What you need to know before you travel to Spain

Ah, Spain. The very name alone conjures up tantalizing images of sun-kissed beaches, huge steaming pans of paella as wide in diameter as a bathtub, and Gothic cathedrals that seem to stretch to all the way to heaven itself. And these are all correct!
But Spain is much, much more than that. As the second-most popular tourist destination on Earth, this dazzling country has a beautiful gem of one kind or another for just about every person and every interest.
So, how can you make sure you have the best possible trip to Spain, and that you do and see everything there is to do and see?
Well, that's why we're here! This is what you Need to Know Before You Go to Spain.
Spain

What is Amazing About Spain?

My goodness, where to start with this wonderful Iberian sanctuary?

Any conversation about Spain, or for that matter any conversation in Spain, should begin with food. Though Spanish cuisine is traditionally and generally characterized by a distinctly Mediterranean flavor palate, the fare actually varies wildly depending on which region and which season you're chowing down in. You know all the greatest hits already, though: gazpacho, paella, Manchego cheese, Iberian ham, and of course, the almighty tapas – a way of sampling everything so clever that nearly every major city on earth now features at least one gastropub/tapas bar. And, of course, the wine is just as divine.

Then, there's the monuments and historic architecture. Spain has a rich and complex religious history, and Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews have all left their mark on the country by way of their temples. Perhaps the most famous of them all is La Sagrada Familia. Located in Barcelona, the towering Gothic cathedral has been under construction for over 130 years, and will not be finished for at least another decade. The Alhambra Palace in Granada was built in the 13th century by the Moors, and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There's also the Monastery of La Cartuja in Granada, and the Abbey of Montserrat, all of which offer powerful, immersive trips back in Spanish history.

But we've only just scratched the surface of Spanish art! Whether it's the Phoenician art of Cadiz and Malaga, the Roman art of Madrid and Seville, the Moorish art of Granada, or the fiercely Catalan art of Barcelona, Spain is quite literally painted with the stories of its peoples. As recently as the 20th century, Spain was at the very bleeding edge of the forefront of modern art, producing game-changing individualists like the immortal Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

We may be burying the lede, however. Remember those sun-kissed beaches we mentioned? Spain has them in abundance! With nearly 5,000 kilometers of coastline, chances are there's a beach (and a charming beach town) to perfectly suit your particular tastes. Spain is also blessed with plenty of sun, enjoying hot summers and very mild winters. So pack your sunscreen and your beach towel, and make sure you know how to ask for sunglasses in Spanish!

Spain

Where to Visit in Spain

Spain is as diverse and wonderful as the people who live there. Whether you're a foodie with a flair for fresh seafood or a religious scholar looking to take a walk through the distant past, this Iberian wonderland has something for everyone.

Let's take a look at the best places to visit in Spain.

Barcelona

Say the name of this Catalan city aloud and close your eyes. What do you see? Golden, baking beaches glimmering in the sun? Ancient cathedrals, towering into the air and dwarfing even the modern skyline that surrounds them? Today's cathedrals, massive coliseums that pack nearly one hundred thousand beating hearts and screaming lungs into their sanctuaries to cheer for the beloved local football club?

The wonderful thing about Barcelona is, all of these are correct.

Originally founded over 2000 years ago as an Iberian village named Barkeno, Barcelona is today the second-largest city in Spain, home to more than 1.6 million people. Barcelona is located in the northeast corner of Spain along the Mediterranean, and is the capital of the fiercely independent and passionate region of Catalonia. Being at the crossroads of such a vital global trading hub for so long has made Barcelona into a glorious melting pot of the world's greatest cultures.

Stroll through the Gothic Quarter and get lost among the imposing stone walls of the oldest part of the city, or take a whimsical, delightful journey through the topsy-turvy architecture and artistic spirit of legendary artist Antoni Gaudi and the modernista aesthetic. If you're a sports fan, Camp Nou, home of La Liga's FC Barcelona, is perhaps the most famous and hollowed of all the world's sporting arenas.

And that's all without even mentioning paella.

Granada

Granada

Located at the far southern tip of Spain, where the Iberian peninsula completes its own manifest destiny of linking Europe with its sister Africa, Granada plays a similar role in Spanish history as a great intersecting tapestry, woven with blending and sometimes clashing cultures that today is a gem of the whole world.

