, Galician is spoken in Galicia and the western portions of Asturias and León. Galician predates Portuguese and is deemed one of the four main dialects of the Galician-Portuguese language family group which includes Brazilian, Southern Portuguese, Central Portuguese, and Galician. While the Portuguese consider it a dialect of Portuguese, Galicians themselves consider their language independent.
- Basque (Basque: euskara, Castilian: vasco), a language unrelated to Castilian (or any other known language in the world), is spoken in the three provinces of the Basque Country, on the two adjacent provinces on the French side of the Spain-French border, and in Navarre. Basque is unrelated to any Romance language or to any branch of the Indo-European or Indo-Iranian family of languages. It currently remains unclassified and is deemed a linguistic isolate, seemingly unrelated to any branch of the linguistic family tree. How it got to where it is now and whether it might be (however distantly) related to any language, living or dead is one of the most hotly debated issues in linguistics and rivers of ink have been and will probably be spilled over the issue for the foreseeable future.
- Asturiano (Asturiano: asturianu, Castilian: asturiano, also known as bable), spoken in the province of Asturias, where it enjoys semi-official protection. It was also spoken in rural parts of León, Zamora, Salamanca, in a few villages in Portugal (where it is called Mirandes) and in villages in the extreme north of Extremadura. While the constitution of Spain explicitly protects Basque, Balearic-Catalan-Valencian under the term Catalan, Galician, and Castilian, it does not explicitly protect Asturian. Still, the province of Asturias explicitly protects it, and Spain implicitly protects it by not objecting before the Supreme Court.
- Aragonese (Aragonese: aragonés, Castilian: aragonés, also known colloquially as fabla), spoken in the north of Aragon, and is not officially recognised. This language is close to Catalan (specially in Benasque) and to Castilian, with some Basque and Occitan (southern France) influences. Nowadays, only a few villages near the Pyrenees use the language vigorously, while most people mix it with Castilian in their daily speech.
- Aranese (Castilian: Aranés, Catalan/Aranese Occitan: Aranès), spoken in the Aran Valley and recognised as an official language of Catalonia (not of Spain), alongside Catalan and Castilian. This language is a variety of Gascon Occitan, and as such is very closely related to Provençal, Limousin, Languedoc, and Catalan.
In addition to the native languages, English and French are commonly studied in school. English is in general the more widely spoken of the two, though proficiency among the general population tends to be poor.
That being said, most people in Spain's important tourist industry usually have staff members who speak a good level of English, and particularly in popular beach resorts such as those in the Costa del Sol, you will find people who are fluent in several languages. English is also generally more widely spoken in Barcelona than in the rest of the country. As Portuguese and Italian are closely related to Spanish, if you speak either of these languages, locals would be able to puzzle you out with some difficulty.
Castilian Spanish differs from the Latin American varieties in pronunciation and other details. However, all Latin American varieties are easily understood by Spaniards, and are recognised as different versions of Spanish by the Royal Academy of Madrid, the barometer for all things Spanish language. While some Spaniards believe theirs is the more 'pure' version of Spanish, most Spaniards recognise the reality that there is no 'pure' Spanish, even within their own country. While the differences in spelling are virtually non-existent the differences in words and pronunciation (as well as some aspects of grammar) between "Spanish-Spanish" and "Latin-Spanish" are arguably bigger than those between "American" and "British" English.
Locals will appreciate any attempts you make to speak their language. For example, know at least the Castilian for "good morning" (buenos días) and "thank you" (gracias).
The most popular beaches are the ones in the Mediterranean coasts and the Canary Islands. Meanwhile, for hiking, the mountains of Sierra Nevada in the south, the Central Cordillera and the northern Pyrenees are the best places.
Historically, Spain has been an important crossroads: between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, between North Africa and Europe, and as Europe beginning colonizing the New World, between Europe and the Americas. As such, the country is blessed with a fantastic collection of historical landmarks - in fact, it has the 2nd largest number of UNESCO Heritage Sites and the largest number of World Heritage Cities of any nation in the world.
In the south of Spain, Andalusia holds many reminders of old Spain. Cadiz is regarded as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in western Europe, with remnants of the Roman settlement that once stood here. Nearby, Ronda is a beautiful town situated atop steep cliffs and noted for its gorge-spanning bridge and the oldest bullring in Spain. Cordoba and Granada hold the most spectacular reminders of the nation's Muslim past, with the red-and-white striped arches of the Mezquita in Cordoba and the stunning Alhambra palace perched on a hill above Granada. Seville, the cultural center of Andalusia, has a dazzling collection of sights built when the city was the main port for goods from the Americas, the grandest of which being the city's cathedral, the largest in the country.
Moving north across the plains of La Mancha into Central Spain, picturesque Toledo stands as perhaps the historical center of the nation, a beautiful medieval city sitting atop a hill that once served as the capital of Spain before Madrid was built. North of Madrid and an easy day-trip from the capital city is El Escorial, once the center of the Spanish empire during the time of the Inquisition, and Segovia, noted for its spectacular Roman aqueduct which spans one of the city's squares.
Further north in Castile-Leon is Salamanca, known for its famous university and abundance of historic architecture. Galicia in northwestern Spain is home to Santiago de Compostela, the end point of the old Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrimage route and the supposed burial place of St. James, with perhaps the most beautiful cathedral in all of Spain at the heart of its lovely old town. Northeastern Spain has a couple of historical centers to note: Zaragoza, with Roman, Muslim, medieval and Renaissance buildings from throughout its two thousand years of history, and Barcelona with its pseudo-medieval Barri Gòtic neighborhood.
Spain has played a key role in Western art, heavily influenced by French and Italian artists but very distinct in its own regard, owing to the nation's history of Muslim influence, Counter-Reformation climate and, later, the hardships from the decline of the Spanish empire, giving rise to such noted artists like El Greco, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. In the last century, Spain's unique position in Europe brought forth some of the leading artists of the Modernist and Surrealist movements, most notably the famed Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
Today, Spain's two largest cities hold the lion's share of Spain's most famous artworks. Madrid's Museum Triangle is home to the Museo del Prado, the largest art museum in Spain with many of the most famous works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya as well as some notable works by Italian, Flemish, Dutch and German masters. Nearby sits the Reina Sofía, most notable for holding Picasso's Guernica but also containing a number of works by Dalí and other Modernist, Surrealist and abstract painters.
Barcelona is renowned for its stunning collection of modern and contemporary art and architecture. This is where you will find the Picasso Museum, which covers the artist's early career quite well, and the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudi, with their twisting organic forms that are a delight to look at.
Outside of Madrid and Barcelona, the art museums quickly dwindle in size and importance, although there are a couple of worthy mentions that should not be overlooked . Many of El Greco's most famous works lie in Toledo, an easy day trip from Madrid. The Disrobing of Christ, perhaps El Greco's most famous work, sits in the Cathedral, but you can also find work by him in one of the small art museums around town. Bilbao in the Basque Country of northern Spain is home to a spectacular Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry that has put the city on the map. A day trip from Barcelona is the town of Figueres, noted for the Salvador Dalí Museum, designed by the Surrealist himself.
