Planning Your Trip
Things to Do
What to Eat & Drink
What draws nearly 90 million visitors to Spain—the second most-visited country in the world—year after year? Some of them might come for the wild hustle and bustle of the country’s largest and most dynamic cities, Madrid and Barcelona. Others, for the idyllic whitewashed villages set against craggy hills, or the thousands of miles of glittering shoreline gracing both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Throw in a warm, welcoming culture and excellent food and wine throughout the country, and it’s easy to see why Spain would be anyone’s dream destination.
If any or all of the above sound like your cup of tea (or, more accurately, glass of "tinto de verano"), it’s time to start planning your Spanish getaway. Here’s everything you need to know before you catch your flight.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Spring and fall both promise mild weather and fewer crowds than the summer high season, making for an enjoyable experience.
- Language: Spanish is the official national language. Galician, Basque, Catalan, and Valencian are all co-official languages alongside Spanish in their respective regions. If you’re visiting a region with a co-official language, making an attempt to say a few words in said language will be appreciated, but Spanish is also spoken and understood everywhere.
- Currency: Euro
- Public Transportation: Large cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville have multiple forms of public transportation, which may include metros, buses, trains, and trams. Smaller cities such as Cordoba may not have a metro but might have bus lines. Villages do not tend to have their own public transportation system. As far as inter-city travel, Spain’s extensive bus and train networks make getting from one place to another a breeze.
- Travel Tip: Don’t be afraid to brave a crowded restaurant or bar on your own. It’s easy to make new friends in Spain where people are naturally friendly and interested in getting to know visitors from other places. It’s very possible that you’ll walk out with a new local friend (or several).
Things to Do
No matter where you are in Spain, one thing’s for sure: you’ll never be bored. Almost everywhere in the country—even in smaller cities—you’ll be able to get your dose of culture at a museum, enjoy the fresh air by strolling through the parks and plazas, and see history up close at any of the country’s many fascinating monuments.
- Visit the “Golden Triangle of Art” in Madrid, formed by the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen museums.
- Marvel at the colorful wonderland that is Seville’s Plaza de España in the heart of the idyllic Parque María Luisa.
- Take a tour of Barcelona’s modernist architecture scene, the crown jewel of which is Gaudí’s Sagrada Família.
What to Eat and Drink
If there’s one thing that comes to mind when you picture Spanish food, it’s probably tapas. You might be thinking of tapas as small plates, but in Spain, the concept of “tapas” refers more to the style of eating than the size of the dishes—it’s all about heading out with friends or family and ordering multiple dishes to share. Many menus will offer three different sizes of a dish—"tapa" (enough food for one person), "media ración" (enough for two or three people), and "ración" (enough for about four people to share comfortably). However, it’s still considered “tapas” even if your group is ordering nothing but full-sized raciones.
And of course, we can’t forget about Spain’s rich and varied drinking scene. From the late morning vermouth hour, to glasses of excellent wine with lunch and dinner, to the post-meal digestif, and Spain’s famous gin and tonics, alcohol comes with its own schedule in Spain. In some places, it’s even completely acceptable to order an alcoholic drink with breakfast (such as in Catalonia, where the most important meal of the day often comes accompanied with a glass of cava). But no matter what you do, just don’t order sangria—the locals don’t really drink it, so if you do see it available at a bar, it’s likely a subpar beverage made for tourists.
Where to Stay
In just about any mid- to large-sized city in Spain, you’ll want to do your research about where to stay, and just about every neighborhood has its pros and cons. Central areas are obviously closer to the heart of the action, but also more crowded, more touristy, and more expensive, which could make them less enjoyable for some. On the other hand, off-the-beaten-path ones might be more of a trek to get to the main sights—thus cutting into valuable sightseeing time—but provide a more authentic experience and better bang for your buck. Deciding which area of the city you decide to stay in on your Spain trip depends on your plans, style, and budget, and your choice of home base can make or break your trip depending on whether or not it aligns with those needs.
Once you decide on a neighborhood, you’ll want to narrow down which Spanish accommodation style best suits you. From luxury private apartment rentals to scrappy backpacker’s hostels, most urban areas in Spain will have a wealth of choices fitting all styles and budgets. For more information on the specific types of accommodation available in Spain, check out our complete article on where to stay on your Spanish vacation.
Spain’s two largest airports, Madrid-Barajas and Barcelona-El Prat, are both among Europe’s best-served, so finding flights into and out of the country is easy. If you’re coming from elsewhere in Europe, you might also be able to fly into one of the many other smaller airports in Spain. Coming to Spain by land from elsewhere in Europe is also a possibility, with Barcelona serving as the main hub for international trains and buses from places like Paris and London.
Culture & Customs
Spanish people are known for their warm, friendly, and welcoming manner. When meeting someone new in a friendly situation, don’t be surprised if they lean in to give you the standard "dos besos," or two kisses (one on each cheek). Likewise, the amount of personal space given in Spain tends to be smaller than in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., so be aware that people—even strangers—may stand more close to you than you’re used to.
Money Saving Tips
- Almost all museums in Spain offer free admission on certain days, or at certain times of the day, such as 6 to 8 p.m. most days in the case of the Prado in Madrid. Get a dose of culture and save some euros while you’re at it. Just be sure to plan your visit accordingly, as these free visiting hours understandably draw big crowds that make navigating the museum a bit trickier than under normal circumstances.
- When traveling between cities in Spain, ride-sharing services like BlaBlaCar will often be cheaper than taking the bus or train. Plus, you’ll get to meet a cool new friend and maybe even practice your Spanish while you’re at it.
- Avoid touristy restaurants and head for the local joints instead—ideally at least several blocks away from the nearest major attraction. That doesn’t mean that every restaurant in the immediate vicinity of any monument or museum in Spain is a soulless tourist trap, but generally speaking, you’ll get much better quality food for a fairer price by heading further out. Plus, you can rest assured knowing that the money you spend is going back into the local economy.
- Once you arrive in Spain or are on your way out, take public transportation to the airport rather than a taxi, which can cost several times what you’d pay for the metro, train, or bus to get there. For example, even with the supplemental charge, a metro ticket between central Madrid and the airport costs less than 5 euros, whereas the flat rate for a taxi on the same route is 30 euros.
- If your travel dates are flexible, consider traveling during the low season or “shoulder season” when accommodation prices are lower. These times of year also see fewer crowds than high seasons, so the rest of your trip will be more enjoyable as well.
- Keep an eye out for restaurants offering the "menú del día" at lunch, which gives you multiple courses (usually with a range of options for each), bread, and a drink for an incredibly fair price. In Madrid or Barcelona, prices usually range from 10 to 15 euros, but you’ll pay even less in smaller cities and towns.
- Speaking of food, don’t forget that many places in Spain will give you a free tapa with your drink order—sometimes it's a simple dish of olives or potato chips, but other times, it's more substantial, making it very possible to eat a full meal in some places while only paying for your drinks. Granada, for example, is perhaps the city in Spain with the most generous free tapas.
- If you’re coming from outside the EU and plan on relying on your phone a lot, consider buying a prepaid Spanish SIM card. You can get a decent amount of data, texts, and calls for much less than what you’d pay for an international plan from your home carrier.
For even more Spain budget tips, check out our complete guide to budget travel in Spain.