Granada is the grandest of the Moorish strongholds in the southern Andalusia region. It is home to the Alhambra, an Islamic palace and citadel unmatched in its splendor and beauty, and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The confluence of Moorish, Roman, and Iberian influences in the region is made all the more spectacular by the surrounding landscape. The Sierra Nevada national park, named for the mountain range that rolls majestically through Granada, offers hikers, bikers, and outdoor enthusiasts some of the finest views in all of Spain. In the winter, the park is open to skiers and snowboarders, as well!

Madrid

If you want pulsing European nightlife, fashion, food, and culture all at their glittering pinnacle, you want Madrid, the capital of Spain.

Madrid offers plenty for lovers of both daylight and nightlife. During the sunny hours, take a stroll through Mercado San Miguel, the classic cast iron market that caters to both locals and tourists alike. Browse the fresh produce and seafood, or pickup some ready-made tapas for lunch. The market can get crowded, but the atmosphere is fun, vibrant, and lively. After that, make your way over to Plaza de Cibeles for Madrid's take on a grand sculpted fountain complex reminiscent of Rome's Trevi Fountain.

Once night falls, make your way over to Puerta del Sol, the symbolic (and literal, geographically) heart of Madrid. This large plaza, full of fountains, shops, restaurants, and boutique shopping, is the buzzing epicenter of high-end Spanish tastes. At night, many of Europe's hottest and most popular nightclubs are open there doors on Puerta del Sol, so whether you're looking to dance the night away, or simply people watch as other do after dinner, this spot is not to be missed.

Spanish Islands

Spanish Islands

For travelers looking for some real fun in the sun, there may be no better destination in Europe than the islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

Perhaps the most beloved of these islands are Mallorca and Ibiza. Both have long been featured destinations for the glitterati of the world, celebrities, politicians, and entrepreneurs alike. Mallorca, for its part, features the areas of Magaluf, described on the Mallorcan tourism website itself as “renowned for its lively and largely brash nightlife, and Palma, which boasts one of the best-preserved and most impressive Iberian and Islamic palaces in the world, La Seu. Ibizia, on the other hand, regularly hosts some of the most popular and out-of-control parties and music festivals on earth. 

For sun and fun, each in perfectly responsible amounts, of course, look no further than the Spanish islands.


Where Not to Go in Spain

Spain is a relatively safe country to visit for tourists. Both Madrid and Barcelona have suffered terrorist attacks over the last decade, but these isolated incidents are highly uncommon. They ought not to deter travelers from coming. The U.S. Department of State does not currently have any travel warnings posted for Spain, but it has issued a broader European Travel Alert, warning visitors to Europe to prepare for longer security lines and to be aware of their surrounds and of any potential threats.

Around the nightlife hotspots of Madrid and Barcelona, beware the usual urban threats like pickpocketing and mugging, but travelers with experience in “street smarts” should have no trouble.
On a lighter note, Gibraltar is a popular destination for tourists, but because it is not legally part of Spain, visitors hoping to take a day trip often find that they waste many hours going through customs on particularly busy days.

When is the Best Time to Visit Spain?

Like many countries in Europe, the best times to visit Spain are largely dictated by the realities of weather and holidays.

The temptation to visit Spain in the summer can be strong, with visions of sun tans and bronzer dancing in your head. But Spain can be a nightmare for tourists in the summer. Not only are July and August the busiest months for international travelers visiting Spain's coasts, but this is also when Spaniards themselves flee the central urban cities en masse for a holiday on the coasts. The result? Coastal towns are packed to the gills, and cities like Madrid have many vacant shops.

Holy week, the week preceding Easter known in Spanish as Semana Santa, is the most popular mid-year holiday for Spaniards, so travel can be particularly frustrating then. The same goes for the week between Christmas and Easter. 

Which Spanish Beach is Best

Which Spanish Beach is Best?

That may be like asking which flavor of ice cream is best; there are so many good ones! But, if we had to pick, there are a couple that stand out among the rest.

La Concha, San Sebastian

La Concha, San Sebastian

San Sebastian is well known as a gorgeous, hilly city cascading down to a breathtaking beach. La Concha is 130 feet wide, and is backdropped by the beautiful cityscape behind it. La Concha extends for nearly a mile, and is widely considered one of the world's best urban beaches. It can be quite popular, but that atmosphere is part of the fun!

