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Top 3 pieces of advice for traveling in Spain

Hello all of you Spain experts!

My trip to Andalucia is about a month away and I would love to get anyone’s top 3 (or however many you have) pieces of advice or tips for traveling in Spain. We are traveling solely by train and bus with no car rental and after going to the main cities of Granada, Seville, Cordoba coming via Madrid. Any advice or tips are much appreciated!

Posted by
18147 posts
  • Be prepared to eat dinner very, very late if you want a restaurant meal.

  • Take earplugs, because the Spaniards will eat even later, and there will probably be street noise and hotel-hallway noise afterward.

  • I've occasionally seen sold-out trains or even buses, so buy your tickets ahead of time if your plans are firm. That can save you a substantial amount of money, at least on train tickets, though the best deals may already have gone to earlier buyers.

I assume you already have your Alhambra tickets.

Posted by
942 posts

For train- I like to be at the station about an hour or so before departure, in case there are any issues.

Always have your printout ticket with you. Before you board train, personnel will scan your ticket. If you have assigned seats, the number of the train and carriage are on the each car. If you are unsure, ask someone. Once I wasn't sure I was on the right train but sat down. I grew more and more concerned until I asked a man opposite me if this was the right train. It wasn't! Oops almost got stuck onboard.

Long distance trains all have screens and music(like airplanes). The conductor used to pass out earphones but I found that my regular Apple earphones fit the jack.

Posted by
2046 posts
  1. English is not as widely spoken in Spain as one may think, compared to other western European countries, this is especially the case in the smaller towns and the more south you go.

  2. During lunchtime, make sure to order from the "Menu del Dia", for a high quality regional/seasonal set menu at an amazing price. Most of the locals go for Menu del Dia for lunch, many times without even looking at the more expensive regular menu.

  3. In Andalucia, especially in Granada, if one orders a drink at a tapas bar, you will also receive a fairly decent free tapa or two with your drink, don't hesitate to ask if they "forget" your freebie tapa :)

  4. Regarding meal times, don't be intimidated by their lateness at first, make an effort to adapt early on and you will see how easy it is, in no time you'll be eating lunch at 2:00 pm and dinner at 10:00 pm (and loving it!)

Posted by
2988 posts

More general tips: pickpockets can be anywhere, so watch your belongings, especially in crowds. Don’t show large amounts of cash in public. Wander off the main tourist streets. There are great things to see on the side streets that would otherwise be missed, but always be aware of your surroundings. Try some new foods, especially some regional specialties. If you like wine, the house wines (blanco, tinto de la casa) are cheaper than specific brands. Most important, enjoy your trip and the experience.

Posted by
114 posts

1) Take your time eating dinner. Relax, enjoy the sounds, people watch. Waitstaff will not come by every 10 minutes asking if you need anything, so don't be offended or feel ignored. Be assertive about waving your arm around, or whatever you need to do to get their attention when you need them.
2) In Granada, make restaurant reservations in advance if you want to get in someplace with a nice view of the Alhambra. If not, there are nice places we saw that are farther up the Albayzin district - that is, not in the Plaza Nueva area, which I felt was super crowded and not very fun (just my opinion). So, be sure to wander up the stairs past all the market stalls to find those places.
3) In Cordoba, take time to stroll through the winding narrow roads to see the Mezquita and Roman Bridge lit up at night - really lovely!

Have so much fun!

Posted by
157 posts
  1. Eat your largest meal of the day at lunchtime. This will give you enough energy to wait until late evening for dinner with the locals. Plus, you can get free tapas when you buy a drink in certain parts of Spain!

  2. Learn a little Spanish. It’s not as difficult as you think and it makes the trip much more rewarding. Very few Spanish people speak English, so make the extra effort and you can have some basic, but worthwhile, conversation!

  3. Go to a soccer match. Spain is huge for soccer, even compared to other European countries. Barcelona and Madrid have world-class stadiums and teams, but you can enjoy cheaper matches in smaller (and thus, closer) stadiums like Sevilla, Bilbao, Girona, Valencia and others.

