Spain travel tips: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors

Spain is not just a world unto itself – it's several worlds unto itself. This sometimes-fractured nation of semi-autonomous regions is a fascinating one to spend time in, where cultures differ wildly from village to village. Just be prepared to learn several languages, and eat plenty of food.

1. The Spanish don't speak Spanish

OK, this isn't strictly true. Everyone can speak Spanish. But for plenty of Spaniards, the language we know as Spanish is actually their second tongue. In Barcelona they speak Catalan. In San Sebastian and Bilbao they speak Basque. In Galicia they speak Galician. In other regions people speak Aragonese, Asturian and Leonese. Everyone will be able to communicate with you in Spanish – but they'd prefer to use their native tongue.

2. Barcelona isn't that dodgy

Despite its reputation for petty theft and street crime, Barcelona is really not that scary. In fact it has cleaned its act up significantly in the last few years, and visitors need only take standard precautions such as zipping up bags and leaving expensive jewellery at home to ensure a stay there is incident-free.

3. It's hot. Really hot.

Go anywhere south of Madrid in summer and you'll find that the place is an absolute furnace. Temperatures in cities such as Seville and Cordoba regularly nudge 40 degrees during July and August, making it pretty uncomfortable for travellers. It makes you appreciate why siestas are so popular.

See also: Six of the best hip Madrid hotels

4. Every region could be a country of its own

There's an amazing amount of diversity in Spain – this is a country made up of 17 semi-autonomous regions, each of which clings fiercely to a unique culture. From the Basques in the north to the Andalusians in the south, the Catalans in the east to the Leonese in the west, to journey through Spain is to discover what feels like a new country at just about every turn.

5. Spanish food is amazingly good

You may arrive in Spain with low expectations of the food – after all, our only contact with the cuisine in Australia is overpriced tapas bars. So it's a huge shock to find that Spanish food is not just good, it's the best in the world. Seriously: the world's best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, is in Spain. So is the sixth best (Mugaritz), the 13th best (Etxebarri) and the 17th best (Arzak). But there's more to Spanish fare that Michelin stars – food in Spain is as cherished and richly enjoyed as it is anywhere in Europe, with regional specialties and home-style cooking showing the best of gastronomy across the country.

See also: What it's like to eat at the best restaurant on the planet

6. Foreign food is amazingly bad

While the Spanish are incredibly good at making their own food, they're almost equally bad at making other people's food. Don't attempt to go out for Chinese, or Thai, or Vietnamese, or even Italian in Spain. Stick to the local stuff. (The only exception to this is cosmopolitan Barcelona, where pretty much everything is good.)

7. The Spanish don't speak English

You're in Europe, right? Everyone speaks English. Or at least a little bit. Except in Spain, that is, where once you veer off the tourist paths of Barcelona and Madrid you find that very few people are able to speak to you in English. This doesn't mean locals are unfriendly – they'll go out of their way to attempt to help – but don't assume you'll be able to be lazy with language.

See also: The one thing that will make you a better traveller

8. A little effort goes a long way

While few people might be able to speak English, any attempt you make at their native tongue will be hugely appreciated, especially if that language isn't Spanish. Learn just the bare minimum of words in Basque, or Galician, or Catalan, and you'll find frowns instantly become smiles, doors miraculously open, and you've made friends for life.

9. It's not always European

In cities such as Cordoba, Granada, Alicante and Seville, you could be forgiven for thinking you've crossed over into northern Africa. There's a huge Moorish architectural influence in these cities, from the crowning glory of the Alhambra in Granada to the Real Alcazar in Seville and the amazing Mezquita in Cordoba. It's a huge change from the rest of Europe.

