The Ultimate Guide to Spain

Once a great global empire, an incredible colonial power, Spain stood strong among many countries and ruled territories in many parts of the world throughout history. However, Spain's might of the olden days is now transformed into a country with an unhurried, relaxed environment. A place that is ever welcoming to travelers from all over the world.  Although known for its great sandy beaches, Spain is waiting to be discovered more, from its ice-capped mountains, green lands, arid zones, historical cities' narrow streets, and grand display of art and architecture.

Arco de la Victoria, Madrid.
Arco de la Victoria, Madrid. Photo by GoAbroad Writing Team

Good times will surely be experienced with Pamplona's thronged “Running with the Bulls” or during a famous Spaniard's flamenco guitar performance on the side many streets. As a country dominated by Roman Catholics, fiesta celebrations are often anywhere in the country with many merrymaking activities to enjoy. Not to forget, the country offers travelers a variety of great cuisines full of aroma and mouth savoring tastes too.

Geography and Demographics

Iberians were the first people to settle in Spain who were later colonized by the Greeks and Carthaginians. In the 3rd century BC, the Romans ruled. The word Spain originated from the Roman name "Hispania". Spain is the second largest country in Europe, next to France, which is located in an area known as the Iberian Peninsula. This island is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the south to the east, Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Bay of Biscay to the north. Spain is also bounded by the lands of Portugal, France, Andorra, Morocco, and Gibraltar.

Among the regions that comprise Spain, there are three great cities which remain at the top of tourist’s destination lists: Barcelona, Madrid and Seville. However, Andalucia in the south, the Canary island located near the west coast of Africa, the Balearic Islands in the southeast of Barcelona, and northern Spain, including Castille and Leon, are all frequented in great numbers as well. Also, the Pyrenees are known for some of the best trekking throughout Europe, stretching roughly 400 kilometers, from the Basque Country in the west to the Mediterranean Sea.

The varied landscapes contribute to extreme climate conditions, which are greatly influenced by the Mediterranean sea that borders the country from the south to east. Most areas can be extremely hot during summer and yet very cold during winter. Rainfall occurs irregularly during spring and autumn, and heavy snowfalls are common in winter. Generally it's good to travel during the months of April to early November, while the weather can get unpleasant in July and August.

A great time to visit Andalusia, Castile, the Balearic Islands, and other central regions is during spring, when the weather is generally fine with occasional rains. Summer is an ideal season to visit the northern regions, especially along the Cantabrian coast along the border of La Guardia. During winter, it's a good time to visit the Mediterranean area along the Costa del Sol as well as the Canary Islands. Fall is the best season of the year to visit the country for the magnificent sun and blue skies.

Seasonal Advice

Winter (December to Mid-March). Though cold, winter in Madrid is usually quite dry, and for those not looking for sun-tanning weather it can be a very refreshing time of the year to visit the city. It occasionally snows in the center, but it rarely accumulates. While there is certainly no shortage of activity in the city, there are far less tourists than at other times of the year, resulting in smaller crowds at museums and other tourist centers, off-season rates at hotels, etc.

Spring (mid-March to late May). Spring is one of the most pleasant times of the year to visit Madrid. The long days are generally warm and the nights cool. The nightlife goes up a notch, as the warmth seems to get the blood (and beer) flowing. Large numbers of young people take to the streets for the all-night marcha and all the outdoor cafes open up.

Summer (June to August). Temperature-wise, Madrid's summer should really be divided into two sections, the pleasant summer and very hot summer. The former may or may not last all through June, and then begin again in mid to late August. This is a good time of the year to visit Madrid, especially to enjoy the long warm nights in June, when the street life is at its best.

Autumn. Like spring, autumn is an excellent time for a visit. The city's mood is quite different as everyone has recently returned to work or school after the August holidays, and people are relieved that the intense July sun is behind them. There are also plenty of cultural activities going on. Late in autumn there is always the risk of some rain, but it’s rarely so much that an umbrella can't cope. Suitable clothing? Like spring you have to bring clothes for a range of temperatures. It’s unlikely to get so cold that a decent sweater can't be sufficient for you to cope though.