- Ampurias, excavations of a Greek and Roman town, Roman basilica, temples of Asclepios and Serapis, (between Gerona and Figueras, Catalonia)
- Antequetera, La Menga and Viera dolmens,
- Calatrava la Nueva, well preserved medieval castle,
- Calatrava la Vieja, remains of the Arab town, castle of the order of Calatrava,
- Clunia, Roman town with forum, shops, temple, public bath houses and Roman villa,
- Fraga, Roman villa, Bronze Age settlements,
- Gormaz, Arab castle,
- Italica, Roman town with amphitheatre, city walls, House of the Exedra, House of the Peacocks, Baths of the Moorish Queen, House of the Hylas, temple complex (near Sevilla),
- Merida, Roman city, Roman bridge, Amphitheatre, Hippodrome, House of the Amphitheatre, House of the Mithraeum with mosaics, aquaeducts, museum
- San Juan de los Banos, Visigoth church (between Burgos and Valladolid),
- San Pedro de la Nave, Visigoth church (near Zamora),
- Santa Maria de Melque, Visigoth church,
- Segobriga (Cabeza del Griego), Roman town, Visigoth church, museum (between Madrid and Albacete)
- Tarragona, Roman town with “Cyclopean wall”, amphitheatre, hippodrome, form and triumphal arch,
Spain's La Liga is one of the strongest in the world, boasting world class teams like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona that play to sold out crowds on a weekly basis. The Spanish national team is also one of the strongest in the world, being able to draw world class players from its world class league.
Spain is home to one of the three grand tours on the international cycling calendar, the Vuelta a España.
Spain has a lot of local festivals that are worth going to.
- Málaga's Semana Santa (Easter) - worth seeing. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday lots of processions occur.
- Córdoba en Mayo (Cordoba in May) - great month to visit the Southern city
- Las Cruces (1st week in May) - big flower-made crosses embellishing public squares in the city centre, where you will also find at night music and drinking and lot of people having fun!
- Festival de Patios - one of the most interesting cultural exhibitions, 2 weeks when some people open doors of their houses to show their old Patios full of flowers
- Cata del Vino Montilla-Moriles - great wine tasting in a big tent in the city center during one week in May
- Dia de Sant Jordi - The Catalan must. On 23 April Barcelona is embellished with roses everywhere and book-selling stands can be found in the Rambla. There are also book signings, concerts and diverse animations.
- Fallas - Valencia's festival in March - burning the "fallas" is a must
- Málaga's August Fair - flamenco dancing, drinking sherry, bullfights
- Holy week (Easter Week) - best in Seville and the rest of Andalusia; also interesting in Valladolid (silent processions) and Zaragoza (where hundreds of drums are played in processions)
- Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos (Three wise men parade) - on the eve of Epiphany, 5 January, the night before Spanish kids get their Christmas presents, it rains sweets and toys in every single town and city
- San Sebastian International Film Festival - held annually in San Sebastian, a gorgeous city in the Basque Country, towards the end of September
- La Tomatina - a giant tomato fight in Buñol
- Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians, mostly found in Southeastern Spain during spring time) - parades and "battles" remembering the fights of medieval ages
- 85 festivals in Galicia throughout the year from wine to wild horses.
- New Year eve: "Nochevieja" in Spanish. There's a tradition in Spain to eat grapes as the clock counts down the New Year, one grape for each of the last twelve seconds before midnight. For this, even small packs of grapes (exactly 12 grapes per pack) are sold in supermarkets before New Year.
La Puerta del Sol, is the venue for the New Year's party in Spain. At 23:59h sound "los cuartos (In Spanish)" some bells announcing that it will begin to sound the twelve chimes (campanadas in Spanish). While sounding "los cuartos", moves down from the top chime of the clock, with the same purpose as "los cuartos" sound will indicate that "las campanadas". That will sound at 24:00 and that indicate the start of a new year. During each chime must eat a grape, according to tradition. Between each chime, there is a time span of three seconds. "Las Campanadas", are broadcast live on the main national TV channels, as in the rest of Spain, people are still currently taking grapes from home or on giant screens installed in major cities, following the chimes from the Puerta del Sol in Madrid.
After ringing "las campanadas", starts a fireworks extravaganza. This is a famous party in Spain and is a great time to enjoy because show is secured in the center of the capital of Spain.
- Canyoning: see Spain section in the Canyoning article
- Football (soccer): The most popular sport in Spain, with both the Spanish league and national team being among the strongest in the world.
- Whitewater sports in: Campo, Murillo de Gallego (Aragon)
- Hiking in Galicia
- Downhill skiing There are a lot of downhill skiing resorts in Spain.
Skiing in the northern region of Spain
For a treat, try Costa Brava and the world renowned Canary Islands.
Spain uses the euro. It is one of several European countries that uses this common currency. All euro banknotes and coins are legal tender within all the countries.
Countries that have the euro as their official currency:
One euro is divided into 100 cents.
The official symbol for the euro is €, and its ISO code is EUR. There is no official symbol for the cent.
- Banknotes: Euro banknotes have the same design in all the countries.
- Normal coins: All eurozone countries have coins issued with a distinctive national design on one side, and a standard common design on the other side. Coins can be used in any eurozone country, regardless of the design used (e.g. a one-euro coin from Finland can be used in Portugal).
- Commemorative two euro coins: These differ from normal two euro coins only in their "national" side and circulate freely as legal tender. Each country may produce a certain amount of them as part of their normal coin production and sometimes "Europe-wide" two euro coins are produced to commemorate special events (e.g. the anniversary of important treaties).
- Other commemorative coins: Commemorative coins of other amounts (e.g. ten euros or more) are much rarer, and have entirely special designs and often contain non-negligible amounts of gold, silver or platinum. While they are technically legal tender at face value, their material or collector value is usually much higher and, as such, you will most likely not find them in actual circulation.
The euro replaced the Spanish peseta in 2002. A few people may still use the old national currency (166,386 pts = 1 €, 1.000 pts = 6 €) and convert into Euros later. This is much due to the huge presence of peseta, and "her" many nicknames in colloquial Spanish.
Cash euro: €500 banknotes are not accepted in many stores--always have alternative banknotes.
Other currencies: Do not expect anybody to accept other types of currency, or to be willing to exchange currency. Exceptions are shops and restaurants at airports. These will generally accept at least US Dollars at a slightly worse exchange rate.
If you wish to exchange money, you can do so at any bank (some may require that you have an account there before they will exchange your money), where you can also cash in your traveller's cheques. Currency exchanges, once a common sight, have all but disappeared since the introduction of the Euro. Again, international airports are an exception to this rule; other exception is tourist districts in the large cities (Barcelona, Madrid).
Credit cards: Credit cards are well accepted: even in a stall at La Boqueria market in Barcelona, on an average highway gas station in the middle of the country, or in small towns like Alquezar. It's more difficult to find a place where credit card is not accepted in Spain.
Most ATMs will allow you to withdraw money with your credit card, but you'll need to know your card's PIN for that. Most Spanish stores will ask for ID before accepting your credit card. Some stores may not accept a foreign driving license or ID card and you will need to show your passport. This measure is designed to help avoid credit card fraud.
Tipping, or "propina" in Spanish, is not mandatory or considered customary in Spain unless there was something absolutely exceptional about the service. As a result, you may find that waiters are not as attentive or courteous as you may be used to since they don't work for tips. If you choose to tip, the tip amount in restaurants depends on your economic status, the locale and type of establishment. If you feel that you have experienced good service then leave some loose change on the table - possibly €1 or €2 . If you don't, it is no big deal.
Bars expect only tourists, particularly American tourists, to leave a tip. They are aware that it is customary in the United States to leave a tip for every drink or meal. It is rare to see anyone other than Americans tipping in Spain. Note that in major resorts tipping may be common; look around at other diners to assess if tipping is appropriate.
