Our Spain Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Spain or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"I gave myself up, during my sojourn in the Alhambra, to all the romantic and fabulous traditions connected with the pile. I lived in the midst of an Arabian tale, and shut my eyes, as much as possible, to everything that called me back to everyday life; and if there is any country in Europe where one can do so, it is in poor, wild, legendary, proud-spirited, romantic Spain; where the old magnificent barbaric spirit still contends against the utilitarianism of modern civilisation."
Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra
Spain has been one of Europe's most popular holiday destinations since the advent of mass tourism. Seaside resorts abound on Mallorca and Ibiza in the Balearic Islands, Tenerife and Lanzarote in the Canaries, and along the Costa del Sol and Costa Brava. But to think of Spain as simply a beach destination is misguided. Between its many vibrant modern and historical cities, many with distinct regional languages, customs and culinary flavours, the Spanish landscape can be breathtaking.
The Pyrenees along the French border, Cantabria and the Picos de Europa overlooking the Bay of Biscay, and the Sierra Nevada rising up from the desert plains of Andalucía, are superb hiking, biking and adventure destinations, while the wild cliffs of the Atlantic northwest are the backdrop for some of Europe's most spectacular drives. Throughout the country, timeless villages perch on hilltops, nestle in lakeside valleys and cling to coastal outcrops.
Spain is also a country of fine art and architecture, known equally for the surreal Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Moorish architecture of Granada and Seville and Gaudí's Modernist masterpieces scattered throughout Barcelona.
Food and wine are national obsessions, and rightly so. Jamón, chorizo, seafood, paella, olive oil and lemon are the best-known ingredients in a national cuisine steeped in variety and a spirit of experimentation that means going out for a simple tapas can be a gourmand's delight; while visiting local bodegas among the vineyards of La Rioja (with a compliant designated driver) is a great way to experience traditional rural life.
Culture & etiquette
Families remain the dominant social unit in Spain, though the practice of nepotism in family businesses is no longer the rule of thumb and the birth rate has dipped to one of the lowest in Europe. Similarly the culture of machismo that prevailed under Franco is outdated, and Spain today is fiercely egalitarian.
The Church has historically played a big role in Spanish society, Easter remains the main religious-cultural holiday and churches and cathedrals are usually among the most grandiose buildings in any town or city.
Because it is generally considered the main meal of the day, shops are frequently closed for two to three hours either side of lunch, reopening at around 4 pm until late evening.
Although the spread of the old empire means Spanish is second only to Mandarin as the world's most widely spoken native language, there are many pockets within Spain where castellano has the status of a second language in favour of local tongues such as Euskera in the Basque Country, Catalan in Catalunya, Gallego in Galicia, Valenciano in Valencia, Mallorquín in Majorca and Menorquín in Menorca (the latter three considered dialects of Catalan.)
"Drink moderately, for drunkenness neither keeps a secret, nor observes a promise."
Miguel de Cervantes
Spain is a country with a strong winemaking tradition, and the third largest producer in the world behind France and Italy (although output is roughly half that of France). The most famous wines come from the Rioja and Priorat regions in the northeast. Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes are usually blended to make the full-bodied red wines associated with Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Penedès, while Garnacha alone is the main grape of Priorat. In the Levante region, Monastrell is used for dark red wines and crisp rosés.
In the northwest, the white wine varieties Albariño and Verdejo predominate, while the Cava-producing regions of Catalonia and elsewhere use Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo for both sparkling and still white wines. In the Sherry-producing regions of Andalucía, the principal grapes are Palomino and Pedro Ximénez. As the Spanish wine industry modernises, international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are increasingly used in blends and as varietals.
Spain's popular beers include Alhambra, Estrella Damm and San Miguel, and all are light and refreshing. A number of excellent microbreweries have sprung up in the recent past, especially around Catalunya and Andalucía, offering darker, full-flavoured beers.
Cider is popular in Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Pais Vasco. Sangria (mixing fruits and low-grade wine) is popular for fiestas and as a summer cooler, and fino or manzanilla sherry (Jerez) can be an excellent accompaniment to food or snacks.
Highlights of the cultural calendar include many traditional regional festivals, interspersed with international arts, music and sports events. Major dates include:
19 to 20 January - Tamborrada de San Sebastian (San Sebastian Drum Festival). A 24-hour, midnight-to-midnight drummers' parade through the city.
02 to 03 February - La Endiablada (The Disguised Devils), Cuenca, Castilla y La Mancha. While the menfolk march dressed as gaudy devils clanging cowbells, the women of Cuenca dance with castanets.
14 to 19 March - Fallas de San Jose, Valencia. Festivites include a nighttime parade and the Nit del Foc (Night of the Fire), on which all the fallas (grotesque and comical cardboard figures) are burned.
