Things to know before going to Spain

Know before you go: Spain

Ah, Spain: the land of tapas, flamenco and Goya.

This past spring I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, where I lived with a local host family and took classes at the Universidad de Sevilla. For those that don’t know, Seville is a small-ish city located in Spain’s southernmost (best) region, Andalusia.

I was there for about six months, during which time I really got to know and fall in love with not just Seville, but Spain as a whole. So whether you’re planning a visit to the country, want to study abroad there or are simply curious, please enjoy this list I put together of some things I think you should know before you go, based on my own experience.

Dos besos

The typical greeting in Spain consists of a kiss on each cheek, so don’t be alarmed when you meet someone for the first time and they lean in for the customary dos besos.

To tip or not to tip?

You heard it here first, folks: In general, you do not tip in Spain. Unlike in the U.S., where service people such as waiters, taxi drivers and hairdressers make their wage off of tips, service people in Spain are already paid a living wage. In most cases, tipping is not necessary.

Spain runs on a very different schedule

One of the things that took the longest for me to get used to when I first got to Spain was the schedule the country runs on. In the United States, we eat lunch around noon and dinner between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and everything is open 24/7 (typically).

In Spain, however, lunch is eaten between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., and dinner is usually eaten after 9 p.m. The period for lunch is also when siesta takes place, which means most businesses – including restaurants – shut down for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. So if you go to a restaurant at noon asking for lunch, just know the server will look at you like you’re crazy.

There are a lot of stereotypes, and most of them aren’t true

Going into my experience in Seville, I admittedly had some preconceived notions about what Spain was going to be like. I quickly discovered my expectations were really off-base. Some bubbles that got burst:

  • Bullfighting – Go to any souvenir shop in Spain and you will find memorabilia plastered with images of bulls or bullfighters. However, despite being popularized by movies and famous people like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway (both attended bullfights quite often), bullfighting is not inherently Spanish, and only a minority of the Spanish population actually identify with it. While it is still very present in Spain – there was a bullfighting ring about a 10-minute walk from my apartment in Seville, and my host brother-in-law was a torrero – the number of active bullfighting rings is quickly diminishing, with some places in Spain even outlawing it outright. Now, it is mostly just played-up for tourists.
  • Siesta – *Gasp* You mean the siesta nap isn’t true?! Not completely. Siesta is a designated time of rest that usually takes place between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. each afternoon, however the only people that tend to actually sleep are the elderly and babies. Generally, it just means that businesses close for a couple hours and families come home for lunch, which is usually eaten during this time. I found that people used siesta as a chance to workout or run errands.
  • Sangria – I’m just going to come out and say it: I’m a big wine drinker. I love wine. So coming to Spain, I was very excited to be in the land of sangria. While many restaurants did serve sangria – and it was good – it was mostly the tourists that drank it, not the locals. For that reason, sangria was almost always the most expensive wine item on the menu, so I generally avoided it. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try it.
  • Paella – Unfortunately, paella for the most part is simply a stereotype as well: like sangria, mostly tourists eat it, and for this reason it’s usually the most expensive item on the menu. Sometimes, my host mom would make paella, but only on special occasions. You should still try it, though, if you get the chance.

Eat and drink like a local, not a tourist

If you’re looking for a more “authentic” Spanish eating experience, begin by picking a restaurant where lots of locals are eating – that’s usually a sign the restaurant is a good one.

  • Breakfast – For breakfast, pretty much any food establishment will sell coffee and some sort of pastry or breakfast food items; even bars will usually offer coffee in the morning. Spaniards tend to eat a light breakfast, yet it quickly became one of my favorite meals. Some of my favorite breakfast items included café con leche (espresso with foamed milk) and tostada con tomate y aceite (toasted bread covered with crushed tomato, drizzled with olive oil and usually sprinkled with salt). If you’re a meat-eater, try tostada con jamón (toast with ham).
  • Lunch – For lunch, order tapas. Some typical Spanish tapas are espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas), tortilla de patatas (a potato omelette-type thing – it’s good, trust me), patatas bravas (fried potatoes served with a spicy red sauce) and gazpacho or salmorejo (a tomato soup served cold). I’d also recommend you get a plate of jamón ibérico to share.
  • Drinks – Spain is known for its wine, and I wasn’t disappointed. The local wine is a dry red wine called rioja, and it’s normally the “house” wine (and thus, the cheapest). The most common beer you will find is Cruzcampo, which is a light beer. If it’s available, try a Cruzcampo Radler – it’s almost identical to a Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. If you’re in the mood for something sweeter, try a tinto de verano: half-red wine, half-Fanta soda poured over ice. Traditionally, it’s served with lemon Fanta, however I preferred it with orange Fanta. It’s super refreshing, and a perfect drink to enjoy out in the sun as you munch on tapas.
  • Dessert – For dessert, enjoy churros con chocolate (fried dough served with hot chocolate for dipping), gelato or a granizado (a slushie, typically lemon-flavored). If you’re in Seville, the best churro stand is at the end of the Puente de Triana.

It’s important to note that, unlike in the United States, most servers will not bring you your check/bill until you ask for it. To ask for the bill you would say, “La cuenta, por favor.” And, remember, you generally do not leave a tip.

Know some common phrases

  • Buenas! = This is how you will be greeted when you walk into nearly any business or restaurant. It means “hello” or “good morning/afternoon/evening.” The proper response is also “buenas!
  • Hasta luego! = Conversely, when you leave a business or restaurant, you will hear this. It means “see you later” or “goodbye.” The proper response is also “hasta luego!
  • Guapa = This one only applies to you if you’re a girl. “Guapa” is the Spanish equivalent of someone calling you “honey” or “sweetie,” and will be used by everyone from strangers to friends to staff at businesses or restaurants.
  • Que guay! = “Cool,” “awesome,” “great,” etc.
  • “Do you speak English?” = Hablas inglés?
  • “Do you have a menu in English?” = In more touristy places, restaurants will often have a menu in English. If they don’t offer it to you automatically, you would ask “Hay una carta en inglés?
  • Ordering something at a restaurant = Me puedes poner (food item)?
  • Giving directions to a cab driver = “Me puedes llevar a (address/location)?
  • “How much does _______ cost?” = “Cuanto cuesta(n) ________?
  • “What time is it?” = “Qué hora es?
  • “Can you take a photo for/of me?” = Me puedes sacar una foto?” or “Me puedes tomar una foto?

Other common words and expressions you should know

  • Hello = Hola
  • How are you? = Cómo estás? or Qué tal?
  • Good bye = Adios or hasta luego
  • Please = Por favor
  • Thank you = Gracias
  • My name is _______ = Me llamo ________
  • Excuse me (to get somebody’s attention) = Perdona or disculpa
  • Excuse me (if you bump into someone, need to get past someone, etc.) = Perdon or con permiso
  • Sorry = Lo siento or perdón
  • Bathroom = Baño, servicios or aseos
  • ATM = Cajero
  • Ticket (as in airplane or train ticket) = entrada, billete or boleto
  • Bottled water = botella de agua

Finally, know that Spain is one of the best places you will ever visit

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Spain, embrace it. Spain is a beautiful, geographically diverse country filled with interesting people and unique cultures and just bursting with places to be explored. Hike through mountains, lay on the beach, wander through winding cobblestone streets, visit a castle, gaze at world-famous art, discover some of the country’s infinite and stunning plazas, watch a futbol game, talk to the locals, make friends, create amazing memories. My six months in Spain were some of the best months of my life, and I yearn to go back. So if you get the chance, take it.