Posted by
5537 posts

1) Sangria
2) Churros con chocolate
3) Hand fan (small, light, cheap souvenir -- and very useful in hot, stuffy rooms)

Posted by
2530 posts
  1. Drop the stereotypes. Real Spain ain't like that. Toros, paella and sangria are not ubiquitous.

  2. Spain is not a country per se, but an amalgam of very different cultures. There's no uniformity nor "common cause". Take that into consideration to avoid upsetting locals.

  3. Spanish is not the local language everywhere you know of as "Spain": Catalan, Basque and Galizian are the "local" languages in some regions. With Spanish you can "go by", but it's strongly advisable to learn a few sentences in the local languages. You'll feel the difference.

[PS. 4.) avoid talking politics!]

Posted by
1224 posts

a) Take care crossing roads, even if you think you're using a zebra crossing

b) Try foods you're not familiar with at least once. You may fall in love with it (eg caldero murciano). Or might know better to avoid next time (eg porra antequerana)

c) Never pass salt directly from hand to hand.

Posted by
942 posts

To save money, make lunch the main meal. Most restaurants have their lunch menu del dia posted outside. It can be a great bargain as I ate in some finer restaurants for half of what I would have paid at dinner. Usually it's an appetizer and a main course with a desert and a beverage and sometimes coffee.

On drinks, be daring. Have a local beer or wine. One can always tell a tourist because they order sangria all year round. In America, it would be like going to a restaurant and ordering punch.

If you're American, you probably know a little Spanish, hola, adios, etc. Don't be afraid to use it as most Spaniards will be pleased to hear you try. The only person who wasn't was a grumpy shopkeeper in Barcelona who told me my Spanish was bad. Thanks dude.

Go out and walk after dark. It's amazing to see families and friends out and about shopping and eating. There are little kids kick soccer balls down the street and older kids sitting in the plazas or skateboarding.

If you see something you like, buy it. I always kick myself for going into a ceramic shop in Sevilla and not buying this cute painted bowl because I thought it was too expensive. Having said that, if you want cheap souvenirs to bring home, go to a grocery store and pick up some spices or small bottle of olive oil.

Don't sweat the small stuff. There will always be something that goes wrong, be able to make alternate plans.

Posted by
359 posts
  1. Don't overschedule your time. Spain is all about relaxing, enjoying, looking around, socializing. Slow down, stop for a drink, drop into a store or church that looks interesting. Embrace tapas (eat a little, drink a little, go for a walk, repeat), especially in Granada.

  2. Talk to as many Spanish people as you can, especially if you need help. Everyone we met on our trip was delightful. Especially taxi drivers.

  3. Eat all the "weird" stuff. Most of it is delicious (some is not -- we are still talking about pig snout stew.... not....).

Posted by
3486 posts
  1. Dinner, or any meal, for that matter, can be really inexpensive at a tapas bar. We had amazing tapas so don't discard that as a meal. I was told to order your drink (recommend the gin or Rioja or Ribera del duoro wine) with no food. Then they typically bring you your drink and free tapas. After than you can order off the menu. Several times, we were given additional tapas during our time at the bar.
  2. If you don't know Spanish, try to learn a bit on Duolingo. Be prepared with written addresses, etc., when language is a barrier. Google translate can be a help.
  3. Don't worry about asking for help. The local people are super helpful and friendly.

More ;)
4. If your plan is to go to the Sevilla Cathedral, go to Church of the Savior first and arrive about 15 minutes before opening. The ticket is a combo ticket and you won't have to wait at the cathedral.
5. Get your Sevilla Alcazar ticket in advance.
6. All the train journeys seemed to have security checkpoints. Arrive the train station 20-30 minutes before departure.
7. Make sure to walk around the Sacramonte a bit in Granada. I really liked the more edgy neighborhood plus I thought the views of the Alhambra were better than in Albaicin.
8. Walk along the rivers in Cordoba and Sevilla.
9. Visit the Triana neighborhood in Sevilla. We really enjoyed Las Golondrinas for dinner/tappas
10. Spend a lot of time strolling amazing Cordoba. Do RS's walking tour. Poke your head into some of the patios.

