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What to Know for Your First Trip to Spain

What to Know for Your First Trip to Spain

What to know for your first trip to Spain? Overall, Spain is a stress-free destination with no major precautions to take or worries to bog you down.

The country has impeccable infrastructure, it’s safe, and the weather is pleasant all year round. However, there are things to know when traveling to Spain that might surprise you. This post will help you be caught off-guard.

Bonus content: scroll to the end of the post for the lowdown on the best places to visit in Spain for first-timers.

What to Know for Your First Trip to Spain

Tap water, tipping, taxis, trains, and tapas: here’s what to know for your first trip to Spain.

1. Spaniards dine late

This is one of the widely-known facts but it never hurts to remind yourself when visiting Spain for the first time. Spanish people tend to eat lunch and dinner later than Northern European countries and the US and this is reflected in restaurant opening hours.

Many will open for lunch between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. before taking a break and reopening for dinner around 8 p.m. Spaniards may not rock up until after 10 p.m. Of course, there are always places to find food if this doesn’t work for you, however, the pickings are a little slimmer.

2. A little español goes a long way

English is widely spoken in all the typical vacation destinations in Spain. However, Spaniards will appreciate any effort made to speak in Spanish. It’s polite to learn the basics through a language-learning app, online platform, or old-fashioned phrase book.

Simple stock phrases such as ordering food and drink and asking directions are handy things to know when traveling to Spain.

church with orange trees and palm trees in front of it.

There are so many wonderful places to explore in Spain, after one trip you’ll quickly be plotting your return visit.

3. Spain has multiple languages & dialects

Castilian Spanish is the official language of Spain but most regions have their own language or dialect. In terms of what to know for your first trip to Spain, you should be mindful of different spellings and pronunciations in different parts of the country.

The autonomous region of Andalucia (Andalusia) has a slightly different dialect but it’s the same language fundamentally. Valencian is spoken in the Valencian region of Spain: you’ll note that beaches are called Platja (Valencian) rather than Playa (Castilian).

The language is more noticeably different in northern Spain. Basque/Euskara is spoken on the Bay of Biscay coastline, Galician is spoken in northwestern Spain, and Catalan is favored in Barcelona and northeastern Spain.

If you want to make friends or are scouting workation destinations in Spain, knowing the difference will put you in good stead.

4. Car rental in Spain is straightforward

Hiring a car in Spain is pretty easy providing you meet the minimum age requirements and have all the correct documentation. The roads are in excellent nick and US travelers will appreciate that Spaniards drive on the right.

One of the most important things to know when traveling to Spain is that you might need to purchase an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). These can only be issued in your home country. Check out these tips for driving in Spain before committing to a car rental.

5. Traveling around Spain train by is a breeze

If you’re a non-driver or are anxious about driving overseas, Spain has an exemplary train system.

Train travel in Spain can be inexpensive with careful planning. Bear in mind that last-minute fares for longer distances will sting you and these routes do book up. If you’ll be on a budget for your first time in Spain, do plan ahead.

sun setting behind a canyon with a bridge for walking along the edges.

If you base yourself in Málaga, you can explore Caminito del Rey, a famous hike through a beautiful canyon.

6. Uber in Spain isn’t the greatest

Using Uber in Spain is a possibility but it’s not to be relied on. The OG ride-share app has brought out that famous Spanish temper and only operates with a small fleet to the dismay of traditional taxi drivers.

You’ll find that other apps work better and that regular taxis are priced very similarly. Licensed vehicles are safe to use.

7. Tap water is safe to drink

In terms of what to know for your first trip to Spain about staying hydrated: drink often!

Fortunately, you can drink tap water in Spain. It might taste a little funny or give you a weird tummy for the first day or two but it’s entirely safe. A lot of Spanish people drink bottled water because they prefer the taste but it’s best to avoid this to tackle plastic pollution.

8. Sun poisoning is a thing

Summer in Spain brings sweltering temperatures and dangerously high UV rays. It’s easy to fall victim to sunstroke and dehydration. In the worst instance, you can suffer from sun poisoning which causes your face to swell up.

