- Spain in a nutshell
- Things to arrange in advance
- Public transport
- Additional information
- Our Top 5
1. Spain in a nutshell
Spain is located in southwestern Europe. Spain’s mainland in the west is bordered to Portugal. In the south and east you’ll find the Mediterranean Sea and in the north France and Andorra are their neighbours, separated by the majestic Pyrenees. The Balearic Islands (i.e. Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera) in the western Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands (like Tenerife, Gran Canaria, La Palma, Lanzerote and Fuerteventura) in the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast are also Spanish territory.
Santiago de Compostela is one the goals for many walkers (see our trip: SPGW010)
Spain is known for its 8,000 km sandy beaches, bullfights, flamenco and paella, but as Spain is located at the crossroads of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, Europe and Africa, you’ll be surprised by the many cultural regions and historic cities. It is the country with the second-largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (after Italy) and the largest number of World Heritage Cities. Spain is a great country for any kind of trip. It has a large variety of culture and geography, with very friendly residents, a laid back lifestyle (everything is mañana, an ‘indefinite time in the future’), lots of nice festivals and a refined cuisine.
- Spain has one of the most diverse landscapes and climates in Europe. The region of Almeria in the south east resembles a desert in places, while the north west in winter can expect rain around 20 days out of every month.
- Bullfighting is also considered an art in Spain. It is one of the popular attractions and the biggest and most controversial sport in Spain. It is actually a part of the Spain’s history, art and culture. There are bull rings in all major cities and outlying areas.
- Spain is 2 times bigger than the UK with only two thirds of its population.
- In Spain people eat lunch at 2pm and dinner at 9-10pm.
- Not all Spaniards are native speakers of (Castilian) "Spanish". There are in fact four official languages in Spain (Castilian, Catalan, Basque and Galician), three unofficial regional languages (Asturian, Aragonese and Aranese), and several more dialects of these (Andalucian, Valencian...). Almost all Spaniards can speak Castilian Spanish though.
- The Spanish colonies in the Americas (except Cuba and Puerto Rico, lost to the USA in 1898) became independent between 1809 and 1825, mostly due to Napoleon's occupation of Spain between 1808 and 1814.
- The highest point in Spain is the Pico del Teide (Tenerife, Canary Islands) with 12,188 feet or 3,715 metres.
- Spain ruled the world in the 15/16th century making Spanish the second most spoken first language of over 500 million Spanish speakers.
You can also view our Flickr photo album about Spain.
- Travel documents: Canadians and Americans only need a valid passport, which will allow you to remain in Spain for a maximum period of 90 days.
- Driving license and registration: For none EU-members you need a International Driving Permit in Spain. For Canada you can visit http://www.caa.ca/travel/travel-permits-e.cfm and for the U.S. http://www.thenac.com/idp_faqs.htm.
There are two types of highway in Spain: autopistas (motorways, toll roads) and autovías (sort of expressways, free of charge). In major cities like Madrid or Barcelona moving around by car can be rather nerve-wracking. It’s hard to find a parking spot and many streets are one-way. So a map or a GPS system is essential.
- Medical passport: If you are using medication, ask your doctor for a ‘medical passport’. This can be a signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names which details your affliction and what medicines you need to use. Bring medications in their original, clearly labelled containers. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity.
- Insurance documents (travel/health)
- Tickets and reservations
- Money and credit cards
Also in Spain they have the euro as it’s currency. The seven euro notes come in denominations of € 500, € 200, € 100, € 50, € 20, € 10 and € 5. The eight euro coins are in denominations of € 2 and € 1 and of 50, 20, 10, five, two and one cents.
You can bring foreign cash into Spain, but it’s not necessary. There are a lot of ATM’s, banks and exchange offices (Cambio), from Spain’s international airports to small villages. Take into account that Spain is ‘Siësta’ country, so a lot of banks and shops are closed between 1.30pm and 4.30pm. Most Spanish banks close in the afternoon, all day Saturday during summer and all day Sunday year round. Generally exchange offices offer longer opening hours and quicker service than banks, but worse exchange rates.
Credit cards are widely accepted in Spain, especially Visa and Mastercard (American Express and Diners Club are less common). However, most Spanish stores require formal identification before accepting your credit card, so it is useful to have photo ID. Smaller restaurants and bars generally only accept cash. Provided you know your PIN, you can use your card to withdraw cash from most of the ATM’s in Spain.
Although it's possible to exchange traveller’s cheques in banks and (possibly) some of the larger hotels, it is more recommendable to carry credit and debit cards, because they are more widely accepted.
Tipping in Spain
As the law requires menu prices to include a service charge, tipping is not compulsory. If you’re satisfied with the service, you can leave some small change: commonly between 5% and 10%. Taxi drivers don’t have to be tipped, but you can round up to the nearest euro.
In general, medical facilities in Spain are excellent. Many doctors and nurses speak English and most hospitals and clinics in tourist areas provide interpreters. The Spanish National Health System has an extensive network of public and private health centres and hospitals throughout the country. Health centres in Spain are located within 15 minutes of any place of residence. In small villages and in rural areas there are local surgeries open on certain days with visits from regional healthcare staff. A state surgery is called a 'consultorio', a health centre is a 'centro sanitario' and a hospital clinic is an 'ambulatorio'.
In the health centres, hospitals and clinics the Spanish nurses tend to deal more with medical issues, rather then serving food and dealing with bed pans. Besides, it is customary for a family member to provide basic nursing care (feeding and personal hygiene), which normally would be provided by nursing staff. Pharmaceuticals are not sold at supermarkets, they're sold at 'farmacias' (pharmacies), identified with a green cross. Nearly every city and town has at least one 24 hour pharmacy. When a pharmacy is closed, it posts the name of the nearest open one on the door.
