Addresses are written as: c/Picasso 2, 4° izda. – which means Picasso Street (calle) no. 2, fourth floor, left- (izquierda) hand flat or office; dcha. (derecha) is right; cto. (centro) centre. Other confusions in Spanish addresses result from the different spellings, and sometimes words, used in Catalan, Basque and Galician – all of which are replacing their Castilian counterparts; for example, carrer (not calle) and plaça (not plaza) in Catalan.
Overall, spring, early summer and autumn are ideal times for a Spanish trip – though the weather varies enormously from region to region. Note that the chart below shows average temperatures – and while Seville, the hottest city in Spain, can soar high into the 90s at midday in summer, it is a fairly comfortable 23–27°C (75–80°F) through much of the morning and late afternoon. Equally, bear in mind that temperatures in the north or west, in Extremadura or León for example, can approach freezing at night in winter, while mountainous regions can get extremely cold much of the year.
By law, all establishments (including hotels) must keep a libro de reclamaciones (complaints book). If you have any problems, you can usually produce an immediate resolution by asking for the book, since most establishments prefer to keep them empty, thus attracting no unwelcome attention from officialdom. If you do make an entry, English is acceptable but write clearly and simply; add your home address, too, as you are entitled to be informed of any action, including – but don’t count on it – compensation. Or take your complaint to any local turismo, which should attempt to resolve the matter while you wait.
Prices in Spain have increased considerably over the last ten years or so, but in general there are still few places in Europe where you’ll get a better deal on the cost of simple meals and drinks, while public transport remains very good value.
It’s difficult to come up with a daily budget for the country, as your sixty-cent glass of wine and €30 pensión room in rural Andalucía might be €3 and €60, respectively, in Madrid or Barcelona. However, as a very rough guide, if you always stay in the cheapest hotels, use public transport and stick to local restaurants, you could get by on between €50 and €80 a day. Stay somewhere a bit more stylish or comfortable, eat in fancier restaurants, and go out on the town, and you’ll need more like €100–150 a day, though, of course, if you’re holidaying in Spain’s paradores or five-star hotels, this figure won’t even cover your room.
Visiting museums, galleries, churches and monasteries soon adds up – if you visited every site we cover in Salamanca alone, for example, you’d be out of pocket by €30 or so. Accordingly, it pays to take along any student/youth or senior citizen cards you may be entitled to, as most attractions offer discounts (and make sure you carry your passport or ID card). Some museums and attractions are free on a certain day of the week or month (though note that this is sometimes limited to EU citizens only; you’ll need to show your passport). Any entrance fees noted in this guide are for the full adult price; children (as well as seniors) usually get a discount, and the under-4s are often free.
Crime and personal safety
The police in Spain come in various guises. The Guardia Civil, in green uniforms, is a national police force, formerly a military organization, and has responsibility for national crime, as well as roads, borders and guarding public buildings. There’s also the blue-uniformed Policía Nacional, mainly seen in cities, who deal with crime, drugs, crowd control, identity and immigrant matters, and the like. Locally, most policing is carried out by the Policía Municipal, who wear blue-and-white uniforms, and these tend to be the most approachable if you’re reporting a crime for example. In certain of the autonomous regions, there are also regional police forces, which are gradually taking over duties from the Guardia Civil and Policía Nacional. The Mossos d’Esquadra in Catalunya (blue uniforms with red-and-white trim) and the Basque Ertzaintza (blue and red, with red berets) have the highest profile, though you’re most likely to encounter them on traffic and highways duty.
In the unlikely event that you’re robbed, go straight to the police, where you’ll need to make an official statement known as a denuncia, not least because your insurance company will require a police report. Expect it to be a time-consuming and laborious business – you can do it online (details on policia.es), but you’ll still have to go into the station to sign it. If you have your passport stolen, you need to contact your embassy or consulate.
Pickpocketing and bag-snatching is, unfortunately, a fact of life in major Spanish cities and tourist resorts, though no more so than anywhere else in Europe. You need to be on guard in crowded places and on public transport, but there’s no need to be paranoid. Drivers shouldn’t leave anything in view in a parked car; take the SatNav or iPod with you. On the road, be cautious about accepting help from anyone other than a uniformed police officer – some roadside thieves pose as “good Samaritans” to persons experiencing car and tyre problems, some of which, such as slashed tyres, may have been inflicted at rest stops or service stations in advance. The thieves typically attempt to divert your attention by pointing out a problem and then steal items from the vehicle while you are looking elsewhere.
