Spain Travel Guide, is a diverse country sharing the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the country with the second-largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after Italy, and the largest number of World Heritage Cities.
Spain is considered an exotic country in Europe due to its friendly inhabitants, relaxed lifestyle, its cuisine, vibrant nightlife, and world-famous folklore and festivities. Among many places worth visiting are Spain’s thriving capital Madrid, the vibrant coastal city of Barcelona, the famous “Running of the Bulls” at Pamplona, major Andalusian cities with Islamic architecture, like Seville, Granada and Córdoba, the Way of St. James and the idyllic Balearic and Canary Islands.
Once the center of a global empire with territories in North, Central and South America, Africa (e.g. Equatorial Guinea or Western Sahara), and Asia (e.g. the Philippines), contemporary Spain has overcome civil war and fascism in the 20th century to stand proud and centered in itself.
Spain holds a historical attachment to its neighbors within the Iberian Peninsula, Andorra and Portugal, to its former colonies, to former citizens and their descendants, and to a special category of former citizens, namely Sephardic Jews.
Individuals from these categories may acquire Spanish citizenship in an accelerated fashion which may or may not require that the individuals reside in Spain, and residency requirements are as short as one to three years depending on the category. Citizens of countries in the European Union may acquire citizenship after living in Spain for five years. Citizens of any other country may acquire citizenship after residing in Spain for ten years.
The population of Spain is growing in large part due to migration from areas that have a historical or linguistic attachment to Spain, such as Latin America [e.g Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru ], Europe (mostly Eastern Europe), Africa and Asia.
Spain is divided into autonomías or autonomous regions, plus two independent cities. Some of the autonomías – notably the ones which have other official languages alongside Spanish – are regions with their own unique historical tradition. These include the Basque Country or Euskadi (Basque), Galicia (Galician), Catalonia or Catalunya, the Valencian region or Comunitat Valenciana, and the Balearic Islands or Illes Balears (Catalan), but also Andalusia. Travelers to these parts of the Iberian Peninsula should respect their history and language. The Canary Islands lie off the coast of Morocco and are geographically part of Africa, as are the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla.
Spain has hundreds of interesting cities. Here are nine of the most popular:
- Madrid — the vibrant capital, with fantastic museums, interesting architecure, great food and nightlife
- Barcelona — Spain’s second city, full of modernist buildings and a vibrant cultural life, nightclubs, and beaches
- Bilbao — industrial city, home to the Guggenheim Museum
- Cadiz — oldest city in Western Europe with nearly 4,000 years of history, celebrates a famous carnival
- Cordoba — The Grand Mosque (‘Mezquita’) of Cordoba is one of the world’s finest buildings
- Granada — stunning city in the south, surrounded by snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, home of La Alhambra
- Seville — a beautiful, verdant city, and home to the world’s third largest cathedral
- Valencia — paella was invented here, has a very nice beach
- Zaragoza — fifth largest city of Spain that held the World Expo in 2008
- Almeria — best natural beaches and great selection of “tapas”
- Costa Blanca — 200 km of white coast with plenty of beaches and small villages
- Costa Brava — the rugged coast with plenty of seaside resorts
- Costa del Sol — the sunny coast in the south of the country
- Gran Canaria — known as “a continent in miniature” due to its many different climates and landscapes
- Ibiza — a Balearic island; one of the best places for clubbing, raving, and DJs in the entire world
- La Rioja — Rioja wine and fossilized dinosaur tracks
- Mallorca — the largest island of the Balears, full of amazing beaches and great nightlife
- Sierra Nevada — the highest mountains on the Iberian Peninsula, great for walking and skiing
- Tenerife — offers lush forests, exotic fauna and flora, deserts, mountains, volcanoes, beautiful coastlines and spectacular beaches
Unsurprisingly, the official and universal language used in Spain is Spanish (español), but it is more complicated than that. It is part of the Romance family of languages (others include Portuguese, Galician, Catalan, Italian, Occitan, French, and Romanian) and is one of the main branches of that family. Many people, especially outside Castille, prefer to call it Castilian (castellano).