People and Culture

People

The people of Spain are mostly born and raised as Roman Catholic. Spanish people give high value to religion since Catholicism has been a great influence to their culture. Compared to other European countries, Spanish lifestyle is more relaxed. They observe siesta or afternoon naps giving them more time to spend with their families. Spanish people are also traditional. The people of Spain love festivities and any kind of celebrations. A number of fiestas are observed all throughout the year, during which the locals dress up in traditional costumes and celebrate until dawn, with sangria, wine, beer, and traditional Spanish food.

Language

The official language is Spanish, the most popular Romance language spoken all over the world. Spain has two major dialects: Andalusian and Castilian. Catalan, however, is widely spoken and considered its own language and therefore it is incorrect to say to Catalans that it is a dialect of Spanish. Some feel so strongly about their identity that they don't consider themselves Spaniards. Most citizens of Spain also speak English.

Etiquette

Spaniards are big on greetings and farewells and they place a lot of emphasis on physical contact. When meeting people, expect to get a handshake. Men who are close friends will often embrace or give each other a warm hug while women with close companions meet and say goodbye by kissing on the cheeks and giving a small hug.

Dressing up elegantly than plain simple is preferred in Spain. Both men and women is expected to set forth a good taste in apparel and style. Men should always wear a suit and tie when attending to business meetings.

In working, most Spaniards are not punctual for business meetings, however an explanation of being late should be prepared. Getting to know a person in terms of character is common before doing any business or transactions with someone, and before fully trusting the person.

When it comes to dining, Spaniards do not waste food. Others decline it rather than leave it. It is expected to remain standing when starting a meal before you are invited by the host to sit down. Neither should you get up until the host does.

There are an array of cultural practices you will observe in Spain that may be different to your home culture, some of the most commonly misinterpreted or misunderstood practices are listed below:

  • Conversations occur at a much closer physical distance than you might be accustomed to and it is considered rude to step back. 
  • It is considered bad manners to point with your finger. 
  • Expect to encounter very informal lines with people pushing their way to the front. Many times, a person will enter the shop where there is a crowd and say, Â Quien es la Ãltima? (who is the last in line) and you’ll  need to say Yo (me) to keep your place in line.
  • Staring at people is not seen as automatically rude in Spain.
  • Spaniards do not put a great emphasis on time. Life is more laidback and relaxed and nothing is done in a hurry.
  • It's rather common for people to interrupt you while you're talking however it is not to insult but rather to show interest or attention to what you are saying.

There are also handfuls of common Spanish gestures, which you may find useful:.

  • Eyelid pull- Place your forefinger below the center of your eye and pulling your eye skin in a downward motion. This means, "Be watchful, that person is cunning."
  • Fingertips kiss- Put your thumb and the rest of your fingers together, raising them to your lips as if kissing it and tossing your hand into the air. This is a sign of approval or praise in Spain. 
  • Cheek screw- done by making a fist, sticking out your forefinger and screwing it in the cheek. In Spain, this is used to describe a man as being womanish or effeminate.
  • Esto es muy dificil (It is very difficult)-  Press your thumb and index finger together and shaking it.
  • Ese seà or tienne mucho dinero (That person has lots of money)- Rub your thumb with the rest of your fingers.

Family 

In general children stay close to their parents until adulthood, it is even common for three generation of families to be living together under the same roof. It provides not only a way to increase the household income, but it also allows them to help one another. Most individuals don’t leave their parent’s home until they marry, and doing so before marriage is often interpreted as a lack of love for their parents. 

There are legal protections to defend the family as an institution in Spain. Shops are closed on Sundays so that there is time to spend together, inheritance laws automatically assign one half of parents inheritance to their children, and only one fourth to their spouse. Marriage licenses are complicated to obtain, obliging the couple to think about the step they are taking very carefully.