See also: Ancient wonder reinvents itself in Cordoba

10. La Sagrada Familia is probably the most stunning building you'll ever see

St Peter's Basilica and Notre Dame might hog most of the attention, but by far the most impressive church you'll ever see – in fact maybe even the most impressive building you'll ever see, full stop – is La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Gaudi's masterpiece is stunning from the outside, and even more amazing on the inside. (See for yourself in the gallery above)

See also: The world's 14 most impressive man-made structures

11. Siesta is both the best and worst thing ever

Having an excuse to go for a guilt-free snooze after lunch is certainly a custom most people can get on board with. However, on the off chance you don't go to sleep and instead attempt to get something achieved between the hours of 2pm and 4pm – say, going shopping – you'll be annoyingly thwarted by the fact that everything is closed and everyone has gone home. This doesn't apply, thankfully, in Barcelona and Madrid.

12. It's cheap

While Europe on the whole can be pretty pricey, Spain is refreshingly affordable, particularly down south. Head to Seville or Granada and a meal at a restaurant will only cost $20 or so; a beer at a bar will be a couple of bucks. Accommodation, too, is surprisingly cheap throughout much of the country.

13. Eating is not cheating

Spaniards are passionate drinkers, whether they're tucking into wine from the Rioja or Navarre regions, or cider from the Basque country, or the cold beer that's so cherished in the south. They drink during the day, and they drink during the night – but they always drink with food. Maybe it's a tiny tapa; maybe it's a huge pan of paella. Whatever: eating is not cheating in Spain. It's part of the fun.

14. The clichés really happen

Hang out in any old bar in Granada and there's a reasonable chance that someone will pick up a flamenco guitar and start playing, and someone else will sing along. Tapas bars exist, everywhere. Bullfights take place, and some people love them. Everyone is fiercely proud of the region they come from. Siestas are popular. So is drinking.

15. Jamon is the best thing ever

To outsiders, it's just a cured leg of ham. To the Spanish, however, jamon iberico is a work of art, from the breeding of the pig to the curing of the ham, to the way it's finely sliced fresh off the bone. This is a true delicacy, and one that the Spanish are intensely proud of. Don't even mention prosciutto, the Italian version of cured ham, in the same sentence. (I have a Spanish friend who I once persuaded to try prosciutto. Despite heavy skepticism, he was surprised to find that it wasn't all that terrible: "It's OK," he shrugged. "It's just like bad jamon.")

See also: How to carve the world's best ham

16. The cities are great – but the countryside is stunning

It's easy to fall in love with places like San Sebastian, or Valencia, or Barcelona, or Seville, or Cadiz. But some of the best parts of Spain lie outside of the cities: regions such as Galicia, with its valleys and cliffs, or Andalusia, with its barren rolling hills, or Rioja, with its vine-covered landscapes, or Malaga, with its jaw-dropping mountains… The list goes on.

17. You can't leave home without a scarf

Guys: want to fit in with the Spaniards? Then you'll have to get yourself a man-scarf. From casual observation, particularly in Andalusia, it appears that Spanish blokes consider themselves pretty much naked if they don't have something jazzy wrapped around their necks.

18. Only tourists eat before 9pm

Plenty of restaurants won't even open their doors before 8pm. If they do, you'll find there are two dinner seatings: the tourist seating, which starts at about 7pm, and the Spanish seating, which goes anywhere from 9pm until midnight. The Spanish like to go out late, and stay out late. You'll need to adjust your body clock accordingly. And embrace the siesta.

See also: Why San Sebastian is the holy trinity of food

19. Spaniards swear. A lot.

The longer you spend in Spain, the more of the language you understand, and the more you realise that plenty of what the locals are saying is fairly crass. The Spanish love to swear. Surely that's something we Australians could understand?

20. There are far better festivals than San Fermin and La Tomatina

While everyone knows about the Running of the Bulls and the big tomato fight, the best Spanish festivals are the ones you've probably never heard of. There's Semana Santa, or "Holy Week", during which huge street processions take place in every city; there's Las Fallas, a street parade and fire festival in Valencia; there's Moros y Cristianos, a recreation of an ancient battle in southern Valencia; and then there's Calcotada, a Catalan celebration of spring onions. Don't knock it till you try it.

See also: The best country in the world for food

See also: The world's scariest footpath reopens

Comments