Spain Tourist Information and Tips
Euro: Spain is part of the European Union and the Eurozone ; as such it replaced Spanish Pesetas with the Euro (symbol: ˆ) in 2002. A few people may still use the old national currency (166,386 pts = 1 ˆ, 1.000 pts = 6 ˆ) and convert into Euros later. This is much due to the huge presence of peseta, and "her" many nicknames in colloquial Spanish.
Cash euro: ˆ500 banknotes are not accepted in many stores--always have alternative banknotes.
Other currencies: Do not expect anybody to accept other types of currency, or to be willing to exchange currency. Exceptions are shops and restaurants at airports. These will generally accept at least US Dollars at a slightly worse exchange rate.
If you wish to exchange money , you can do so at any bank (some may require that you have an account there before they will exchange your money), where you can also cash in your traveller's cheques . Currency exchanges, once a common sight, have all but disappeared since the introduction of the Euro. Again, international airports are an exception to this rule; other exception is tourist districts in the large cities (Barcelona, Madrid).
Credit cards: Credit cards are well accepted: even in a stall at La Boqueria market in Barcelona, on an average highway gas station in the middle of the country, or in small towns like Alquezar. It's more difficult to find a place where credit card is not accepted in Spain.
Most ATMs will allow you to withdraw money with your credit card, but you'll need to know your card's PIN for that. Most Spanish stores will ask for ID before accepting your credit card. Some stores may not accept a foreign driving license or ID card and you will need to show your passport. This measure is designed to help avoid credit card fraud.
Most businesses (including most shops, but not restaurants) close in the afternoons around 13:30/14:00 and reopen for the evening around 16:30/17:00. Exceptions are large malls or major chain stores.
For most Spaniards, lunch is the main meal of the day and you will find bars and restaurants open during this time. On Saturdays, businesses often do not reopen in the evening and almost everywhere is closed on Sundays. Also, many public offices and banks do not reopen in the evenings even on weekdays, so if you have any important business to take care of, be sure to check hours of operation.
If you plan to spend whole day shopping in small shops, the following rule of thumb can work. A closed shop should remind it's also time for your own lunch. And when you finish your lunch, some shops will be likely open again.
Apart from classical tourist souvenirs, here are some things that are hard to find elsewhere, or even unique.
- Creative series of good-quality T-shirts which are both funny and on the topic of Spain as seen by tourists. Produces some custom series for regional specifics like San Fermin event. <
The Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine. Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish. The Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies only on the use of high quality ingredients to give a good taste. As such, you may find Spanish food bland at times but there are usually a variety of restaurants in most cities (Italian, Chinese, American fast food) if you would like to experience a variety of flavors.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner times
Spaniards have a different eating timetable than many people are used to.
The key thing to remember for a traveler is:
- breakfast ( el desayuno ) for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (like a graham cracker) or magdalena (sweet muffin-like bread). Later, some will go to a cafe for a pincho de tortilla midmorning, but not too close to lunchtime.
- "el aperitivo" is a light snack eaten around 12:00. However, this could include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette.
- lunch ( la comida ) starts at 13:30-14:30 (though often not until 15:00) and is typically followed by a short siesta. This is the main meal of the day with two courses ( el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 16:00 at the latest. However, in big cities there is no opportunity for a siesta.
- dinner ( la cena ) starts at 20:30 or 21, with most clientele coming after 21. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 22:00 and most customers do not appear before 23:00.
- there is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called la merienda . It is similar to a tea time and is taken around 18 or so.
- between the lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes are closed, and it takes extra effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time.
Normally, restaurants in big cities don't close until midnight during the week and 2-3AM during the weekend.
Breakfast is eaten by most Spaniards. Traditional Spanish breakfast includes coffee or orange juice, and pastries or a small sandwich. In Madrid, it is also common to have hot chocolate with "churros" or "porras". In cafes, you can expect varieties of tortilla de patatas , sometimes tapas (either breakfast variety or same kind as served in the evenings with alcohol).
The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars as tapas , which are a bit like "starters" or "appetizers", but are instead considered side orders to accompany your drink. Some bars will offer a wide variety of different tapas; others specialize on a specific kind (like seafood-based). A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink at a bar, then go to the next bar and do the same. A group of two or more individuals may order two or more tapas or order raciones instead, which are a bit larger in order to share.
Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and Burger King only in bigger towns in the usual places. The menu can be a surprise since it has been customized to appeal to the locals and beer, salads, yogurt primarily Danone, and wine are prominent. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns but it can be their own homegrown franchise such as TelePizza.