Outside the restaurant business, some service providers, such as taxi drivers, hairdressers and hotel personnel may expect a tip in an upscale setting.
Most businesses (including most shops, but not restaurants) close in the afternoons around 13:30/14:00 and reopen for the evening around 16:30/17:00. Exceptions are large malls or major chain stores.
For most Spaniards, lunch is the main meal of the day and you will find bars and restaurants open during this time. On Saturdays, businesses often do not reopen in the evening and almost everywhere is closed on Sundays. The exception is the month of December, where most shops in Madrid and Barcelona will be open as per on weekdays on Sundays to cash in on the festive season. Also, many public offices and banks do not reopen in the evenings even on weekdays, so if you have any important business to take care of, be sure to check hours of operation.
If you plan to spend whole day shopping in small shops, the following rule of thumb can work: a closed shop should remind it's also time for your own lunch. And when you finish your lunch, some shops will be likely open again.
Clothes and shoes
Besides well-known mass brands which are known around the world (Zara, Mango, Bershka, Camper, Desigual), Spain has many designer brands which are more hard to find outside Spain--and may be worth looking for if you shop for designer wear while travelling. Some of these brands include:
- Custo Barcelona. Headquartered in Barcelona, has stores in Bilbao, Ibiza, La Coruna, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, León, Madrid, Marbella, Palma de Mallorca, Salamanca, Tenerife.
- Kowalski, head office: Ctra. del Leon, km, 2; 03293 Elche, ☎ . Designer shoes and sneakers (trademark Herman Monster and others) for women, men and unisex.
- El Corte Ingles. Major national chain that can be found in nearly every city. In most cities, enjoys central location but resides in functional, uninspiring buildings. Has department for everything--but is not good enough for most purposes, except maybe for buying gourmet food and local food specialties. Tax refund for purchases at El Corte Ingles, unlike most other stores in Spain, can be returned only to a debit/credit card, even if you originally paid in cash.
- Casas. A chain of footwear stores that selects most popular (?) models from a dozen+ of mid-range brands.
- Camper. Camper shoes can be seen in most cities in the country. While it may seem that they are sold everywhere, finding right model and size may be a trouble--so if you find what you need, don't postpone your purchase. Campers are sold both in standalone branded shops, and as a part of a mix with other brands in local shoe stores. Standalones generally provide wider choice of models and sizes; local stores can help if you need to hunt for a specific model and size.
- For. Private national fashion chain featuring many premium brands. Main location is Bilbao; some stores in San Sebastian and Zaragoza.
The Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine. Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish. The Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies only on the use of high quality ingredients to give a good taste. As such, you may find Spanish food bland at times but there are usually a variety of restaurants in most cities (Italian, Chinese, American fast food) if you would like to experience a variety of flavors.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner times
Spaniards have a different eating timetable than many people are used to.
The key thing to remember for a traveler is:
- breakfast (el desayuno) for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (like a graham cracker) or magdalena (sweet muffin-like bread). Later, some will go to a cafe for a pastry midmorning, but not too close to lunchtime.
- "el aperitivo" is a light snack eaten around 12:00. However, this could include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a "pincho de tortilla".
- lunch (la comida) starts at 13:30-14:30 (though often not until 15:00) and was once typically followed by a short siesta, usually at summer when temperatures can be quite hot in the afternoon. This is the main meal of the day with two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 16:00 at the latest. However, since life has become busier, there is no opportunity for a siesta.
- dinner (la cena) starts at 20:30 or 21, with most clientèle coming after 21. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 21:00 and most customers do not appear before 23:00.
- there is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called la merienda. It is similar to a tea time in England and is taken around 18:00 or so.
- between the lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes are closed, and it takes extra effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time. Despite this, you can always look for a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches, which can be filled with ham, cheese or any kind of embutido, and bocadillos calientes, hot sandwiches, filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and similar options with cheese. This can be a really cheap and tasty option if you find a good place.
Normally, restaurants in big cities don't close until midnight during the week and 2-3AM during the weekend.
Breakfast is eaten by most Spaniards. Traditional Spanish breakfast includes coffee or orange juice, and pastries or a small sandwich. In Madrid, it is also common to have hot chocolate with "churros" or "porras". In cafes, you can expect varieties of tortilla de patatas (see the Spanish dishes section), sometimes tapas (either breakfast variety or same kind as served in the evenings with alcohol).
The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars as tapas, which are a bit like "starters" or "appetizers", but are instead considered side orders to accompany your drink. Some bars will offer a wide variety of different tapas; others specialize on a specific kind (like seafood-based). A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink at a bar, then go to the next bar and do the same. A group of two or more individuals may order two or more tapas or order raciones instead, which are a bit larger in order to share.
Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and Burger King only in bigger towns in the usual places. The menu can be a surprise since it has been customized to appeal to the locals and beer, salads, yogurt (primarily Danone), and wine are prominent. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns but it can be their own homegrown franchises, such as TelePizza. In spite of beer and wine on the menu, fast food is often seen as "kiddie food." American franchises generally charge higher prices than in the United States, and fast food is not necessarily the cheapest alternative for eating out.
Seafood: on a seacoast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. In the inner regions, frozen (and poor quality) seafood can be frequently encountered outside few highly reputed (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially on the north Atlantic coast.
Quality seafood in Spain comes from Spain's northwestern region of Galicia. So restaurants with the words Gallego (Galician) will generally specialize in seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you might want to try the Galician regional specialty Pulpo a la Gallega, which is boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is Sepia which is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of Calamares (squid) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that isn't your style you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present Paella dishes.
Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain has maintained quite a high percentage of free range animals.
Ordering beef steaks is highly recommended, since most comes from free range cows from the mountains north of the city.
Pork cuts which are also highly coveted are those known as Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico, an absolute must if found in the menu of any restaurant.
Soups: choice of soups beyond gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
Water is frequently served without a specific request, and is normally charged for--unless it's included in your menu del dia. If you would like free tap water instead of bottled water, request "agua del grifo" (water from the tap). However, not all restaurants will offer this and you may be forced to order bottled water.
Appetizers such as bread, cheese, and other items may be brought to your table even if you didn't order them. You will be charged for them. If you do not want these appetizers, politely inform the waiter that you do not want them.
World-level restaurants: There are several restaurants in Spain which are destinations in itself, becoming a sole reason to travel to a specific city. One of them is El Bulli in Roses.
Service charges and VAT
No service charges are included in the bill. A little extra tip is common and you are free to increase that if you are very pleased. Obviously you don’t have to tip a lousy waiter. You would typically leave the small change after paying with a note.
VAT is-not-included is a common trick for mid-range and splurge restaurants: always check in menu whether VAT (10%, IVA in Spanish) is included in menu prices.
Menú del día
Many restaurants offer a complete lunch meal for a fixed price – "menú del día" – and this often works out as a bargain. Water or wine is commonly included in the price.
Typical Spanish food can be found all over the country, however top tourist destinations such as Costa Brava and Costa del Sol have turned all existing traditions upside down. This means drinks are generally more expensive - about double what they cost elsewhere - and quality is variable. In touristy places, restaurants most certainly do serve Spanish dishes (after all, this is what many visitors are looking for) but these may have been adapted to suit the tastes of tourists. However, if you are prepared to look a little harder, then even in the busiest tourist towns, you can find some exceptional traditional Spanish restaurants. If you are on the coast then think fish and seafood and you won't be disappointed.