Incidentally, if you are stopped by a proper police officer for a driving offence, being foreign just won’t wash as an excuse. They’ll fine you on the spot, cash or card.
Spain’s macho image has faded dramatically, and these days there are relatively few parts of the country where women travelling alone are likely to feel intimidated or attract unwanted attention. There is little of the pestering that you have to contend with in, say, the larger Italian cities, and the outdoor culture of terrazas (terrace bars) and the tendency of Spaniards to move around in large, mixed crowds, help to make you feel less exposed. Déjame en paz (“leave me in peace”) is a fairly standard rebuff, and if you are in any doubt, take a taxi, always the safest way to travel late at night.
The major resorts of the costas have their own artificial holiday culture, where problems are more likely to be caused by other alcohol-fuelled holidaymakers. You are actually more vulnerable in isolated, rural regions, where you can walk for hours without coming across an inhabited farm or house, though it’s rare that this poses a threat – help and hospitality are much more the norm. Many single women happily tramp the long-distance pilgrim footpath, for example, though you are always best advised to stay in rooms and pensiones rather than camping wild.
The current in most of Spain is 220v – bring an adaptor (and transformer) to use UK and US laptops, cellphone chargers, etc.
EU citizens (and those of Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) need only a valid national-identity card or passport to enter Spain. Other Europeans, and citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, require a passport but no visa, and can stay as a tourist for up to ninety days. Other nationalities (including South Africans) will need to get a visa from a Spanish embassy or consulate before departure. Visa requirements do change, and it’s always advisable to check the current situation before leaving home.
Most EU citizens who want to stay in Spain for longer than three months, rather than just visit as a tourist, need to register at a provincial Oficina de Extranjeros (Foreigners’ Office), where they’ll be issued with a residence certificate; you’ll find a list of offices (eventually) on the Ministry of Interior website (mir.es). You don’t need the certificate if you’re an EU citizen living and working legally in Spain, or if you’re legally self-employed or a student (on an exchange programme or otherwise). US citizens can apply for one ninety-day extension, showing proof of funds, but this must be done from outside Spain. Other nationalities wishing to extend their stay will need to get a special visa from a Spanish embassy or consulate before departure.
The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) gives EU citizens access to Spanish state public-health services under reciprocal agreements. While this will provide free or reduced-cost medical care in the event of minor injuries and emergencies, it won’t cover every eventuality – and it only applies to EU citizens in possession of the card – so travel insurance is essential.
No inoculations are required for Spain, and the worst that’s likely to happen to you is that you might fall victim to an upset stomach. To be safe, wash fruit and avoid tapas dishes that look as if they were prepared last week. Water at public fountains is fine, unless there’s a sign saying “agua no potable”, in which case don’t drink it.
For minor complaints, go to a farmacia – pharmacists are highly trained, willing to give advice (often in English) and able to dispense many drugs that would be available only on prescription in other countries. They keep usual shop hours (Mon–Fri 9am–1.30pm & 5–8pm), but some open late and at weekends, while a rota system (displayed in the window of every pharmacy) keeps at least one open 24 hours in every town.
If you have special medical or dietary requirements, it is advisable to carry a letter from your doctor, translated into Spanish, indicating the nature of your condition and necessary treatments. With luck, you’ll get the address of an English-speaking doctor from the nearest farmacia, police station or tourist office – it’s obviously more likely in resorts and big cities. Treatment at hospitals for EU citizens in possession of the EHIC card is free; otherwise, you’ll be charged at private-hospital rates, which can be very expensive.
In emergencies, dial 112 for an ambulance.
You should take out a comprehensive insurance policy before travelling to Spain, to cover against loss, theft, illness or injury. A typical policy will provide cover for loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or travellers’ cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Spain, this can mean most watersports are excluded (plus rafting, canyoning, etc), though not things like bike tours or hiking.
