Updated January 2020.
There is a reason that Spain’s tourism is booming. Between the amazing museums, the food, the culture, and the outdoor activities, Spain has enough to keep visitors busy for a lifetime. With so much to see and do, it can be difficult to plan your trip without leaving something out–that’s why travelers tend to return again and again.
Here’s my guide to helping you prepare yourself for the trip of a lifetime to Spain. After living there for six months, it was never enough! Spain is a place that I could go to again and again and still wish I had more time.
From the Roman Empire to current day, Spain has had a long history filled with powerful people at the helm. Originally the home of barbarian tribes, it was conquered early on by Rome, which occupied it for seven centuries. From this past came the Spanish language based on Latin and it remained a Christian country until it was invaded by Muslim conquerers in the middle of the 8th century.
Much of Spain’s architecture and culture has been influenced by this period, and some of its greatest wonders were built by the Muslims who were on the peninsula. It wasn’t until 1492 that Ferdinand and Isabella were able to reclaim the area and reconvert it to the Christian religion during a violent inquisition.
Spain’s enterprising spirit allowed it to conquer much of South and North America. During this time, it became unimaginably wealthy and launched the Spanish Enlightenment. After a series of wars (one very difficult one with France and Napoleon and a Civil War), Spain was considered a dictatorship and led by General Franco until 1975.
Today, Spain is looking to modernize, though it is impossible for it to escape its brilliant and bloody past.
Language spoken: Spanish
Year founded: 1479
Type of government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Population: 46 million
Type of money: Euro
Visas and immigration
Spain is part of the Schengen region, which gives travelers free movement through participating European countries. Currently, you can visit the Schengen area for tourism or business for 90 days without having to apply for a visa (though this may change soon). Stipulations include that you cannot work for a Spanish company without a work visa, and you can not spend more than 90 days in the area within a six-month period.
All you will need to do as a United States citizen is present your passport at customs. You might be asked what you are planning to do in Spain, where you are staying, and a copy of your return flight itinerary.
How to get around
Spain has a comprehensive bus system that allows for travel all throughout the country. It is also incredibly cheap, allowing travelers to enjoy the country while on a budget. Train travel is also a good way to get around, and Spain has updated most of its infrastructure to make it simple and fast to get from city to city.
You can find accommodations at almost any price in Spain, but it is especially friendly to backpackers and those on a budget. You can also find a number of hotels that would be overpriced in certain areas that are possible to afford here. Here are some examples of rates in Spain.
|Budget (hostel)||$14 per night for a dorm, $75 per night for a private||$13 per night for a dorm, $65 per night for a private||$16 per night for a dorm, $35 per night for a private||$17 per night for a dorm, $25 per night for a private|
|Mid-tier (hotel)||$40 to $90 per night||$30 to $70 per night||$30 to $60 per night||$70 to $100 per night|
|Luxury (hotel)||$100 to $200 per night||$100 per $300 per night||$100 to $250 per night||$150 to $200 per night|
When to go
Spain is pleasant most of the year, with December through February as moderately cold from 30-45 degrees Fahrenheit. The most popular times to visit Spain are in the spring and fall months, as the summers can be blistering hot and uncomfortable (up to 115 degrees). I recommend visiting in April to June or September to November. Although these months are a bit more packed with tourists, summers are too difficult to deal with otherwise.
Most popular things to do in Spain
Narrowing down the most popular things to do in Spain is a challenge! This country boasts so much to do, that you could spend a whole lifetime seeing and doing everything. However, if you are looking for an overview on the top things to do, this list might help!
The first stop for most travelers on their trip to Spain is the vibrant city of Barcelona, where you can find a number of the country’s most popular sights. These include the incomparable Sagrada Familia and incredible Park Güell. It’s the perfect place to begin or end your Spain vacation.
Granada has the Alhambra, Spain’s most-visited monument. Along with this holds the magic of the Andalusia area and historic neighborhoods worth spending several says exploring. Granada is a can’t miss spot that should be put on your list of places to visit when you visit, and I have some fond memories living there.
Seville is a city filled with history, music, and one of the places visitors tend to head to the most when they visit Spain. Make sure to catch a flamenco show, try some of the area’s delicious tapas, or enjoy the marvelous cathedral.
Spain’s capital has a number of different things to see, including its marvelous museums and great restaurants. Make sure to factor at least three days in so you can take your time wandering the halls of the Prado and making reservations for some of the best tapas spots in the city.
Spain’s Costa Brava is the perfect place to relax and enjoy your time on its spectacular beaches. Along with a costal vibe and unique food culture, the Costa Brava is the ideal spot for a vacation and some time in the sun.
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Bilbao turned from a sleepy town to an international hub after it erected its recent Guggenheim Museum. Along with some amazing artwork from the Modernist era, it also harkens back to a time where Spain was finding its footing in a new time period.
This island paradise is a great place for party animals and those looking to have a good time on some beautiful beaches. Make sure to make your reservations in advance since it tends to fill up during the prime seasons of spring and summer.
Feel like stepping into a fairytale? Toledo has the feel of a Disney movie and plenty of history to keep you fascinated while you are there. Consider taking a day trip from Madrid if you want an easy way to get there and back.
Spain is one of the cheapest European countries, and it is possible to visit on around $50 a day. Even 5-star hotels are reasonably priced (and gives budget travelers a chance to upgrade if they wish). Meals are cheap and cost from around $5-8 USD, and activities are also friendly to backpackers and those trying to travel on a dime.
