Spain, a country on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, includes 17 autonomous regions with diverse geography and cultures.
From the rolling hills and olive trees of Andalusia to the astounding architecture of Barcelona, all the way to the Museum Mile and carnival madness of Madrid, Spain is one great land of fun and frolic. It has great art, greater architecture, wild nightlife, sultry weather and so much more – bloody bullfights, the swirl of the skirt of a Flamenco dancer, exploring Don Quixote countryside, sunbathing on the pristine beaches of Marbella, a visit to the majestic Alhambra or just feasting on paella at a roadside tavern – this is Spain.
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SPAIN QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Madrid
- Currency: Euro (€)
- Area: 505,370 km2
- Population: 47,725,002 (July 2011 est)
- Language: Castilian Spanish (official) 100%, Catalan (also official in Catalonia, Comunitat Valenciana and Balearic Islands) 17%
- Religion: Roman Catholic 72%, none 20% other 8%
- Electricity: 230V/50Hz (European plug)
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SPAIN PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 6 January, Epiphany
- 19 March, San José Day (most regions)
- 1 May, May Day/Labour Day
- 15 August, Feast of the Assumption (not banks)
- 12 October, National Day
- 1 November, All Saints
- 6 December, Day of the Constitution
- 8 December, Immaculate Conception
FESTIVALS IN SPAIN
Fiesta de San Isidro (Madrid) - Around 15 May, Madrid's patron saint is honoured with a week of nonstop processions and parties. Free concerts are held throughout the city, and this week marks the start of the city's bullfighting season.
The Sanfermines Festival (Pamplona) - Held from 6 to 14 July, Pamplona is overrun with thrill-seekers, curious onlookers and, bulls. The Encierro (Running of the Bulls) begins at 8 am daily, when bulls are let loose from the Coralillos Santo Domingo.
Las Fallas de San José (Valencia) - From 15 to 19 March the city of Valencia is engulfed by an anarchic swirl of fireworks, music, festive bonfires and all-night partying. On the final night, hundreds of giant effigies (fallas), many of them representing political and social personages, are torched.
Semana Santa (Seville) - Every day from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, large, life-sized pasos (sculptural representations of events from Christ's Passion) are carried from Seville's churches through the streets to the cathedral, accompanied by processions that may take more than an hour to pass.
Feria de Abril (Seville) - Held in the second half of April (sometimes edging into May), this fair is the jolly counterpart to the sombre Semana Santa. The biggest and most colourful of all Andalucía’s ferias (fairs) is less invasive (and also less inclusive) than the Easter celebration. It takes place on El Real de la Feria, in the Los Remedios area west of the Río Guadalquivir.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SPAIN
The best time to visit Spain depends entirely on where you're going and what you're planning to see.
March & April - Spring wildflowers, Semana Santa processions, and mild southern temps.
May, June & September - Balmy weather but without the crowds of high summer.
July & August - Spaniards hit the coast in the summer heat, but quiet corners still abound.
The high central plains (which include Madrid) suffer from extremes during every season – stiflingly hot in summer, bitterly cold, and swept by freezing winds in winter. The Atlantic coast, in contrast, has a tendency to be more damp and misty, with a relatively brief, humid summer. The Mediterranean south, in contrast, is warm virtually all year round, and in parts of Andalucía it’s positively subtropical – it’s often pleasant enough to take lunch outside, even in the winter months.
In general, in most regions spring, the early part of summer and autumn are the best times to visit. Temperatures will be fairly mild, sites and attractions open, and tourist numbers relatively low during this time. Spain is one of the most visited countries on the planet during the peak of summer all main tourist destinations are packed. Even the Pyrenean mountains aren’t immune to the stampede, swapping winter ski crowds for summer hikers and bikers. August is Spain’s local holiday month – when the costas are at their most crowded, though inland cities (including Madrid) are, by contrast, fairly sleepy, since everyone who can, leaves for their annual break.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN SPAIN
The snow sports season in Spain can be as long as from late November until early May at the highest peaks. The best time is usually between November and February.
