SPAIN The Ultimate Travel Guide

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It would certainly be cliche to say that Spain has something for everyone. But yet, it really does. You can explore trendy Barcelona and admire the organic modernist masterpieces from architect Antoni Gaudi. Head north to the Basque Country if you want to sample some of Spain’s best gastronomy. Or discover immaculate Muslim palaces in Seville and Granada. Once you’ve taken in enough of Spain’s vast culture, venture to the Mediterranean coast and the islands (Balearic and Canary) where you can relax on some of Europe’s best beaches.

QUICK FACTS ABOUT SPAIN

What is the population of Spain?
Over 47 million

What is the capital of Spain?
Madrid is the capital and largest city (6.3 million inhabitants)

What is Spain called in Spanish?
España

What is Spain’s country code?
+34

What type of government does Spain have?
Constitutional monarchy with Felipe VI as the king

Travel to Spain – What You Need to Know

WHAT LANGUAGES ARE SPOKEN IN SPAIN?

The official and universal language in Spain is Spanish (español). However, in Spain, the language is most commonly called Castellano, referring to the region of Castile where it comes from.

Castellano is not the only language spoken in Spain. While 98.9% of the population speaks Castellano, there are 3 other languages that are officially recognized: Basque, Catalan and Galician.

The Basque language is known as euskara in Basque and vasco in Español. In addition to being spoken in the Basque Country, it can also be heard in northern Navarre and a small area in France just on the other side of the border. Basque is the only surviving pre-indo-european language, which means that it isn’t related to Spanish at all – or any other known language in the world for that matter. To this day, no one is quite sure how Basque survived or where it comes from.

Catalan and Galician (gallego in Spanish) are both romance languages and much more similar to Spanish. The Catalan language encompasses several dialects that are spoken in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands – basically the whole eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain. From an outside perspective, Catalan may seem like a mixture of Spanish and French.

Galician, on the other hand, is much more closely related to Portuguese. In fact, it is a Portuguese sister language with some Castellano influences. Galician is spoken in the northwestern corner of Spain in Galicia and to a lesser extent in western Asturias.

BUSINESS HOURS

Spain has a schedule all of its own. From Monday to Friday, most businesses close between 2 and 5 pm, give or take. On Saturdays, they don’t reopen in the afternoon. And on Sundays, pretty much everything is closed.

Government offices and banks are usually only open in the morning on weekdays.

There are also some exceptions to these strange business hours. Shopping malls don’t close in the middle of the day. Many chain stores don’t either. You really just have to check – but be aware.

In larger cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, some stores open on particular Sundays which are specially declared shopping days. This usually happens in December, just before Christmas.

Then there are the Chinese-run shops that can be found in even the most obscure locations in Spain. Los chinos, as they are referred to, have found a permanent place in Spanish society with stores selling just about everything imaginable – a little bit like a dollar store. The Chinese are open when no one else is, including Sundays.

EATING TIMES

Spanish eating times are probably the hardest thing to adjust to when visiting Spain. Their time is off by several hours when compared with most of the world. Breakfast isn’t usually much of an issue. A typical Spanish breakfast is often not much more than a coffee and a small bite to eat, such as a muffin or a biscuit.

Swordfish belly with ratatouille at Ultramar&nos in Cadiz, Spain
Swordfish belly dish in Cadiz

Lunch and dinner times are the tricky ones. A typical lunchtime in Spain is 1:30 to 2 pm during the week, and on the weekend, it is not uncommon to start lunch even after 3 pm. Dinner is also a late affair. No Spaniard would ever eat dinner before 8 pm. And again, the weekend is even later. Friday and Saturday night restaurant reservations for 11 pm are very common.

In addition, most restaurants don’t open until 1:30 pm and many of them close between 5 and 8 pm. Because of that, we recommend adapting as much as possible to the Spanish eating times when visiting. For example, if you are shopping and notice that stores are closing, that is your cue to get some food! If you unfortunately miss lunchtime, you may be lucky and find a bar that is serving some small tapas or sandwiches (bocadillos).

BAR CULTURE

Bar culture in Spain is unique compared to other parts of the world. It is an integral part of the social sphere and not just a place to get drunk. Although people of course do get drunk, it is not a common sight to see patrons getting wasted.

Instead, the Spanish bar is the center for social life in Spain and there aren’t any age restrictions. It’s totally normal to see families with young kids and grandparents all out together in the bar. That’s because the Spanish bar offers much more than just alcoholic drinks.

Delicious pintxos in the Basque Country, Spain
Pintxos in the Basque Country

It’s a place to go for a coffee with friends or family. You can go for a mid-morning/afternoon snack (tapa) or have a sandwich (bocadillo) for lunch. It’s also where you meet up in the evening to have a drink and something small to eat with friends. You can even make a tapas crawl out of it – going to one bar, having a drink with a tapa, and then moving on to the next.

COFFEE CULTURE

Spaniards love their coffee. And when they want a coffee, they go to a bar, not a cafe. There are 3 typical ways coffee is served in Spain: 1.) solo - straight espresso, 2.) cortado - espresso with a dash of milk 3.) café con leche - espresso with milk. For those who like lattes or cappuccinos, a café con leche is the closest thing you will find.

