Spain is a fantastically welcoming, vibrant country, characterized by its love of life. With a population of over 44 million it’s a diverse place, too, with regional identities as characteristic as their local landscapes: the Basques, Galicians and Catalans all adding their own languages and cultures to the mix. No matter where you decide to visit though, many of the clichés of Spanish life, such as the siesta, busy bars and restaurants open late into the night, and towns celebrating lively festivals, still pretty much ring true.
One of the most important aspects of Spanish life is the family; no celebration would be complete without an extended gathering, although this is more common away from the busy cities where modern life takes its toll. Even so, the elderly are respected, and it’s not uncommon to have older relatives being cared for in the family home. Likewise, children are absolutely adored, and included in everything.
Food plays an important part in Spanish family life, with lunch (la comida) the biggest meal of the day, often lasting from 2 to 4pm. It’s common for shops and whole villages to come to a standstill for the afternoon meal and siesta, especially in more out-of-the-way places. Evening meals, which often start as late as 10pm, are usually preceded by a leisurely stroll, or paseo, when you may take in an aperitif in a bar or two.
Friends are more likely to meet in restaurants for meals, but if you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, you should take a small gift for any children, along with chocolates, a bottle of wine, or some flowers (though avoid dahlias, chrysanthemums and flowers in odd numbers as these would only be given at funerals). Also bear in mind that drinking too much isn’t common, and despite the fact there seems to be a bar on every corner, this is more for coffee and socializing than heavy boozing.
The Spanish are among the biggest smokers in Europe, with an estimated thirty percent of the population smoking regularly. Attitudes are changing, however, and the law now bans smoking in all public places, including shops, public transport, bars and restaurants.
Tipping is common in Spain, although not always expected, but locals are small tippers and twenty cents on a bar table or five percent in a restaurant is usually enough. It is also common practice to tip taxi drivers, hotel porters and the like in small change.
If you are planning to indulge in any topless sunbathing, consider local feelings first, and try to stick to beaches where people are already doing it. You also need to make sure you are properly covered if you enter a church; shorts and sleeveless tops should be avoided.
If you’re meeting someone for the first time, you should shake their hand. If you become friends, you may well move on to hugging (men) or kisses on each cheek (women), starting with the left. Men are also more likely to kiss women hello and goodbye, than to shake their hand. To say hello, use Buenos días before lunch and Buenas tardes after that. Bear in mind that in Spain the sense of time is somewhat elastic, so unless you’re meeting for business (when being late is very bad form) don’t be offended if you are left waiting for a good ten or twenty minutes.