HIKING & CYCLING IN SPAIN
The best time for outdoor activities in Spain is during Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to October). Although summer can be popular, it is uncomfortably hot!
BEACH OPTIONS IN SPAIN
You can enjoy the beaches of Spain from as early as May through to early October, with the months of July and August being by far the hottest and busiest. The climate will of course differ between the Southern and Norther beaches of Spain over these months.
SURFING IN SPAIN
With a north and south coastline, Spain is a great all year round surfing destination. Summer and early autumn (June - September) is better for beginners while September to April brings bigger swells with the largest swells during winter.
KITESURF IN SPAIN
You can find good wind somewhere in Spain almost throughout the year. The best time for kitesurfing is from April to October, although July and August can get very busy. Tarifa is a great place to learn to kitesurf.
For more details on kite surfing in Spain expand this section!
SPAIN TRAVEL COSTS
Prices in Spain have increased considerably over the last ten years or so, but in general, there are still few places in western Europe where you’ll get a better deal on the cost of simple meals and drinks - while public transport remains good value.
It’s difficult to come up with a daily budget for the country, as your 60c glass of wine and $35 USD pensión room in rural Andalucía might be $3.50 USD and $70 USD, respectively, in Madrid or Barcelona. However, as an indication, if you always stay in the cheapest hotels, use public transport and stick to local restaurants, you could get by on $50-90 USD 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 USD a day. If you plan to live it up in Spain’s paradores (five-star hotels), this figure won’t even cover your room.
SPAIN TRAVEL TIPS
Visiting museums, galleries, churches and monasteries soon adds up. Accordingly, it pays to take along any student/youth or senior citizen cards you may be entitled to, as most attractions offer discounts (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 this might sometimes be limited to EU citizens only - you’ll need to show your passport).
Here are some general ways to save money when you travel around Spain:
Menú del día - look out for 'Menu Of the Day' at local restaurants which will offer a different fixed menu option for great value. Skip dinner as it's generally much more expensive.
Bus around - While the train system is fast, it’s expensive. If you have the time and want to save money, take the buses.
City Passes - If you plan to do a lot of city sightseeing, these are a good investment. All the major cities have multiple museums, attractions, and activities. Getting a city pass can save you up to 20% on these activities and get you free transport.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF SPAIN
Spain is considered a somewhat exotic destination in Europe due to its relaxed lifestyle, its cuisine, vibrant nightlife, friendly inhabitants, and world-famous folklore and festivities. Among many places worth visiting are Spain's thriving capital Madrid, the vibrant coastal city of Barcelona, the famous "Running of the Bulls" at Pamplona, major Andalusian cities with Islamic architecture, like Seville, Granada, and Córdoba, the Way of St. James and the idyllic Balearic and Canary Islands.
Alhambra - Explore the exquisite Islamic palace complex in Granada.
La Sagrada Família - Visit Gaudí's singular work in progress in Barcelona, a cathedral that truly defies imagination.
Mezquita - Wander amid the horseshoe arches of Córdoba's great medieval mosque, close to perfection wrought in stone.
San Sebastián - Eat your way through a food-lover's paradise with an idyllic setting.
Santiago de Compostela - Join the pilgrims in Galicia's magnificent cathedral city.
Seville - Soak up the scent of orange blossom, get carried away by the passion of flamenco, and surrender to the party atmosphere in this sunny southern city.
Menorca - Discover the impossibly beautiful beaches and coves of this less-developed Mediterranean island.
Madrid - Spend your days in some of Europe's best art galleries and nights amid its best nightlife.
Be amazed by the art nouveau–influenced Modernista architecture and seaside style of Barcelona before taking the train to San Sebastián. Head on to Bilbao for the Guggenheim Museum and end your trip living it up in the legendary night-life scene of Madrid.