There are international chains such as Starbucks starting to appear in big cities, particularly around tourist areas. But we recommend supporting the small family-owned bars which are an essential part of the local culture and in our opinion serve far superior coffee at a very low price.

TIPPING

Tipping in Spain isn’t such a big thing. Receiving a tip is not expected but definitely appreciated. As a general rule, you would only tip on meals in a restaurant where you were satisfied with the service. Some Spaniards might leave some change – rounding up or leaving a euro here or there - all depending on how nice the restaurant is and of course how satisfied you were with the service. But something like a 15 - 20% tip would be far too much.

To get an idea, if a meal costs €30, then you could leave a euro or two if you were very satisfied. If you are in a fancier place and the meal was €90 then a €5 tip would be plenty.

A tip is pretty much never expected for something small like a coffee or drink. That also includes any light food that you would order at a bar. If your bill is €3.75 then you could round up to €4.

Keep in mind to always pay your tips with coins or cash. If you add the tip on your credit card then the money will go straight to the owner.

Tipping in taxis is also not very common. But again, if the driver is friendly and helpful, you can round up or give an extra euro or two.

In general, unless someone goes far out of their way for you or you are treated like royalty, then a tip is not needed. Use your intuition and remember that a tip is for excellent service and by no means ever expected.

Transportation Around Spain

TRAIN

Lush garden in the train station of Atocha – Madrid, Spain
Atocha Train Station in Madrid

Spain has a fairly extensive rail network and taking a train can be a great way to move around the country. RENFE, the Spanish rail company, has several high-speed train lines called AVE. These lines are a fast way to move between some cities and can be quicker than traveling by plane. For example, you can go from Madrid to Malaga in 2 h 20 min or Madrid to Barcelona in just under 3 hours. If you were to go by car or bus, it would easily take double the time.

Ticket prices are comparable with those of other European countries but usually travel by bus is the cheapest option. Travel by train in Spain is quite reliable and comfortable.

Depending on your destination, traveling by train might be your best option, but that is not always the case. Check out our map of train routes. For more general Spain train information, check out this beginner's guide to train travel in Spain.

BUS

Travel by bus is very common in Spain, especially in regions where the train network is slow or not very complete. Bus fares are very cheap and departures are frequent. The largest bus operator in Spain is Alsa, followed by Samr and Avanza. You can buy tickets directly through the operators' website or on a booking site such as Movelia. It is also common to buy tickets at the bus station on the day of the trip.

PLANE

There are plenty of large airports in Spain and cheap flights are easy to come by. Low-cost airlines such as Vueling, EasyJet and Ryanair offer the most flights between Spanish cities, followed by Spain’s national airline, Iberia. In some instances if can even be cheaper to fly than to take the train. See our transportation map of Spain to find out where the busiest airports are located.

RENTAL CAR

Renting a car is very affordable in Spain, especially compared to many other European countries. However, it is still probably not your cheapest transportation option. If you only plan on visiting the larger cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, then a car would not be needed or recommended. But if you want to have extra convenience and get off the beaten path, then a rental car is a great option.

Car Rental – Search, Compare & Save

DRIVING IN SPAIN

Driving in Spain is pretty easy going for the most part. However, driving in Spanish cities can be very stressful. Besides heavy traffic, there are many one-way streets and finding parking is often complicated.

PARKING

If you find on-street parking, then you will need to know the parking laws. Parking tickets are given out a lot in larger cities and they can be pricey.

We only recommend driving if you are traveling between cities, not in them. We like to look up a parking garage in a city on google maps and then head straight there. Once you are in the city you can explore it on foot or with public transportation.

AVOID SPEEDING TICKETS

In Spain, the speed limit is 50 km/h in towns and cities, 90 km/h on rural roads, 100 km/h on main roads and 120 km/h on highways. Speed cameras are pretty common and tickets aren’t cheap.

HIGHWAYS IN SPAIN

There are two types of highways in Spain called “autopistas” (“AP-” followed by a number) and “autovías” (“A-” followed by a number). Autopistas (AP) are usually toll roads, while autovías (A) are always free.

Weather in Spain

Sunny Spring weather in Malaga, Spain
Sunny Spring weather in Malaga

If you were to oversimplify Spain’s weather, you could say that the north experiences cooler summers with wet and chilly winters. The south on the other hand, has hot summers with pleasant winters.

Spain, as a whole, has one of the best climates in Europe. Many cities, especially along the Mediterranean coast, experience over 300 days of sunshine per year.

To get an idea of Spain’s weather, see the temperature chart of Barcelona below. It is a good example of what the weather is like in Spain.

BARCELONA Jan-March April-June July-Sept Oct-Dec
Max. avg. temperature 15°C (59°F) 21°C (70°F) 28°C (82°F) 18°C (64°F)
Min. avg. temperature 6°C (43°F) 13°C (55°F) 19°C (66°F) 9°C (48°F)
Hours of Sunshine 173 248 260 156

So when is the best time to travel to Spain? See our complete weather in Spain guide with more detailed information plus a Spain climate map.

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