Posted by
3486 posts

I agree with Carlos, Salmorejo soup, is amazing. We had a super attentive waiter in Cordoba and when we didn't order the soup, he bought out little samples. Yummy! Such a great waiter and we could barely understand each other due to my almost nonexistent Spanish.

Posted by
49 posts

Thanks everyone! All great tips and so many things I didn’t even think of...keep whatever you have coming :)

Posted by
2046 posts

Hi Jules, you had a very good waiter, it does seem a little off if a visitor does not order the typical food of Cordoba :)

For me, Gazpacho is a bit overrated, although some do enjoy the freshness of the taste, I prefer the smooth creaminess of Salmorejo - it's also a very versatile soup, as one can eat it cold in the summer or warm in the winter

Posted by
11232 posts

1) All the food is not ham and sea creatures, but at first it can seem like that. It does help if you like ham and sea creatures, but if you are looking for something else, don't despair. The menu del dia is a great source of other foods, in addition to being a great bargain.

2) Take taxis between the train or bus station and your hotel. Taxis in Spain are cheap, and I've never had a problem with one (better than I can say of some other countries). There are various legitimate extra charges (such as for putting items in the trunk or getting the taxi at the train station), but these will be posted in the cab.

3) Do take seriously the meal times. I found that by eating lunch at 1:30 PM and dinner at 9:30 PM, I beat the rush (not a joke). If you're hungry at other times, or just want a quick meal, Pans and Co. (similar to Subway in the US) can be a lifesaver. Or grab something from a supermarket; there are full supermarkets in the basement of the main branches of El Corte Ingles in each city (Rick's book has the locations of these).

3a) While El Corte Ingles is billed as a "department store," it's useful for all kinds of other things; I've bought razor blades, ziplock bags, and sunscreen there. One stop shopping, very convenient and not expensive. And the top floors of the main branches often have restaurants which are sort of like food courts.

Posted by
3486 posts

@Carlos, it was an excellent restaurant. It was a bit away from the mezquita where there are a lot of fancy patios. I think the street was San Basilio. And I'm not sure which piece of this is the name, but at the entrance it said, "La Posada del Caballo Andaluz Casa de Comidas. The waiter spoke very little English and the menu was in Spanish which I always take as a good sign. There was an ancient well in the restaurant and he sent us over to look at it. I wanted a Duoro river wine and I don't know what I was doing wrong.I thought I was saying "Ribera del Duoro", but it wasn't coming across. I acted out swimming and "windy", and he ran and got a bottle, and was so pleased when he had it right. He was always happy when we said we liked something as if he made it himself. Such a nice man!

Posted by
18147 posts

Thanks for posting that, jules. I've noted it for my own trip.

Posted by
2446 posts

Mine are similar to others. For Andalucia specifically;

  1. Learn a bit of Spanish. There’s less English than you may think.
  2. Siesta. It’s real. While heat won’t be an issue in March /April, later hours are. A rest in the afternoon gets you ready for dinner at 10.
  3. Catholic religion is important to the culture in Andalucia. Learn a little about it, even if you aren’t religious. Knowing about the processions makes seeing the floats or statues in Seville’s churches more interesting.
  4. Slow down, wander, enjoy the charming narrow streets in the old towns. It’s all about atmosphere, not getting stuff done. Granada’s Albayzin is especially unique.
Posted by
2046 posts

@jules m, an interesting story, I'm not sure how I would have acted out "Ribera del Duero" myself, although it is my favorite wine region in Spain for reds, along with Rías Baixas in Galicia for whites.

Posted by
596 posts

Great topic Ksameena111.