Things like schnitzel, full English breakfast, pizza, döner, and frozen fish are largely available in tourist destinations. In most cities you can also find international cuisine such as Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Argentinian, etc. The bigger the city, the more variety you can find.
For the past decade there has been a surge in the number of Irish pubs and Japanese restaurants to be found in most cities.
Specialties to buy
- Cheese: Spain offers a wide variety of regional cheeses.
- Queso Manchego is the most famous one.
- Cabrales,Tetilla,Mahon are also popular.
- Chorizo: Spain's most popular sausage is spiced cured, made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper and is produced in multitude of varieties, in different sizes, shapes, short and long, spicy, in all different shades of red, soft, air dried and hard or smoked. Frequently contains emulgators and conservatives, so check ingredients if you feel sensitive.
- Jamón (air dried ham): Jamón Serrano (Serrano ham): Is obtained from the salt meat of the back legs of the pig and air dried. This same product is given the name of trowel or paletilla when it is obtained from the front legs. Also it receives the names of jamón Iberico (Iberian) and jamón of bellota (acorn). They are specially famous jamones that takes place in Huelva (Spain), in Guijuelo (province Salamanca), in the Pedroches (province Cordova) and in Trevélez (province of Granada). Jamón Iberico is made from free range pigs.
- Judging by Boqueria in Barcelona, Jamon Iberico starts at €80/kg, and Jamon Serrano is about €25/kg. One well known chain in Spain is Mesón Cinco Jotas , which is known by locals for their expensive, but good quality ham.
- Visiting Spain without trying Jamon Iberico would be considered a crime by most Spaniards. Spaniards treat their ham very seriously and types and qualities of ham vary in a similar way to wine. Quality ham is generally expensive but has little to do with the many cheaper versions available. The diet of the pig is the most important factor in determining the quality of the ham. The least expensive ham comes from pigs fed on normal grains whereas medium grade pigs are raised on a combination of acorns and grains. The top tier pigs are fed exclusively on acorns and their hams are not considered to be the best grade without an "acorn fed" stamp. These top grade hams have a rich flavor and an oily texture but to non-connoisseurs, glossiness and the presence of white lines of fat crisscrossing a slice of ham is generally a good indicator of its quality.
- Morcilla: Black sausages made from pig blood, generally made with rice or onion. Sometimes flavoured with anise, it comes as a fresh, smoked or air dried variety.
Typical Spanish dishes include:
- Aceitunas, Olivas: Olives, often served for nibbling.
- Bocadillo de Calamares: Fried battered calamari served in a ciabatta sandwich with lemon juice.
- Boquerones en vinagre: Anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley.
- Caracoles: Snails in a hot sauce.
- Calamares en su tinta: Squid in its ink.
- Chipirones a la plancha: Grilled little squids.
- Churros: A fried horn-shaped snack, sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut. Typical for a Spanish breakfast or for tea time. Served with hot chocolate drink.
- Empanadas Gallegas: Meat or tuna pies are also very popular in Madrid. Originally from region of Galicia.
- Ensaladilla Rusa (Russian Salad): This potato salad dish of Russian origin, widely consumed in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is strangely enough, extremely popular in Spain.
- Fabada asturiana: Bean stew from Asturias.
- Gambas al ajillo: Prawns with garlic and chili. Fantastic hot stuff.
- Gazpacho Andaluz: Cold vegetable soup. Best during the hot weather. It's like drinking a salad.
- Lentejas: A dish made from lentils with chorizo sausage and/or Serrano ham.
- Mariscos: Shellfish from the province of Pontevedra.
- Merluza a la Vizcaina: The Spanish are not very fond of sauces. One of the few exceptions is merluza a la Vasca. The dish contains hake (fish of the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
- Potajes or pucheros: Garbanzo beans stew at its best
- Paella or Paella Valenciana: This is a rice dish originally from Valencia. Rice is grown locally in what look like wheat fields, and this is the variety used in paella. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron (el azafran). Nowadays varieties of paella can be found all over Spain, many containing seafood. Locals suggest to find true paella in large parties like a wedding in a village, but few restaurants still can compete with it.
- Patatas Bravas: Fried potatoes which have been previously boiled, served with a patented spicy sauce. They are potatoes cut in form of dices or prism, of one to two centimeters of size approximately and that they are fried in oil and accompanied by a sharp sauce that spills on potatoes using hot spices. The name of this plate comes from its sharp flavor, indicating that it has fire or temperament, recalling the first operation of I goad in which a goad nails to him so that he is brave in the bullfight.
- Pescaíto frito: Delicious fried fish that can be found mainly in southern Spain
- Pimientos rellenos: Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. The peppers in Spain taste different than all other peppers in Europe.
- Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos: Chick pea stew with spinach. Typical of Seville.
- Revuelto de ajetes con setas: Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic sprouts and wild mushrooms. Also commonly contains shrimps.
- Setas al ajillo/Gambas al ajillo: Shrimps or wild mushrooms fried in garlic.
- Sepia con alioli: Fried cuttlefish with garlic mayonnaise. Very popular among tourists.
- Tortilla de patatas: Spanish egg omelet with fried potato. Probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily assess how good a restaurant is by having a small piece of its potato tortillas. Frequently it is made also with onion, depending on the zone or the pleasure. The potatoes must be fried in oil (preferably of olive), and they are left soaking with the scrambled egg for more than 10 minutes, although better if it is average hour so that they are soaked and they acquire the suitable consistency.
Tea and Coffee
Spanish people are very passionate about the quality, intensity and taste of their coffee and good freshly brewed coffee is available almost everywhere.
The usual choices are solo, the milk-less espresso version; cortado, solo with a dash of milk; con leche, solo with milk added; and manchado, coffee with lots of milk (sort of like the French cafe au lait). Asking for caffee latte will likely result in less milk than you are used to--it's always OK to ask for adding extra milk.
Regional variants can be found, such as bombón in Eastern Spain, solo with condensed milk.
Starbucks is the only national chain operating in Spain. Locals argue that it cannot compete with small local cafes in quality of coffee and visited only by tourists. It is not present in smaller cities.
If you eat for €20 per dinner, you will never be served a good tea; expect Pompadour or Lipton. It takes some effort to find a good tea if you spend most time of the day in touristy places.
The drinking age in Spain is 18. People under this age are forbidden to drink and buy alcoholic drinks, although enforcement in tourist and clubbing areas is lax. Drinking in the streets has recently been banned (although it is still a common practice in most nightlife areas).
Try an absinthe cocktail (the fabled liquor was never outlawed here, but it is not a popular drink in Spain).
Probably one of the best places to meet people in Spain is in bars. Everyone visits them and they are always busy and sometimes bursting with people. There is no age restriction imposed to enter these premises. but children and teenagers often will not be served alcoholic drinks. Age restrictions for the consumption of alcohol are clearly posted at bars but are enforced only intermittently. It is common to see an entire family at a bar.
It's important to know the difference between a pub (which closes at 3-3:30AM) and a club (which opens until 6-8AM but is usually deserted early in the night).
On weekends, the time to go out for copas (drinks) usually starts at about 11PM-1AM which is somewhat later than in North and Central Europe. Before that, people usually do any number of things, have some tapas (raciones, algo para picar), eat a "real" dinner in a restaurant, stay at home with family, or go to cultural events. If you want to go dancing, you will find that most of the clubs in Madrid are relatively empty before midnight (some do not even open until 1AM) and most won't get crowded until 3AM People usually go to pubs, then go to the clubs until 6-8AM
For a true Spanish experience, after a night of dancing and drinking it is common to have a breakfast of chocolate con churros with your friends before going home. (CcC is a small cup of thick, melted chocolate served with freshly fried sweet fritters used for dipping in the chocolate and should be tried, if only for the great taste.)
