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Whether you’re planning an epic trip or a city break, learning a little bit about Spain before you land could come in useful. From eating habits to learning the lingo, we take you through the essential things you need to know before visiting Spain to make the best of your trip.
While many Spaniards do speak some English, it isn’t as widespread as in some other European countries, so learning a few key phrases in Spanish is a good idea before arriving. Questions such as ¿Dónde está? (“Where is…?”) could come in very useful when looking for an address, while simple greetings (hola, buenos días) and pleasantries (gracias) are always appreciated by locals.
It is worth remembering that Spanish is not Spain’s only official language—some autonomous regions also have a second official language such as Catalan in Catalonia, Basque in the Basque Country and Galician in Galicia. Street signs might be in this second language, but nearly everyone will also speak Spanish, so you don’t need to learn two extra languages.
Spanish meal times differ from most other countries because of how late they are. In general, Spaniards eat lunch between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and dinner any time after 9 p.m. Be aware of mealtimes when eating out: in many areas it may be it hard to find a restaurant open before 2 p.m. for lunch or 8.30 p.m. for dinner, and if you do they might well be a tourist trap.
Spain has the reputation of sun, sea, and sangria, but the north of the country is actually full of lush green landscapes and can be pretty rainy. Galicia, in northwestern Spain, is classed as the country’s rainy region by Spaniards for its heavy precipitation.
Traveling around Spain is easy using the country’s extensive public transport network. From national budget airlines like Vueling and Iberia Express to the Renfe railway network and the extensive, cheap bus lines, there are several options when it comes to getting around the country. Within cities, the metro and buses are a good option, and day or weekly tickets are available in most places.
Even in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, the tap water is safe to drink (in Madrid it comes fresh from the Guadarrama mountain range) so don’t bother buying overpriced bottles of water to keep yourself refreshed.
Some areas of Spain, especially the big cities like Barcelona and Madrid are renowned for their pickpockets, who often target hapless tourists in popular locations or on the metro. Make sure to take particular care of your valuables by either wearing a money belt or making sure your purse has a zip and is worn towards your body. Make sure to be vigilant when in crowded areas and try not to make it too obvious that you are a tourist, especially if you don’t know where you’re going.
The tipping culture in Spain is virtually non-existent and most Spaniards either leave nothing at all or just a few coins. For fancier meals, a 10 percent tip could be left but is by no means obligatory.
Spain’s tapas culture means that when you order a drink in most places, it will arrive with a small bite to eat, maybe a bowl of potato chips, a plate of olives, or a little ham or cheese sandwich. You do not have to pay for this, it is a complimentary snack to enjoy alongside your drink.
You shouldn’t leave Spain without sampling its speciality and most beloved food: jamón (cured ham). Jamón Ibérico is the best quality and comes from black-hoofed Ibérian pigs fed exclusively on acorns.
You might be excited to try paella in Spain, but it is worth remembering that the quintessential dish is actually from Valencia, and places selling it in other cities could be less than authentic. If Valencia is on your itinerary, try the dish there, or else look for an authentic Valencian restaurant making the dish in other areas of Spain. Another tip: Spaniards eat paella for lunch, not dinner, which gives them more time to digest the heavy dish.
Many shops and businesses close for at least a couple of hours in the middle of the day in Spain, so don’t plan to get anything done between about 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. when many Spaniards (especially in smaller towns) are taking a long lunch break. These days in big cities, bigger shops and supermarkets will stay open, but you can never guarantee finding an open shop during the middle of the day. Shops do stay open later, though. Most clothes shops in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona stay open until around 10 p.m.
The mythical siesta, that enduring stereotype of Spain, is quickly becoming a thing of the past, when rural workers would have a nap after a long morning in the fields. Today, with most Spaniards working in offices in big cities, there is simply no time to get home for a midday nap.
Sangria is mainly a tourist drink in Spain. Instead, locals enjoy a tinto de verano, or summer wine, which consists of red wine and lemonade. Order a tinto de verano if you want to blend in with the locals, and probably avoid paying for an overpriced jug of sangria.
Spaniards generally like to take care of themselves and look smart, so grunging around in a pair of joggers and flip flops might get a few raised eyebrows in many areas of the country. You rarely see Spaniards in shorts except at the beach, which can make it easy to spot tourists in big cities.
Spanish people are extremely friendly and helpful—if ever you are in trouble, don’t be afraid to ask a local for help. But they are also big fans of telling it like it is and have no qualms about offering their opinion, even if you didn’t ask for it. Don’t be offended at what can sometimes seem like quite an abrupt way of talking; it’s completely normal in Spain, and who knows, before long you might be offering up your own opinions right back.