Spain is a country of endless beaches, year-round sunshine, towering Gothic cathedrals, and white hillside villages. As a holidaymaker, visiting Spain offers many options from the mountains to the coast to large vibrant cities to quaint traditional villages. Despite all that rich diversity in destinations, there are a few rules that hold true in Spain. Before you go, here are things you need to know before you go to Spain. (Updated December 2022)
Travel in Spain and Tourism
Spain is not a small country. In fact, it’s the largest country in southern Europe, the 2nd largest in western Europe and the 4th largest in the continent of Europe. Seventeen regions, each offering a diverse range of destinations for Spain travel – some popular and others hidden gems. Let’s break down each of the regions and highlight some of the places worthy of adding to your itinerary.
Regions in Southern Spain
Teide National Park, Canary Islands
- Andalucía – is a popular tourist area with some of its most famous cities (Seville, Grenade, Malaga and Cordoba), its warm climate, golden sandy beaches and whitewashed villages. This region has both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. It’s divided into 4 areas Cadiz, Tarifa, Marbella, Fuengirola, Nerja, and Mojacar.
- Baleares Islands – are a collection of islands off the east coast of Spain with the most famous being Ibiza, Menora, Mallorca and Formentera which are very popular beach holiday destinations.
- Canary Islands – a collection of islands further south of mainland Spain that is located in the Atlantic Ocean just west of Africa.
- Murcia – is most known for its amazing white sand beaches and warm climate.
- Valenciana – is on the southeast coast of Spain making this a perfect beach holiday and is one of the largest ports in Europe for exports.
Regions in the Middle of Spain
- Castilla la Mancha – offers the city of Toledo, a popular tourist destination that’s within easy reach of the city of Madrid.
- Catalunya – is known for its amazing beaches, warm Mediterranean climate and its capital city of 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.
- Madrid – the capital and metropolitan city, located right in the center of Spain.
Related reading – breaking down the neighbourhoods in Barcelona
Regions in Northern Spain
- 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). It’s home to 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 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.
- 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.
- La Rioja – is wine country where most of Spain’s red wine comes from.
- Navarra – is dominated by the Pyrenees mountains and famous for being home to the Pamplona Bull race.
Eating and Drinking in Spain
When they like to eat
Spanish mealtimes differ than most other countries because of how late they are. In general, Spanish people eat a simple breakfast between 9-11am, lunch between 2-4pm, Merienda (or snack sometimes called Pintxos) between 4-8pm; and eat dinner between 9-11:30pm. If you show up wanting a meal at times outside of these times, then definitely you will be taken for a tourist.
A popular choice for Merienda is to visit a Tapas bar. Tapas bars are just that, you sit at the bar and select the tapas you would like. It’s a cheap, quick and lively way to enjoy a afternoon snack to tied you over to your late night dining.
What they like to eat
Just like most countries, there are regional specialities. The closer you are to water, the more fish is plentiful. 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. Careful, vegetarian dishes on menus might still mean fish-based dishes.
A popular menu item, even for breakfast, is Pan Con Tomate. It’s a simple, yet delicious shredded tomatoes, fresh olive oil on a small baguette. It’s Spain’s version of the Italian bruschetta.
As with most European countries, going to the market is best way to shop for 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. Daily markets are very much part of Spanish culture.
Sangria is mainly considered a tourist drink in Spain. If you want to blend in, locals enjoy a tinto de verano, or summer wine, which consists of red wine and lemonade.
How they like to eat
One of things to know before going to Spain is that mealtime is not rushed. It’s 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 North America. Servers allow you to eat, drink and be social for as long as you want. You signal when you are ready to leave.
What to tip
The tipping culture in Spain is virtually non-existent as most locals will leave nothing or a couple of euros if the service is exceptional. For fine dining, there would be a greater expectation of leaving a tip, but 10% would be considered generous.
Things to Know Before Going to Spain – Travel Tips
What happens on Sundays
Most people of Spain are Roman Catholic, and are devoted to their faith. That means Sundays are a day of rest. It’s a day where 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.
Siestas still happen
The tradition of having a little siestas is still real. This tradition, usually around 1-4pm many small shops, restaurants will shut their doors for a little afternoon nap. As a traveller, take advantage of this relaxing time too. In southern Spain, you might find the pace a bit more relaxed overall. Life moves at a much slower pace. It’s a good reminder, that you’re on vacation and that’s a good thing. Embrace the more relaxed nature.
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.
New and old architecture
If you love architecture as much as I do, then Spain is the place to go! Spain has some pretty amazing buildings. Create your own walking tour around any city and you are bound to see some of the best modern and historic architecture side by side.
Even if you don’t know anything about architecture or Gaudí, when you walk the streets of Barcelona you will immediately be able to identify a Gaudí building –they are unmistakable. If in Barcelona, be sure to check out: Casa Vicens, Casa Milá (La Pedrera), Park Güell, Casa Batlló; and La Sagrada Familia.
Experience: Gain access to Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, and explore Barcelona’s most-visited landmark at your own pace with an informative audio guide. Click here for the skip-the-line entrance ticket.
Watch out for pick pockets
Some areas of Spain, especially the major cities like Barcelona and Madrid, are well-known for their pick pockets. Just like any global city, warnings of being in crowded spaces like the metro or in front of tourist attractions. Just be extra 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 will likely not be there when you return.
Public Holidays in Spain
Things to know before traveling to Spain is knowing when public holidays are celebrated across Spain. These important dates will limit what is open.
2023 Public Holidays – these are holidays celebrated across Spain
- 1 January: New Year’s Day (Año Nuevo)
- 6 January: Epiphany
- 7 April: Good Friday (Viernes Santo)
- 1 May: Labor Day (also referred to as Worker’s Day) (Día del Trabajo)
- 15 August: Assumption of Mary (Asunción de la Virgen)
- 12 October: Spain’s National Day (also referred to as Columbus Day)
- 1 November: All Saints’ Day (Fiesta de Todos los Santos)
- 6 December: Spanish Constitution Day (Día de la Constitución)
- 8 December: Immaculate Conception (La Inmaculada Concepción)
- 25 December: Christmas (Navidad)
Spain is known to have a lot of regional national holidays, far too many to list here, click here to see the full list before visiting Spain.
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 always a good idea.
- Simple greetings go along way…hola, buenos días, ciao
- Pleasantries…por favor, gracias are always appreciated by locals
- Ask in Spanish…habla usted Inglés to see if someone speaks English
Note that in Basque Country and nearby small towns, Spanish is not spoken, rather it’s Basque language, also known as euskara.
Go to Spain – Tips for Accommodation
Spain accommodations – whether it’s a city apartment, a beachfront property or a villa in the countryside, click here to start your search with Plum Guide. Or, if you prefer hotel stays, click here to start your search with Booking.com.
As a holidaymaker…
I hope that covers all you need to know about Spain. I wanted to share some tips for visiting Spain that I’ve learned after visiting. There’s a reason why Spain is a popular destination- the food, culture, and the landscape can change quite dramatically depending on where you are in Spain. Yet, despite its differences, there are some steadfast traditions and customs. These were the top things you need to know before you go to Spain!
Lastly, a European custom, and something I always like to know…how to greet family and friends. In Spain, kiss the person’s right cheek first and then the left.