Bars are mainly to have drink and a small tapa while socializing and decompressing from work or studies. Usually Spaniards can control their alcohol consumption better than their northern European neighbors and drunken people are rarely seen at bars or on the streets. A drink, if ordered without an accompanying tapa, is often served with a "minor" or inexpensive tapa as a courtesy.
Size and price of tapas changes a lot throughout Spain. For instance, it's almost impossible to get free tapas in big cities like Valencia or Barcelona, excluding Madrid where there are several Tapa Bars although some times are a bit expensive. You can eat for free (just paying for the drinks), with huge tapas and cheap prices at cities like Granada, Badajoz or Salamanca.
The tapa, and the related pincho, trace their existence in Spain to both acting as a cover ("Tapa") on top of a cup of wine to prevent flies from accessing it, and as a requirement of law when serving wine at an establishment during the Middle Ages.
The Spanish beer is well worth a try. Most popular local brands include San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Ámbar, Estrella Galicia, Keller and many others, including local brands at most cities; import beers are also available. A great beer is 'Mezquita' (Cervezas Alhambra), try to find it! Also "Legado de Yuste" is one of the best beer made in Spain, and is quite extended, but more expensive than a normal 'caña'. In Spain, beer is often served from a tap in 25 cl ("caña") or 33 cl ("tubo") tube glasses. Bigger servings are rare, but you can also ask for a "corto", "zurito" (round the Basque country) or simply "una cerveza" or "tanque" (south of the country) to get a half size beer, perfect to drink in one go and get quickly to the next bar while having tapas.
If you're in Zaragoza (or Aragon, in general), the Pilsner-type Ambar (5.2% alc.) and the stronger Export (double malt, 7.0% alc.) are available. Ambar 1900: Its production began in 1996. The system of fermentation to room temperature is used. Marlen is a beer of traditional manufacture using malted barley and hops.
Locals in Aragon often add lemon juice to their beer. Particularly on hot summer days people will drink a refreshing "clara" which is a light beer mixed with lemon/lemonade.
Cava is Spanish sparkling wine and the name went from Spanish Champagne to Cava was after a long lasting dispute with the French. The Spanish called it for a long time champan, but the French argued that champagne can be made only from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France. Nevertheless, Cava is a quite successful sparkling wine and 99% of the production comes from the area around Barcelona.
Sangria is drink made of wine and fruits and usually is made from simple wines. You will find sangria in areas frequented by tourists. Spanish prepare sangria for fiestas and hot summer, and not every day as seen in touristic regions like Mallorca.
Sangria in restaurants aimed for foreigners are best avoided, but it is a very good drink to try if a Spaniard prepares it for a fiesta!
The pale sherry wine around Jerez called "fino" is fortified with alcohol to 15 percent. If you would like to have one in a bar you have to order a fino. Manzanilla is bit salty, good as an appetizer. Amontillado and Oloroso are a different types of sherry were the oxidative aging process has taken the lead.
Spain is a country with great wine-making and drinking traditions: 22% of Europe's wine growing area is in Spain, however the production is about half of what the French produce.
Regions: most famous wines come from Rioja region, less known but also important come from Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro and Jumilla . The latter are becoming more and more popular and are slightly less expensive than Rioja wines. White, rose and red wines are produced, but the red wines are certainly the most important ones.
Grapes: main red grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell and Mencia. Primary white grape used is Albarino, and the grapes used in Jerez are: 'Pedro Ximenez and Palomino.
Specific names: Valdepenas is good value for money. Whites: Belondrade Y Lurton is regarded as greatest white wine in Spain. Vina Sol is good as a mass product, with fruity taste.
Grades: Spanish quality wines are produced using an aging process and they have been in an oak barrel for at least one year before they can be labeled Crianza and then spend another two years in a bottle before been sold. Reservas are aged for five years and Gran Reservas are aged for 10 years.
Prices: Spain has seen a tremendous rise in wine prices over the last decade and Spanish wines are not as much of a bargain as they used to be. However you will still find 5, 10 and 20 year old wines at affordable prices especially when compared with similar quality wines from Australia, Chile, France, and the US.
Wine bars: they are more and more popular. In short, a wine bar is a sophisticated tapas bar where you can order wine by the glass. You will immediately see a blackboard with the wines that are available and the price per glass.
In a bar: for red wine in a bar, ask "un tinto por favor", for white wine "un blanco por favor", for rose: "un rosado por favor".
Wine-based drinks: young people in Spain have developed their own way to have wine. When having botellones (big outdoor parties with drink and lots of people), most of them mix some red wine with Coke and drink it straight from the Coke bottle. The name of this drink is calimocho or kalimotxo (in the Basque Country and Navarre) and is really very popular... But don't ask for it while in an upper class bar or among adults, since they will most certainly not approve of the idea! As a general rule, any wine that comes in a glass bottle is considered "too good" to make kalimotxo.
What's the difference?
There are three names for hotel-like accommodation in large cities in Spain: hotel, hostal and pension. It is important not to confuse a hostel with a hostal; a hostel offers backpacker-type accommodation with shared rooms, whereas a hostal is very similar to a guest house and is generally cheaper than a hotel.
There are many types of tourist accommodation, ranging from hotels, pensions and rented villas, to camping and even monasteries.
"7% VAT is not included" is a common trick for mid-range guesthouses and hotels: always check the small print when you choose your place to stay. VAT is IVA in Spanish.
Besides the coasts, Spain is rich in small tourist-friendly inland villages, like Alquezar: with narrow medieval streets, charming silence and isolation, still good selection of affordable restaurants and accommodation.
Casa rural, the bed and breakfasts of Spain
For a more homely sort of accommodation consider the casa rural. A casa rural is the rough equivalent to a bed and breakfast or a gîte. Not all houses are situated in the countryside, as the name implies. Some are situated in the smaller towns, and they are in virtually every province.
Casas rurales vary in quality and price throughout Spain. In some regions, like Galicia, they are strictly controlled and inspected. Other regions are not so thorough in applying their regulations.
Many foreign visitors stay in hotels that have been organised by tour operators who offer package holidays to the popular resorts on the costas and islands. However, for the independent traveller, there are hotels all over the country in all categories and to suit every budget. In fact, due to the well developed internal and foreign tourism markets Spain may well be one of the best served European countries in terms of numbers and quality of hotels.
A parador is a state-owned hotel in Spain (rating from 3 to 5 stars). This chain of inns was founded in 1928 by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII. The unique aspects of paradores are their location and their history. Found mostly in historical buildings, such as convents, Moorish castles (like La Alhambra), or haciendas, paradores are the exact opposite of the uncontrolled development found in coastal regions like the Costa del Sol. Hospitality has been harmoniously integrated with the restoration of castles, palaces and convents, rescuing from ruin and abandonment monuments representative of Spain's historical and cultural heritage.
For example the parador in Santiago de Compostela is located next to the Cathedral in a former royal hospital built in the year 1499. Rooms are decorated in an old-fashioned way, but nevertheless have modern facilities. Other notable paradores are in Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda, Santillana del Mar (Altamira cave) as well as more than one hundred other destination all over Spain.
