8 things to know that will make your Spain trip even better
Spain is an amazing, beautiful, friendly country and one of the safest in the world. I highly recommend visiting (or moving) here. There are a few things, however, to know ahead of time that will make your visit (or new life) much more relaxing and enjoyable.
1) Meals are not what or when you expect
Meal time is late
Most meals in Spain are eaten later than is considered “normal” by most people. This is because Spain is geographically in the wrong time zone and has been since World War II, when Franco changed Spain’s time to align with the rest of western Europe. Spaniards still eat at the same time they always have in regards to the position of the sun in the sky, but that time is now an hour off from what it used to be.
You’ll never go hungry
There are five meal times in Spain.
- Desayuno (Breakfast): 7–9 am — Coffee with something light like a croissant, pastry, or small bowl of cereal, consumed at home.
- Almuerzo (Second Breakfast): 10–11 am — Another coffee and/or juice with something heartier, consumed in a local cafe. Typical options are tostada con tomate (toasted bread covered with crushed tomato and drizzled with olive oil) or a tortilla de patatas (something like a potato and egg omelet that might also include ham). Sometimes second breakfast is more like an early lunch, such as a salad and bocadillo (sandwich) accompanied by a beer or glass of wine.
- La Comida (“The Meal”/Lunch): 2–3:30 pm — Generally the main and largest meal of the day. Most restaurants offer a 3 or 4 course Menu del Dia for a fixed price. I wrote about it here. With few exceptions, lunch is a multi-hour event. Most restaurants do a single seating; your table is yours until the restaurant closes mid-afternoon. It is quite rare for a restaurant to expect a second seating at lunch.
- Merienda (Mid-afternoon snack): 5–6:30 pm — The afternoon snack helps break up the long work days and gives friends a chance to meet up and chat. It’s usually a sweet of some type (churros (fried dough “sticks”), bizcochos (snack cake), pastry, tart, etc.)
- Aperitif: 8–10 pm — A quick glass of wine and tapas or pintxos (small snacks served on a piece of bread) in a local cafe, sometimes consumed while standing.
- La Cena (Dinner): 9–11 pm — A lighter meal than lunch, usually consisting of a salad, plate of ham/sausage and cheese, croquettes, etc. Dinner is as much about socializing as food.
Even with all these meals, overweight Spaniards are few and far between. People are active here, including lots of walking.
You have to ask for the check
You will not be given the check until you ask for it. Your server is not ignoring you. Restaurants in Spain do not rush diners so servers can “turn tables” and make more tips. Usually, your table is yours for the entire meal period. Continuing to relax at the table even after all food is consumed is considered a compliment; you like the restaurant enough to want to stay for a while. This concept is called sobremesa (the literal translation is “desktop”, but when applied to dining means remaining at the table after eating). When you are ready to leave, you ask for the check.
Tipping is not a thing in Spain In fact, we’ve been asked by multiple native Spaniards to please not bring US tipping culture to Spain. Servers in Spain are paid and do not depend on tips. For exemplary food/service, it’s customary to just round up to the nearest whole Euro, or leave no more than a couple of Euro on the table (perhaps 5–10%).
2) Don’t expect to shop in the afternoon
Most businesses close for an afternoon break, usually from 1:30 to 4:30, although restaurants and many larger chain stores (e.g., Carrefour, Leroy Merlin, IKEA, etc.) remain open. Many people call this “siesta time” but that’s generally a misnomer. Most Spaniards don’t go home to take an afternoon nap.
A better description is descanso (break) or descanso de mediodía (mid-day break), because it’s the time when Spaniards have a leisurely lunch with family and/or friends. Even schools close, so kids can eat with their families. While shopping streets will suddenly be deserted, cafes and restaurants will be buzzing.
If you are used to doing your shopping mid-afternoon, remember to plan accordingly while you are here.
3) Be prepared to communicate in Spanish
Most younger people do speak English, but many older people, including restaurant and shop workers, do not, or they speak very little. Only around 12% of Spaniards speak English, thanks to Spain’s dictatorship only ending in 1975 and Spain’s general isolation up to that point. It doesn’t help that even today, most western movies and TV shows are dubbed into Spanish instead of shown in VOS (original language) with Spanish subtitles.
