Spain Travel Guide: Overview
Why exactly is Spain one of the most visited countries in the world? How does it attract tens of millions of tourists every year? It’s easy to see why once you start unpacking all Spain has to offer. Plenty come for the numerous beaches and sunny climate; others make the trip for the jewel of Barcelona and its incredible architecture, natural beauty and thriving cultural scene. Madrid, the large capital city, is surprisingly easy to navigate due to its expansive public transportation networks, and it charms many visitors with its abundance of great restaurants, renowned museums and vibrant nightlife. The southern province of Andalucía contains some of the most cherished architectural and historical locations in all of Europe, including the world-famous palace and fortress of La Alhambra. Here you’ll find the cities of Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, Malaga and Ronda, to name a few, and you’ll see the unmistakable Islamic influence from centuries of Moorish rule that impacts everything from architecture to food to language.
Spain also offers the less-visited yet beautiful Galicia region in the northwest, charming Basque villages that serve up some of the continent’s best cuisine, snowy mountains, medieval towns and countless wine-growing regions. Given all this, it becomes clear why Spain draws so many in—and why it casts such a strong spell over all who visit.
A couple centuries ago, Spain was a dominant colonial power that, after hundreds of years of conquest, had territories spanning the entire globe. Much of the western hemisphere was under its control, and Spain was expanding its reach into parts of Africa (Western Sahara, Equatorial Guinea and Morocco) and Asia (Philippines). Near the end of the 1800s, however, independence had come to most of Spain's colonies in the Americas, and after the Spanish-American War of 1898 (known as the “Disaster” throughout Spain), nearly all of its colonial empire was gone.
The 20th century brought with it new challenges. The Second Spanish Republic was established, which ushered in a period of authoritarian rule under General Miguel Primo de Rivera, as well as increased political autonomy for Catalonia, Galicia and Basque Country, Spain's linguistically distinct regions. In 1936, a civil war broke out, and three years later, Francisco Franco, the victorious leader of the Nationalist forces, took charge of the country and quickly became a dictator. Franco's authoritarian rule lasted for decades, finally ending with his death in 1975.
Escaping dictatorship allowed the country to make significant political changes, to develop its economy and to integrate with the rest of the continent. In 1982, Spain joined NATO; in 1986, it joined the European Economic Community (later, the European Union), and in 2002, it fully adopted the Euro as its currency. A construction and property boom meant the economy grew rapidly in the early 2000s, but the 2008 financial crisis hit the country hard. After a slow recovery, tourism in Spain today is booming, and travelers are rapidly discovering all its beautiful sights, scenic countryside, dynamic cities and vibrant culture.
After spending time in Spain, something becomes abundantly clear: Spaniards know how to enjoy life. The pace here is delightfully slower, and the hours are later—especially compared to other nations in Western Europe. Spaniards are notorious for staying up late and enjoying their thriving nightlife. Most restaurants don't open for dinner until after 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., and it isn't unusual for Spaniards to sit down to a leisurely dinner at midnight, especially on the weekends. The siesta culture—where businesses close for a few hours in the early afternoon before reopening in the evening—is not as dominant as it used to be, but it's still apparent in many places, especially during the heat of summer. Combine all this with a sunny, warm climate and delicious food and wine, and it's clear there’s some truth to the laid-back culture for which Spain is known.
It's also important to recognize that Spain's linguistic and culturally distinct regions are strong and maintain their independence (in spirit if not in political ramifications) from the larger country. Ask Catalans in Barcelona, Basques from San Sebastián or Galicians from Santiago de Compostela about their heritage, and they’ll almost universally refer to their regional cultures over any concept of being "Spanish." This deliberate resistance to national identity and language conformity might just explain why Spain is one of the only countries boasting a national anthem without lyrics.
Most of the country is officially Catholic, but many don't identify strongly with their religious beliefs. This is evidenced by local laws, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005.