This usually affects tourists visiting Spain for the first time who don’t wear sufficient sun protection. It can be avoided by wearing a high-factor sunscreen, regularly topping up, and wearing a sunhat and sunglasses.

If you plan to take on some adventures around Spain or you’ll be swimming a lot, consider also taking a UV shirt to wear while you’re out and about.

street in spain with white buildings on each side and no one in the street.

The streets of Spain are quiet in the summertime when temperatures can reach over 100 degrees F (over 38 Celsius).

9. Spain has two distinct coastlines and three climates

We associate Spain with the Mediterranean coastline. In fact, many of the best cities to visit in Spain for first-timers hug this idyllic sea basin. But don’t forget that the wild Atlantic Ocean borders the western and northern parts of the country.

These coastlines yield completely different conditions and climates. The Atlantic/Bay of Biscay coast is cooler with lower sea temperatures. An oceanic climate produces year-round mist and frequent rainfall. The Mediterranean coastline is hot in summer with warm sea temperatures and milder conditions in winter.

Inland Spain experiences a continental climate that is cold in winter and hot and dry in summer. These guides outline the typical weather patterns across Spain for January, February, March, April, May, June, and July.

10. Summer is the worst time to visit Spain

This is subjective but the general consensus is that summer is the worst time to visit Spain. Specifically, the months of July and August see the country overwhelmed with tourists.

Coupled with sky-high temperatures, elevated accommodation costs, and lengthy queues for tourist attractions, it’s just not the most comfortable first-time in Spain experience.

Of course, we understand that summer is often the only option for certain travelers. In this case, consider less busy alternatives. The northern coast of Spain is calmer than the south. Valencia is quieter than Barcelona. The Costa Blanca and Costa Brava are a fraction less popular than the Costa del Sol.

11. Be mindful of festivals in Spain

Spain remains a traditional nation in many respects. This is reflected through regular religious festivals and cultural events.

Tourists are welcome to observe many famous festivals in Spain while others are more private. It’s always wise to check dates for national, regional, and local festivities that may impact (or elevate!) your first time in Spain.

street in madrid from above with buildings stretching into the distance and a large plaza below.

Madrid is one of the best cities in Spain to get to know the culture, food, and history with tons of great museums and restaurants.

12. Tipping isn’t a thing in Spain

One of the most practical things to know when traveling to Spain: it is not required to tip for food, taxis, or other services you might have back at home.

The tipping culture in Spain is more akin to that in the UK than the US. You can always leave a gratuity for excellent service but on the whole, servers do not expect or rely on tips to make a living.

13. Immunizations are not required

It’s recommended that you visit your local travel clinic or medical surgery to ensure your routine immunizations are up to date ahead of travel. However, there are no specific jabs required for Spain.

It’s always wise to check ahead of travel via the Fit for Travel and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites.

14. Safety in Spain

What to know for your first trip to Spain in terms of keeping safe? Spain has a very high safety rating – the main danger is sunburn!

That said, petty theft and pickpocketing are the main crimes to be alert to – rental cars may also be targeted. When traveling to cities or crowded summer hotspots, add a crossbody bag to your Spain packing list.

There is an uptick in measures to protect women in resort areas where the risk of sex-based crime is higher although the usual vigilance is required. Other types of violent crime are rare in Spain.

Always check the latest travel safety advice via the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and Travel.State.Gov. And, despite the safety score, never travel to Spain without travel insurance.

churros and dipping chocolate in a mug on the side.

Churros in Spain is a must-try whether it’s your first time in Spain or your 100th!

Best Places to Visit in Spain for First-timers

That about covers the fundamentals of what to know for your first trip to Spain. Next up: where exactly should you go when visiting Spain for the first time?

Barcelona

Barcelona is one of the most visited cities in Spain and for good reason. The Catalan city has it all: beaches, art, museums, green spaces, and excellent dining and nightlife. It’s easy to get around this huge city with public transport and there are lots of free things to do in Barcelona.