If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Wireless internet access (wi-fi, pronounced “wee-fee” in Spain) is widespread in cafés, bars, hotels and other public “hotspots” – Barcelona city council, for example, operates Spain’s largest free public wi-fi network. Otherwise, you can get online at computer shops and phone offices (locutorios), where you’ll pay as little as €1 an hour, though it can cost two or three times as much.
You’ll find a few coin-op self-service laundries (lavanderías automáticas) in the major cities, but you normally have to leave your clothes for a service wash and dry at a lavandería. A dry cleaner is a tintorería. Note that by law you’re not allowed to leave laundry hanging out of windows over a street, and many pensiones and hostales expressly forbid washing clothes in the sink. To avoid an international incident, ask first if there’s somewhere you can wash your clothes.
Post offices (Correos; correos.es) are normally open weekdays from 8am to 2pm and again from 5 to 7.30pm, though branches in bigger places may have longer hours, may not close at midday and may open on Saturday mornings. There’s an office-finder on the website, which also gives exact opening hours and contact details for each post office in Spain. As you can also pay bills and buy phonecards in post offices, queues can be long – it’s often easier to buy stamps at tobacconists (look for the brown-and-yellow estanco sign).
Outbound mail is reasonably reliable, with letters or cards taking around three days to a week to the UK and the rest of Europe, a week to ten days to North America, New Zealand and Australia, although it can be more erratic in the summer. There’s also a whole host of express-mail services (ask for urgente or exprés).
In addition to the maps in this guide, virtually indestructible, waterproof Rough Guide maps are available covering Andalucía and the Costa del Sol, Barcelona, Madrid, Mallorca and Northern Spain. You’ll also find a good selection of road maps in most Spanish bookshops, street kiosks and service stations. Most widely available are the regional Michelin maps (1:400,000), covering the country (including the Balearics) in a series of nine maps, though there are also whole-country maps and atlas-format versions available. Other good country and regional maps are those published by Distrimapas Telstar (distrimapas-telstar.es), which also produces reliable indexed street plans of the main cities. Any good book or travel shop in your own country should be able to provide a decent range of Spain maps, or buy online from specialist stores such as stanfords.co.uk or randmcnally.com.
You can buy hiking/trekking maps from specialist map/travel shops in Spain, including La Tienda Verde in Madrid (tiendaverde.es), and Librería Quera (llibreriaquera.com) or Altaïr (altair.es) in Barcelona. These and other bookshops stock the full range of topographical maps issued by two government agencies – the Instituto Geográfico Nacional and the Servicio Geográfico del Ejército – available at scales of 1:200,000, 1:100,000, 1:50,000 and occasionally 1:25,000. The various SGE series are considered to be more up to date, although neither agency is hugely reliable. A Catalunya-based company, Editorial Alpina (editorialalpina.com), produces useful 1:40,000 or 1:25,000 map/booklet sets for most of the Spanish mountain and foothill areas of interest, and these are also on sale in many bookshops.
Spain’s currency is the euro (€), with notes issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 euros, and coins in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents, and 1 and 2 euros. Up-to-the-minute currency exchange rates are posted on oanda.com.
By far the easiest way to get money is to use your bank debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM, found in villages, towns and cities all over Spain, as well as on arrival at the airports and major train stations. You can usually withdraw up to €300 a day, and instructions are offered in English once you insert your card. Make sure you have a personal identification number (PIN) that’s designed to work overseas, and take a note of your bank’s emergency contact number in case the machine swallows your card. Some European debit cards can also be used directly in shops to pay for purchases; you’ll need to check first with your bank.
All major credit cards are accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops, and for tours, tickets and transport, though don’t count on being able to use them in every small pensión or village café. You can also use your credit card in an ATM to withdraw cash, though remember that these advances will be treated as loans, with interest accruing daily from the date of withdrawal. If you use a foreign credit card in some shops, you may also be asked for photo ID, so be prepared to show a driving licence or passport. Make sure you make a note of the number for reporting lost or stolen cards to your credit card company.