April/May - Feria de Abril, Seville, Andalucía. Soon after Holy Week, the Seville Fair runs morning, evening and night for six days, with daytime processions, funfair rides and late-night singing and dancing against a backdrop of multicoloured tents, wreaths and paper lanterns.
22 to 24 April - Fiesta de Moros y Cristianos, Alicante, Valencia. The biggest and liveliest of 150 'Moors and Christians' celebrations dotted year-round throughout the country, featuring mock battles, fireworks and bell-ringing.
Mid-May - Festival de los Patios Cordobeses, Cordoba, Andalucía. Centuries-old festival in which the patios, side streets and plazas of the city are filled with flowers.
29 May - Corpus Christi, Toledo, Castilla y La Mancha. A solemn religious procession dating back to the 15th century, accompanied by a week of events including concerts, shows and sports competitions.
29 June - Fiestas de Haro, La Rioja. Festivities continue throughout the summer, but the most famous festival in the city is celebrated on San Pedro's Day, 29 June, marked by a 'Wine Battle' in the Riscos de Bilibio.
06 to 14 July - San Fermin Festival, Pamplona. Known for the encierro, or Running of the Bulls, popularised by the accounts of Hemingway, which takes place daily at 8 am for eight days from 07 July - and the evening bullfights in which the running bulls are killed - the week-long festival also includes parades, traditional Basque sports such as stone and hay-bale lifting and wood cutting, and firework displays.
03 August - Romeria Vikinga, Pontevedra, Galicia. A simulated battle marking the Viking invasion of the Torres de Oeste, and their defence by the Christian natives, followed by feasting, drinking and folkloric dancing.
27 August 2014 (last Wednesday in August) - La Tomatina (Tomato Fight Festival), Buñol, Valencia. 5,000 locals are joined by 15,000 visitors to participate in an officially sanctioned hour-long food fight that has nothing whatsoever to do with the tomato harvest but has its roots in civil disobedience.
09 to 16 August 2014 - Fiesta de Verano, Málaga, Andalucía. Big summer festival featuring fireworks, bullfights, traditional food, music and dance.
September - La Rioja Wine Festival, Logrono. Centring on both San Mateo's Day (21 September) and the grape harvest, festivities include concerts, bullfights (again), an international fireworks contest, dance shows - and wine tastings.
Food & drink
"I do not understand why, when I ask for grilled lobster in a restaurant, I'm never served a cooked telephone."
The Spanish are as passionate about their food as any Mediterranean nation. Aside from fairly liberal use of chillies and saffron, Spanish food is not generally highly spiced, depending instead on good-quality raw ingredients.
Meal times and habits might be considered slightly skewed by first-time UK visitors. Breakfast is light and often consists of just coffee and a magdalena (a sweet, rich but fluffy lemon-flavoured cupcake), which is often topped up mid-morning with a pastry or a sandwich. Lunch (la comida) starts no earlier than 1:30 pm, often as late at 3 pm, and is the main meal of the day, consisting of two savoury courses and a dessert. Workers then drift back to the office (after an optional siesta) by 5 pm and work till close to dinnertime. Dinner (la cena) usually starts after 9 pm and is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid and Barcelona restaurants rarely open before 9 pm and most customers do not appear until around 10 pm. They will close at around midnight on weekdays, and stay open till 2 or 3 am at weekends.
Between the lunch and dinner hours, most restaurants and cafes are closed, but hot and cold snacks are generally available in bars all through the day. The archetypal Spanish bar food are tapas, small plates of food that are ordered to accompany a drink. Some bars offer a wide variety, while others specialise in a specific kind such as ham or seafood. The locals will often have one tapa or two to share with a small drink at one bar, then go elsewhere and do likewise.
Fresh seafood is widely available and generally affordable. Some of the best is found in the northwest region of Galicia. Pulpo (octopus), calamares (squid) and sepia (cuttlefish) are popular, along with gambas ajillo (garlic prawns), pescado frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deepfried cod) and various kinds of paella.
Meat products are usually of very good quality. The best beefsteaks come from cattle reared organically in the northern mountains. A highly coveted pork cut is presa Iberica de belotta, from the muscle between the shoulder and the beginning of the loin of an Iberian black pig allowed to graze freely on acorns.
Chorizo, Spain's most popular sausage, is spiced and cured in a multitude of varieties, and can be soft and air dried or hard and smoked. Jamón Serrano (Serrano ham) is obtained from the salted and air-dried meat of the back legs of the pig. The most prized varieties are jamón Iberico (Iberian) and jamón de bellota (acorn-fed). More of an acquired taste is morcilla: black sausage made from pig's blood, rice and onion, and sometimes smoked or flavoured with anise.
Other typical Spanish dishes include:
Aceitunas, olivas: Olives, usually served as nibbles.
