After three weeks of traveling mainland Spain we realised just how many myths and misinformation we had trusted in as shared with us by friends and online message boards before we saw otherwise touring this gorgeous, modern country! The list below is also rounded out with some of the top tips we wish we knew upfront/or already learned the expensive way! Read on for 10 things you need to know before visiting Spain!
The List: 10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Spain
The trains in Spain run on time, and are totally awesome!
There is space for large luggage storage in every carriage plus overhead storage above your seat for small items The seats themselves are comfortable with a proper recline (planes I’m looking at you!). Each seat has a tray-table, powerpoint and usb point to charge electronic devices, plus big windows to take in the stunning views! On most trains there is a snack bar facility including dining carriage serving beers and wine as well as sandwiches, coffee, chips and chocolates. Wifi is also coming soon! The train stations are also modern with plenty of free and open wifi at their cafes. The trains are high speed topping out at over 300 kmph at times and we never took a journey that lasted more than 3 hours or cost more than 25 Euro per ticket. The trains to take are run by Renfe whose website is available in English with online booking a breeze; tickets are even able to be sent to your Apple iPhone Wallet!
The buses in Spain are also reliable in our experience, and take a close runner-up place in our hearts for best way to travel around Spain.
Whilst Spain’s train network is quite extensive if you are headed for some of the smaller cities, particularly in parts of the south then intercity buses run by companies such as ALSA are your best bet. The bus stations are mostly old and naff sure, and the ticket window generally only accepts cash. However the buses themselves are new and clean with comfy long haul reclining seats and under bus luggage storage. There are usually no toilets on board but routes are generally no more than 2.5-3 hours. Bus route information is readily available online, and although we were unable to purchase tickets online we saw that other (cleverer than us?) customers had done so. So chalk that up to our poor Spanish skills!
“What is a racione?”
We found ourselves wondering one night, “and why is it so expensive!?” “Don’t patatas bravas usually only cost around 2 Euro!?” Well they do, if they’re a tapas serving. A racione is a different serving size and thus the price jumps up to between 11-14 Euro as compared to the usual tapas pricing of approx 2 – 4 Euro. However you’re still getting your monies worth, racione servings are intended for bigger groups of four or more, and you’ll find this serving size quite a lot more around Madrid, maybe because the practise of tapeando is all the rage amongst groups of friends on a night out there. Barcelona boast mostly just tapas serving portions. Tapas serving sizes are great for 1-2 people partaking. As a couple we were usually well-fed by sharing 5-6 tapas portions in a sitting. You may also occasionally see a ½ racione option on tapas menus around Spain too… I’m sure you can work that one out 😉 If you’re on a budget good news! You don’t have to choose between eating and drinking! Note that in most bars there is a practise of bringing a small gratis plate of tapas with an initial drink order ie chips or olives or even snails once! So practise some tapeando (Madrileño for “barhopping” with a specific eating tapas bent) and go from bar to bar to maximise on freebie tapas with a cheap caña (half-pint) of local beer usually costing around 2 Euro or less!
Not a beer drinker?
Another great budget drink (with bonus local cred!) is the “Tinto de Verano”. This is what the Spanish order in bars instead of Sangria as the Sangria is often overpriced (by double!) and improperly made/from a carton! Tinto de Verano is red wine mixed with Fanta Limón served on ice with a garnish of an orange or lemon slice. Its super-refreshing in the typically warm Spanish weather perhaps that’s why the name of this drink (Tinto de Verano) translates in English as “wine of the summer”.
How do we never get mugged (touch wood!) even in mugging hotspots like La Rambla, Barcelona?
We dress to fit in with the locals of course! So what to wear in Spain to seem more like a local? Dress a little more smart-casual/formal than perhaps you do normally. For women pants/jeans rather than shorts with a dressy top and sandals or heels. There’s definitely not much of a sneaker or sportswear culture for women that we saw, unless actually performing exercise. Dresses seem preferable to skirts and I even had difficulty finding a skirt in H&M one day but dresses abounded! Men wear long pants/jeans and t-shirts with street sneakers/loafers. Older men more typically wear collared shirts with their slacks. Again shorts were an uncommon sight – however hot the weather, and especially in some of the smaller landlocked cities such as Córdoba, where in 35C heat one really wished it were otherwise!