Helpful Spanish phrases
Most Spaniards speak English, but don’t be surprised if they expect you to speak a little Spanish in return. Different areas of Spain have more English speakers than others–those tend to be the areas where tourists visit the most. You should be able to navigate fairly easily, but it never hurts to know a few phrases before heading to a country where you don’t speak the language.
Pocket dictionaries can be helpful, as well as apps like Google Translate.
Buenos dias – Good morning
Buenas tardes – Good afternoon
Buenas noches – Good evening
Hola – Hello
¿Como estas? – How are you?
Bien – Good
Por favor – Please
Gracias – Thank you
¿Hablas ingles? – Do you speak English?
Yo quiero, yo no quiero – I want it, I don’t want it
¿Donde esta? – Where is ___?
¿Cuanto cuesta? – How much is it?
¿Que hora es? – What time is it?
¿Tienes? – Do you have?
La cuenta – The check
Tarjeta de credito – Credit card
Yo necesito – I need
El bano/servicio/aseso – The bathroom
Dinero – Money
Un menu – A menu
El aeroporto — The airport
¡Ayuda! — Help!
Spain is a very safe destination and for the most part, you shouldn’t have any problems. The most common crime for tourists is pickpocketing, and it was common a few years back to have your purse or bag stolen in restaurants. However, it has become safer and safer as the economy improves and tourists learn how to be safe. Occasionally, you might witness protesting (especially in Barcelona). Here are some tips you might want to keep in mind before you go.
- Make sure your purse, camera, passport, or any valuables are with you at all times. Either find a way to conceal them or keep them in your hotel room in a locked safe.
- Use ATMs in banks rather than the ones on the street. While most likely nothing will happen, you might have someone attempt to steal money from your hand. Also, ATMs on the street are more likely to have been tampered with, meaning it is possible that your card information is more likely to be stolen.
- Avoid anyone who approaches you asking you to sign a clipboard or offering you something. These can be skilled pickpocketers.
- Women should avoid walking alone at night.
This list contains affiliate links to sustainable, eco-friendly products.
Spain’s weather and type of travel can vary greatly. You are going to have a very different type of trip if you plan on visiting the cities or if you would like to participate in some outdoor activities. This list tries to cover some basics so you can enjoy a bit of both on your trip.
I recommend taking a backpack along with you on your Spain travels instead of a rolling suitcase. It can be a lot easier than having it bump over cobblestones and cause problems for you if it breaks! Osprey has some lightweight options that can work well for most travelers headed there. Best of all? Traveling with a backpack is more sustainable than a regular suitcase since it saves on jet fuel!
The Osprey Aura 65 offers a compact design with a lot of room. It’s also one of the cheaper options on the market at around $265. With amazing hip support, it’s meant to hold up whether you are hauling it on the bus or hauling it through some of Spain’s narrow streets.
For guys, the Osprey Atmos 65 is an amazing pack, and it will get you through any type of adventure that you choose to take on. With fantastic shoulder straps and a hip belt designed for men (not easy to find!), this is the ideal backpack for your time in Spain.
- 2 long-sleeved shirts (her/him)
- 4 t-shirts (her/him)
- 1 leather jacket (her/him)
- Jeans (her/him)
- Shorts (her/him)
- Boots (her/him)
- Tennis shoes (her/him)
- Sport socks (her/him)
- Sunglasses (her/him)
- Sandals (her/him)
- Reusable water bottle
- Bar shampoo
- Bar conditioner
- Eco-friendly soap
- Tablet toothpaste
- Reusable razor
- Micro-fiber towel
Articles on Spain
How to give back
Spain has been invested in giving back to its environment since the 90s. With an abundance of national parks and camping locations, Spain is a great place to visit for the sustainable traveler. There are also several tour companies available that cater to those who want to give back while traveling.
The biggest issue that often faces travelers when they head to Spain is whether or not they should visit a bullfight or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. This can be difficult because it is a tradition unique to the culture, and many festivities are based around it. However, bulls are often treated terribly and killed in a violent manner. It is up to you if you would like to attend, but be aware that it is a horrific event and the animals are severely mistreated.
Here are some additional tips to help you travel ethically to Spain.
- Take public transportation if possible. Spain recently invested money into its metro, train, and bus systems and you can get anywhere within the country within a few hours.
- Make sure to recycle all possible items. Spain has a quality recycling facilities and fines (albeit small) for those who don’t recycle.
- Choose “green” hotels or those who have been approved by several different organizations.
- Eat at local restaurants. Not only is it more sustainable, but it also gives you a more authentic look into the culture.
Books to read
The New Spaniards by John Hooper- Spain has so much history, but some of its most fascinating has been within the past hundred years or so. This book goes into detail about some of the atrocities of Franco’s reign, as well as Spain’s recent attempts to modernize.
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal- If you thought the Middle Ages were all dark and gloomy, you might be surprised to learn that Spain was an enlightened area where a number of different religions and cultures congregated.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway- When you think of Spain, you might think back to high school or college classes when you had to read books by Hemingway. This gem is worth a re-read and it says much about the American experience in the country.
Roads To Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage through Spain by Cees Nootboome- The Camino de Santiago is one of Spain’s best treasures, and this memoir talks about how the pilgrimage continues to change during the Spain’s modern age, as well as a history of the “Way” itself.
Helpful websites and information
Here are some additional websites and information for travelers headed to Spain.
This site provides safety and immigration information, as well as any updates to protests or terrorist activities.
This site provides comprehensive information on the various areas in Spain, as well as information for LGBTQ travelers and those looking to learn some facts about the culture before you go.
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