Bocadillo de calamares: Fried battered calamari with lemon juice served in a ciabatta sandwich.
Boquerones en vinagre: Anchovies marinated in vinegar, garlic and parsley.
Calamares en su tinta: Squid in its own ink.
Chipirones a la plancha: Grilled baby squid.
Churros: A fried horn-shaped snack, typically eaten for breakfast served with hot chocolate.
Empanadas Gallegas: Galician meat or tuna pies.
Fabada asturiana: Rich bean stew from Asturias.
Gazpacho (or gazpacho Andaluz): Chilled tomato-based soup from Andalucía.
Lentejas: Lentil stew with chorizo sausage and/or Serrano ham.
Merluza a la Vizcaina: Hake prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
Potajes or pucheros: Chickpea stew.
Paella (or paella Valenciana): Rice dish originally from Valencia, and traditionally based on chicken and rabbit with saffron. Nowadays most commonly prepared with seafood.
Patatas bravas: Fried potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce.
Pimientos de Padron: Small, sweet (and occasionally hot) green peppers from Padron, flash fried and served with sea salt.
Pimientos rellenos: Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood.
Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos: Chickpea and spinach stew from Seville.
Revuelto de ajetes con setas: Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic shoots and wild mushrooms.
Tortilla de patatas: Spanish omelette with fried potato.
"I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do."
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Spain occupies about 85% of the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, the Canaries in the western Atlantic 100 or so km from north Africa, plus the tiny exclave of Llívia just over the French border in the eastern Pyrenees and five 'places of sovereignty' along and off the coast of Morocco (Ceuta, Melilla, Islas Chafarinas, Peñón de Alhucemas, and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera).
The mainland is bordered to the west by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean, to the south and east by the Mediterranean - except for a 1.2 km land border with Gibraltar - and to the north by France and Andorra. In the extreme south, the Straits of Gibraltar separate Spain from Morocco by just 13km.
Spain is the second largest country in Western Europe after France, and the second highest after Switzerland, with an average altitude of 650 metres. The Pyrenees mountain range, bordering France, extends 435km from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Biscay and the highest peak, Pico de Aneto, reaches 3,404 metres. The vast Meseta Central ('Inner Plateau') has elevations that range from 610 to 760 metres and is rimmed by mountains. The Sistema Central divides the Meseta into northern and southern sub-regions, and cradles Madrid with peaks rising to 2,400 metres north of the city and lower elevations to the south. The Sistema Central continues westward into Portugal, and the highest peaks are snow-capped for most of the year.
The southern part of the Meseta is further divided by the Montes de Toledo to the east, giving way to the Andalucían Plain, and the Sierra de Guadalupe to the west. This chain is separated from the Sistema Central to the north by the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, the Tagus, which runs over 1,000km.
The rugged Sierra Morena range runs 450km east to west in the south of the country, extending into Portugal.
The Cordillera Cantábrica, a limestone formation, runs parallel to the northern coast near the Bay of Biscay. From there the Sistema Ibérico extends southeastward and covers an area of some 21,000 sq km. The steep slopes in this range are often cut by deep, narrow gorges.
The highest mountain in all of Spain is the dormant Teide volcano on Tenerife. While Tenerife, Gran Canaria, La Palma and Lanzarote in the Canaries are characterised by large tracts of barren volcanic rock fringed by rich soils and subtropical vegetation, the Balearic islands of Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza have a varied terrain of undulating hills, plateaux and lowlands.
There are about 1,800 rivers and streams in Spain, yet all but 90 extend for less than 100km and are seasonally dry - though when they do flow, they can be swift and torrential. While the Tagus is the longest river, the Ebro is the most voluminous, with a powerful flow eastwards from Cantabria to the Mediterranean where it feeds the northeastern Ebro Delta, one of the largest wetland areas in the Mediterranean.
The Guadalquivir is another significant river, irrigating a fertile valley around Seville, while the northwestern coastline around Galicia is dotted with deep-sea inlets known as rias which serve as natural harbours.
National rail carrier Renfe's long-distance trains are fairly cheap and reliable, but beware that shorter routes are often subject to delays. The ultra-modern, high-speed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) trains connecting Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Málaga and Valencia are expensive but super-swift. Buses on major routes are more plentiful and much cheaper, and can be a good way to get about. Car rental is also competitively priced, but care should be taken on the roads south of Málaga and the Costa del Sol, which are notorious for accidents. If time is your first concern, there's a wide choice of internal flights from budget airlines.
Yacht and boat rental are an option on the Costa Brava, Costa Central, Costa Daurada, and the islands of Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera.
Spanish cities tend to have a good network of cycle lanes. A good level of fitness is needed if you're planning a long-distance cycling excursion, since so much of the terrain between cities is hilly or mountainous.