Food

Spain is very famous for a variety of food rich in flavor and aroma. Food is very important to the Spanish people. Spanish food is traditional and differs between regions. Northern Spain is famous for beans, sausages, vegetables, and seafood, while Spain's east coast (which faces Italy) is best known for rice dishes and Paella. The interior of Spain is where the best roasts, suckling pig dishes, and baby lamb cuisines can be found. 

Spain is well known for for its fresh seafood. Garlic and olives are the favorite ingredients in most Spanish cuisine. Spanish people are renowned for producing the best tasting flavored cheeses, cured hams, and sausages. Almuerzo is a favorite snack of Spanish people, consisting of a bocadillo (a crusty roll) with melted cheese or ham filling. Tapas, which is a variety of appetizers such as mixed olives, cheese, and puntillita (fried baby squid), is served in bars as an ideal partner for dry sherry (fino or manzanilla) or a glass of tinto (red wine).

Mealtime Tips

  • Sitting down for a family meal once a day is very common in Spanish homes. Please be courteous and notify if you change plans. 
  • Lunch is the most important meal of the day and dinner is a lighter meal. 
  • Spaniards eat lunch anywhere from 1:30 to 3:30, and dinner is frequently at 10:00. 
  • Breakfast consists of coffee and cookies, or something similar. 
  • Spaniards are proud of their culture, so unless you have a special diet, try out the food. Food is a big part of culture.
  • You will not see many Spanish people walking and eating, but there is the favorite pastime of going to have tapas. Often these are eaten standing up.
  • Eat out at lunchtime rather than in the evening if you want a good menu at a cheap price. 

Religion

Roman Catholicism is the major religion in Spain and plays a major role in daily life for Spaniards. Travelers will instantly notice the presence of Catholicism everywhere- in museums, buildings, monuments, and  of course frequent religious celebrations. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 Spaniards are Catholics. Other prevalent religious denominations, include Protestants and Jews.

Observing religious activities and rituals, like church weddings, baptisms, burials, and feasts of saints are of the utmost importance in Spanish culture, even more so than merely attending a mass. Almost every fiesta observed in Spain is a celebration of a religious event or saint. Romerias for example, which involves drinking, dancing, and singing, is a celebration of a historic pilgrimage to a religious shrine.

Dance

Dance is an enormous part of Spanish culture. The traditional dances of the country vary by region and each one provides a unique learning and cultural experience for foreign visitors.

  • Sardana - originally from Catalonia, this dance is performed in a closed circle with several couples joining hands.
  • Zambra - a Moorish dance which was later adapted to Spanish dance customs.
  • Muneira - popularly known to many as a traditional "Miller's Dance," played on bagpipes.
  • Bolero - a quick Spanish dance associated with sudden pauses and sharp turns.
  • Fandango - an energetic and lively dance, performed in pairs.
  • Paso doble - a fast one-step Spanish dance.
  • Flamenco - a musical tradition originally from Andalucia, which is a deep song of the gypsies.
  • Sevilla - a circle dance commonly practiced in Catalonia.

Pastimes & Things to Do

Sports

The three most popular sports in Spain are football (soccer), bullfighting, and cycling.

Football is the most played sport in the country. One of the world's strongest football division is La Liga and has clubs such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Valencia CF. Spain won the gold during the Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Bullfighting involves the picador, banderilleros, and the matador, or the bullfighter. Bullfighting in Spain is called corrida de toros or fiesta brava. Bullfighting months in Spain are March to October. The most distinguished bullfight is held during the fiesta of San Isidro in Madrid.

Cycling has long existed in Spain, since the 1940s. The Tour of Spain is one of the most important cycling competitions in the world. 