However, there are a number of languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Asturian, etc.) spoken in various parts of Spain. Some of these languages are dominant in their respective regions, and, following their legalization in the 1978 constitution, they are co-official with Castilian in their respective areas. Of these, Catalan, Basque and Galician are recognised as official languages according to the Spanish constitution. In the Basque Country and Catalonia, Spanish is more widely spoken than Basque and Catalan, but the regional governments try and encourage the use of both languages in their respective regions. Apart from Basque (whose origins are still debated), the languages of the Iberian Peninsula are part of the Romance family and are fairly easy to pick up if you know Castilian well. While locals in those also speak Spanish fluently, learning a few words in the local languages where you are traveling will help endear you to the locals. Galician is the only language which has a native majority in its region. All Spaniards are functionally bilingual and no-one should have problems communicating in Spanish.
- Catalan (Catalan: català, Castilian: catalán), a distinct language similar to Castilian but more closely related to the Oc branch of the Romance Languages and considered by many to be part of a dialect continuum spanning across Spain, France, and Italy and including the other langues d’oc such as Provençal, Beàrnais, Limousin, Auvernhat and Niçard. Various dialects are spoken in the northeastern region of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia (where it is often referred to as Valencià), east of Aragon, as well as neighboring Andorra and southern France. To a casual listener, Catalan superficially appears to be a cross of Castilian and French, and though it does share features of both, it is an independent language in its own right.
- Galician (Galician: galego, Castilian: gallego), very closely related to Portuguese, Galician is spoken in Galicia and the western portion of Asturias. Galician predates Portuguese and is deemed one of the four main dialects of the Galician-Portuguese family group which includes Brazilian, Southern Portuguese, Central Portuguese, and Galician. While the Portuguese consider it a dialect of Portuguese, Galicians themselves consider their language their own language.
- Basque (Basque: euskara, Castilian: vasco), a language unrelated to Castilian (or any other known language in the world), is spoken in the three provinces of the Basque Country, on the two adjacent provinces on the French side of the Spain-French border, and in Navarre. Basque is unrelated to any Romance language or to any branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It currently remains unclassified and is deemed a linguistic isolate.
- Asturiano (Asturiano: asturianu, Castilian: asturiano, also known as bable), spoken in the province of Asturias, where it enjoys semi-official protection. It was also spoken in rural parts of Leon, Zamora, Salamanca, in a few villages in Portugal (where it is called Mirandes) and in villages in the extreme north of Extremadura. While the constitution of Spain explicitly protects Basque, Balearic-Catalan-Valencian under the term Catalan, Galician, and Castilian, it does not explicitly protect Asturian. Still, the province of Asturias explicitly protects it, and Spain implicitly protects it by not objecting before the Supreme Court.
- Aragonese (Aragonese: aragonés, Castilian: aragonés, also known colloquially as fabla), spoken in the north of Aragon. It is only vaguely recognized and not official (as of June 2008). This language is close to Catalan (specially in Benasque) and to Castilian, with some Basque and Occitan (southern France) influences. Nowadays, only a few villages near the Pyrenees use the language vigorously, while most people mix it with Castilian in their daily speech.
- Aranese (Castilian: Aranés, Catalan/Aranese Occitan: Aranès), spoken in the Aran Valley and recognized as an official language of Catalonia (not of Spain), alongside Catalan and Castilian. This language is a variety of Gascon Occitan, and as such is very closely related to Provençal, Limousin, Languedoc, and Catalan.
In addition to the native languages, English and French are commonly studied in school. While most younger Spaniards have studied English in school, due to a lack of practice and exposure, proficiency is generally poor, and most people will not know more than a few basic words. If you are lost, your best bet would generally be young urban people. To improve your chances of being understood, stick to simple words and avoid long sentences.
That being said, airlines, major hotels and popular tourist destinations usually have staff members who speak an acceptable level of English, and particularly in popular beach resorts such as those in the Costa del Sol, you will find people who are fluent in several languages. English is also generally more widely spoken in Barcelona than in the rest of the country. As Portuguese and Italian are closely related to Spanish, if you speak either of these languages, locals would be able to puzzle you out with some difficulty, and as long as you speak slowly, you won’t need an interpreter for the most part.