Paradores serve breakfast (about €10) and often have very good local cuisine typical of their region (about €25).
Accommodation prices are good value, when you consider that the hotels are often found in the heart of scenic areas, varying from €85 for a double room to €245 for a twin room (like in Granada). Two of the most beautiful paradors are in Léon and Santiago de Compostela.
There are some promotions available:
- Over 60 year-olds can enjoy a discount.
- Youngsters under 30 can visit the paradors at a fixed rate of €35 per person.
- Two nights half board have a discount of 20%.
- A dreamweek of 6 nights is cheaper.
- 5 nights at €42 per person.
The promotions do not always apply, especially in August they are not valid, and may require advance bookings.
There are plenty of hostels, mostly in Madrid. Prices vary from €15 to €25 per night.
- Xanascat. Is the Regional Network of Youth Hostels of Catalonia if you are visiting Barcelona, Girona, Taragona or other locations in the region.
Short-term, self-catering apartment rental is an option for travellers who want to stay in one place for a week or more. Accommodations range from small apartments to villas.
The number of holiday rentals available depends on the area of Spain you are planning to visit. Although they are common in coastal areas, big capitals and other popular tourist cities, if you plan to visit small inland towns, you will find casas rurales more easily.
Camping is the least expensive lodging option.
In Spain, pickpockets are not jailed if they steal less than €400. After they are arrested, they are automatically bailed to carry on pickpocketing so they can easily pay their €200 fine when they go to court. Many have been around the Spanish justice merry-go-round hundreds of times. Spanish pickpockets are really skilful but they are in competition with many more from South America.
There are four kinds of police:
- 'Policía Municipal' or 'Local' (metropolitan police), In Barcelona: Guardia Urbana. Uniforms change from town to town, but they usually wear black or blue clothes with pale blue shirt and a blue cap (or white helmet) with a checkered white-and-blue strip. This kind of police keeps order and rules the traffic inside cities, and they are the best people in case you are lost and need some directions. Although you can't officially report theft to them, they will escort you to 'Policia Nacional' headquarters if required, and they will escort the suspects to be arrested also, if needed.
- 'Policía Nacional' wear dark blue clothes and blue cap (sometimes replaced by a baseball-like cap), unlike Policía Municipal, they do not have a checkered flag around their cap/helmet. Inside cities, all offenses/crimes should be reported to them, although the other police corps would help anyone who needs to report an offense.
- 'Guardia Civil' keeps the order outside cities, in the country, and regulates traffic in the roads between cities. You would probably see them guarding official buildings, or patrolling the roads. They wear plain green military-like clothes; some of them wear a strange black helmet ('tricornio') resembling a toreador cap, but most of them use green caps or white motorcycle helmets.
- Given that Spain has a high grade of political autonomy released to its regional governments, four of them have created regional law forces: the Policía Foral in Navarre, the Ertzaintza in the Basque Country or the Mossos d'Esquadra in Catalonia. These forces have the almost the same competences as the Policía Nacional in their respective territories.
All kinds of police also wear high-visibility clothing ("reflective" jackets) while directing traffic, or in the road.
Some thieves have been known to pose as police officers, asking to see wallets for identification purposes. If approached by someone claiming to be a police officer we recommend you show only your ID and not your wallet or other valuables.
If you are a victim of crime call 112. You can ask for a copy of the “denuncia” (police report) if you need it for insurance purposes, or to apply for replacement documents. Make sure that it is a “una denuncia” not a sworn declaration (una declaración judicial), as the latter may not be accepted as evidence of the crime for insurance purposes, or when applying for your new passport.
Making a police report
You can make a police report in three different ways:
1. In person. A list of police stations in the different regions of Spain is available here. It is important to note that English language interpreters are not always available at short notice: it may be advisable to bring a Spanish-speaking person with you.
2. By phone: You can make a police report by phone in English by phoning 901 102 112. The English language service is available from 9am - 9pm, seven days a week. Once you have made your report, you will be instructed to pick up a signed copy of the report at your nearest police station. However, some crimes, particularly more serious crimes or those involving violence, can only be reported in person.
3. Online: You can also make a police report online, but in Spanish only. Some crimes, especially more serious crimes involving physical violence, must be reported in person.
You can read further advice from the Spanish police on the following webpage: http://www.policia.es/consejos/consejos_in.html
Dialing 112 on any telephone will reach the emergency central. It can be used to request Police, Firemen, Rescue, Ambulance or other emergency assistance. Calls to that number are free. The emergency operator will ask you for your data and the nature of the emergency and so will send the appropriate services to the place. It can be also used freely from public payphones.
Permissions and documentation
Spanish law  strictly requires foreigners who are in Spanish territory to have documentation proving their identity and the fact of being legally in Spain. You must have that with you all the time because you may be asked by the Police to show those at any moment.
Spain is a safe country, but you should take some basic precautions encouraged in the entire world:
- Thieves may work in teams and a person may attempt to distract you in order that an accomplice can rob you more easily. Theft, including violent theft, occurs at all times of day and night and to people of all ages.
- Thieves prefer stealth to direct confrontation so it is unlikely that you will be hurt in the process, but exercise caution all the same.
- There have been instances where thieves on motorbikes drive by women and grab their purses, so keep a tight hold on yours even if you don't see anyone around.
- Try not to show the money you have in your wallet or purse.
- Always watch your bag or purse in touristic places, buses, trains and meetings. A voice message reminding that is played in most of the bus/train stations and airports.
- Large cities like Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, and Sevilla, in particular, report many incidents of pick-pocketing, mugging, and violent attacks, some of which require the victim to seek medical attention. Although crimes occur at all times of day and night and to people of all ages, older and Asian tourists seem to be particularly at risk.
- Do not carry large amounts of money with you, unless needed. Use your credit card (Spain is the first country in number of cash points and most shops/restaurants accept it). Of course, use it with caution.
- Beware of pickpockets when visiting areas with large numbers of people, like crowded buses or the Puerta del Sol(in Madrid). In metro stations, avoid boarding the train near the exit/entrance to the platform, as this is often where pickpockets position themselves.
- In Madrid and also in Barcelona, criminals target particularly people from the East Asia (especially China, S. Korea, Japan, and Taiwan ), thinking they carry money and are easy prey.
- In Madrid, known high-risk locations for thieves are the Puerta del Sol area and surrounding streets, Gran Vìa, Plaza Mayor, near the Prado Museum, the Atocha train station, Retiro Park and on the subway. In Barcelona, thefts occur most frequently at the airport and on the airport shuttle bus (Aerobus), on Las Ramblas (often in Internet cafés), in Plaza Real and surrounding streets of the old city, on the subway, Barceloneta beach, Sagrada Familia church, and at the Sants train and bus station.
- Theft from rental vehicles is high. Be vigilant in service areas on the highways along the coast. Avoid leaving any luggage or valuables in the vehicle and use secure parking facilities.
- Don't hesitate to report crimes to local police, though the processing time is usually long.
- In general, you must bear in mind that those areas with a larger number of foreign visitors, like some crowded vacation resorts in the East Coast, are much more likely to attract thieves than places which are not so popular among tourists.
- Avoid gypsy women offering rosemary, refuse it always; they will read your future, ask for some money, and your pocket will probably be picked. Some gypsy women will also approach you on the street repeating "Buena suerte" ("good luck") as a distraction for another gypsy woman to try to pickpocket you. Avoid them at all costs.