Museums

The Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are the three most popular museums in Madrid, well known to many Spaniards as the "big-three". A collection of artworks from great masters are showcased in the art galleries of these museums, such as the works of Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, El Bosco, Rafael, Tiziano, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Rembrandt. 

The infamous Picasso Museum, located in Barcelona, displays the artwork of Picasso, allowing visitors to discover the gradual development of his works of art. Located 139 kilometers from Barcelona is the Dali Theatre-Museum, featuring pieces by Salvador Dali, based in the province of Girona in Figueres.

A visit to Bilbao is incomplete without a trip to the prestigious building designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum. This museum features an unusual and experimental idea tributed to contemporary art. For modern art lovers a visit to the Mediterranean coast will be worthwhile to see the IVAM Museum in Valencia. Museos y Salas de Exposiciones is one of the most important samples of Contemporary Art in Spain, located in the seat of Santa Maria in Alicante.

Balearic Islands

Floating off the east coast of Spain there are the four Balearic Islands; tiny Formentera, party-hearty Ibiza, windswept Menorca, and the capital of the Islands, Mallorca. Each offers visitors a uniquely wonderful holiday adventure. 

Formentera, small and somewhat isolated, is perfect for celebrity recluses, environmentalists, and off-the-beaten-track travelers. Green lizards sun themselves on rocks and wild rosemary scents the air. Some of Spain's longest, whitest, and least-crowded beaches are available to visitors seeking escape, not sophistication. Most people visit Formentera as a day trip from Ibiza.

Once the destination for European hippies, Ibiza is now one big, sunny, floating techno party. Firmly established as one of Europe's trendiest summer escapes, the Island has an intense, outrageous street life, and an even wilder nightlife. Ibiza nightclubs are famous destinations for night owls. Hip bars, pubs, and restaurants can be found in the surrounding area of Plaza de Santa Barbara. Nudist beaches, fashionable cafes, and cute shops make Ibiza a great holiday resort.

Menorca is more conservative and modest than the other islands. It's actually a biosphere reserve, with archaeological ruins and wetlands that protect the island from further development. There's not much to see and do (other than enjoy the pristine beaches), but if you're looking for peace and for some beautiful, relatively isolated beaches, Menorca is probably your best Balearic choice. 

Mallorca is the one island in the group you might visit for reasons other than the beaches and nightlife. This main island has mega-resorts and shopping centers unlike all the other Balearics, but it also has the beautiful Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, perfect for hiking, Gothic cathedrals, Stone Age ruins, quaint fishing villages, and endless orange and olive groves to explore. Palma, the capital, has a well-preserved historic quarter as well.

Whichever island you visit, the Balearics are the answer to “where to go” for the perfect Spanish holiday.

Nightlife

Major Spanish cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, and Granada are the major places for bustling nightlife. Madrid is known as the nightclub capital of Spain. Most restaurants and night bars throughout the country are open until the wee hours of the morning. Locals typically start the night with el paseo, or strolling through streets or along paseo maritimo in coastal resorts.

Transportation

Taxis

Taxis, which are likewise comfortable and efficient, are subject to the fare shown on the meter. In some cities there is a luxury-style service, known as grandes turismos, charging higher rates. For this type of hire, it is advisable to settle the fare in advance. Taxis will always charge a surcharge for leaving or arriving to an airport or train station, and for taking luggage. It is common to agree on a rate, but most will charge by the meter.

In Madrid, taxi drivers are known to overcharge foreigners, sometimes charging up to three or four times the amount that they should. Be on alert! Make sure the car displays the name of the company and that the car has an official meter. Beware of “independent” drivers who may offer you a ride, even if they have a meter in their car and/or an official business card; it is safer to go to the transportation assistance desk of official companies. Many people use their personal automobiles, and may even have a meter, but these “independent” drivers are not the safest way to travel.