Castillian Spanish differs from the Latin American varieties in pronunciation and other details. There is also a pronoun (“vosotros”, literally “you others”, used to address a group of two or more people in the second person) and its associated verb conjugations, not used in Latin American Spanish. However, all Latin American varieties are easily understood by Spaniards, and are recognized simply as different versions of one language by the Royal Spanish Academy, the barometer for all things Spanish language. While some Spaniards believe theirs is the more ‘pure’ version of Spanish, most Spaniards recognize the reality that there is no ‘pure’ Spanish, even within their own country.
French is the most widely understood foreign language in the northeast of Spain, like Alquezar and Cap de Creus (at times even better than English), as most travelers there come from France.
Locals will appreciate any attempts you make to speak their language. For example, know at least the Castilian for “good morning” (buenos días) and “thank you” (gracias).
The most popular beaches are the ones in the Mediterranean coasts and the Canary Islands. Meanwhile, for hiking, the mountains of Sierra Nevada in the south, the Central Cordillera and the northern Pyrenees are the best places.
- Via de la Plata Route Historic 800km route from Gijón to Sevilla.
- Way of St. James
Historically, Spain has been an important crossroads: between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, between North Africa and Europe, and as Europe beginning colonizing the New World, between Europe and the Americas. As such, the country is blessed with a fantastic collection of historical landmarks – in fact, it has the 2nd largest number of UNESCO Heritage Sites and the largest number of World Heritage Cities of any nation in the world.
In the south of Spain, Andalusia holds many reminders of old Spain. Cadiz is regarded as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in western Europe, with remnants of the Roman settlement that once stood here. Nearby, Ronda is a beautiful town situated atop steep cliffs and noted for its gorge-spanning bridge and the oldest bullring in Spain. Cordoba and Granada hold the most spectacular reminders of the nation’s Muslim past, with the red-and-white striped arches of the Mezquita in Cordoba and the stunning Alhambra palace perched on a hill above Granada. Seville, the cultural center of Andalusia, has dazzling collections of sights built when the city was the main port for goods from the Americas, the grandest of which being the city’s cathedral, the largest in the country.
Moving north across the plains of La Mancha into Central Spain, picturesque Toledo stands as perhaps the historical center of the nation, a beautiful medieval city sitting atop a hill that once served as the capital of Spain before Madrid was built. North of Madrid and an easy day-trip from the capital city is El Escorial, once the center of the Spanish empire during the time of the Inquisition, and Segovia, noted for its spectacular Roman aqueduct which spans one of the city’s squares.
Further north in Castile-Leon is Salamanca, known for its famous university and abundance of historic architecture. Galicia in northwestern Spain is home to Santiago de Compostela, the end point of the old Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrimage route and the supposed burial place of St. James, with perhaps the most beautiful cathedral in all of Spain at the heart of its lovely old town. Northeastern Spain has a couple of historical centers to note: Zaragoza, with Roman, Muslim, medieval and Renaissance buildings from throughout its two thousand years of history, and Barcelona with its medieval Barri Gòtic neighborhood.
Visitors should be aware of the limited hours and likely entrance fees at many historic Spanish churches. With entry fees averaging €8, families will need to take the expense of religious sightseeing in Spain into account. Another important consideration when planning your trip to Spain are the limited hours of access to Spanish churches. Unlike neighbouring countries Italy, France and Germany, churches in Spain are only open for mass once or twice a day and thus, only open to the local worshipping population. While large cathedrals are open all day, these only represent some of the significant christian legacy of Spain. When combined with the high entry prices and bans on photography levied against you to visit most of the large cathedrals of the country, a trip to Spain to indulge yourself in Christian history can be challenging.
Spain has played a key role in Western art, heavily influenced by French and Italian artists but very distinct in its own regard, owing to the nation’s history of Muslim influence, Counter-Reformation climate and, later, the hardships from the decline of the Spanish empire, giving rise to such noted artists like El Greco, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya. In the last century, Spain’s unique position in Europe brought forth some of the leading artists of the Modernist and Surrealist movements, most notably the famed Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
Today, Spain’s two largest cities hold the lion’s share of Spain’s most famous artworks. Madrid’s Museum Triangle is home to the Museo del Prado, the largest art museum in Spain with many of the most famous works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya as well as some notable works by Italian, Flemish, Dutch and German masters. Nearby sits the Reina Sofía, most notable for holding Picasso’s Guernica but also containing a number of works by Dalí and other Modernist, Surrealist and abstract painters.
