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What you need to know before traveling to Spain

Posted on Posted in EXPAT, Home, Spain & Travel Resources

So we have all heard how Spain is this beautiful country with delicious food and wine, amazing festivals and traditions and a magnificent landscape dappled with historic buildings. (Which by the way are all true!). But there are always those funny things you hear rumors about, like the deep love of siestas (which is also true, but I would call it a way of life rather than a deep love). I came from North America to live in Spain, and let me tell you, things are different. As you would expect from a different country, but some things may require an understanding before you arrive to avoid any issues or misunderstandings.

Here I have put together the things I feel you need to know before you travel to Spain so that you can make the most of out your experience and adapt easier to the difference in culture.

 

SIESTAS ARE A REAL THING

Siesta is one very prevalent cultural aspect, and my suggestion is to take part, or you may find yourself in a ghost town. When 2 pm rolls around, most businesses close for lunch and siesta ( except restaurants, which open at that time!). They will return around 5 pm to reopen for a few more hours, but this is something foreigners have a hard time adjusting to. I get you, when you come from a place where napping seems to (unfortunately) only happen in preschool, and you really wanted just to go shopping and nothing seems to be open. It is a real concern, but the best thing I can do to help you is tell you that siestas are real, and if you just join in your relationship with the country will go much smoother.

 

PEOPLE SPEAK SPANISH

You might think, “duh Megan” but you would be surprised at how many people get frustrated when they cannot communicate properly in English. Do people visit your country expecting you to speak their native language which is foreign to you? No.

Yes English is popular, one of the top 5 most common in the world (but Spanish is on that list too). And although many people may take English courses they are still at a basic level, so be prepared to learn some Spanish yourself before you go and/or have a translating resource handy. This is especially true if you visit outside cities to smaller towns and villages. I have some resources on useful apps and phrases to help you with language barriers!

 

PICK POCKETING AND PETTY CRIME

This I feel is only a concern when you are in crowded areas of cities and festivals. This is not something only found in Spain and can happen anywhere in the world. But I am just going to tell you now keep your pockets empty and anything important or money under your clothes. They cannot pick pocket you through a t shirt. Travel light and just enjoy and you won’t have any worries when you hit the town!

 

THE SPANISH DO EVERYTHING LATER

Have a Spanish friend and you told him a certain time to meet? It is almost a social norm (annoying as it may be or not) to arrive late. You can expect them an hour AFTER the arranged time. Now, not every Spanish person is like this, but it is very common.

This also applies for eating or going out, which I feel is harder for foreigners to adjust. Don’t even dare think about entering the club before 4 AM!

 

THE EATING SCHEDULE IN SPAIN

North American Families have dinner around 6 pm, while Spanish start at 9. I have even gone out and had dinner at 11! This might be okay to avoid jet lag if you have that time difference, but I feel for those Northern European travelers who are starving to get into restaurants which won’t open their doors until at least 7 or 8 pm.

But, if you keep in mind the eating schedule in Spain, you can easily work it so you don’t get left stranded waiting for restaurants to open.

The Spanish have 5 meals throughout the day:

Breakfast (Desayuno) is typically a small pastry with your coffee. This is around 8 am.

Second Breakfast (Almuerzo) is typically a sandwich, and I won’t even say small. This is something substantial. I myself like to get some interesting savory pastries or flat breads at a local cafe for my second breakfast if I am out. This is around 10 to 11am. This is a crucial eating period for foreigners so that you do not starve waiting for restaurants to open for lunch next!

Now that you have had second breakfast you can make it to have a three course meal at lunch (La Comida). Lunch is normally at 2 pm, which is when restaurants will start opening and EVERYTHING ELSE closes so that everyone can go enjoy lunch! Lunch is my favourite thing to do in Spain as it is the biggest meal of the day– I love food – And basically every restaurant offers a 3 course menu including your wine or beer (o cervecita). At many you can get a good menu for around 10$.

After eating so much food for you lunch, you are going to need some time to relax and digest. Good thing everyone has closed for siesta so you can focus on absorbing that goodness you just ate!

After siesta you might want a snack (Merienda), or maybe not, but you totally can fit in a little more. This is when you would typically have a little snack and a tea to prepare your belly for the evening. This is around 5 pm.

Lastly we have dinner (La Cena). Since you just had a snack at 5 pm following a nap after a three course meal, waiting until 9 pm or later doesn’t seem so bad! Dinner may be a collection of tapas or maybe a proper entree. Either way, it is not a small meal, but probably won’t be as big as lunch!

 

THE DEAL WITH TIPPING IN SPAIN

There is some confusion over the tipping culture in Spain, so I am just going to clear this up now.

Spanish people DO tip their bartender and wait staff. It is just not a mandatory 15% like seen in North America. If you are in a heavy tourist destination they may add this service charge to your bill because they assume you come from a tipping country and are used to it- double win for the restaurant if you don’t realize the charge has been included in your bill and you tip again on top of it!

But the locals do not do this, and generally when they get a bill they just round up the change, normally leaving a euro or two for the staff ( depending on the size of your bill).