Spanish bancos (banks) and cajas de ahorros (savings banks) have branches in all but the smallest villages. Banking hours are usually Monday to Friday 8.30am to 2pm, with some city branches open Saturday 8.30am to 1pm (except June–Sept when all banks close on Sat), although times can vary from bank to bank. Outside these times, it’s usually possible to change cash at larger hotels (generally with bad rates and low commission) or with travel agents – useful for small amounts in a hurry.
In tourist areas, you’ll also find specialist casas de cambio, with more convenient hours (though rates vary), while some major tourist offices, larger train stations and most branches of El Corte Inglés department store have exchange facilities open throughout business hours.
Almost everything in Spain – shops, museums, churches, tourist offices – closes for a siesta of at least two hours in the middle part of the day. There’s a lot of variation (and the siesta tends to be longer in the south), but you’ll get far less aggravated if you accept that the early afternoon is best spent asleep, or in a bar, or both.
Basic working hours are Monday to Friday 9.30am to 2pm and 5 to 8pm. Many shops open slightly later on a Saturday (at 10am) and close for the day at 2pm, though you’ll still find plenty of places open in cities, and there are regional variations. Moreover, department and chain stores and shopping malls tend to open a straight Monday to Saturday 10am to 9 or 10pm.
Museums and galleries, with very few exceptions, also have a break between 1 or 2pm and 4pm. On Sundays, most open mornings only, and on Mondays many close all day (museums are also usually closed Jan 1 & 6, May 1, Dec 24, 25 & 31). Opening hours vary from year to year, though often not by more than half an hour or so. Some are also seasonal, and usually in Spain, “summer” means from Easter until September, and “winter” from October until Easter.
The most important cathedrals, churches and monasteries operate in the same way as museums, with regular visiting hours and admission charges. Other churches, though, are kept locked, generally opening only for worship in the early morning and/or the evening (between around 6 and 9pm).
Alongside the Spanish national public holidays there are scores of regional holidays and local fiestas (often marking the local saint’s day), any of which will mean that everything except hotels, bars and restaurants locks its doors.
In addition, August is traditionally Spain’s own holiday month, when the big cities are semi-deserted, with many shops and restaurants closed for the duration. In contrast, it can prove nearly impossible to find a room in the more popular coastal and mountain resorts at these times; similarly, seats on planes, trains and buses in August should if possible be booked in advance.
The great city markets of Spain are attractions in their own right – bustling, colourful and hugely photogenic – but even so they are emphatically not “just for tourists”. Local people still do their daily shop in places like La Boqueria in Barcelona, Valencia’s Mercado Central or Madrid’s refurbished Mercado de San Miguel, while a visit to any town’s local market is a sure way to get a handle on regional produce and specialities. Independent food shops thrive too, from traditional bakeries to classy delis serving the finest cured meats, while the bigger cities support whole enclaves of foodie shops – in Barcelona’s La Ribera neighbourhood, for example, you can flit from alley to alley to buy hand-crafted chocolates, artisan-made cheeses, home-roast coffee, organic olive oil and the like.
Leatherwork, such as belts, bags, purses and even saddles, are best sourced in Andalucía. The town of Ubrique (Cádiz) has been a centre of leather production since medieval times, and you can browse and buy from the workshops that line the main street (which also make branded items for the big international fashion names).
Ceramics are widely available, but are especially good in Andalucía (Córdoba region, and around Seville) and in Catalunya (at La Bisbal, northwest of Palafrugell).
In Andalucía you’ll also be able to pick up the most authentic flamenco accessories such as dresses, fans, shawls and lace.
Since 2006 smoking in public places in Spain has been regulated by law, and tougher restrictions introduced in 2011 mean that it’s now forbidden to smoke in all public buildings and transport facilities, plus bars, restaurants, clubs and cafés. Compared to other countries with smoking restrictions in force, you’ll find there’s still an awful lot of puffing going on, though the ban is generally observed.
Local sales tax, IVA (pronounced “eeba”), is eight percent in hotels and restaurants, and eighteen percent in shops. It’s usually included in the price though not always, so some hotel or restaurant bills can come as a bit of a surprise – though quoted prices should always make it clear whether or not tax is included. Non-EU residents are able to claim back the sales tax on purchases that come to over €90. To do this, make sure the shop you’re buying from fills out the correct paperwork, and present this to customs before you check in at the airport for your return flight.
