A vacation to Spain can be absolutely wonderful! There’s so much to see, experience, try, and discover.
From one corner of the country to the next, you’ll find endless amounts of history, culture, delicious food, and breathtaking sights. But, traveling around a foreign country can be an interesting yet sometimes awkward experience!
That’s where this list comes in. Below you’ll find 10 tips for traveling around Spain, from what to do (or not to do) to what to expect and be on the lookout for.
One surefire way to stick out as a tourist is to walk around in your gym shorts and a T-shirt. In Spain, it’s rare that someone goes to the grocery store without getting a little dressed up. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you have to wear your “Sunday best” or even your fancy dress shirts. It just means that you probably shouldn’t walk around looking like you’re going to the gym.
A nice pair of shorts and a shirt, or a pair of jeans with a button-up will do the trick. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy elegant, but it can’t be something you would sleep or go to the gym in either.
To be fair it’s not very common that you see someone in Spain walking around in gym shoes (unless they’re planning on doing some work-out, or go for a run, or something like that), but if you want to enjoy your trip, you may want to suck it up and look like the “tourist” in this regard.
In Spain you will walk A LOT. And no one wants to spend their vacation nursing their sore, blistered feet. Make sure that you don’t pack your brand new, shiny dress shoes or those super cute strappy heels. If you’re planning a nice dinner out, fine, but for your day-in day-out touring, you’ll want something you’ve broken in and are sure won’t hurt.
One of the absolute best parts of Spain is the small towns and hidden treasures. The major cities such as Madrid and Barcelona have some amazing sights, wonderful museums, and yummy food. You won’t regret a trip to either one of them. But, if you really want to experience Spain, you have to get off the “beaten tourist path” and venture out into the smaller cities.
Around Madrid, you’ll find places such as Toledo, Segovia, and Ávila–all with their own special charms, interesting and complex histories, and notable monuments. If you’re heading to Barcelona, places such as Zaragoza, Logroño (La Rioja–wine country anyone?), and the world famous Pamplona (where San Fermín-the famous running of the bulls- takes place) are always great options.
These places that have been mentioned are still bigger cities, and have a fair amount of tourists that visit, but they still have a magical way of holding onto their personal, untainted historical charm and deep-rooted cultural origins. These are just a few ideas.
The entire country is filled with beautiful places to see and discover. So, when planning your trip make sure you take a moment to look at the map and find a quick day trip (or two) to some of the surrounding cities.
In the larger cities (Madrid, Barcelona) you’ll find people around that speak English, no problem. However, if you follow the advice given above and venture out into the lesser-known parts of Spain, you’ll want to try to pick up a few useful expressions before heading out.
Some examples would be:
Everyone has heard of the Spanish “siesta.” This is the time of the day, usually between 2:00-4:30pm when stores and shops close. As a tourist it’s good to be aware of this, because if you plan on visiting the Cathedral at 3:00pm or go to that one monument at 4:00pm, you may find it closed!
But this isn’t always true, so a good thing to do is to get some information on the different things you want to see/do. A lot of the time, the maps you get from the hotels will have the major monuments listed, along with their hours of operation. So, to save yourself some lost afternoons and the possibility of missing out on seeing some of the things you really want to see, take a moment to do a little investigating before planning out your day’s activities.
*Note: A lot of times, in the major cities the “siesta” isn’t observed, and this won’t be a problem. It’s always good to check, though, just in case!
On a similar note to the point mentioned above, some days in many of the cities around Spain are “descanso” days–meaning “break” or “rest.” It’s not uncommon that certain things will be closed on Mondays or Tuesdays to give the employees a day off. This is especially true if you go to some of the smaller cities, so make sure you check to see that what you want to do is in fact open during the times you’re going to be there.
*On a positive note, not only do they have “descanso” days, but they also have “descuento” (discount) days. For example, “every Wednesday students get in free” to this place, or “every Thursday tickets are half priced” for that one. Look for these ahead of time, and plan your schedule accordingly.