Barcelona is renowned for its stunning collection of modern and contemporary art and architecture. This is where you will find the Picasso Museum, which covers the artist’s early career quite well, and the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudi, with their twisting organic forms that are a delight to look at. A day trip from Barcelona is the town of Figueres, noted for the Salvador Dalí Museum, designed by the Surrealist himself.
Outside of Madrid and Barcelona, the art museums quickly dwindle in size and importance, although there are a couple of worthy mentions that should not be looked over: Many of El Greco’s most famous works lie in Toledo, an easy day trip from Madrid. The Disrobing of Christ, perhaps El Greco’s most famous work, sits in the Cathedral, but you can also find work by him in one of the small art museums around town. Bilbao in the Basque Country of northern Spain is home to a spectacular Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry that has put the city on the map.
Spain has a lot of local festivals that are worth going to.
- Feria de Abril (Sevilla in April/May) – Best fair in the whole Iberian peninsula that attracts thousands of people from all over the world. If you enjoy folklore, flamenco, dancing and drinking, this is your place.
- Sevilla’s & Málaga’s Semana Santa (Easter) – worth seeing. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Lots of processions occur within that week. Holy week (Easter Week) – best in Seville and the rest of Andalusia; also interesting in Valladolid (silent processions) and Zaragoza (where hundreds of drums are played in processions)
- Córdoba en Mayo (Cordoba in May) – great month to visit the Southern city
- Las Cruces (1st week in May) – big flower-made crosses embellishing public squares in the city center, where you will also find at night music and drinking and lot of people having fun!
- Festival de Patios – one of the most interesting cultural exhibitions, 2 weeks when some people open doors of their houses to show their old Patios full of flowers
- Arde Lucus – biggest roman recreation festival of Europe, all inside the walled city of Lugo, UNESCO World Heritage. Last weekend on Juny.
- Cata del Vino Montilla-Moriles – great wine tasting in a big tent in the city center during one week in May
- Dia de Sant Jordi – The Catalan must, in April 23th Barcelona is embellished with roses everywhere and book-selling stands can be found in the Rambla. There are also book signings, concerts and diverse animations.
- Fallas – Valencia’s festival in March – burning the “fallas” is a must
- Málaga’s August Fair – flamenco dancing, drinking sherry, bullfights
- San Fermines – July in Pamplona, Navarra.
- Fiesta de San Isidro – May 15 in Madrid – a celebration of Madrid’s patron saint.
- Carnival – best in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Cádiz
- Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos (Three wise men parade) – on the eve of epiphany, 5th of January, the night before Spanish kids get their Christmas presents, it rains sweets and toys in every single town and city
- San Sebastian International Film Festival – held annually in San Sebastian, a gorgeous city in the Basque Country, towards the end of September
- La Tomatina – a giant tomato fight in Buñol
- Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians, mostly found in Southeastern Spain during spring time) – parades and “battles” remembering the fights of medieval ages
- 85 festivals in Galicia throughout the year from wine to wild horses.
Spain has the euro (EUR, €) as its sole currency along with 23 other countries that use this common European money. These 23 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. Together, these countries have a population of 327 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
The euro replaced the Spanish peseta in 2002. A few people may still use the old national currency (166,386 pts = 1 €, 1.000 pts = 6 €) and convert into Euros later. This is much due to the huge presence of peseta, and “her” many nicknames in colloquial Spanish.
Cash euro: €500 banknotes are not accepted in many stores–always have alternative banknotes.
Other currencies: Do not expect anybody to accept other types of currency, or to be willing to exchange currency. Exceptions are shops and restaurants at airports. These will generally accept at least US Dollars at a slightly worse exchange rate.
If you wish to exchange money, you can do so at any bank (some may require that you have an account there before they will exchange your money), where you can also cash in your traveller’s cheques. Currency exchanges, once a common sight, have all but disappeared since the introduction of the Euro. Again, international airports are an exception to this rule; other exception is tourist districts in the large cities (Barcelona, Madrid).