4. Public transport
You can travel by car when you're in Spain, but there is a network of public services that give a great coverage and would enable you to travel the country to the farthest corner. In large Spanish cities public transportation is generally excellent and comprehensive. Rail service is comfortable and reliable, but varies in quality and speed. Intercity buses are usually comfortable and inexpensive. As a public service, smoking is strictly forbidden in all forms of public transport in Spain.
Train system in Spain is modern and reliable. The Spanish rail network is operated by a state owned company called RENFE (http://www.renfe.com/EN/viajeros/index.html). They operate a wide range of services and fares. Their fastest trains, the AVE, are among Europe's best with their slowest travelling about the same speed as a bus. The RENFE provides a service to all major cities, although it doesn't run to many small towns and is supplemented by networks such as the FFCC city lines in Barcelona and private railways.
Another issue with the Spanish Rail network is that the lines are disposed in a radial way so almost all the lines head to Madrid. That's why sometimes travelling from one city to another geographically close to it might take longer by train than by bus if they are not in the same line. Always check whether the bus or the train is more convenient. There are also a huge variety of local, short-distance trains called tranvía (also a tram). Suburban commuter trains (cercanías) are second class only and stop at all stations. Long-distance trains always get in time, but be aware that short-distance trains (called Cercanías) can bear long delays, from ten to twenty minutes. To be safe, always take the train before the one you need.
There are many bus companies throughout Spain that offer good service. Generally public buses are of a high standard, well maintained and cheap. Most towns have a bus terminal (estacion de autobus). Keep in mind that when waiting at a bus stop, the bus may not always stop for you unless you indicate you wish it to. The local bus services in Spanish cities run from around 6.00am until between 10.00pm and midnight, when a more expensive night system comes into operation. Most buses don't have a lot of seats, opting instead for maximum standing room. Many of the city buses only accept the correct change. Bear in mind that on Sundays and public holidays, schedules are drastically reduced. There are lots of private bus companies offering routes to all major Spanish cities. If you want to travel around Spain by bus, the best idea is to go to your local bus station and see what is available.
There are metro lines in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. They offer the fastest way to get around these cities and are unsurprisingly crowded during rush hours. Special tickets are available including a cheap day return, a metro card allowing three / five days unlimited use and weekly or monthly passes. A map (plano del metro) can be obtained from the ticket offices for free.
There are taxi ranks at railway stations, hotels and various other points in all the major cities in Spain. You should only use taxis that display a special license. They are governed by strict legislation and display a green light when they are free (libre). Ask about surcharges for airport trips and baggage handling. Taxis are usually ordered by phone, rather then hailing them in the streets. In the larger cities, at bar closing times, you can sometimes flag one down. Be aware that most taxi drivers don’t speak English or any other foreign language, so it would be necessary to have the names and/or addresses of your destinations written in Spanish to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show your taxi driver in case you get lost.
Spain is generally a pretty safe country. Still, you have to beware of pickpockets, bag snatchers and other petty thieves who target automobiles and hotel rooms. As a general rule, talented thieves work in groups and capitalize on distraction. You should use your room or hotel safe and keep your baggage locked or secured when you’re away. If you travel by public transport, keep track of your purse/suitcase/wallet at all times, especially at train and subway (metro) stations and never leave your personal items or luggage unattended when going to the restroom, buffet table, etc.
Emergency numbers in Spain are:
- 112 - Pan-European emergency number
- 061 - Ambulance Service (Ambulancia)
- 091 - National Police (Policiá Nacional), mainly active inside cities
- 092 - Local Police (Policiá Municipal), keeps order and rules traffic in town
- 062 - Civil Guard (Guardia Civil), mainly outside cities
- 080 - Fire Service (Bomberos)
- Bring an adapter for the 220Volts/AC system to charge your phone, computer, etc. (European - two round pins, 220Volts/50 Hz.).
- Spain is in the Central European Time zone (Greenwich +1h).
- The international access code for Spain is +34. To call from Canada or the U.S. to Spain you have to dial 011 + 34 + City Area Code + Number.
- National holidays in Spain: 1 January (New Year’s Day), 6 January (Epiphany), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, 1 May (Labour Day), 15 August (Assumption Day), 12 October (Fiesta Nacional de España), 1 November (All Saints Day), 6 December (Constitution Day), 8 December (Immaculate Conception), 25 December (Christmas) and 26 December (Sant Esteve, only in Catalonia).
- El Greco (1541-1614)
- Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)
- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
- Joan Miró (1893-1983)
- Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)
- Montserrat Caballé (1933), soprano singer
- Plácido Domingo (1941), one of The Three Tenors
- Julio Iglesias (1943), most popular Spanish singer
- José Carreras (1946), one of The Three Tenors
- Enrique Iglesias (1975), singer and son of Julio
- Gazpacho Andaluz (chilled tomato soup from Andalusia)
- Tortilla Española aka Tortilla de patata (Spanish potato omelette)
- Paella (Spanish rice dish)
- Gambas al Ajillo (prawns with garlic and chili)
- Chorizo (several types of pork sausages)
- Alfredo Di Stéfano (1926), soccer
- Seve Ballesteros (1957-2011), golf
- Miguel Indurain (1964), cycling
- Fernando Alonso (1981), racing
- Rafael Nadal (1986), tennis
- Miguel de Servantes (1547-1616), author of Don Quixote
- Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), architect
- Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), Spanish film maker
- Antonio Banderas (1960), actor, director and singer
- Penélope Cruz (1974), actress