The number of English speakers varies greatly around the country. Regions with large expat populations (generally the bigger cities and most coastal areas) will have a much higher population of Spaniards who speak English. If you travel to smaller villages or less-touristic areas, however, be prepared to either use a few key phrases, or make sure you have Google Translate installed on your phone.
Some key helpful phrases:
- Por favor (please)
- Buenos dias/buenas tardes (good morning/good afternoon)
- Gracias (thank you)
- De nada (you are welcome)
- Lo siento, no hablo español (I’m sorry, I do not speak Spanish)
- ¿Hablas ingles? (Do you speak English?)
- Dónde está… (where is)
— el baño (the bathroom)
— el banco mas cercano (the closest bank)
— un buen restaurante (a good restaurant)
— el hotel [hotel name] (the hotel [hotel name])
- Me gustaría [point to item] (I would like [the item you point to])
- La cuenta, por favor (the check please, asked in restaurants)
Spaniards are infinitely kind, patient, and helpful with even limited attempts at Spanish. Don’t hesitate to give it a try. You’ll find they love it and want to help you.
4) Don’t yell
One stereotype of American tourists is that they are loud. Although it is true that large groups of Spaniards can be loud, so dining next to a table with a dozen of them can be a higher-volume experience, Spain is not a loud country. It’s very common in the US that if you and your travel partner end up some distance apart in public, for one of you to yell or do the “two-finger” whistle to get the other’s attention. Don’t do that here.
It might not be as expedient, but text, call, or wave to the other person, or just make your way toward them. Loud yells and whistles are extremely rare in Spain and generally frowned upon.
5) Get used to boobies at the beach
There are dedicated nudist beaches in Spain, but all public beaches allow for women to go topless and many women do. Most beaches will have women of all shapes, ages, and sizes laying in the sun, walking on the sand, or frolicking in the waves while topless. No one reacts. No one stares. No one catcalls, whistles, or does anything else to call attention to any of the women. They are there enjoying the sun like everyone else. Please keep this in mind and react (or more accurately DON’T react) accordingly
6) Ice and straws are not much of a thing
When you order a drink that would, in the US, normally be loaded with ice (such as a Coke or sparking water) be prepared to get little to no ice. Most people here don’t use ice at all. The drink starts out cold on its own and is often poured into a chilled glass.
When you do get a drink with ice in it, it’ll be a single large cube or 2–3 smaller cubes. You also won’t typically get a straw unless you ask for one (try to do without). If you do ask, you’ll likely get a paper straw. Also, don’t expect to get a free glass of water. You might, if you ask, but generally if you want water it comes in a bottle and you’ll be charged. Spain is pretty environmentally conscientious.
And note to my fellow southern US folks: no one here has ever heard of sweet iced tea, or even iced tea for that matter. Don’t even bother trying. Tea here is hot tea, thanks to tradition adopted from the British.
7) The first floor isn’t where you think it is
In Spain (and pretty much all of Europe) the first floor is not the one that opens onto the street. That’s the ground floor (labelled as G or 0 on elevator buttons). The first floor is the first one above the street level.
When someone tells you a business is on the first floor, or their flat (apartment in the US) is on the third floor, remember to start counting from zero.
8) Important rules to remember if you drive while here
Roundabouts are much more efficient than 4-way stops, and can really come in handy when in an unfamiliar area. If you miss your turn you just circle around again. It’s also pretty darned cool that most roundabouts here have some type of art in the middle… just because.
Know that all cars already in a roundabout have the right of way. Enter the roundabout when there is a break between those cars. You don’t need to signal when entering, but do signal when exiting, so others know which exit you are taking. Most Spanish drivers stay in the outside lane of the roundabout, even if they are going almost all the way around before exiting.
For almost all “zebra stripe” crosswalks, the pedestrian always has the right of way. If someone on the sidewalk looks like they are even thinking of crossing, you stop. The exception is crosswalks controlled by walk/don’t walk lights. Often, the red light for drivers at this type of crosswalk doesn’t change to green… it changes to blinking yellow, meaning it is now safe for you to proceed, but do so with caution.
Spanish people grew up knowing their pedestrian rights so they won’t even glance left and right at a crosswalk. They just keep right on walking at normal speed. Be very observant at all crosswalks.
You cannot turn right on red here
There is no such thing here as “right on red” so when stopped at a red light, stay stopped.
I hope the above will help you better enjoy your time in Spain, whether it’s just for a week or for a new life living here.