Spain is an incredible country, perhaps my favorite in Europe. It is a place you should definitely visit. But what do you need to know before going? What tidbits will help you get a feel for the culture, and for differences from life back home?
I have prepared just a short list of things you definitely need to know before going to Spain!
1. The Spanish keep much different hours from what we do in the US
Let’s start with the morning. The Spanish (for the most part) are not people who are up and out of the house and off to work by 8 or 9. Sleep in a bit, have a coffee… life moves a little slower here and if a store isn’t open at 9, maybe it will be by 10… or 11…
Moving to the afternoon, many Spanish still practice the art of the siesta, a nap – or at least time off – in the afternoon, roughly from 2-4. Shops may be closed during this time, and even some tourist sites close for siesta.
Spanish nights run late, and dinner is incredibly late by American standards. It is not uncommon for dinner service to only begin in restaurants at 8, or even later. So, if you want to keep general American hours, you’ll need to rely on…
Tapas are small plates of food. They can be found pretty much everywhere in Spain. Some places have extensive menus; others only offer a few specialties. Some places will give you a free tapa with the purchase of a drink; others will not. Regardless, prices tend to be good, and service fast, though you can expect to be served at a bar, or be standing somewhere as places can be very crowded. But if you want the only food option (outside fast food and the like) available before 8, tapas is your best bet. It is also probably the best food you’ll find, though some things can be weird. Ask the waiter or bartender for recommendations, and a wine to pair.
3. Summers are HOT
Ever wonder where the siesta came from? It was originally meant to escape the heat of the afternoon, and for good reason. Summers in Spain are hot, everywhere, but especially places at lower elevations and inland. Seville was designed with narrow streets and buildings basically on top of each other in order to provide shade from the summer sun. It’s a thing, and you’d best be prepared for it.
These narrow streets in Sevilla help to create shade
4. Spanish pronunciation may not be what you are used to
Here in the US, we hear mostly Mexican – or another Latin country’s – Spanish. That’s also what we teach, albeit poorly, in school here. In Spain, they speak Castilian Spanish, as well as a number of regional languages, some of which, like Catalan, share enough commonality with Spanish that one can at least understand if one speaks Spanish. But think of the difference between Mexican and Castilian Spanish as the difference between American and Irish English. It can be a challenge to comprehend at first, especially when colloquialisms are thrown in. If you only speak what we teach here, you’ll be fine, but you may get asked to repeat some things. (If you are like me and only know a few phrases in Spanish, you’ll be in trouble regardless, although English is widely understood, especially in the larger cities.)
5. Spain is made up of different “nationalities”
Think of Spain as similar to the UK, a group of formerly independent – though in many cases, not all – ethnically closely related peoples who have been combined into a single country, but still keep many of their nationalistic identities. The most famous are Catalonia, which has had a recent independence movement and associated drama, and the Basque territories, which have had periods of highly elevated conflict in their quest for independence. These aren’t the only ones, though, and it’s an issue that Spain has had, and will have for a long time. What does it mean for you as a tourist? You’ll encounter different languages and customs as you travel around the country, see different flags, and occasionally find yourself in a demonstration either for unity or independence. Just be careful, and try not to make definitive statements that will offend one side or the other.
A Catalonian flag in Barcelona
6. The Catholic monarchs
How did Spain come to be, then, since it contains so many distinct groups? Ferdinand and Isabella unified the country through marriage and conquest in 1492. They are beloved in Spain, called the Catholic monarchs, and saying bad things about them won’t go well. So while we know that they also established the inquisition, forcibly converted or expelled all non-Catholics, and were otherwise violent and lousy people, we can’t really say those things in Spain. Likewise for Christopher Columbus, who is still celebrated for finding the wrong continent and killing/enslaving its inhabitants. His tomb in Seville is stunning, though.
Columbus’ tomb. Photos weren’t allowed at Ferdinand and Isabella’s.
7. Uber does not exist in Catalonia
This one doesn’t need much explaining. Uber doesn’t exist in Catalonia. They use Cabify, or just normal taxis. In the rest of the country you are normally fine using Uber, though.
8. Trains are a rough go, unless you are going to Madrid
Spain has a wonderful high-speed rail network… as long as you are going to/from Madrid. It is the center point in the wheel/spoke system. If you are going between any two other places, including the Barcelona-Valencia corridor – one of the most industrial and populous regions in the country – you’ll be on a slow train, or no train at all. I had to take an all-day bus from Granada to Valencia because to take the train would have meant going into Madrid and back out.
Spain is an amazing place, but these things are things I wish I’d known before going there. Hopefully they help you!
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