Credit cards: Credit cards are well accepted: even in a stall at La Boqueria market in Barcelona, on an average highway gas station in the middle of the country, or in small towns like Alquezar. It’s more difficult to find a place where credit card is not accepted in Spain.
Most ATMs will allow you to withdraw money with your credit card, but you’ll need to know your card’s PIN for that. Most Spanish stores will ask for ID before accepting your credit card. Some stores may not accept a foreign driving license or ID card and you will need to show your passport. This measure is designed to help avoid credit card fraud.
The Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine. Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish. The Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies only on the use of high quality ingredients to give a good taste. As such, you may find Spanish food bland at times but there are usually a variety of restaurants in most cities (Italian, Chinese, American fast food) if you would like to experience a variety of flavors.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner times
Spaniards have a different eating timetable than many people are used to.
The key thing to remember for a traveler is:
- breakfast (el desayuno) for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (like a graham cracker) or magdalena (sweet muffin-like bread). Later, some will go to a cafe for a pastry midmorning, but not too close to lunchtime.
- “el aperitivo” is a light snack eaten around 12:00. However, this could include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a “pincho de tortilla”.
- lunch (el almuerzo) starts at 13:30-14:30 (though often not until 15:00) and was once typically followed by a short siesta, usually at summer when temperatures can be quite hot in the afternoon. This is the main meal of the day with two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 17:00 at the latest. However, since life has become busier, there is no opportunity for a siesta.
- dinner (la cena) starts at 20:30 or 21, with most clientèle coming after 21. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 21:00 and most customers do not appear before 22:00.
- there is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called la merienda. It is similar to a tea time and is taken around 18 or so.
- between the lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes are closed, and it takes extra effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time. Despite this, you can always look for a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches, which can be filled with ham, cheese or any kind of embutido, and bocadillos calientes, hot sandwiches, filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and similar options with cheese. This can be a really cheap and tasty option if you find a good place.
The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars as tapas, which are a bit like “starters” or “appetizers”, but are instead considered side orders to accompany your drink. Some bars will offer a wide variety of different tapas; others specialize on a specific kind (like seafood-based). A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink at a bar, then go to the next bar and do the same. A group of two or more individuals may order two or more tapas or order raciones instead, which are a bit larger in order to share.
Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and Burger King only in bigger towns in the usual places. The menu can be a surprise since it has been customized to appeal to the locals and beer, salads, yogurt (primarily Danone), and wine are prominent. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns but it can be their own homegrown franchises, such as TelePizza. In spite of beer and wine on the menu, fast food is often seen as “kiddie food.” American franchises generally charge higher prices than in the United States, and fast food is not necessarily the cheapest alternative for eating out.
Seafood: on a seacoast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. In the inner regions, frozen (and poor quality) seafood can be frequently encountered outside few highly reputed (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially on the north Atlantic coast.
Quality seafood in Spain comes from Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia. So restaurants with the words Gallego (Galician) will generally specialize in seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you might want to try the Galician regional specialty Pulpo a la Gallega, which is boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is Sepia which is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of Calamares (squid) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that isn’t your style you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present Paella dishes.
Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain has maintained quite a high percentage of free range animals.
Ordering beef steaks is highly recommended, since most comes from free range cows from the mountains north of the city.
The presa ibérica, being “Iberico black pig shoulder blade cooked medium-rare and served with pea purée”
Pork cuts which are also highly coveted are those known as Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico, an absolute must if found in the menu of any restaurant.
Soups: choice of soups beyond gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
Water is frequently served without a specific request, and is normally charged for–unless it’s included in your menu del dia. If you would like free tap water instead of bottled water, request “agua del grifo” (water from the tap). However, not all restaurants will offer this and you may be forced to order bottled water.
Appetizers such as bread, cheese, and other items may be brought to your table even if you didn’t order them. You will be charged for them. If you do not want these appetizers, politely inform the waiter that you do not want them.
Tipping is not observed in Spain so don’t tip (unless there was something absolutely exceptional about the service). As a result, people from countries where tipping is the norm (primarily the US) may find that waiters are not as attentive or courteous since they don’t work for tips. This is less true in major resorts and cities where tipping is common. Look around at other diners to assess if tipping is appropriate.