Fly into Seville and embark on a route exploring this and Andalucía's other magical cities - Granada and Córdoba. Take the train to Madrid, from where you can check out Toledo, Salamanca, and Segovia. Head east for the coast and Valencia. Make your way up to the Basque Country to see the epoch-making Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and feast on some of the world's best food in San Sebastián. Head east via the medieval villages of Aragón and the dramatic Pyrenees to Catalonia, spending time in Tarragona before reaching Barcelona. Take a plane or boat for some downtime on the beautiful Balearic Islands - before catching a flight home.
Few cities on earth are more alive than Madrid, a truly enchanting place whose sheer energy carries a simple message: this city knows how to live. Explore the old streets of the center, relax in the plazas, soak up the culture in Madrid's excellent art museums, and spend at least one night in the city's legendary nightlife scene.
Puerta del Sol is Madrid’s most famous and central square. Originally, it was the site of one of the east-facing city gates and was adorned with an image of the sun.
Plaza de Cibeles is a famous plaza in Madrid, located along the central Calle de Alcalá and adjacent to Paseo del Prado.
The Temple of Debod is an Egyptian temple from the 2nd century BC. It was given as a gift to Spain from the Egyptian government as a thank you for helping them relocate monuments from the Aswan Dam site.
Flamenco Shows take place in many bars and taverns in Madrid. It's an unmissable activity and you can enjoy a flamenco show with a glass of wine and some tapas for around $50 USD.
Mercado de San Miguel is an iconic indoor market and a fun spot to do your grocery shopping. It’s the oldest covered food market in the city with beautiful 20th-century architecture and a fantastic spot to eat some cheap tapas, pick up ingredients for supper, or to just take in the people.
Barrio de La Latina is an upbeat neighborhood and its maze of narrow lanes and streets lined with tapas bars, restaurants, and cantinas are great to explore on foot.
Free Walking Tours Madrid offers up a 2.5-hour walking tour which hits all the main sites of Madrid - please tip your guide!
CASTILLA Y LEÓN
Whether floodlit by night or bathed in the late afternoon sunlight, there's something truly magical about SALAMANCA. This is a city of rare architectural splendor, awash with golden sandstone overlaid with Latin inscriptions in ochre, and with an extraordinary virtuosity of plateresque (in the manner of a silversmith) and Renaissance styles. Monumental highlights are many, with the exceptional Plaza Mayor (illuminated to stunning effect at night) an unforgettable highlight. But this is also Castilla's liveliest city, home to a massive Spanish and international student population who throng the streets at night and provide the city with youth and vitality.
SEGOVIA is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed city and a stunning monument to Roman grandeur with a castle (Alcázar) said to have inspired Walt Disney - a city of warm terracotta and sandstone hues set amid the rolling hills of Castilla. Segovia's most recognizable symbol is El Acueducto (Roman Aqueduct), an 894m-long engineering wonder with 163 arches and, at its highest point in Plaza del Azoguejo, rises 28m high.
AVILA's old city, 1½ hours from Madrid by train or bus, and about halfway between Segovia and Salamanca, is one of Spain's best-preserved medieval bastions, surrounded by imposing walls with eight monumental gates, 82 semi-circular watchtowers, and more than 2500 turrets. Ávila is also famed as the home town of the 16th-century mystic and religious reformer, Santa Teresa de Ávila.
Though one of Spain's smallest regional capitals, TOLEDO played a large part in the nation's history as a bastion of the Spanish church and stand as a symbol of a flourishing multicultural medieval society where tradition has it, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities coexisted peacefully. The old town today is a trove of churches, museums, synagogues, and mosques set in a maze of narrow streets, plazas, and inner patios high above the Río Tajo. Toledo's other strong point is art, in particular the powerful canvases of El Greco, the impossible-to-classify painter with whom the city is synonymous. Crowded by day, Toledo changes dramatically after dark when the streets take on a moody, other-worldly air.