Backroads Pro Tip
In addition to battling potential jet lag, adjusting to Spain's later opening and closing hours for restaurants can be a bit surprising (sitting down to dinner at 10pm is completely normal for Spaniards). In the bigger cities and tourist areas, restaurants will likely have earlier operating hours. Otherwise, try to embrace a siesta (afternoon nap) to hold you over to the later dinner time.
Good to Know
Spain is a member nation of the European Union. As such, the Euro is their official currency. ATMs are generally considered the easiest way to obtain cash, and they’re widely available in most places throughout Spain. Credit cards are accepted at many Spanish shops and at most tourist establishments.
Tap water is almost universally safe to drink in Spain. Spanish water providers do use chlorine to sterilize tap water, but this practice is common throughout Europe and in the United States too.
Tipping is not expected or required. Restaurant and hospitality employees are generally compensated adequately and provided with health care and benefits. That said, leaving a bit of change at the end of a meal or taxi ride is acceptable.
Spaniards are generally friendly, welcoming and approachable. If you speak some Spanish, feel free to practice with locals as it could get you that extra-warm welcome. That said, many Spaniards speak some basic English, especially in the larger cities and tourist areas.
Outlets are standard European plugs (types C, E and F), and the current is usually 230 volt and 50 hertz. If a US-made electronic item doesn’t have dual voltage, a converter will be necessary.
The best way to access a public bathroom is usually to make a small purchase in a cafe, bar or restaurant and then use that establishment’s toilet. Bathrooms are almost always small, and since they’re not guaranteed to have toilet paper, it doesn't hurt to have some with you as you’re out and about for the day.
When To Visit Spain
Due to its geographic location, Spain is worth visiting at any point during the year. Its diverse geography means it has a range of climates. Galicia, for example, is rainy and wet much of the year, whereas Andalucía in the south has very mild temperatures and year-round sunshine. While the mountainous areas and some northern cities (including Madrid, Bilbao and San Sebastián) can get cold in the winter, it's a relatively short season. Much of the country has mild winter weather and can be quite enjoyable in cooler months when midsummer heat is no longer a factor. Summer is hot throughout much of the country but is also the prime season for tourists in places like Barcelona, Ibiza, Mallorca and Valencia. Essentially, there’s so much to see and to do here that there’s really no bad time to visit Spain!
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- Despite over 70 percent of Spaniards being Roman Catholic, less than 14 percent of the population actually goes to church on Sundays.
- Nudity is legal in Spain, with most locals saying it’s all the better to enjoy the country’s largely temperate Mediterranean climate, including hot, dry summers, mild, rainy winters and more than 3,000 hours of sunlight a year.
- Spain produces over 40% of the world's olive oil!
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Regions and Cities
The capital and Spain’s largest city, Madrid features a thriving nightlife, great restaurants, lots of museums and vibrant culture.
The home of Catalan culture, Barcelona boasts unique architecture and many urban attractions. The city also offers beaches and charming medieval towns close by.
This southern province boasts a number of beautiful cities with lots of historical sites, many of which highlight the strong Islamic influence that dates back to the area’s Moorish presence. This includes the legendary La Alhambra in Granada, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Sevilla's cathedral (the world's third largest) and fascinating towns, such as Malaga, Ronda and Cadiz.
Famous for its historical monuments, flamenco dancing and as a cultural hub of Andalucia, Sevilla is a wonderful city to visit with lots of attractions. Its medium size (with a very walkable central area) means it has plenty to see but is not as busy or overwhelming as larger cities.
People come here for the Alhambra, rightfully so, but there is so much to like about this beautiful city surrounded by mountains. In the scorching summer, it can have slightly cooler temperatures than its neighbors.
This northwest province is sandwiched between the Atlantic Coast and Portugal, resulting in its own distinct culture, as well as its beautiful natural sights. (Read our Portugal Travel Guide!)