I will be in Spain in 21 days time heading to Granada, Cordoba, and Sevilla also by bus and train. This is my first trip back to Spain in 34 years! (Back in the early '80s, I was young and heading to the beach back then). Now I want to really see Spain. Can't wait. I have enjoyed reading all the recommendations.
Margaret

Posted by
942 posts

Also in Granada don't miss Los Italianos heladeria. There may be better helado/gelato but it's an institution as noted by the lines. Don't be shy, just push your way in.

I think they still have the picture up of Mrs. Obama at the shop during her tour of Spain.

In Seville, if you want to see a Flamenco show go to Casa de Las Memorias. An hour of pure Flamenco with no need to buy food or drink. It was a nice introduction to Flamenco that still felt intimate. Also in Seville, don't miss Bodega Santa Cruz, a tapas bar that serves both tourists and locals. The servers may be a bit gruff but I love how the bartender writes down the orders in chalk on bar and remembers which order is which.

Posted by
14227 posts

Aseos is the usual word for toilet. I have even seen it on direction signs in Madrid. If you need one, go into any cafe or bar and buy a cheap drink for €1-2.

I've only visited in February and March. Salmorejo was always served cold and I tried to eat it at least once a day. You can also buy it in supermarkets in 1-liter cartons (like OJ), but then you have to eat (drink really) it without the chopped egg and ham garnish. Still yummy.

Potato chips. A common snack, seems like all are fried in olive oil. Ice cubes are ubiquitous, yes even in winter.

I've had good sangria in Cordoba, Granada and Barcelona. It's fine if you want something icy cold and alcoholic and don't care for beer. I probably shouldn't, but I always eat all the fruit too. Enric, I promise when we are together not order sangria!

Allow time at the train station. Madrid's is very large and some find it confusing. For fast trains you need to go through a quick security check, though there can be a line in Madrid. Allow time for that and for finding your platform. Train doors close 2 minutes before departure. Be on the train before that!

Most of the souvenirs are well-priced and good quality, fun to look at and take photos, great for gifts. Some people do their Xmas shopping on their trips. Hand-painted wooden fans are a great gift if you live in a hot climate. If you are buying several items, bargain for a discount.

Posted by
578 posts

I agree with Chani about being at Madrid's Atocha train station early. It is large and confusing. We initially started to go to the wrong security line, and when the staff person saw our tickets, told us where to go, which meant taking the escalator down to another level.

Posted by
2446 posts

If you want a cold alcoholic drink but not beer or sangria try tinto de verano. It’s red wine and a carbonated lemon type soda, on ice or otherwise chilled. Sounds weird but is actually really good and simple. Usually less sweet than Sangria, which is a plus to me.

In Granada and maybe other towns (not Seville) they almost always bring a free tapa with a drink. So tip: when going into a cafe in Granada order a drink without ordering food. That way you get the free tapa. THEN order food later if you want something specific. The tapa is often simple, like bread and tomato, or a bit of jamon. But sometimes they will surprise you with something more interesting. Just depends.

Posted by
2046 posts

Re: the drink that Mira refers to, it also popularly goes by the name Vino-con-Gaseosa, while out for lunch, many Spaniards will order this drink rather than Sangria (it makes the wine flow faster😉). Red wine mixed with coca-cola, instead of Gaseosa, is also popular and goes by the name Calimocho.

Regarding those free tapas you get in Granada, it's true that you never know what you will get. Last time I was in Granada I ordered a drink and got a full-on ración de Paella, a ración is larger than the standard tapa size, and the Paella itself was not too bad! BTW the tapas bar where I had my free ración de Paella is called Bar Provincias, on calle provincias, it is tucked away in a back alley and had a very local atmosphere.

Posted by
49 posts

Do you have to order an alcoholic drink to get the tapas? I don’t drink alcohol. Thanks!

Posted by
578 posts

Spain makes some great gin tonics if you are looking for a cold alcoholic drink!

Posted by
1224 posts

Be careful not to get obsessed with the tapas thing. Very broadly it has two tourist meanings.

