Visiting Spain, Barcelona and Madrid: Your 10-minute travel guide

Reading time: 10 minutes

¡Hola Espana! Spain is where you find the good life. There are more bars, more beaches, more wilderness and more ski resorts than you can imagine. The country also packs a lot of cultural diversity – and more than a few languages – into its half-million square kilometres.

As perhaps the most “fun” of all European countries, Spain attracts millions of international tourists who come to party and the Spanish themselves get by on less sleep than anyone else in Europe.

But if you’re only here for sun and sangria, you’ll miss out on the country’s vast wealth of art, history and museums. And we haven’t even mentioned the food yet.

This guide gives you insider information on the what, where and how-to of having as great Spanish sojourn.

The big two of Spanish airports

Far and away the two biggest airports in Spain are in Madrid and Barcelona. Combined they account for some 95 million arrivals each year – that’s 260,000 people every day! When you’re caught in that crowd, it pays to have a bit of insider info.

About Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (code: MAD)

  • Barajas is the biggest airport in Europe by area.
  • Terminals 4 and 4S are far away from T1, T2 and T3. Further, T4S seems to be an island in the middle of the runways – you can only get there by underground train. It can be confusing.
  • Lines can be long. Spanish people in general are pretty patient about waiting – it fits with the country’s distinctive ideas about time.

About Barcelona–El Prat Airport (BCN)

  • Its two terminals are 4km apart by bus! Know well in advance which one you need to go to.
  • Check your flight to Barcelona isn’t actually to Girona or Reus. The airports of both towns serve the city. Connecting transport is good, but takes time.
  • El Prat T1 is actually … nice. So much so it’s worth arriving early just to wander around.

Escaping the Madrid (MAD) and Barcelona (BCN) airports

  • Getting out of Madrid Airport is easy. It’s only 12km into town, so taxis are a reasonably priced option. However, if you plan where you’re going, the regular 24-hour metro is a better option: both faster and cheaper. Other public transport connections are good.
  • Transit from Barcelona Airport into the city is also easy. A train service runs roughly every half hour into the city and takes 25 minutes. If you’ve actually landed at Girona or Reus, the connecting buses are pretty good, but it can take over an hour to get into Barcelona proper.

Safety in Spain

Spain is safe. But what does that mean? Firstly, violent crime – especially against tourists – is really rare. However, certain parts of the country also deserve their reputation as pickpocket paradise.

Pickpockets – and their scammer cronies – are very sneaky. It’s easy to get caught out. So, leave your passport in the hotel safe, don’t sling your bag over the back of a restaurant seat and keep your wallet/phone out of your back pocket.

If someone – say a busker or street vendor – invades your personal space, they’re probably dodgy! We even know of one guy who took a beach nap while still wearing his backpack. When he woke up, it was gone!

As for violent crime, natural disasters, scary diseases, dangerous wildlife or precarious infrastructure, Spain doesn’t really figure in the stats. It’s among the physically safest countries in the world.

Female travellers

Spanish society expects and supports women to live full and independent lives. However, while catcalling and obvious flirting from men is on the decline, it is still more common than in the USA.

It is also usually done in a more lighthearted way. It’s a deeply held part of Spanish male culture (“machismo” is a Spanish/Portugese invention after all). Annoying, perhaps. Harmless, almost always.

Madrid

Getting around Madrid

Madrid is smack-bang in the middle of the country. We mean literally. The exact geographical centre of Spain is marked by a plaque at number 3 on the street of Plaza Puerta del Sol – a short walk from the main train station.

The best way to get around this city of some 6 million people is the metro. It’s an extensive and straightforward system of underground stations.

Madrid on foot

You can knock off many of Madrid’s must-sees in one 3 mile stroll. Start at the towering neo-gothic Almudena Cathedral, then head east through a succession of plazas, palaces and monuments to end at the glorious Parque del Buen Retiro. There are relentless numbers of bars, cafes and restaurants along the way. Thankfully for your feet (but less fortunate for pretty photos) Madrid got rid of almost all its cobblestone streets a while ago.