- A great tourist attraction is the Flea Market (el Rastro) in Madrid on the weekends. However, as it is nearly standing room only - it is also an attraction for pickpockets. They operate in groups... be extremely cautious in these tight market type environments as it is very common to be targeted... especially if you stand out as a tourist or someone with money. Try to blend in and not stand out and you will likely not be at as much risk.
- Women who carry purses should always put the straps across their bodies. Always hold on to the purse itself and keep it in front of your body. Keep one hand on the bottom, as pickpockets can otherwise slit the bottom without you ever knowing.
- Never place anything on the back of a chair or on the floor next to you, keep it on your person always.
- If you must use an ATM, do not flash the money you have just picked up.
- More foreign passports are stolen each year in Spain than anywhere else in the world, especially in Barcelona. Ensure that your passport is protected at all times.
- In the event of a road-related incident, be extremely cautious about accepting help from anyone other than a uniformed Spanish police officer or Civil Guard. Thieves have been known to fake or provoke a flat tire, and when a motorist stops to help, the thieves steal the motorist’s car or belongings. The reverse scenario has also occurred, whereby a fake Good Samaritan stops to help a motorist in distress, only to steal the motorist’s car or belongings.
- Incidents of drink spiking, followed by theft and sexual assault, have been reported.
- Be alert to the possible use of ‘date rape’ and other drugs including ‘GHB’ and liquid ecstasy. Buy your own drinks and keep sight of them at all times to make sure they are not spiked; female travellers should be particularly watchful. Alcohol and drugs can make you less vigilant, less in control and less aware of your environment. If you drink, know your limit - remember that drinks served in bars are often stronger. Avoid splitting up from your friends, and don't go off with people you don't know.
see also common scams
Some people could try to take advantage of your ignorance of local customs.
- In Spanish cities, all taxis should have a visible fare table. Do not agree a fixed price to go from an airport to a city: in most cases, the taxi driver will be earning more money than without a preagreed tariff. Many taxi drivers will also demand a tip from foreign customers or even from national ones on the way to and from the airport. You might round up to the nearest euro when paying though.
- In many places of Madrid, especially near Atocha station, and also in the Ramblas of Barcelona, there are people ('trileros') who play the "shell game". They will "fish" you if you play, and they will most likely pick your pocket if you stop to see other people play.
- Before paying the bill in bars and restaurants, always check the bill and carefully scrutinize it. Some staff will often attempt to squeeze a few extra euros out of unsuspecting tourists by charging for things they did not eat or drink, or simply overcharging. This is true in both touristy and non-touristy areas. If you feel overcharged, bring it to their attention and/or ask to see a menu. It is also sometimes written (in English only) at the bottom of a bill that a tip is not included: remember that tipping is optional in Spain and Spanish people commonly leave loose change only and no more than a 5%-8% of the price of what they have consumed (not an American-style 15-20%), so avoid being fooled into leaving more than you have to.
- Many tourists have reported lottery scams whereby they are contacted via the Internet or fax and informed that they have won a substantial prize in the Spanish lottery (El Gordo), when in fact they have never participated in the lottery. They are asked to deposit an amount of money in a bank account to pay taxes and other fees before collecting the prize or coming to Spain to close the transaction.
- There have also been reports of a scam whereby a person is informed that he or she is the recipient of a large inheritance, and that funds must be deposited into a Spanish bank account so the inheritance can be processed.
- In another common scam, some tourists have received a bogus email purportedly sent from an individual well known to them and claiming that he or she is in trouble and needs funds.
Other things you should know
- Spanish cities can be loud at night, especially on weekends.
- All stores, hotels and restaurants should have an official complaint form, in case you need it.
- In some cases, police in Spain may target people belonging to ethnic minorities for identity checks. People who are not "European-looking" can be stopped several times a day to have their papers checked on the pretext of "migration control".
- The Spanish Government’s threat alert level indicates a ‘probable risk’ of terrorist attack. Potential targets include places frequented by expatriates and tourists and public transport facilities. Although the Basque terrorist organisation ETA announced a ‘definitive cessation of armed activity’ in October 2011, and has not mounted any attacks since 2009, the group remains armed and has broken ceasefire agreements previously. A serious attack happened in 2004, bombs exploded on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, killing 192 people. This attack was attributed to Al Qaeda terrorist network. In 2007, a Spanish court found 21 people guilty of involvement in the bombings.
- There has been an increase in industrial actions and public demonstrations on a rolling basis throughout Spain. Demonstrations occur and have the potential to suddenly turn violent. Avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local media. Strikes may occasionally lead to disruptions to traffic and public transportation. When a demonstration is planned or in progress you should seek advice on and avoid the routes marchers plan to take. You should also ensure to check for travel updates or transport delays before and during your trip to Spain.
- Driving in Spain can be dangerous due to traffic congestion in urban areas, aggressive driving practices and excessive speed. Be very cautious when driving in Spain. Night driving can be particularly dangerous. The use of a mobile phone without a hands-free device can result in a fine and driving prohibition while in Spain. All drivers are required to carry, in the vehicle, a reflective vest and to use a reflective triangle warning sign if they need to stop at the roadside.
- Drivers should be always be cautious when approached by anyone claiming to be a police officer, either in plain clothes or travelling in unmarked vehicles. In all traffic matters police officers will be in uniform. Unmarked vehicles will have a flashing electronic sign on the rear window which reads "Policía" or "Guardia Civil", and normally have blue flashing lights incorporated into the headlights. In non-traffic matters police officers may be in plain clothes. However, you have the right to ask a police officer to identify him/herself. Also, a genuine police officer will not request that you hand over your bag or wallet. Should they request identification, they should be shown photographic ID such as your passport or driver's licence. If in any doubt, drivers should converse through the car window and contact the Guardia Civil on 062 or the Spanish National Police on 112 and ask them to confirm that the registration number of the vehicle corresponds to an official police vehicle.
In Spain possession and consumption of illegal drugs at private places is not prosecuted. Taking drugs in public and possession, for personal use, will be fined from €300 to €3000 depending of the drug and the quantity that you carry on, you will not get arrested unless you have large quantities destined for street sale.
- Pharmaceuticals are not sold at supermarkets, only at 'farmacias' (pharmacies / chemistries), identified with a green cross or a Hygeia's cup. Nearly every city and town has at least one 24 hour pharmacy; for those that close at night, the law requires a poster with the address of the nearest pharmacy, possibly in one of the nearby streets or towns.
- People from the European Union and a few more European countries can freely use the public health system, if they have the appropriate European Health Insurance Card. The card does not cover treatment in private hospitals. Agreements are established to treat people from a few American countries; see the Tourspain link below for more info.
- However, do not hesitate to go to any healthcare facility should you be injured or seriously ill, as it would be illegal for them not to treat you, even if you are uninsured. You (or your country if Spain has a Treaty on the matter) will have to pay for the service later, however.
- Although many visitors travel to Spain for the warm climate, it can be cold in winter, especially in the Central Region and in the North, and in some places it is also rainy in summer. Remember to travel with adequate clothes.
- In summer, avoid direct exposure to sunlight for long periods of time to prevent sunburn and heatstroke. Drink water, walk on the shady side of street and keep a container of sun cream (suntan lotion) handy.
- Most cities have a good water supply, especially Madrid, but you may prefer bottled water to the alkaline taste of water in the east and south.
Smoking is banned in all enclosed public spaces and places of work, in public transportation, and in outdoor public places near hospitals and in playgrounds. Smoking is also banned in outdoor sections of bars and restaurants. Smoking is banned in television broadcasts as well.