Playa de Ses Illetes, Formentera

Playa de Ses Illetes, Formentera

Okay, so maybe the thumping nightlife of Ibiza sounds like a little much to you. We completely understand. Fortunately for visitors that want to enjoy the picture-perfect beaches of the Balearic islands without enduring the electronic music, there's Playa de Ses Illetes, on the island of Formentera. It shares all the silky white sand and turquoise water of Ibiza, but is populated more with beach bars and small restaurants than multi-story nightclubs.

What is the Currency in Spain?

Since January 1, 2002, Spain's official currency has been the euro (€), as well as the other nations of the European Union. Prior to that, Spain had used the peseta since 1869 for all official transactions.
Only in the most tourist-oriented locations in Spain – think airports, large chain hotels in downtown Madrid, and so forth – can you hope to use dollars or pounds. Everywhere else, you will have to pay in euros to get what you need.

Most businesses accept credit and debit cards. Try to choose a credit card with no international transaction fees, or a debit card from a bank with partnerships with Spanish banks so you can use their ATMs with no additional fees. 

Currency exchange providers like OFX offer currency converter tools to show you just how far your money will go in Spain.

Spain

How Expensive is Spain?

Due to recent economic instability, Spain is relatively affordable for travelers right now. As a general rule, the northern areas of the country near Bilbao are the most expensive, with Barcelona and Madrid being less expensive than similar European counterparts like Paris, London, or Berlin.

When eating, keep in mind that the day's largest meal in Spain is lunch. Nearly all Spanish restaurants offer a menu del dia, a multi-course prix fixe midday meal that is one of the most economical ways to dine in Spain.


Spain

What to Pack for Spain?

Generally, Spaniards like to spend as much of their time outdoors as possible, whether strolling through city plazas or catching some rays on the beach. To get the full Spanish experience, you'll want to, too, so pack light, comfortable clothes that don't cause you to overheat, but also offer sufficient protection from the sun.

Comfortable shoes are a must, too, as walking is the best way to get around in most Spanish cities.

Our non-European readers will need electrical adapters, as well. Spain uses Type E power sockets, which can also fit standard European Type C and Type F plugs. The standard electric voltage from these sockets is 230 volts, so American appliances will require adapters to use. 


Do You Need Vaccinations to Go to Spain?

The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) do not recommend anything beyond standard, routine domestic vaccinations for most travelers visiting Spain. Included in this are Hepatitis A & B, and rabies vaccinations. 

Do You Need a Visa to Visit Spain?

If you are visiting Spain as an American passport holder:

  • Fewer than 90 days as a tourist, you do not need a visa.
  • Fewer than 90 days as a worker, you do not need a visa, unless a missionary or journalist. You do need a work authorization form signed by your employer.
  • Longer than 90 days for any reason, you need to obtain a visa. 

If you are visiting Spain as an Australian passport holder:

  • Fewer than 90 days as a tourist, you do not need a visa.
  • Fewer than 90 days as a worker, you do not need a visa, unless a missionary or journalist. You do need a work authorization form signed by your employer.
  • Longer than 90 days for any reason, you need to obtain a visa. 

If you are visiting Spain as a British passport holder:

  • Fewer than 90 days for any reason, you do not need a visa.
  • Longer than 90 days for any reason, contact the Spanish embassy for specific information.
Spain

What Are the Biggest Tourist Attractions in Spain?

It's nearly impossible to choose just a few, but here are some of the most popular!

  1. Alhambra – Granada
  2. La Sagrada Familia – Barcelona
  3. The Prado Museum – Madrid
  4. Palma Cathedral – Mallorca
  5. Monasterio de Piedra – Piedra
  6. Las Ramblas – Barcelona

Whether you're looking for natural beauty outdoors, or history come to stunning life, there's something for everyone in Spain.

Spanish History You Must Know

The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s banned regional languages, but after Francisco Franco's death, dialects like Basque, Catalan, and Galician witnessed a rebirth. In those regions, don't be surprised if your high school Spanish doesn't help you much!

Also, respect the siesta. Nearly all shops close from lunchtime until about 2pm, so if you need to run errands or get something done, don't bother attempting it during that time. The siesta is a beloved cultural institution, and honestly, and pretty darn good idea.