Barcelona

Getting around Barcelona

Barcelona, about half the size of Madrid, probably packs even more in. When we’re there, we literally only use comfortable shoes and the metro to get around. Do note, some underground stations are not air-conditioned or well ventilated. Instead, fresh air comes from the rush of incoming trains. The system actually works well, except for sweltering nights when the trains are less frequent and you’re surrounded by sweaty nightclubbers.

Barcelona on foot

The old city of Barcelona – the famed Barri Gotic – is a treat. An alleyway maze of cool shops, hidden bars and street art. And forming its western edge is Spain’s most famous street: the wide boulevard of La Rambla. This eternal carnival leads down to a Mediterranean beach and is the perfect vague goal for a wander that begins at the extravagantly bizarre Sagrada Familia and takes in historical Placa de Catalunya or gorgeously old-school Parc de la Ciutadella on the way.

What to wear

Spanish people dress well. What you think of as smart casual is to most Spanish just plain-old casual. You don’t have to look outright chic (though many Spanish do), but it pays to look well groomed.

There’s also a practical side to this regarding pickpockets: they often target people who dress like tourists. So avoid, shorts, flip flops and t-shirts unless you are on the way to or from the beach.

Weird fact: Spanish law permits public nudity anywhere. Some cities have well-known eccentrics who take full advantage; no one else does.

Myths about Spain

  • Bullfighting only takes place in a few areas. Most of the country is not proud of this tradition, now considered outright animal cruelty.
  • Siestas are somewhat uncommon, having been replaced by the long, late lunch.
  • Sangria has roughly the same place in Spanish life as punch does in English-speaking countries, i.e. pretty much just a festive treat.
  • While the summers are famously warm and sunny, Spain also gets bitterly cold in winter. Central Madrid sees snow almost every year.

Getting along with the Spanish

You need to know some Spanish. Beyond simple manners, the simple fact is that English has not penetrated Spain as much as it has, say, Denmark. Surveys report that perhaps two-thirds of the Spanish don’t “know” English. We’ve included some basic terms below.

Before we get to them, we have to point out that Spain is a country of distinct regional identities and dialects, notably Catalonia in the east, Basque Country on the northern border and Galicia of the far north-west. The people tend to be more proud of their region than of Spain itself. Especially Basque Country: it has its own laws and many there speak a unique language that has no relationship to Spanish (or, amazingly,  any other language). Read up on the cultural sensitivities of each area before you go.

The basics for the dominant Castilian language:

Some phrases you’ll actually use

Most phrasebooks cover all sorts of bizarre things, however the bulk of your conversations will be around accessing services or requests for information. Here’s a few good phrases:

 

In Spanish:  lo siento interrumpir, pero..

Say: ler-see-ento in-tair-rom-pee, peh-roh..

In English: Excuse me, sorry to interrupt, but…

Note: Use this before asking for directions as asking for directions in the street usually involves stopping someone or interrupting a conversation?

 

In Spanish: ?para aqui o para llevar?

Say: parr-uh uk-EE oh parr-ah yev-uh?

In English: Do you want to be seated or takeaway?

Note: A question you will be asked in restaurants. Respond with aqui (uk-kee) if you mean to stay .

 

In Spanish:  café con leche por favor

Say: caff-eh kon letch-ay por fav-orr

In English: Coffee with milk, please

Note: A café con leche is a great local substitute for the regular coffee you’re used to in the USA.

 

In Spanish: no gracias, estoy solamente mirando

Say: Noh gruth-yuss, ess-toh solla-men-tay meer-ann-doe

In English: No, thank you, I am just looking for now.

Note: Say this in the shop when you are approached by a staff member but not ready to buy.

 

In Spanish: Tengo un seguro de viaje

Say: Teng-o oon seg-oor-eh dev-yuk-eh

In English: I have travelling insurance

 

In Spanish: ¿Dónde está la embajada de United States?

Say: Don-day ess-ta lah em-bah-ha-tha th’Oss-trull-ya

In English: Where is the United States embassy?

 

In Spanish: lo siento, no hablo  español  muy bueno

Say: ler-see-ento, no abb-lo ess-pan-yoll moo-ey bwen-oh

In English: Sorry, my Spanish is not very good yet

 

In Spanish: Me puede decir la manera de …

Say: Me pu-ey-th theth-eer lah man-air-a they

In English:  Can you tell me the way to …

 

In Spanish:  cuanto cuesta?