Spanish telephone numbers have nine digits; mobile numbers begin with a 6 or 7, freephone numbers begin 900, while other 90-plus- and 80-plus-digit numbers are nationwide standard-rate or special-rate services. To call Spain from abroad, dial your country’s international access code + 34 (Spain’s country code) + the nine-digit Spanish number.
Public telephones have instructions in English, and accept coins, credit cards and phonecards. Phonecards (tarjetas) with discounted rates for calls are available in tobacconists, newsagents and post offices, issued in various denominations either by Telefónica (the dominant operator) or one of its rivals. Credit cards are not recommended for local and national calls, since most have a minimum charge that is far more than a normal call is likely to cost. It’s also best to avoid making calls from the phone in your hotel room, as even local calls will be slapped with a heavy surcharge.
You can make international calls from any public pay-phone, but it’s cheaper to go to one of the ubiquitous phone centres, or locutorios, which specialize in discounted overseas connections. Calling home from Spain, you dial 00 (Spain’s international access code) + your country code + city/area code minus initial zero + number. For reverse-charge calls, dial the international operator (1008 Europe, 1005 rest of the world).
Most European mobile phones will work in Spain, though it’s worth checking with your provider whether you need to get international access switched on and whether there are any extra charges involved. Even though prices are coming down, it’s still expensive to use your own mobile extensively while abroad, and you will pay for receiving incoming calls, for example.
Spain is one hour ahead of the UK, six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, nine hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, eight hours behind Australia, ten hours behind New Zealand, and the same time as South Africa. In Spain, the clocks go forward in the last week in March and back again in the last week in October. It’s worth noting, if you’re planning to cross the border, that Portugal is an hour behind Spain throughout the year.
Public toilets are generally reasonably clean but don’t always have any paper. They can very occasionally still be squat-style. They are most commonly referred to and labelled Los Servicios, though signs may point you to baños, aseos or lavabos. Damas (Ladies) and Caballeros (Gentlemen) are the usual distinguishing signs for sex, though you may also see the potentially confusing Señoras (Women) and Señores (Men).
The Spanish national tourist office, Turespaña (spain.info), is an excellent source of information when planning your trip. The website is full of ideas, information and searchable databases, and there are links to similar websites of Turespaña offices in your own country.
There are oficinas de turismo (tourist offices) in virtually every Spanish town, usually open Monday to Friday 9am to 2pm and 4 to 7pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am to 2pm, but hours vary considerably from place to place. In major cities and coastal resorts the offices tend to remain open all day Saturday and on Sunday morning between April and September.
The information and help available in oficinas de turismo also varies: some are very good, and some do little more than hand out a map and ask where you’re from. Not all staff speak English, especially in the more rural and out-of-the-way destinations. There’s also often more than one information office, especially in bigger towns and cities, where responsibility for local tourism is split between municipal and provincial offices. As a rough rule, the municipal offices are better for specific city information, the provincial offices best for advice about where to go in the region.
Travellers with disabilities
The classic tourist images of Spain – the medieval old towns, winding lanes, the castles and monasteries – don’t exactly fill you full of confidence if you’re in a wheelchair. However, Spain is changing and facilities are improving rapidly, especially in the more go-ahead, contemporary cities. There are accessible rooms and hotels in all major Spanish cities and resorts and, by law, all new public buildings (including revamped museums and galleries) are required to be fully accessible. Public transport is the main problem, since most local buses and trains are virtually impossible for wheelchairs, though again there are pockets of excellence in Spain. The AVE high-speed train service, for example, is fully accessible, as is every city and sightseeing bus in Barcelona (and large parts of its metro and tram network, too). In many towns and cities, acoustic traffic-light signals and dropped kerbs are common.
Some organizations at home may be able to advise you further about travel to Spain, like the very useful UK-based Tourism For All (tourismforall.org.uk). Access Travel (access-travel.co.uk) offers Barcelona city breaks and holidays to five other Spanish resorts, and at the very least, local tourist offices in Spain should also be able to recommend a suitable hotel or taxi company. In Barcelona – the single most clued-up city – there’s lots more information on the local tourism website, barcelonaturisme.com (click on “Accessible Barcelona”).