World-level restaurants: There are several restaurants in Spain which are destinations in itself, becoming a sole reason to travel to a specific city. One of them is El Bulli in Roses.
Typical Spanish dishes include:
- Aceitunas, Olivas: Olives, often served for nibbling.
- Bocadillo de Calamares: Fried battered calamari served in a ciabatta sandwich with lemon juice.
- Boquerones en vinagre: Anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley.
- Caracoles: Snails in a hot sauce.
- Calamares en su tinta: Squid in its ink.
- Chipirones a la plancha: Grilled little squids.
- Churros: A fried horn-shaped snack, sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut. Typical for a Spanish breakfast or for tea time. Served with hot chocolate drink.
- Empanadas Gallegas: Meat or tuna pies are also very popular in Madrid. Originally from region of Galicia.
- Ensaladilla Rusa (Russian Salad): This potato salad dish of Russian origin, widely consumed in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is strangely enough, extremely popular in Spain.
- Fabada asturiana: Bean stew from Asturias.
- Gambas al ajillo: Prawns with garlic and chili. Fantastic hot stuff.
- Gazpacho Andaluz: Cold vegetable soup. Best during the hot weather. It’s like drinking a salad.
- Lentejas: A dish made from lentils with chorizo sausage and/or Serrano ham.
- Mariscos: Shellfish from the province of Pontevedra.
- Merluza a la Vizcaina: The Spanish are not very fond of sauces. One of the few exceptions is merluza a la Vasca. The dish contains hake (fish of the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
- Potajes or pucheros: Garbanzo beans stew at its best
- Paella or Paella Valenciana: This is a rice dish originally from Valencia. Rice is grown locally in what look like wheat fields, and this is the variety used in paella. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron (el azafran). Nowadays varieties of paella can be found all over Spain, many containing seafood. Locals suggest to find true paella in large parties like a wedding in a village, but few restaurants still can compete with it.
- Patatas Bravas: Fried potatoes which have been previously boiled, served with a patented spicy sauce. They are potatoes cut in form of dices or prism, of one to two centimeters of size approximately and that they are fried in oil and accompanied by a sharp sauce that spills on potatoes using hot spices. The name of this plate comes from its sharp flavor, indicating that it has fire or temperament, recalling the first operation of I goad in which a goad nails to him so that he is brave in the bullfight.
- Pescaíto frito: Delicious fried fish that can be found mainly in southern Spain
- Pimientos rellenos: Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. The peppers in Spain taste different than all other peppers in Europe.
- Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos: Chick pea stew with spinach. Typical of Seville.
- Revuelto de ajetes con setas: Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic sprouts and wild mushrooms. Also commonly contains shrimps.
- Setas al ajillo/Gambas al ajillo: Shrimps or wild mushrooms fried in garlic.
- Sepia con alioli: Fried cuttlefish with garlic mayonnaise. Very popular among tourists.
- Tortilla de patatas: Spanish egg omelet with fried potato. Probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily assess how good a restaurant is by having a small piece of its potato tortillas. Frequently it is made also with onion, depending on the zone or the pleasure. The potatoes must be fried in oil (preferably of olive), and they are left soaking with the scrambled egg for more than 10 minutes, although better if it is average hour so that they are soaked and they acquire the suitable consistency.
Tea and Coffee
Spanish people are very passionate about the quality, intensity and taste of their coffee and good freshly brewed coffee is available almost everywhere.
The usual choices are solo, the milk-less espresso version; cortado, solo with a dash of milk; con leche, solo with milk added; and manchado, coffee with lots of milk (sort of like the French cafe au lait). Asking for caffee latte will likely result in less milk than you are used to–it’s always OK to ask for adding extra milk.
Regional variants can be found, such as bombón in Eastern Spain, solo with condensed milk.
Starbucks is the only national chain operating in Spain. Locals argue that it cannot compete with small local cafes in quality of coffee and it’s frequented mostly by tourists, thought it has become somewhat popular with young “hip” people. It is not present in smaller cities but it’s basically everywhere in Barcelona or Madrid.
Café de Jamaica offers many kinds of coffee as well as infusions.
Bracafe that means ‘brasilian coffee’ offers high quality coffee.