Your WEXAS consultant will be able to organise the best combination of transport around the country to suit your needs and itinerary.
"The poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth."
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Modern humans began to settle the Iberian Peninsula about 32,000 years ago. The name of Spain derives from 'Hispania', the Latin name of the Roman territory covering the peninsula. Roman rule established a common culture and legal system, Latin became the official language, and in the late Roman era Christianity became the dominant religion.
In the early 8th century, an army of Moors and Arabs invaded and conquered from the south, and over the next 750 years set up independent Muslim states across an area that became known as Al-Andalus. The Christian kingdoms in the north slowly regained territory in a process called the Reconquista, which was concluded in 1492 with the fall of Granada.
The same year saw the successful voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. The Spanish Empire was launched, accompanied by the infamous Spanish Inquisition under which Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from the country.
From 1500 to the 1650s Spain was the most powerful state in Europe, and controlled overseas possessions in the Americas from California to Patagonia, as well as colonies in the western Pacific including the Philippines, named in honour of King Philip II. As Spanish arts, literature and philosophy flourished during the Renaissance, Spain became embroiled in the political intrigues and wars of Europe, including the Italian Wars, the Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War and the Franco-Spanish War.
The cost of war was economic hardship, and the latter part of the 17th century saw a decline of power under Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg king, and a lessening of Spain's influence in European affairs.
The 18th century ushered in a new royal dynasty, the Bourbons. Charles III oversaw a successful involvement in the American War of Independence of 1775-83, but as the century drew to a close, the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars saw the military occupation of Spain by the Bonapartist regime.
This triggered a war for Spanish independence, which in turn sparked nationalist movements in Cuba and the Philippines, the chief remnants of the old empire and a brief war with the United States in 1898 that resulted in the loss of the old colonies.
"We do not believe in government through the voting booth. The Spanish national will was never freely expressed through the ballot box. Spain has no foolish dreams."
Francisco Franco, 1938
Following another period of political instability in the first decades of the 20th century, in 1936 Spain was plunged into a bloody civil war that ended in a nationalist dictatorship led by General Francisco Franco, who ruled the country from 1939 to 1975. Having remained neutral during World War II (although Spanish volunteers fought on both sides), the post-war decades were fairly stable, excepting an armed independence movement in the Basque Country, and the country achieved rapid economic growth in the 1960s and early 1970s, assisted by a sharp rise in tourism.
The death of Franco in 1975 resulted in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy headed by King Juan Carlos, who remains king to this day. While tensions in the Basque region and among Muslim immigrants remain, modern Spain has seen the development of a robust democracy under a popular king who oversaw a steady rise in living standards, entry into the European Community and landmark international events such as the 1982 World Cup and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Since 2008 the global financial crisis has hit Spain hard, with unemployment reaching over 25%, a collapse of the housing market and sharp budget cutbacks.
"History is never tidy."
Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain
Every major city in Spain has large shopping areas and famous designer shops, and none more so than Madrid, where the 'golden mile' of Salamanca between Serrano and Ortega y Gasset is home to prestigious Spanish brands and world names in luxury fashion. For something more individual, try the boutique shops in Fuencarral market or the Rastro Sunday market. There are lively Fashion Weeks in both February and October.
Barcelona aims for a more bohemian style, and the Ensanche area around Avenida Diagonal and Paseo de Gracia, Gótico and El Born are home to some of the best boutiques.
In Bilbao high-fashion houses have sprouted up among the avant-garde architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao and its surrounds. Valencia's Colón area brings together famous designers, but also try the streets by City Hall and the Cathedral, where you will also find plenty of shops selling the city's famed ceramics. Seville Old Town is packed with traditional shops offering craft items and traditional clothing, while exclusive brands are to be found in the Nervión area.
Many of the biggest names in Spanish fashion are from Galicia, and in Santiago de Compostela you'll find designer labels and local crafts scattered between the Ensanche area and the Old Town. Marbella's Puerto Banús oozes exclusivity on the Costa del Sol, and other sea-and-shopping scenes abound in the Canary Islands and the Balearics.
A service charge is normally included in restaurant bills, but a small tip is welcomed: 5% is acceptable and 10% considered generous. Taxi drivers expect you to round up the fare, while hotel porters helping with heavy luggage appreciate a euro or two for their trouble.
Where to eat
Throughout Spain it's common for restaurants to offer a lunchtime menú del día at a fixed price, often including both water and wine, so having your main meal in the middle of the day can be a good way to economise. Traditional Spanish restaurants are easy to find except in the most touristy parts of the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol, which cater for lowest-denominator foreign visitors with poor quality 'international' food. Anywhere else on the Spanish coast can usually be trusted for great seafood, especially around Galicia. Other cuisines such as Italian, French, Argentinian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Thai and Japanese are also readily available in larger cities.