As one of the best cities to visit in Spain for first-timers, you can make the city your base while enjoying day trips from Barcelona for a wider perspective of the area.

Barcelona is associated with some of the most impressive triumphs of Antoni Gaudí (La Sagrada Família is just the tip of the iceberg). It’s a fun city for couples, families, and solo travelers alike.

Málaga

A little like Barcelona, Màlaga is one of the best places to visit in Spain for first-timers due to its diversity. As a large city, you’ll never fall short of exciting things to do in Màlaga such as touring the Alcazaba, going on boat trips, and whiling away an afternoon at chiringuitos.

There is a good bus link to Marbella from Màlaga where you can soak up the Costa del Sol sunshine at the Marbella beach clubs before returning to the more affordable city.

Using local buses or with a rental car, you can also enjoy the best Costa del Sol beaches. Note that Màlaga is packed out during summer and you’ll appreciate visiting outside of July and August.

River in Girona in Spain with colorful buildings along the water with blue skies above.

The beautiful city of Girona is located in the Catalan region of Spain and has tons of beauty to explore as a day trip from Barcelona.

Basque Country

Basque Country is one of the best places to visit in Spain for first-timers off the beaten path. Northern cities and beaches will always be busy but they are far less visited in comparison with Barcelona and the south.

Plan an itinerary that lets you take in the artistic things to do in Bilbao, an architectural gem. Cycle the crescent-shaped cove of La Concha in San Sebastian (Donostia) and hike one of the Camino de Santiago trails.

If you like wine, you can visit the La Rioja wine region and sample Txakoli – one of the best things to do in Zarautz.

Madrid

As the capital, Madrid is naturally one of the best cities to visit in Spain for first-timers. The city has beautiful gardens and ornate landmarks to visit plus an outstanding tapas and music scene. Ultimately, roaming the best neighborhoods in Madrid is one of the most enjoyable activities for your first time in Spain.

Madrid Airport is one of the largest in Europe with lots of international connections. Brownie points for having its own metro station.

Valencia

Valencia is one of the best cities to visit in Spain for first-timers if you want a blend of city and beach minus the crowds of Barcelona and Màlaga. It’s the capital of the autonomous region of Valencia and the birthplace of paella, which is the only reason you need to visit.

Three days in Valencia is plenty to see the main sites. With a few extra days, you can plan to take some awesome day trips from Valencia to explore local beaches and beautiful natural parks. It’s even possible to take a ferry to Ibiza from Valencia which is great if you’re watching your carbon.

Flamenco dancers under a portico at Plaza de España in Seville which is a great place to visit on your first trip to Spain.

Seville is home to Plaza de España, the largest plaza in Spain and home to lots of wonderful Flamenco dancers.

Almería

Almería is one of the most unusual places to visit in Spain for first-timers. Located in the autonomous region of Andalucia, it’s less popular than its neighbors of Seville, Marbella, and Màlaga (note that Málaga Airport is the closest option).

However, the city has a diverse spread of museums, restaurants, and beaches – with the Moorish Alcazaba being the headline sight.

Almería has a desert climate due to its location near Tabernas. This is the only natural desert on the European continent! Water babies may prefer to spend a day at the Cabo de Gata Níjar Natural Park.

Almería has excellent train and bus links to nearby places of interest and this is a lovely region for hiring a car.

Seville

Last but certainly not least, Seville is a city that should be high on your Spain bucket list. There are so many amazing things to do in Seville, so much incredible history to explore, and some of the best food in Spain to sample.

Seville is the place to come to see live Flamenco shows, wander a royal palace that dates back to Roman times, and stay up all night tapas-bar hopping.

While it can be hotter than the sun in August, it is one of the warmest places in Spain in winter when you can go on fun tours in Seville by bike or on electric boats along the Guadalquivir River. 

It’s also a great base for exploring the different day trips from Seville like Cadiz, Córdoba, or Huelva.