Before you get into the car, you should tell the driver where you want to go to make sure they know how to get there. If you find a taxi driver that you like from a reputable company, ask for his card. The next time you need a taxi, call ahead and request the same driver. However, it may be more expensive than you think to travel by taxi on a daily basis. If traveling by day and you're not in a hurry, it is definitely worth it to walk or figure out how to take the bus.

Bus

The public coach service in Spain is comfortable and efficient, with different lines covering long-distance routes on a regular timetable. There is also a good network of bus and coach companies catering for short-distance travel and sightseeing trips.

Rail

The Spanish rail network has over 10,000 miles of track, including a high-speed track which includes the Madrid-Seville (AVE) link, Madrid-Málaga, Madrid-Cádiz, and Huelva routes. As in the case of the road grid, the rail network run by Spanish Rail (RENFE), Spain's state-owned rail operator, takes the shape of a spider web centred on Madrid, with the main lines radiating out to cover the country and a series of interconnecting transversal lines (the most important being the Mediterranean and River Ebro corridors). 

Depending on the season, RENFE sets a series of special fares, thanks to which rail travel becomes a far more attractive proposition. 

Health & Safety

Individuals who travel to Madrid often find it to be less threatening than capital cities around the world like London or New York; it is a city where people are constantly out in the streets and the public metro is well policed and used by everyone at all times of the day and night. That is not to say that a minimum precaution isn't necessary, a certain amount is sensible. You have to be very careful of pickpockets of which there is a plague, but if you're careful where you put your purse or wallet, this won't be a problem either. 

Medical Facilities

Medical care in Spain is outstanding. A number of hospitals and clinic centers provide interpreters for tourists and many of the doctors and nurses speak in English. Make sure that the practitioner you go to works within the Spanish state health service. Medical care in Spain is relatively pricey, so it's recommended to have a comprehensive travel insurance plan that will cover any medical costs before traveling to Spain.

Crime

Although the rate of crime in Spain is moderately low, a high incidence of street crime is prevalent, such as pickpocketing and bag snatching, which occur frequently in many large Spanish cities, especially Madrid and Barcelona. Incidents rapidly occur in tourist areas such as museums, restaurants, hotel lobbies, beach resorts, subways, city buses, monuments, train stations, airports, ATM machines, etc. Most of the time, thieves work in gangs, sometimes distracting a traveler's attention by way of asking assistance as a ploy to steal a traveler's belongings.

General Safety Tips- Be aware of your surroundings! 

  • It is always better to walk in a group at night and avoid poor neighborhoods. 
  • Do not get into a taxi if there are other people with the taxi driver.
  • Carry the following with you at all times: A copy of your passport (keep originals in safe place), try not to carry more than 50 euro with you in cash, address of the place you are staying, and a map of the city 
  • Do not carry your passport or all of your credit cards
  • Pay close attention to your purse, backpack, wallet, bags, etc. while traveling on public transportation or while in areas where there are crowds. 
  • Do not count money in front of people. 
  • Do not wear expensive jewelry or provocative clothing. 
  • Do not consume or transport illegal drugs. The laws in Spain are very severe with respect to this topic. 
  • Never offer money to the police. If you encounter a situation that you do not understand, insist on talking with someone from the program you are participating in or the family you are living with.

Passport and Visa

Visit GoAbroad’s Spain Embassy and Consulate Directory to find an embassy near you where you can learn more about visas and travel document requirements.

Travel Programs in Spain

To find study abroad programs in Spain check out GoAbroad.com's Study Abroad Directory.

For internship placements in Spain, visit GoAbroad.com's Internship Directory

Search for volunteering opportunities in GoAbroad.com's Volunteer Abroad Directory.

To find a Teaching Placement in Spain, visit the GoAbroad Teach Abroad Directory.

For full degree programs, browse GoAbroad.com's Degree Programs offered in Spain.

Search GoAbroad.com's Spanish Language Study to find Language schools and courses located in Spain.

For a comprehensive list of job listings in Spain, visit GoAbroad.com's Jobs Abroad Directory.