Seafood : on a seacoast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. In the inner regions, frozen (and poor quality) seafood can be frequently encountered outside few highly reputed (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially on the north Atlantic coast.
Quality seafood in Spain comes from Spain's northwestern region of Galicia. So restaurants with the words Gallego (Galician) will generally specialize in seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you might want to try the Galician regional specialty Pulpo a la Gallega , which is boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is Sepia which is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of Calamares (squid) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that isn't your style you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Bunuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present Paella dishes.
Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain has maintained quite a high percentage of free range animals.
Ordering beef steaks is highly recommended, since most comes from free range cows from the mountains north of the city.
Pork cuts which are also highly coveted are those known as Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico , an absolute must if found in the menu of any restaurant.
Soups : choice of soups beyond gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
Water is frequently served without a specific request, and is normally charged for--unless it's included in your menu del dia . If you would like free tap water instead of bottled water, request "agua del grifo" (water from the tap). However, not all restaurants will offer this and you may be forced to order bottled water.
Appetizers such as bread, cheese, and other items may be brought to your table even if you didn't order them. You will be charged for them. If you do not want these appetizers, politely inform the waiter that you do not want them.
Tipping is not observed in Spain so don't tip (unless there was something absolutely exceptional about the service). As a result, you may find that waiters are not as attentive or courteous as you may be used to since they don't work for tips. This is less true in major resorts and cities where tipping is common. Look around at other diners to assess if tipping is appropriate.
Tipping and VAT
No service charges are included in the bill. A little extra tip is common and you are free to increase that if you are very pleased. Obviously you don't have to tip a lousy waiter. You would typically leave the small change after paying with a note.
VAT is-not-included is a common trick for mid-range and splurge restaurants: always check in menu whether VAT (7%, IVA in Spanish) is included in menu prices.
Menu del dia
Many restaurants offer a complete lunch meal for a fixed price – "menu del dia" – and this often works out as a bargain. Water or wine is commonly included in the price.
Typical Spanish food can be found all over the country, however top tourist destinations such as Costa Brava and Costa del Sol have turned all existing traditions upside down. Meaning that drinks are generally more expensive (about double) and quality is at its lowest. It is difficult to find proper Spanish food in the tourist centers.
However you will get Schnitzel, original English breakfast, Pizza, Donner, and frozen fish. However, if you are prepared to look a little harder, then even in the busiest tourist towns, you can find some exceptional traditional Spanish restaurants. If you are on the coast then think fish and seafood and you won't be disappointed.
In most cities you can also find international cuisine such as Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Argentinian, etc. The bigger the city, the more variety you can find.
For the past decade there has been a surge in the number of Irish pubs and Japanese restaurants to be found in most cities.
Specialties to buy
- Cheese : Spain offers a wide variety of regional cheeses.
- Queso Manchego is the most famous one.
- Cabrales , Tetilla , Mahon are also popular.
- Chorizo : Spain's most popular sausage is spiced cured, made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper and is produced in multitude of varieties, in different sizes, shapes, short and long, spicy, in all different shades of red, soft, air dried and hard or smoked. Frequently contains emulgators and conservatives, so check ingredients if you feel sensitive.
- Jamon (air dried ham) : Jamon Serrano (Serrano ham): Is obtained from the salt meat of the back legs of the pig and air dried. This same product is given the name of trowel or paletilla when it is obtained from the front legs. Also it receives the names of jamon Iberico (Iberian) and jamon of bellota (acorn). They are specially famous jamones that takes place in Huelva (Spain), in Guijuelo (province Salamanca), in the Pedroches (province Cordova) and in Trevelez (province of Granada). Jamon Iberico is made from free range pigs.
- Morcilla : Black sausages made from pig blood, generally made with rice or onion. Sometimes flavoured with anise, it comes as a fresh, smoked or air dried variety.
Typical dishes are:
- Mariscos : Shellfish. Best shellfish in the world you can eat in the province of Pontevedra.
- Calamares en su tinta : Squid in its ink.
- Chipirones a la plancha : Grilled little squids.
- Caracoles : Snails in a hot sauce.
- Pescaito frito : Delicious fried fish that can be found mainly in southern Spain
- Fabada asturiana : Bean stew from Asturias.
- Gambas al ajillo : Prawns with garlic and chili. Fantastic hot stuff.
- Gazpacho Andaluz : Cold vegetable soup. Best during the hot weather. It's like drinking a salad.