One is the free morsel you get when you order a drink - you may well get that with a non alcoholic soft drink, like fresh (cloudy) lemonade, though less likely with tea or coffee or can of soda. However the tapas might not be worth getting excited over. Granada is famous for being somewhere that still serves something interesting, and perhaps hot, but it will usually still only be a mouthful or two. In other cities, the free tapas might only be a small bowl of olives or some crisps.

Different is actually ordering tapas (e.g. off a printed menu or blackboard, or at the bar where the options are displayed under glass/plastic covers). In this case you are paying for the specific dishes you choose. What you also order as a drink is irrelevant as that's a separate order. You pay for it all. As mentioned above, some options can be bought at "tapa" size or in a larger "media raciones" portion for sharing or a "plato" main meal sized.

Posted by
2046 posts

@ksameena111 - I see, you're welcome to try, but unfortunately I do not think you'll be able to get away with a free tapa by just ordering a diet coke or something along those lines. But I would not fret too much about this, as Nick mentioned, the whole "free tapa" thing is not like some big deal, it's just a nice little detail when ordering an alcoholic drink. You're not missing much more than that, as the better tapas will always be paid, and the best tapas will be hand written on a chalkboard somewhere at the bar, that's where they list their freshest/seasonal tapas.

Posted by
49 posts

Thank you ! Yes I was just wondering just because I’m sure my daughters would like to try the tradition at least once :)

Posted by
942 posts

Agreed it's a nice little bonus but nothing more. In Granada, I believe I got two chickens pieces on skewers with my drink. If you are looking for nice tapas, you definitely need to pay. Luckily unlike here in the US, tapas are usually fairly cheap.

Posted by
3486 posts

The "free" tapas we got in Granada were excellent and of the same quality as the rest of the tapas we got. In Sevilla we stopped at a RS recommended bar for tapas. We had the bar tender choose what to bring because he was super busy with what appeared to be mostly locals. For the most part, we enjoyed the choices, but there was a potato omelet, with a thick sauce. It was cold and there was too much cold flavorless sauce. The first tapas bar (Castanedo) we went into in Granada was extremely full and we were lucky to get a spot in the corner of the bar. When you catch the eye of the bartender, you were supposed to shout what you wanted which with my poor Spanish wasn't going to happen. I ended up going thru the menu and writing down what we wanted. When he brought our wine, I gave him the list. He rather enjoyed that and showed a cook. (Hope they were laughing with us?!) When he brought the food we got a potato omelet among our other choices. I pointed to it and shook my head (didn't order it, didn't want it!). My husband said, let it go, we'll enjoy the rest. Well, the omelet was still cold, but it was very good, and we realized that it was our "free tapas". He continued to bring us a free one here and there. So one caution would be to not over order, just order a few things at a time. At the other tapas place we went to in Granada (Taberna La Tana) we had to wait with a crowd of locals until the restaurant opened. It was a mad rush to get a "spot" at this small place, but fortunately we ended up with two bar stools right in front of the bartender. Our first glasses of wine came with free tapas that were excellent, as were the ones we ordered. Again, periodically we were given free tapas. We drank a fair amount of wine and were quite full when we left and the bill was ridiculously low and it was such fun. If you want the more gastro/gourmet type tapas that have become popular, then maybe you'd be disappointed with these free tapas, but if you want more local favorites, I think the free ones can be quite good.

Posted by
2530 posts

... potato omelette is supposed to be eaten cold, or rather, at "room temperature" :)

Posted by
3486 posts

@Enric, we figured that out, and realized it wasn't so much that it was cold, it was the "goopy" (that's a technical cooking term, haha) thick sauce. Also, for whatever reason, I think maybe seasoning, the actual omelet was better. The one in Granada, we could actually taste egg and potato.

Posted by
2046 posts

Jules - yes what is a "good" Tortilla Española, is quite the center of contention, as much so as "what is a good paella". Some people like their tortilla thicker vs. thinner or more cooked vs. less cooked (runny) or with extras - like calabacín, jamón, mushrooms etc. Personally, I like my tortilla simple, well done, sliced and on top of some good Pan con Tomate, kind of like this.