When you think of Spain what images immediately conjure up in your mind…flamenco dancers, matadors, white hillside villages, endless beaches and sunshine, towering gothic cathedrals perhaps? Travel to Spain and you will experience that and so much more – from the art museums, to modern architecture, to the exciting nightlife and of course the delicious food for which Spain is famous for.
As a holidaymaker, Spain offers many options from the mountains to the coast to large vibrant cities to quaint traditional villages, or maybe you are in search of spirituality, along the long-distance Camino de Santiago de Compostela path. Spain is the largest country in southern Europe, the 2nd largest in western Europe and the EU, and the 4th largest in the European continent.
Where to go
Breaking down the 17 Regions:
- Andalucía – is a popular tourist area with some of its most famous cities (Seville, Granada, Malaga and Cordoba), its warm climate, the golden sandy beaches and whitewash villages. This region has both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines and is divided into 4 Costa (coastlines) – some of the most famous are Cadiz, Tarifa, Marbella, Fuengirola, Nerja, Mojacar.
- Aragon – borders France and encompasses the highest part of the Pyrenees and Spain’s largest river, the Ebro.
- Asturias – is a non-touristy rural and mountainous region that has vast stretches of green fields and unspoiled beaches along the coastline.
- Basque country – was given its own nationality and local language (known as Euskera), and hosts two big cities, Bilbao and San Sebastian. Bilbao is home to the Guggenheim museum and where you will find architect Frank Gehry’s designs.
- Cantabria – is a non-touristy mountainous region famous for its cave paintings and national parks.
- Castilla la Mancha – offers the city of Toledo, a popular tourist destination that’s within easy reach of the city of Madrid.
- Castilla y León – is the Camino de Santiago path runs through this region, so it does get quite busy with travelers passing through on their pilgrimage and it holds much of Spain’s heritage and historical sites.
- Catalunya – is known for its amazing beaches, warm Mediterranean climate and its capital city of Barcelona. (Direct link to blog post on Barcelona)
- Extremadura – is the western region bordering Portugal where you will find some of the roman buildings beautifully restored making this a great destination for photographers.
- Galicia – is home to the famous Cathedral in its main city Santiago de Compostela, as it holds the shrine of Saint James, the final destination for all those who are walking the path of the Camino de Santiago.
- Islas Baleares – are the collection of islands off the east coast of Spain with the most famous being Ibiza, Menora, Mallorca and Formentera which are very popular holiday destinations due to the warmer weather and gorgeous beaches.
- Islas Canarias – collection of islands further south of the mainland Spain that are located in the Atlantic Ocean just west of Africa.
- La Rioja – is wine country where most of Spain’s red wine comes from.
- Madrid – the capital and metropolitan city, located right in the center of Spain, offers the main hub of transportation, industry and government.
- Murcia – is most known for its amazing white sand beaches and warm climate.
- Navarra – is dominated by the Pyrenees mountains and famous for being home to the Pamplona Bull race.
- Valenciana – is the southeast coast of Spain making this a perfect beach holiday and is one of the largest ports in Europe for exports.
Despite all that rich diversity, there are a few rules that hold true in Spain. Here are some tips to know before you go.
When they like to eat
Spanish mealtimes differ than most other countries because of how late they are. In general, Spaniards eat a very simple breakfast between 9-11am, lunch between 2-4pm, Merienda (or snack) between 4-8pm; and dinner between 9-11:30pm.
What they like to eat
Being a vegetarian proves to be a little more difficult than other European countries. Pretty much traditional Spanish food, no matter what the region, revolves around an animal product, especially jamon. They also think vegetarian means you can eat fish, so be careful when ordering.
Sangria is mainly considered a tourist drink in Spain. Although it is really good, if you want to blend in, locals enjoy a tinto de verano, or summer wine, which consists of red wine and lemonade.
As with most European countries, going to the market is very popular to get your fresh produce, fish and meat. La Boquería is the best-known market in Barcelona and has become somewhat of a tourist attraction thanks to its location on the bustling La Rambla. Be sure to visit the markets while in Spain as they are very much part of their culture.
How they like to eat
Food is not rushed in Spain, it is their opportunity to socialize with family and friends. When dining out, that usually means that service may not be as attentive as what you might expect in other countries. Servers allow you to eat, drink and be social for as long as you want. You signal when you are ready to leave and the cheque will be brought to you.
What to tip
The tipping culture in Spain is virtually non-existent as most locals will leave nothing or a couple of euros. For fine dining, there would be a greater expectation of leaving a tip, but 10% would be considered generous.
What happens on Sundays
Most of Spain is Catholic and a very religious country. That means Sundays are a day of rest, as most families gather and spend the day together over food and drink. You will find most shops closed, even in the big cities, so be sure to plan around it. When you visit places of religious significance, the expectation will be to dress accordingly.
What to wear
Spaniards care about their appearance and are always nicely put together. Even on the hottest day, you will never see a Spaniard wearing shorts or flip flops. They don’t believe in dressing casually. Therefore, this makes it easy to spot tourists, so if you want to blend in, dress nicely and not so casual.
Unless you are at the beach, then you will find the tiniest of bathing suits (if any at all) for both men and women.
Watch out for pick pockets
Some areas of Spain, especially the big cities like Barcelona and Madrid, are well-known for their pick pockets. I for one, do not feel it is necessary that you wear a money belt (like most travel sites might recommend), rather just be vigilant in crowded areas, or better yet, try not to make it too obvious that you are a tourist. One area of caution, be extra careful at crowded beaches. There are many warnings not to leave valuables on your towel (or even hidden) and go into the water, otherwise your belongings may not be there when you return.
Learn the basics
While many Spaniards do speak some English, it isn’t as widespread as in some other European countries. Learning a few key phrases in Spanish is a good idea, especially to exchange simple greetings (hola, buenos días, ciao) and pleasantries (por favor, gracias) are always appreciated by locals. Before I travel, I always use Duolingo to practice and be familiar with the language.
Lastly, it is a European custom and something I always like to know…it is polite to kiss on the cheek when greeting acquaintances and friends. Kiss the person’s right cheek first and then the left.