- Merluza a la Vizcaina : The Spanish are not very fond of sauces. One of the few exceptions is merluza a la Vasca. The dish contains hake (fish of the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
- Aceitunas, Olivas : Olives, often served for nibbling.
- Lentejas : A dish made from lentils with chorizo sausage and/or Serrano ham.
- Potajes or pucheros : Garbanzo beans stew at its best
- Paella : This is a rice dish originally from Valencia. Rice is grown locally in what look like wheat fields, and this is the variety used in paella. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron ( el azafran ). Nowadays varieties of paella can be found all over Spain, many containing seafood. Locals suggest to find true paella in large parties like a wedding in a village, but few restaurants still can compete with it.
- Pimientos rellenos : Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. The peppers in Spain taste different than all other peppers in Europe.
- Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos : Chick pea stew with spinach. Typical of Seville.
- Tortilla de patatas : Spanish egg omelet with fried potato. Probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily assess how good a restaurant is by having a small piece of its potato tortillas. Frequently it is made also with onion, depending on the zone or the pleasure. The potatoes must be fried in oil (preferably of olive), and they are left soaking with the scrambled egg for more than 10 minutes, although better if it is average hour so that they are soaked and they acquire the suitable consistency.
- Patatas Bravas : Fried potatoes which have been previously boiled, served with a patented spicy sauce. They are potatoes cut in form of dices or prism, of one to two centimeters of size approximately and that they are fried in oil and accompanied by a sharp sauce that spills on potatoes using hot spices. The name of this plate comes from its sharp flavor, indicating that it has fire or temperament, recalling the first operation of I goad in which a goad nails to him so that he is brave in the bullfight.
- Churros : A fried horn-shaped snack, sometimes referred as a Spanish doughnut. Typical for a Spanish breakfast or for tea time. Served with hot chocolate drink.
- Tortilla de Patata — Also known as the Spanish omelette, this typical food is more like a potato frittata than an omelette. Although a humble offering, it is perhaps one of the most emblematic Spanish dishes.
- Bocadillo de Calamares — Fried battered calamari served in a ciabatta sandwich with lemon juice.
- Sepia con alioli — Fried cuttlefish with garlic mayonnaise. Very popular among tourists.
- Paella Valenciana — The world renowned rice-dish from Eastern Spain.
- Gazpacho Andaluz — Cold soup from southern Spain. Is also widely served in Madrid, although it is generally nowhere near as good as in Andalusia.
- Empanadas Gallegas — Meat or tuna pies are also very popular in Madrid. Originally from region of Galicia.
- Revuelto de ajetes con setas — Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic sprouts and wild mushrooms. Also commonly contains shrimps.
- Setas al ajillo/Gambas al ajillo — Shrimps or wild mushrooms fried in garlic.
- Boquerones en vinagre — Anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley.
- Ensaladilla Rusa (Russian Salad) — This potato salad dish of Russian origin, widely consumed in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is strangely enough, extremely popular in Spain.
Tea and Coffee
Spanish people are very passionate about the quality, intensity and taste of their coffee and good freshly brewed coffee is available almost everywhere.
The usual choices are solo , the milk-less espresso version; cortado , solo with a dash of milk; con leche , solo with milk added; and manchado , coffee with lots of milk (sort of like the French cafe au lait ). Asking for caffee latte will likely result in less milk then you are used to--it's always OK to ask for adding extra milk.
If you eat for ˆ20 per dinner, you will never be served a good tea; expect Pompadour or Lipton. It takes some effort to find a good tea if you spend most time of the day in touristy places.
The drinking age in Spain is 18. People under this age are forbidden to drink and buy alcoholic drinks, although enforcement in tourist and clubbing areas is lax. Drinking in the streets has recently been banned (although it is still a common practice in most nightlife areas).
Try an absinthe cocktail (the fabled liquor was never outlawed here).
Probably one of the best places to meet people in Spain is in bars. Everyone visits them and they are always busy and sometimes bursting with people. There is no age restriction imposed to enter these premises although children and teenagers often will not be served alcoholic drinks. Age restrictions for the consumption of alcohol are clearly posted at bars but are enforced only intermittently. It is not uncommon to see an entire family at a bar.
It's important to know the difference between a pub (which closes at 3-3:30AM) and a club (which opens until 6-8AM but is usually deserted early in the night).
On weekends, the time to go out for copas (drinks) usually starts at about 11PM-1AM which is somewhat later than in North and Central Europe. Before that, people usually do any number of things, have some tapas ( raciones , algo para picar ), eat a "real" dinner in a restaurant, stay at home with family, or go to cultural events. If you want to go dancing you will find that most of the clubs in Madrid are relatively empty before midnight (some do not even open until 1AM) and most won't get crowded until 3AM. People usually go to pubs, then go to the clubs until 6-8AM.