BARCELONA is undoubtedly one of Europe's coolest cities. Despite its two millennia of history, it's a forward-thinking place, always at the cutting edge of art, design, and cuisine. Whether you explore its medieval palaces and plazas, admire the Modernista masterpieces of Antoni Gaudí and others, shop for designer fashions along its bustling boulevards, sample its exciting nightlife or just soak up the sun on the beaches, you'll find it hard not to fall in love with this vibrant city.
GIRONA is a tight huddle of ancient arcaded houses, grand churches, climbing cobbled streets, and medieval baths, all enclosed by defensive walls and a lazy river, some powerful reasons to visit northern Catalonia's largest city.
In the buoyant port city of TARRAGONA, Roman history collides with beaches, nightlife, and a food scene that perfumes the air with freshly grilled seafood. The biggest lure is the wealth of remains from one of Spain’s most important Roman cities, including mosaic-packed museums and a seaside amphitheater.
ARAGÓN, BASQUE COUNTRY & NAVARRA
Aragón is a beautiful and fascinating region to explore if you have a few extra days. In the south, the little-visited Teruel is home to some stunning Mudéjar architecture, and the nearby, Albarracín is one of Spain's prettiest villages. In the north, the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido is the most spectacular stretch of the Spanish Pyrenees, with dramatic mountain scenery and superb hiking; the pretty village of Torla is the main gateway (though it gets overrun with visitors in July and August). En route to the mountains are several towns and villages with enchanting medieval quarters or fascinating medieval monuments, such as Aínsa, Jaca, and Huesca. In Aragón's northwest, Sos del Rey Católico is another gorgeous stone village draped along a ridge
ZARAGOZA (Saragossa), on the banks of the mighty Río Ebro, is a vibrant, elegant, and fascinating city. Its residents, who form over half of Aragón's population, enjoy a lifestyle that revolves around some splendid tapas bars, outstanding shopping, and a dynamic nightlife. But Zaragoza is much more than just a good-time city: its host of historical sights spans all the great civilizations that have left their mark on the Spanish soul. This is also a good place to get acquainted with the artistic genius of Francisco de Goya, who was born a short horse-ride away in 1746.
With an abundance of Michelin stars adorning its stylish restaurants, not to mention a tapas (pintxo) culture almost unmatched anywhere else in Spain, SAN SEBASTIAN frequently tops lists of the world's best places to eat. Charming and well-mannered by day, cool and happening by night, the city has an idyllic location on the shell-shaped Bahía de la Concha, with crystalline waters, a flawless beach, and green hills on all sides.
Apart from its label as the commercial hub of the Basque Country, BILBAO is best known for its magnificent Guggenheim Museum. An architectural masterpiece by Frank Gehry, this museum was the catalyst of a turnaround that saw Bilbao transformed from an industrial port city into a vibrant cultural center - without somehow losing its down-to-earth soul) After visiting this must-see temple to modern art, spend time and explore Bilbao's Casco Viejo (Old Quarter), a grid of elegant streets dotted with shops, cafes, pintxo (tapas) bars and several small but worthy museums.
The pre-Pyrenean city of PAMPLONA (Iruña) is home to the wild Sanfermines festival but is also an extremely walkable city that's managed to mix the charm of old plazas and buildings with modern shops and a lively nightlife. The Sanfermines festival is held from 6 to 14 July, when Pamplona is overrun with thrill-seekers, curious onlookers and, bulls. The Encierro (Running of the Bulls) begins at 8 am daily, when bulls are let loose from the Coralillos Santo Domingo. The 825m run through the streets to the bullring last just three minutes and many of those who run are full of bravado with little idea of what they’re doing. It's a dangerous game and more than a dozen people have died during the run.
CANTABRIA, ASTURIAS & GALICIA
The 'Green Spain' offers fantastic walks and scenery in mountainous national and regional parks, seafood feasts in sophisticated towns and quaint fishing villages, and boasts a spectacular coastline dotted with beautiful beaches washed by the chilly waters of the North Atlantic.