If you eat for €20 per dinner, you will never be served a good tea; expect Pompadour or Lipton. It takes some effort to find a good tea if you spend most time of the day in touristy places.
The drinking age in Spain is 18. People under this age are forbidden to drink and buy alcoholic drinks, although enforcement in tourist and clubbing areas is lax. Drinking in the streets has recently been banned (although it is still a common practice in most nightlife areas).
Try an absinthe cocktail (the fabled liquor was never outlawed here, but it is not a popular drink in Spain).
Probably one of the best places to meet people in Spain is in bars. Everyone visits them and they are always busy and sometimes bursting with people. There is no age restriction imposed to enter these premises. but children and teenagers often will not be served alcoholic drinks. Age restrictions for the consumption of alcohol are clearly posted at bars but are enforced only intermittently. It is common to see an entire family at a bar.
It’s important to know the difference between a pub (which closes at 3-3:30 a.m.) and a club (which opens until 6-8 a.m. but is usually deserted early in the night).
On weekends, the time to go out for copas (drinks) usually starts at about 11 p.m.-1 a.m. which is somewhat later than in North and Central Europe. Before that, people usually do any number of things, have some tapas (raciones, algo para picar), eat a “real” dinner in a restaurant, stay at home with family, or go to cultural events. If you want to go dancing, you will find that most of the clubs in Madrid are relatively empty before midnight (some do not even open until 1 a.m.) and most won’t get crowded until 3 a.m. People usually go to pubs, then go to the clubs until 6-8 a.m.
For a true Spanish experience, after a night of dancing and drinking it is common to have a breakfast of chocolate con churros with your friends before going home. (CcC is a small cup of thick, melted chocolate served with freshly fried sweet fritters used for dipping in the chocolate and should be tried, if only for the great taste.)
Bars are mainly to have drink and a small tapa while socializing and decompressing from work or studies. Usually Spaniards can control their alcohol consumption better than their northern European neighbors and drunken people are rarely seen at bars or on the streets. A drink, if ordered without an accompanying tapa, is often served with a “minor” or inexpensive tapa as a courtesy.
Size and price of tapas changes a lot throughout Spain. For instance, it’s almost impossible to get free tapas in big cities like Valencia or Barcelona, excluding Madrid where there are several Tapa Bars althought some times are a bit expensive. You can eat for free (just paying for the drinks), with huge tapas and cheap prices at cities like Granada, Badajoz or Salamanca.
The tapa, and the related pincho, trace their existence in Spain to both acting as a cover (“Tapa”) on top of a cup of wine to prevent flies from accessing it, and as a requirement of law when serving wine at an establishment during the middle ages.
The Spanish beer is not too bad and well worth a try. Most popular local brands include San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Estrella Damm, Ámbar, Estrella de Galicia, Moritz, Keller and many others, including local brands at most cities; import beers are also available. A great beer is ‘Mezquita’ (Cervezas Alhambra), try to find it! Also “Legado de Yuste” is one of the best beer made in Spain, and is quite extended, but more expensive than a normal ‘caña’. Most brands offer non-alcoholic beer.
In Spain, beer is often served from a tap in 25 cl (“caña”) or 33 cl (“tubo”) tube glasses. Bigger servings are rare, but you can also ask for a “corto”, “zurito” (round the Basque country) or simply “una cerveza” or “tanque” (south of the country) to get a half size beer, perfect to drink in one go and get quickly to the next bar while having tapas.
If you’re in Zaragoza (or Aragon, in general), the Pilsner-type Ambar (5.2% alc.) and the stronger Export (double malt, 7.0% alc.) are available. Ambar 1900: Its production began in 1996. The system of fermentation to room temperature is used. Marlen is a beer of traditional manufacture using malted barley and hops.
Particularly on hot summer days people will drink a refreshing “clara” which is a light beer mixed with lemon/lemonade.
Cava is Spanish sparkling wine and the name went from Spanish Champagne to Cava was after a long lasting dispute with the French. The Spanish called it for a long time champan, but the French argued that champagne can be made only from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France. Nevertheless, Cava is a quite successful sparkling wine and 99% of the production comes from the area around Barcelona.