Santiago de Compostela
This city is best known as the end of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage walking route that begins in France, but its gothic cathedral, narrow cobblestone streets and lively student vibe also make it a lovely place to visit.
Nestled on the coast atop rocky shores, Vigo is known for great seafood and as a hub to explore the nearby areas.
Worth a Visit
Valencia: The birthplace of paella, Valencia is a large coastal city with some excellent beaches.
Rioja: Enjoy Spain's most famous wine region and its particularly notable red wines made from the Tempranillo grape.
Canary Islands: This well-known vacation destination off the coast of Morocco is noted for its beaches, diverse natural landscapes and several historical and cultural sights.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Spain
Spain is in the European Union. A visitor, therefore, must have a valid passport (at least six months before expiration), but no visa is required for a US citizen. Entry is valid for three months within a 180-day period. Most transatlantic flights arrive either to Madrid or to Barcelona, but flights are available to many of Spain's cities and islands from other European cities and airports.
Spain has a decent train network that connects many of the largest cities, often with high-speed trains. Where trains are not available, buses are a viable option with many different offerings. Flying is also a possibility—either with Spain's national airline (Iberia) or with budget options, such as Vueling, easyJet and Ryanair. These airlines usually offer unbeatable prices, but be diligent about the details. They sometimes use smaller airports that might be harder to get to, and they often charge fees for basic services, which means that cheap initial price can quickly go up. Accessing Mallorca, Ibiza and the Canaries, as well as other islands, is easiest with flights from major cities.
Spanish (known as Castilian or Castellano) is the official primary language, but Spain's constitution recognizes the country's other regional languages that a sizable number of its citizens speak. Galician, Basque and Catalan, therefore, are all official languages as well.
Locals always appreciate when visitors make an effort to learn and to speak at least a few Spanish phrases. Given that, here are a few phrases that could come in handy during your everyday interactions in Spain:
- Hello: Hola
- Good morning/day: Buenos dias
- Good afternoon/evening: Buenas tardes
- Please: Por favor
- Thank you: Gracias
- See you later: Hasta luego
- Good-bye: Adios
Food and Drink
Eating is one of the greatest joys of Spain travel. Regional cuisines with culinary specialties abound, so, depending on where you are, there are always delicious things to try. Don't miss out on well-known specialties, such as paella, Iberico ham (much like Italian prosciutto) and tortillas (made with eggs and a variety of fillings, unlike the Mexican treats of the same name). The culture of eating small, shareable plates (tapas) means any meal is an opportunity to taste a lot of different items.
Spain also boasts a tremendous variety of high-quality wine. Don't hesitate to taste an Albariño (a refreshing, crisp white wine from the north), a sumptuous Rioja (a full-bodied red wine that goes well with food) or any of the other available wines and spirits.
Food in Spain: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Spain's tourism industry is significant to its economy, so transportation, health systems and physical infrastructure are generally well organized and safe. That said, it's important to maintain caution and safety at all times. Petty theft, especially in larger cities and tourist areas, is common. There are also plenty of scams and hoaxes intended specifically for tourists, so maintaining caution when encountering strangers in crowded areas is essential. Most scams start with a seemingly benign request, such as asking for your assistance when locating something on a map. Most people don’t even realize these situations are scams until they look down to find their bags or property stolen. Any Spanish travel guide will advise that it’s best to keep all valuables you don't need during the day locked in a hotel safe. The things you do carry with you should be hidden and difficult for anyone to access or to steal.
Since many places accept credit cards, it's a good idea to carry just some cash, one or two credit or ATM cards and a copy of your passport. Keep these items in safe pockets or in a money belt. Purses, backpacks and camera bags invite extra attention from thieves, so be mindful of what you bring with you, and make sure nothing is easy for a pickpocket to access.
Rideshare apps are not as common in Spain as in the United States, so always take official taxis. (They are plentiful and affordable.) Hotels are usually happy to arrange transport and taxis for travelers. In case of emergency, call 112 for help.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Spain adventure!