 

AUGUST IS NOT THE TIME TO VISIT SPAIN

Especially for a beach getaway. During the whole year each town, village and city has its traditions and festivals. But August , let me tell you, is when all of Spain takes their time to travel. They visit the best local beaches and towns. It is like a huge tourism month in Spain, completely from locals. It is hard to shop and move around in this time and because the temperature tends to be so ridiculously hot, the only place you want to be is the beach, and that is where the rest of Spain’s 46 million people are.

If you don’t like crowds, don’t travel to Spain in August.

 

THE SPANAIRDS HAVE SMALLER BUBBLES

This might sound weird, and probably only relevant if you want to start living, dating, or just really integrating into the culture. I had a hard time because people were very, let me say, touchy? Maybe I grew up a little cold (it was Canada after all), but I viewed things like placing a hand on the knee as a sexual advance, and talking close as being flirty. However, the general consensus in Spain is that these things are not sexual at all.

Now, I am not saying forget your boundaries while in Spain because touching is okay there. But what I am saying is it would be good to know that its normal in their culture. Instead of getting offended, just make clear what your personal boundaries are so that there is an understanding. Spanish culture is generally very liberal.



Did you experience any of these things? Leave a comment or let me know if I missed something!

30 thoughts on “What you need to know before traveling to Spain

  1. I think I might have found my spirit country. Five meals a day?!? That’s awesome. I would love a three-course-meal for lunch as well.
    Hahaha, I love that you had to specify that the Spanish don’t necessarily speak English. I remember being there and having so much fun trying to communicate with terrible Spanish (like three words) and then gestures for everything else.

  2. I have been to Spain a couple of times but there are so many things in this post that I wasn’t aware of. Some of them are so accurate haha

  3. I’ve never been to Spain, but it’s funny because these points can be applied to the other Spanish-speaking countries I’ve been to. All of them apply pretty much exactly to Costa Rica, where I spent a year. There’s not much talk of “siestas”, but come 12, 1, 2 you won’t find many shops open! And you definitely have to adjust to “tico time”, which basically means at least an hour later than planned (even big events like parades)!

    1. I remember tico time now that you mention it from my time in Costa Rica!

      It also applies to the Caribbean islands as well. They run on Island Time. How long is island time? No one knows!

  4. Great tips and I was nodding along to most of them! My Spanish is pretty rubbish, I have done a beginners course about 3 times now but still no better. Maybe need to add it to my bucket list! I have also travelled to South America and lots of these tips are relevant for there too

  5. 4 AM, no thanks! I must be getting old, the 19-year-old me is cringing right about now lol. Good tips on here. Spain is so on my list and am hoping to head there for a month in October!

    1. Yea, I am used to going to bed at 10-11 pm. And still mostly do! Although, it is directly after eating dinner. If you are going to be in the South East Corner let me know!

  6. Well, I’m Portuguese, right next door to Spain, so I really knew some of this cultural characteristics. All and all, Spain is a great country, with warm people and a great place to visit. 🙂

  7. I totally relate to the meal schedule thing. We’ve been in Europe for three months now and we were confused at first about why we were always the only ones in the restaurants!

  8. As a new arrival in Spain I agree completely with what you say so well, and a lot politer that I would have said it! If you can accept the above (As a Brit I get particularly annoyed at the being late thing) then it’s a great place to live, but I can understand why it sends some people nuts!

  9. Great info!! Spain is definitely on my list. I found a lot of similarities in Rome. It seemed a lot of businesses in the city closed down in the middle of the day, so we found ourselves going back to the hotel to rest. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I definitely experienced the Spanish eating schedule when I was there! It’s hard for me to get used to eating dinner at 9 PM because I prefer to eat at 7. But if you are snacking all day, it’s easier to get used to.

  11. We definitely experienced some of these cultural differences when going to Madrid. We were thrown off by the Siesta and the eating schedule but we got used to it once we knew the schedule. We never went to a club at 4am though, we’ll leave that. haha.

  12. It’s funny, a lot of these you really do NEED to know. I remember when I first went to Spain and thought the whole siesta thing wasn’t going to effect the flow of my travels, well I was wrong. Thanks for putting this together so others don’t made the mistakes I made!

  13. Never been to Spain but glad to know about all these info which you’ve shared! My Spanish is very poor. Maybe, I need to learn more before visiting there!

  14. Oh! I simply loved your post. How simple and easy you have made the things here for the first time traveler. Learning the language and knowing some of the local traditions before traveling always help.

  15. Having visited Spain two years back, I totally relate to all points you mentioned. Siesta and pick-pocketing are real, and I totally agree with the cultural traits. Still I love Spain and Spanish people!

  16. Very interesting post. I enjoyed learning more about Spanish culture. I didn’t know Spanish people ate 5 meals during the day! Thanks for the advice about not visiting Spain in August.

  17. These are fantastic tips! I haven’t visited Spain all that much but when I have I struggle to remember that the shops are closed for most of the afternoon! I could get used to 5 meals a day and siestas though – sounds brilliant!

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