Culture and identity
- Spaniards in general are very patriotic about both their country and the region in which they live. Avoid arguments about whether or not people from Catalonia or the Basque Country are Spaniards. Safety is generally not a concern in case you engage in an argument, but you will be dragged into a long, pointless discussion. If you are in the deep Basque Country, however, you may actually run into some serious problems.
- Spaniards are generally very interested in maintaining their linguistic and cultural connections with Latin America. However, most Spaniards are also quick to point out they are Europeans and do not understand the common North American notion that "Hispanics," including Spaniards, are somehow all the same. People from other Spanish-speaking countries or backgrounds may encounter a variety of receptions from being embraced as cultural kin to rejection or apathy.
- Spaniards are not as religious as the media sometimes presents them, but they are and always were a mostly Catholic country (73% officially, although just 10% admit practising and just a 20% admit being believers); respect this and avoid making any comments that could offend. In particular, religious festivals, Holy Week (Easter), and Christmas are very important to Spaniards. Tolerance to all religions should be observed, especially in large urban areas like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville or Malaga (where people and temples of all beliefs can be found) or different regions in southern Spain, which may have a sizeable Muslim population (which accounts for almost 4% of the country's population).
- Despite being a Catholic majority country, homosexuality is quite tolerated in Spain and public display of same-sex affection would not likely stir hostility. In fact, same-sex marriages are legal and recognised by the government and provide legal benefits to same-sex couples. However, a gay friendly country does not always necessarily mean that the Spaniards are friendly to gays: (people in places like Madrid or Barcelona, which are 2 of the largest urban areas in Europe, will obviously have a more open view than those from rural areas). As in any other place, elderly people do usually have far more conservative points of view. Still, violence against gays is rarely heard of and Spain should be safe for most gay and lesbian travellers.
- Avoid talking about the former colonial past and especially about the "Black Legend." Regardless of what you may have heard Spain had several ministers and military leaders of mixed race serving in the military during the colonial era and even a Prime Minister born in the Philippines (Marcelo Azcarraga Palmero). Many Spaniards take pride in their history and former imperial glories. People from Spain's former colonies (Latin America, Equatorial Guinea, the Philippines, Western Sahara and Northern Morocco) make up a majority of foreign immigrants in Spain (58%) along with the Chinese, Africans and Eastern Europeans. Equally, Spain is one of the main investors and economic and humanitarian aid donors to Latin America and Africa.
- Bullfighting is seen by many Spaniards as a cultural heritage icon, but the disaffection with bullfighting is increasing in all big cities and obviously among animal activist groups within the country. Many urban Spaniards would consider bullfighting a show aimed at foreign tourists and elderly people from the countryside, and some young Spaniards will feel offended if their country is associated with it. To illustrate how divided the country is, many Spaniards point to the royal family: King Juan Carlos and his daughter are avid fans, while his wife and the Heir Prince do not care for the sport. Bullfights and related events, such as the annual San Fermin Pamplona bull-runs, make up a multimillion-euro industry and draw many tourists, both foreign and Spanish. In addition, bullfighting was recently banned in the northeastern region of Catalonia and has also been outlawed in several towns and counties all over the country.
- Take care when mentioning the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975 as well as the Civil War of 1936-1939. This was a painful past as Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist, executing many Spaniards who violated the anti-democratic laws of the regime. It was also a notable period of economic growth in the final years of Franco's regime, and some older Spaniards may have supportive views of him.
- It is customary to kiss friends, family, and acquaintances on both cheeks upon seeing each other and saying goodbye. Male-to-male kisses of this sort are limited to family members or to very close friends; otherwise a firm handshake is expected instead (same as in France or Italy).
- Spaniards are keen to maintain physical contact while talking, such as putting a hand on your shoulder, patting your back, etc. These should be taken as signs of friendship done among relatives, close friends and colleagues.
- When in a car, the elderly and pregnant always ride in the passenger's seat, unless they request not to.
- While Spaniards may not always be the most punctual people in the world, arriving on time to appointments is considered polite.
- If you are staying at a Spaniard's home, bring shoes to wear inside such as slippers. Walking around barefoot in the house is viewed as unsanitary.
- On Spanish beaches it is acceptable for women to sunbathe topless. This practice is common in tourist areas. Full nudity is practised in "clothing-optional" or nudist beaches.
Eating and drinking
- During lunch or dinner, Spaniards do not begin eating until everyone is seated and ready to eat. Likewise, they do not leave the table until everyone is finished eating. Table manners are otherwise standard and informal, although this also depends on the place you are eating. When the bill comes, it is common to pay equally, regardless of the amount or price each has consumed (pagar a escote).
- When Spaniards receive a gift or are offered a drink or a meal, they usually refuse for a while, so as not to seem greedy. This sometimes sparks arguments among especially reluctant people, but it is seen as polite. Remember to offer more than once (on the third try, it must be fairly clear if they will accept it or not). On the other hand, if you are interested in the offer, politely smile and decline it, saying that you don't want to be a nuisance, etc., but relent and accept when they insist.
- Spaniards rarely drink or eat in the street. Bars will rarely offer the option of food to take away but "tapas" are easily available. Especially unheard of until recently was the "doggy bag." However, in the last few years, taking leftovers home from a restaurant, although still not common, has become somewhat less of a stigma than it once was. One asks for "un taper" (derived from "Tupperware") or "una caja." Older Spaniards are still likely to frown on this.
- Appearing drunk in public is generally frowned upon.
Among Spaniards, lunch time is usually between 13:00 and 14:30, while dinner time is around 20:30. However, in special celebrations, dinner can be as late as 22:00. Almost all businesses close between 14:30 and 17:00, so plan your shopping and sight-seeing accordingly. Shopping malls and supermarkets, however, are usually open from 9:30 to 22:00, and there are several 24 h shops, usually owned by Chinese immigrants.
Spanish cities can be noisy in some areas so be warned.
Some brands are not available in Spain: Blend-a-Med toothpaste or Dirol (Stimorol chewing gum has been available for years). Bring in enough for your whole trip if you must have it. Still, Spanish and other European brands are of good quality. Brands like Colgate and Orbit are very common.
Wi-Fi points in bars and cafeterias are available to customers, and most hotels offer Wi-Fi connection in common areas for their guests.
Be conscious of security when using a laptop in an outdoor location.
Mobile phones and SIM cards
Cheap mobile phones (less than €50) with some pre-paid minutes are sold at FNAC (Plaza Callao if you're staying in Madrid, or El Triangle if you're staying in Barcelona) or any phone operator's shop and can be purchased without many formalities (ID is usually required). Topping-up is then done by buying scratch cards from the small stores "Frutos Secos," supermarkets, vending points (often found in tobacco shops) or kiosks -- recharging using the Web or an ATM does not work with foreign credit cards.
The three mobile phone networks in Spain are Vodafone, Movistar and Orange.
You can hire a Mi-Fi (portable 3G Wi-Fi hotspot) from tripNETer) that allows an Internet connection from any Wi-Fi device: Smart-phones, Tablets, PCs…
"Locutorios" (Call Shops) are widely spread in bigger cities and touristy locations. In Madrid or Toledo it's very easy to find one. Making calls from "Locutorios" tend to be much cheaper, especially international calls (usually made through VoIP). They are usually a good pick for calling home. Prepaid calling cards for cheap international calls are widely available in newsagents or grocery stores around the city. Ask for a "tarjeta telefonica".