Sangria is drink made of wine and fruits and usually is made from simple wines. You will find sangria in areas frequented by tourists. Spanish prepare sangria for fiestas and hot summer, and not every day as seen in touristic regions like Mallorca.
Sangria in restaurants aimed for foreigners are best avoided, but it is a very good drink to try if a Spaniard prepares it for a fiesta!
A milky non-alcoholic drink made of tigernuts and sugar. Alboraia, a small town close to Valencia, is regarded as a best place where horchata is produced.
Spain is a country with great wine-making and drinking traditions: 22% of Europe’s wine growing area is in Spain, however the production is about half of what the French produce.
Regions: most famous wines come from Rioja region, less known but also important come from Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro and Jumilla . The latter are becoming more and more popular and are slightly less expensive than Rioja wines. White, rose and red wines are produced, but the red wines are certainly the most important ones.
Grapes: main red grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell and Mencia. Primary white grape used is Albarino, and the grapes used in Jerez are: ‘Pedro Ximenez and Palomino.
Specific names: Valdepenas is good value for money. Whites: Belondrade Y Lurton is regarded as greatest white wine in Spain. Vina Sol is good as a mass product, with fruity taste.
Grades: Spanish quality wines are produced using an aging process and they have been in a oak barrel for at least one year before they can be labeled Crianza and then spend another two years in a bottle before been sold. Reservas are aged for five years and Gran Reservas are aged for 10 years.
Prices: Spain has seen a tremendous rise in wine prices over the last decade and Spanish wines are not as much of a bargain as they used to be. However you will still find 5, 10 and 20 year old wines at affordable prices especially when compared with similar quality wines from Australia, Chile, France, and the US.
Wine bars: they are more and more popular. In short, a wine bar is a sophisticated tapas bar where you can order wine by the glass. You will immediately see a blackboard with the wines that are available and the price per glass.
In a bar: for red wine in a bar, ask “un tinto por favor”, for white wine “un blanco por favor”, for rose: “un rosado por favor”.
Wine-based drinks: young people in Spain have developed their own way to have wine. When having botellones (big outdoor parties with drink and lots of people), most of them mix some red wine with Coke and drink it straight from the Coke bottle. The name of this drink is calimocho or kalimotxo (in the Basque Country and Navarre) and is really very popular… But don’t ask for it while in an upper class bar or among adults, since they will most certainly not approve of the idea! As a general rule, any wine that comes in a glass bottle is considered “too good” to make kalimotxo.
Many foreign visitors stay in hotels that have been organised by tour operators who offer package holidays to the popular resorts on the costas and islands. However, for the independent traveller, there are hotels all over the country in all categories and to suit every budget. In fact, due to the well developed internal and foreign tourism markets Spain may well be one of the best served European countries in terms of numbers and quality of hotels.
A parador (inn) is a state-owned hotel in Spain (rating from 3 to 5 stars). These are a chain of hotels founded in 1928 by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII. The unique aspects of paradores are their location and their history. Found mostly in historical buildings, such as convents, Moorish castles (like La Alhambra), or haciendas, paradores are the exact opposite of the uncontrolled development found in coastal regions like the Costa del Sol. Hospitality has been harmoniously integrated with the restoration of castles, palaces and convents, rescuing from ruin and abandonment monuments representative of Spain’s historical and cultural heritage.
For example the parador in Santiago de Compostela is located next to the Cathedral in a former royal hospital built in the year 1499. Rooms are decorated in an old-fashioned way, but nevertheless have modern facilities. Other notable paradores are in Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda, Santillana del Mar (Altamira cave) as well as more than 100 other destination all over Spain.
Paradores serve breakfast (about €10) and often have very good local cuisine typical of their region (about €25).
Accommodation prices are good value, when you consider that the hotels are often found in the heart of scenic areas, varying from €85 for a double room to €245 for a twin room (like in Granada). Two of the most beautiful paradors are in Léon and Santiago de Compostela.
There are some promotions available:
- Over 60 year olds can enjoy a discount.
- Youngsters under 30 can visit the paradors at a 10% discount. The discount also applies to companions over 30.
- Two nights half board have a discount of 20%.
- A dreamweek of 6 nights is cheaper.
- 5 nights at €42 per person.
The promotions do not always apply, especially in August they are not valid, and may require advance bookings.