For a true Spanish experience, after a night of dancing and drinking it is not unusual to have a breakfast of chocolate con churros with your friends before going home. ( CcC is a small cup of thick, melted chocolate served with freshly fried sweet fritters used for dipping in the chocolate, yum)
Bars are mainly to have drink and a small tapa while socializing and decompressing from work or studies. Usually Spaniards can control their alcohol consumption better than their northern European neighbors and drunken people are rarely seen at bars or on the streets. A drink, if ordered without an accompanying tapa, is often served with a "minor" or inexpensive tapa as a courtesy.
Size and price of tapas changes a lot throughout Spain. For instance, it's almost impossible to get free tapas in big cities like Madrid or Barcelona while you can eat for free (just paying for the drinks), with huge tapas at cities like Granada or Badajoz.
The tapa, and the related pincho, trace their existence in Spain to both acting as a cover ("Tapa") on top of a cup of wine to prevent flies from accessing it, and as a requirement of law when serving wine at an establishment during the middle ages.
The Spanish beer is not too bad and well worth a try. Most popular local brands include San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Ambar, Estrella Galicia, Keller and many others, including local brands at most cities; import beers are also available. A great beer is 'Mezquita' (Cervezas Alhambra), try to find it! In Spain, beer is often served from a tap in 25 cl ("cana") or 33 cl ("tubo") tube glasses. Bigger servings are rare, but you can also ask for a "corto", "zurito" (round the Basque country) or simply "una cerveza" or "tanque" (south of the country) to get a half size beer, perfect to drink in one go and get quickly to the next bar while having tapas.
Locals in Aragon often add lemon juice to their beer. Particularly on hot summer days people will drink a refreshing "clara" which is a light beer mixed with lemon/lemonade.
Cava is Spanish sparkling wine and the name went from Spanish Champagne to Cava was after a long lasting dispute with the French. The Spanish called it for a long time champan, but the French argued that champagne can be made only from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France. Nevertheless, Cava is a quite successful sparkling wine and 99% of the production comes from the area around Barcelona.
Sangria in restaurants aimed for foreigners are best avoided, but it is a very good drink to try if a Spaniard prepares it for a fiesta!
Spain is a country with great wine-making and drinking traditions: 22% of Europe's wine growing area is in Spain, however the production is about half of what the French produce.
Regions: The most famous wines come from Rioja region, less known but also important comes from Ribera del Duero , Priorato , Toro and Jumilla . The latter are becoming more and more popular and are slightly less expensive than Rioja wines. White, rose and red wines are produced, but the red wines are certainly the most important ones.
Wine bars : they are more and more popular. In short, a wine bar is a sophisticated tapas bar where you can order wine by the glass. You will immediatily see a blackboard with the wines that are available and the price per glass. In Madrid, the Hapsburg neighborhood has become Madrid's wine bar heaven. To enjoy a food & wine tour of this area you can join the Old Madrid Tapas & Wine Tour.
Grapes: The main red grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell and Mencia. The primary white grape used is Albarino , and the grapes used in Jerez are: 'Pedro Ximenez and Palomino.
Specific names: Valdepenas is good value for money. Whites: Belondrade Y Lurton regarded as greatest white wine in Spain. Vina Sol is good as a mass product, with fruity taste.
Grades: Spanish quality wines are produced using an aging process and they have been in a oak barrel for at least one year before they can be labeled Crianza and then spend another two years in a bottle before been sold. Reservas are aged for five years and Gran Reservas are aged for 10 years.
Prices: Spain has seen a tremendous rise in wine prices over the last decade and Spanish wines are not as much of a bargain as they were a decade ago. However you will still find 5, 10 and 20 year old wines at affordable prices especially when compared with similar quality wines from Australia, Chile, France, and the US.
In a bar: For red wine in a bar, ask "un tinto por favor", for white wine "un blanco por favor", for rose: "un rosado por favor".
Wine-based drinks: Young people in Spain have developed their own way to have wine. When having botellones (big outdoor parties with drink and lots of people), most of them will be mixing some red wine with Coke and drink such mix straight from the Coke bottle. The name of this drink is calimocho or kalimotxo (in the Basque Country and Navarre) and is really very popular... But don't ask for it while in an upper class bar, or among adults, since they will most certainly not approve of the idea! As a general rule, any wine that comes in a glass bottle is considered "too good" to make kalimotxo.