Say: kwan-to kwess-ta?

In English: How much does it cost?

How the locals eat out in Spain

These are personal recommendations from our time in Spain.

Hot tip: The Spanish take their meals later in the day than almost any other country. You might well find every restaurant still shut when your belly is rumbling for lunch at 12pm sharp.

Breakfast – el desayuno:

Federal Cafe – Madrid

Spain doesn’t really do breakfast, but this place does. So while you’ll usually have to make do with a coffee and pastry on the go elsewhere, at this Aussie-owned cafe you can do a “proper breakfast”, with all the regular comforts that implies. It’s one of the small chain of “Federals” popping up across the country.

Price: $.

Hours: 9am ‘til late – 7 days

Address: de las Comendadoras 9, 28015 Madrid

Web: http://www.federalcafe.es/

Morning tea (but more like “second breakfast”) – almuerzo:

La Bernarda – Valencia

At about 10:30 am everyone feels peckish. In Spain the solution is almuerzo – it’s your standard morning tea, but upsized so it’s more involved than a snack but less than a proper meal. Bocadillo sandwiches are the traditional go-to and in Valencia (which has a strong almuerzo culture) there’s none better than La Bernarda.

Price $$.

Hours: From 8am

Address: Carrer del Cobertís de Sant Tomàs, 7, 46001 València

Web: https://www.facebook.com/labernardadetapineria/

Lunch – la comida:

In Spain, lunch is late. As in, you might not sit down to eat until 3pm. It’s worth the wait, for lunch is when you can really dig into Spain’s stunning food. You’ll want to try paella, the Valencian specialty that has become Spain’s national food (with all the cliches that implies).

 

La Pepica – Valencia

Classic, standard paella in a really easy-to-get-to spot right on a Mediterranean beach.

Price: $$ (never buy cheap paella)

Hours:  Lunch 1-3:30 pm; Dinner 8:30- 10:30 pm, 7 days

Address: Paseo Neptuno, 6 Valencia

Web: http://www.lapepica.com/en/

Dinner – la cena:

Tapas time! Yes, Spanish people eat late by the standards of other countries. Wrapping a mid-week restaurant dinner after midnight is normal. That said, the meals you commence at 10pm tend to be small. Hence tapas. This is also your time to properly savour Spain’s excellent wines. Just wander around and look for a neighbourhood place that’s busy – it’ll probably be really good value too. Or, if in Barcelona, splash out a with…

Disfrutar – Barcelona

Price: $$$$ – as fits a Michelin-starred joint

Hours: Tues-Sat, Lunch 10am–1pm, lunch-dinner 3:30–8:30pm; Mon-Sun, closed

Address:  c/Villarroel 163, Barcelona 08036

Web: http://en.disfrutarbarcelona.com/contact/

Outside the cities

It’s easy to anchor your Spanish trip entirely around the national capital Madrid and tourism capital Barcelona (with a side trip to Mediterranean beach capital Valencia). You’ll miss out on a lot if you don’t branch out though.

Getting around Spain is easy. The country’s highway and rail networks are world-class. (The trains can be expensive though). Also, as some of Spain’s attractions – such as Ibiza and the Canary Islands – are far off the coast, you’ll be happy to know that domestic airfare is good value for money.

Note: Spain is Europe’s second-most mountainous country (after Switzerland) and mountains mean air turbulence. The flying conditions aren’t “bad”, but a perfectly smooth flight is rare.

Regions and maps

Map of Spain dialects/languages – some dialects, like Castilian and Catalan, are similar; some, like Basque, are as different from Spanish as Swahili is from Swedish:

Map of some of Spain’s most famous destinations

Map of Spain’s best beaches: Spain’s best beaches extend from the stunning, virtually desert, landscapes of the Canary Islands thousands of kilometres south of the mainland to milder northern foreshores and to the world’s most famous (infamous?) party islands:

Map of Spain’s best skiing (and it’s really good).

 

When planning your trip to Spain check out our Spanish SIM card and learn how to make the most of your pre-paid phone card. We hope you will enjoy your stay in Spain!

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