No one likes using public restrooms, no matter how nice or clean they may be. Well, when using the bathrooms in restaurants, bars, bus stations, etc. in Spain, you may be even more hesitant than usual! The usual “accessories” for bathroom use (toilet paper, soap, paper towels) are usually pretty hard to come by, and if you find a place with all three, then you’ve hit the jackpot! Don’t be surprised if you walk into one and there isn’t even the luxury of a toilet seat.
It sounds like they’re really gross places, but the honest truth is, they’re really not that bad. They’re not dirty, actually. They just don’t have all the normal things you would expect. It’s easy to plan for this, though. Just carry some napkins and hand sanitizer in your pocket, and you’re good to go!
Another thing to be on the ready for–the lights. Many times, you have to turn the lights on when you walk, not only into the bathroom, but, if it’s a multiple stalled set-up, when you go into your own private little haven as well. They are generally on a timer, so don’t be surprised if they turn off unexpectedly. Just make sure you make a mental note as to where the switch is so it’s easy to find if it happens to you.
Unless you plan on eating at McDonald’s or Burger King for every meal, you may want to make note of this. In Spain, lunch is from 2:00-4:30 pm (during the “siesta”) and dinner is from 8:00-10:00pm. Generally speaking, the kitchens will be closed if it’s not during one of the aforementioned times, so, if you’re looking to grab a bite at noon, or an “early” dinner at 7:00, you may be out of luck.
There will, more often than not, be a few places around that have a handful of tapas available, but don’t expect to have a full three-course meal. Again, in bigger cities this isn’t always the case. And, you’ll always find the local fast food joint that serves food all throughout the day. But, if you want some real authentic Spanish food, then you have to have it at the real authentic Spanish time.
Continuing with the idea of food, in Spain, it’s generally a good idea to try it first and ask what it is later. Don’t be too freaked out by this. One great thing about Spain and Spanish food is that they don’t waste anything–literally nothing!
You’ll find anything from blood sausage to pig cheek, from bull’s tail to cow’s tongue. It may sound disgusting, but Spanish food is actually really delicious, and if you just give it a try, you may find you really like it.
Don’t worry, they eat normal things too—beef, pork, chicken, fish. So, if you’re really really nervous, maybe it would be better to “ask first, try later.” But, you may end up missing out on some of the best aspects of Spanish cuisine. Don’t be afraid to go a little outside of your comfort zone; you’ll be surprised how much you actually enjoy it.
One problem that so many people have when traveling is that they want to rush-rush-rush and cram as much as possible into as little time as possible. That’s great if you really want to see and do absolutely everything. But, one of the best parts of visiting a different country is experiencing a different culture.
One of the best thing about Spaniards is that they really know how to enjoy life. They take it easy, and appreciate the time they have with their friends and family. And what better time to kick back, relax, and enjoy yourself than on a vacation?
Don’t be afraid to spend an hour (maybe two) at lunch. Participate in the wonderful Spanish tradition of the “sobremesa”-after meal chit-chat. Order a coffee and spend time talking with your friends/ family about what you’ve seen and where you want to go next. Don’t just rush off to do it!
Take the time to not only enjoy the sights, but to enjoy the experience. Your feet hurt from walking around all day? Grab a “caña” (small beer) or a glass of wine and a tapa and sit outside on a “terraza” and watch the locals go about their daily lives. Don’t be afraid to relax and enjoy yourself. You’re in Spain—enjoy it like a Spaniard!
A trip to Spain can be a lot of fun. It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with the amazing architecture, friendly people, delicious food, and extensively rich history. If you really want to make the most of your time in the Iberian Peninsula, the tips listed above will be a great help.
Don’t be afraid to dive into the culture, try the food, sit back and relax, and spend your evenings wandering through the streets of a small city.
Make sure you plan ahead, so you can see everything you want, and not be surprised when “that one museum” is closed on Mondays, or your last-minute trip to the cathedral is cut short because of “siesta.” And don’t forget your pocket-pack of tissues and hand sanitizer just in case the bathroom isn’t fully stocked.
One thing is for certain, though–you will love your time in Spain. And by the time you leave, you’ll be already planning your next trip!
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Anastasia is a Chicago, Illinois native. She began studying Spanish over 10 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. Living in Spain since 2012, she loves Spanish tortilla, vino tinto, and anything that contains jamón ibérico.
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