Thirty kilometers west of the Cantabrian capital, Santander, SANTILLANA DEL MAR is a bijou medieval village and the de-facto overnight base for visiting nearby Altamira. Spain's finest prehistoric art, in the Cueva de Altamira, 2.5km southwest of Santillana, was discovered in 1879. It took more than 20 years, after further discoveries of cave art in France, before scientists accepted that these wonderful paintings of bison, horses, and other animals really were the handiwork of primitive people many thousands of years ago. Although the exact age is uncertain the paintings are between 13,000 and 35,000 years old.
The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walk to SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA every year along the Camino de Santiago are often struck mute with wonder upon entering the unique cathedral city's medieval center. Reaching the (supposed) burial place of St. James (Santiago) has been a goal of pilgrims for well over a thousand years.
The 671-sq-km PARQUE NACIONAL DE LOS PICOS DE EUROPA is Spain's second-biggest national park and the jagged mountains it covers offer some of the best hiking in Spain - with the highest peak rising to 2648m! The main centers for accommodation are in Cangas de Onís (Asturias) and Potes (Cantabria) - it would help to have your own transport.
Spain’s third-largest city is a wonderful place - a liveable city with thriving cultural, eating, and nightlife scenes. The star attraction is the strikingly futuristic buildings of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. Valencia also has a handful of fabulous Modernista architecture, fantastic museums, and a large, characterful old quarter. Surrounded by fertile fruit-and-veg farmland, the city is famous as the home of rice dishes like paella, but its buzzy dining scene offers plenty more besides.
The Balearic Islands (Illes Balears in Catalan) grace the glittering Mediterranean waters off Spain's eastern coastline. Beach tourism destinations par excellence, each of the islands has a quite distinct identity and they have managed to retain much of their individual character and beauty. All boast beaches second to none in the Med, but each offers reasons for exploring inland too.
MALLORCA (Majorca), the largest island, is known for its beaches, scenic coastline, and the Serra de Tramuntana mountains to the north. Palma, the capital city, is known for its Gothic cathedral with an altar canopy by modern architect Antoni Gaudí, and Almudaina, a Moorish royal palace. Getting beyond the beach developments and out to some of the more secluded bays, and into the mountains and pretty inland towns is the key to enjoying the island if you have time to venture beyond Palma. Most of Mallorca's best beaches are on the north and east coasts, and although many have been swallowed up by tourist developments, you can still find the occasional deserted cove.
IBIZA (Eivissa in Catalan) is an island of extremes. It's well known for the lively nightlife in Ibiza Town and Sant Antoni, where major European nightclubs have summer outposts. It’s also home to quiet villages, yoga retreats, and beaches, from Platja d'en Bossa, lined with hotels, bars, and shops, to quieter sandy coves backed by pine-clad hills found all around the coast. Peaceful country drives, hilly green territory, a sprinkling of mostly laid-back beaches and coves, and some wonderful inland accommodation and eateries are light-years from the throbbing all-night dance parties that dominate the west.
Many of the most powerful images of Spain emanate from Andalucía and it can be difficult not to feel a sense of déjà vu - the flashing fire of a flamenco dancer, the scent of orange blossom, a festive summer fair, magical nights in the shadow of the Alhambra. In the bright light of day, the picture is no less magical.
SEVILLE will soften any stony heart with its stylish but ancient, proud yet fun-loving vibe – home to two of Spain's most colorful festivals, fascinating and distinctive barrios such as the flower-decked Santa Cruz, historic monuments, and a population that lives life to the fullest. Being out among the celebratory, happy crowds in the tapas bars and streets on a warm spring night in Seville is an unforgettable experience. But whatever you do, try to avoid July and August, when gets incredibly hot and most locals flee to the coast.
CORDOBA was once the capital of Islamic Spain and Western Europe's biggest, most cultured city, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted peaceably. Its past glories place it among Andalucía's top location today. The centerpiece of Cordoba is the mesmerizing, multi-arched Mezquita - arguably one of the world's greatest works of Islamic architecture. Surrounding it is an intricate web of winding streets, geranium-sprouting flower boxes, and cool intimate patios that are at their most beguiling in late spring.