Yes the water in Spain is safe to drink!
In every place we stayed the water was safe to drink. If for any reason it is not safe to drink, it is likely that it will be signed/your accommodation host will inform you. Additionally even on the go in the big Spanish cities you will find fountains at which you can fill your water bottles. Save the planet from extra plastic waste! Gold taps indicate potable water whereas silver indicate water that is just for washing hands etc. We saw these fountains in the city centres of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville.
Yes toilet paper is flushable in Spain, unless otherwise signed.
Another myth we were told (I swear people perhaps confuse Spain with it’s Spanish speaking neighbours in South and Central America sometimes?) is that all over Spain you can’t flush toilet paper. In the big cities, in the tourist areas especially, from what we saw, this is never the case. In fact we did not see any signs advising against toilet paper flushing until we were staying in an airbnb apartment in Cala de Mijas. As the apartment was in a reasonably old block we correctly assumed that this was due to the old pipes. Some domiciles in Spain are still using the plumbing systems of an era that predates the use of toilet paper, these pipes are usually thinner which is why flushing paper through them is ill-advised as they clog more easily. Many places have clearly had their plumbing refurbed/ modernised though and of course modern toilet paper is made to break down in water. If in doubt avoid flushing wipes/paper towels and tampons.
There is a time culture in Spain known as the “siesta” (nap-like sleep).
Commonly it’s assumed that people are sleeping the hot hours of the day away during this time but quite often this is not actually the case. Instead they’re doing home chores before returning to work the second half of their work day. In the super main touristy areas you should always be able to get a meal, but if staying in smaller neighbourhoods/cities you may find yourself occasionally stuck waiting for the reopening hour. More bad news: the siesta hours vary from place to place. I cannot give you a definitive guide! Indicatively speaking though, the Spanish eating routine goes something like this: Locals eat breakfast between 11am – 1pm daily. Good luck finding breakfast before 9am in even the bigger/touristy areas. Even international chains like the McDonalds we saw in La Palma proudly declaim they serve breakfast from 9.30am daily, as if this is shocking… well it’s shocking in Spain! Lunch can usually be found until around 3pm but then a closure usually takes place until dinner time which is most typically served at 9pm or later!
Colloquial Spanish can make all the difference!
If, like us, you’re a total reggaeton tragic you’ve likely heard Pitbull yell ¡Dale! at least a million times, especially during that song named ¡Dale!… So should you say it in Spain too to sound like you really speak the language? Probably not, leave that one to Mr. Worldwide 😉 (And NB he’s probably using it in the “go for it” sense). In Spain the word “vale” is used in place of “dale” for saying alright/cool/ok. “Dale” is used more in Mexico/Honduras. If you know the word “dale” however, then you know how to pronounce “vale” (It rhymes!) You should definitely use “vale” in Spain to sound a good deal more of a natural in your Spanish speaking. Rather than sounding like a poorly trained parrot chanting “sí, sí, sí” (yes, yes, yes) try dropping “vale” instead when you mean to say ok. Another little language hack is ¡Buenas! Nope you won’t be using this word to say you got the “goods” (literal translation) it’s just a shorthand or slang form for buenos días (good morning) or buenas tardes (good evening) – ergo learn this one word instead of two to sound more local, especially if you’re bad at keeping track of the time – bonus!
What about English, I hear you ask, how much English do the Spanish speak?
Well a lot of Spanish speak English brilliantly, especially in the capital/big tourism city centres and touristic businesses such as restaurants. However if you’re an authentic experience chaser you may want to put a little extra Spanish practise in. In smaller, less touristy towns/neighbourhoods or in establishments run by an older generation you may find their English sparse. This has much to do with the Spanish Civil War and the reign of the victorious General Francisco Franco until 1975 whose government placed emphasis on protectionist policies towards Spanish culture and thus removed a lot of opportunity for some generations to learn English. However we say no matter! Speaking Spanish is a delight, I love to speak Spanish! “Me encanta hablar español!” And for the most part I found the people I spoke it to, throughout Spain, to be quite patient with my very amateur efforts.
So what do you think of our list. Were there any we missed? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
Happy travels! Erin & Ryan