GRENADA'S eight centuries as a Muslim city are symbolized in its keynote emblem, the remarkable Alhambra, one of the most graceful achievements of Islamic architecture. Part palace, part fort part lesson in medieval architecture, the Alhambra has long enchanted a never-ending line of expectant visitors. Granada is stocked with history, art, and life, with tapas bars filled to bursting and flamenco dives resounding to the southern song. Today, Islam is more present here than for many centuries in the shops, tearooms, and mosques of a growing North African community around the maze of the Albayzín.
MALAGA is a world apart from the adjoining, overdeveloped Costa del Sol: a cheerful, historic port city that has emerged as a city of culture - its so-called 'mile of art' being compared to Madrid, and its dynamism and fine dining to Barcelona. Málaga's tastefully restored historic center is a real delight, with a Gothic cathedral surrounded by narrow pedestrian streets flanked by traditional and modern bars, and shops that range from idiosyncratic and family-owned to urban-chic and contemporary.
WHAT TO EAT IN SPAIN
Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish.
Paella - This signature rice dish comes in infinite varieties, although Valencia is its true home. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron (el azafran). Nowadays varieties of paella can be found all over Spain, many containing seafoods.
Cured meats - Wafer-thin slices of chorizo, lomo, salchichón, and jamón serrano appear on most Spanish tables. Visiting Spain without trying Jamon Iberico would be considered a crime by most Spaniards. Spaniards treat their ham very seriously and types and qualities of ham vary in a similar way to wine. Quality ham is generally expensive but has little in common with the many cheaper versions available.
Tapas - These bite-sized morsels range from uncomplicated Spanish staples to pure gastronomic innovation. 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
Olive oil - Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil.
Wine - Spain has the largest area of wine cultivation in the world. La Rioja and Ribera del Duero are the best-known wine-growing regions
Water is frequently served at restaurants 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 have no other option than to order bottled water.
LGBTQ IN SPAIN
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Spain have undergone several significant changes in recent years. Same-sex marriage in Spain has been legal since 3 July 2005, making Spain the third country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry on a national level, after the Netherlands and Belgium. Today, Spain has been recognised for providing one of the highest degrees of liberty in the world to its LGBT citizens.
Spain has also been recognised as one of the most culturally liberal and LGBT-friendly countries in the world. The cities of Madrid and Barcelona, in particular, have a reputation as two of the most LGBT-friendly cities in the world with popular annual Pride Events. Gran Canaria is also known worldwide as an LGBT tourist destination.
WHERE TO STAY IN SPAIN
There are three names for hotel-like accommodation in large cities in Spain: hotel, hostal and pension. It is important not to confuse a hostel with a hostal; a hostel offers backpacker-type accommodation with shared rooms, whereas a hostal is very similar to a guest house and is generally cheaper than a hotel.
There are plenty of hostels in Spain, mostly in Madrid.
For a more homely sort of accommodation consider the casa rural. A casa rural is the rough equivalent to a bed and breakfast. Not all houses are situated in the countryside, as the name might imply. Some are situated in the smaller towns, and they are in virtually every province.
A parador (inn) is a state-owned hotel in Spain (with ratings from 3 to 5 stars). These are a chain of hotels founded in 1928 by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII. The unique aspects of paradores are their location and their history. Found mostly in historical buildings, such as convents, Moorish castles, or haciendas, paradores are the exact opposite of the uncontrolled development found in coastal regions like the Costa del Sol.
Short-term, self-catering apartment rental is a great option for travellers who want to stay in one place for a week or more. Accommodations range from small apartments to villas, although if you plan to visit small inland towns, you will find casas rurales more easily.
Always check the small print when you choose your place to stay at mid-range guesthouses and hotels as a common trick is not to include VAT in the quoted price. (VAT is IVA in Spanish and is set at 10%).