Spending this past June in a Spanish Immersion program in Spain was the most surreal experience I have ever had. I lived in a small, sleepy beach town called Cádiz to study Spanish at the local university. I went through my college back home, picked a roommate from the program and lived with a host mom who didn’t know a lick of English. I wasn’t kidding when I said “immersion.” Luckily for me, the program required me to pay for the transportation and tuition fee. Most of the excursions, housing and food was covered by them. While I was in Spain, I visited Madrid, Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville.
This was my first experience living abroad without my family, so I learned a lot along the way. I’m here to share with you a comprehensive Spain guide filled with observations I made, tips to pack, what I wish I knew before I went, things to see, do, buy, and eat.
WHAT TO PACK
- Plug Adaptors (230V and 50 Hz)
- Portable chargers
- Portable Wi-Fi: Tep Wireless Pocket Wi-Fi
VALUABLES AND ID
- Money belt
- Locks for backpacks
- Copy of your passport
- Student ID for free museum entry
- Compact luggage that will survive cobblestone roads and can be carried up stairs when there are no elevators. Not to mention, most hotel rooms and hostels are very tiny so don’t overdo it with the huge suitcases.
CLOTHING & ACCESSORIES:
- Light clothes: it gets incredibly hot and dry during the day, but also cool and slightly breezy in the evenings so bring a cardigan or light jacket too. Avoid more than two pairs of jeans, because I promise it will get sticky and hard to walk around in.
- Cute Outfits: Everyone dresses like they are going on a date. I repeat, do not pack sweatpants. Women and even little girls wear palazzos, jumpsuits, midi skirts and floral dresses. Middle school boys dress better than grown men in America.
- Bring your walking shoes. Yes, you will walk more than 9 miles a day without even noticing it. You’ll most probably drop a few pounds during this trip. Not only will you be walking a lot, but on cobblestone roads so make sure your shoes are extremely comfortable. I’d suggest bringing a pair of sneakers and some sandals for relaxed days by the beach.
- Reusable water bottle: You must pay for water at restaurants. Tap water is drinkable there so unless specified, they will bring you a water bottle and charge for it. Cities like Madrid have fresh drinking fountains across the city so invest in a reusable water bottle.
- Moisturizing Products: Hydrating lotions, lip balms, vaseline, extra hydrating shampoos and conditioner, sunscreen, get it all. The weather gets very dry in Spain. Do what you need to prevent dandruff, flaky skin, and peeling lips.
OBSERVATIONS AND TIPS
- Dinner is eaten after 9pm. Feel free to snack around before then.
- You better love seafood. Almost all the local delicacies there are either ham or seafood. They love squid, all types of fish, octopus, snail, mussels, shrimp, and more. On the streets, you’ll find vendors selling paper cones filled with fried shrimp half the size of a fingernail. Yes, with the eyes, whiskers and all.
- Snack on fresh fruit. The best part of Spain is their food is fresh and containing less preservatives and chemicals than American food. The locals consume fruit throughout the day instead of junk food.
- Don’t expect spicy food. Spaniards use simple seasonings like salt and pepper. You’ll rarely find Hot Cheetos or other spicy flavors common in the West. If the packaging says ‘picante’ or spicy, it will probably be mild at best.
- Bread is a staple here. You will rarely find dishes with rice, and for my South Asian friends, the food will not be nearly as flavorful as we’re used to so I’d bring tabasco sauce if I were you.
- Expect terrible service at restaurants. Spain doesn’t follow the system of tipping. Waiters are paid well unlike in America, and tips are always included in the cost of the food. Therefore, they have no incentive to serve you food on time, or even be nice. “A quick bite” is essentially 3 hours. The waitress asks for your order 30 minutes after you arrive, food takes 30 minutes to get there, and the waitress will come back to your table an hour after you finish eating to pick up plates. If you want the check, you definitely have to ask for it.
- Unless you’re at Starbucks, Iced Coffee doesn’t exist. Ask for one, and you’ll get a tiny glass cup with hot coffee filled to the brim, and a separate bowl of giant ice cubes, so big that even one of them won’t fit into the cup.
- Get used to sweet breakfasts. Prepare for pastries, pastries, and wait… more pastries.
- Spaniards love their potatoes. Patatas con huevos are very popular here. It’s essentially a thick omelette with potatoes inside. You can eat them at any time of day and even inside sandwiches.
- Try the ham. Spain is obsessed with ham and ham flavored everything. Jamon flavored Lays, Ruffles, and even museums about ham, you name it.
- If you do anything, try the gelato. Gelato is pretty popular here, and you’ll notice Nestle’s La Lechera franchise everywhere. Avoid that since that probably won’t be the most authentic gelato experience. Ask locals what their favorite gelato spot is.
- Download the Moovit app to navigate local transport. Cars aren’t too popular depending on which city you visit. Most people rely on the buses and trains to get around. Cabs and Ubers can get very pricey depending on traffic, time of day and how close to the center of town you are.
- Take cabs, not Ubers. Uber drivers aren’t background checked in Europe like they are in America. Uber drivers also cancel rides very frequently, so book well in advance if you’re trying to catch a flight home. The first time I booked an Uber, three different drivers cancelled until someone showed up 30 minutes later. Not to mention, I didn’t know Spanish at the time so I had a hard time understanding him when he spoke rapidly. Taxis are a lot safer, have proper licensing, and almost always speak English.
- Plan your sightseeing and shopping around siesta. Siesta, meaning rest, is a time period everyday from 2-5pm where non-franchise shops, markets, and some businesses close down to have lunch with their families and nap after. Sunset is at around 10pm in the summer so you have more than enough time to knock out things off the to-do list. In big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, siesta is seen as outdated. Most places are closed on Sundays, so reserve that day for the beach.
- Pack light. It’s easy to purchase cute clothes from local markets for less than $10 so save some suitcase space.
- Most people know English. When I first moved to Spain, there had been numerous times where I would struggle with Spanish assuming that’s all they knew. After 5 minutes trying to converse, I’d give up and ask if they knew English. 90% of the time, they did.
- Download the offline translation on Google Translate. This feature saved my life, considering data and Wi-Fi are major issues for travelers there.
- All of Spain communicates via WhatsApp. This will be the most reliable way to talk to family back home for free or even locals you meet.
- If you have T-Mobile, consider yourself lucky. Else, buy a local SIM card. Normally I’d recommend anything but T-mobile, but in the case of traveling, they offer data and free texting, while AT&T and Verizon charge for both.
- Expect to have spotty Wi-Fi. Hotels often only have decent Wi-Fi in the lobby.
- People won’t hesitate to run you over if you’re jaywalking. Don’t ask how I know that.
- If you have MasterCard or Visa, select Euro when paying. The cashier will always ask you if you want to pay in US Dollars or Euros. Choosing Euros allows your bank to use their standard conversion rate, but if you choose US Dollars, you’re paying a rate at the mercy of the shopkeeper who can increase it as they please for profit.
- Let your bank know you’re traveling to Spain. The last thing you need when halfway across the world is for your bank to suspend card activity because they think someone stole it and fled.
- Convert cash back home at smaller shops where the exchange rate is more favorable than banks. Do not convert in Spain unless absolutely necessary, ESPECIALLY not at the airport. If you do decide to convert in Spain, the Deutsche Bank had the lowest rates. Another option would be to get a Chase Sapphire card, since they don’t have exchange rates, and you can use their points for airfare and hotels.
- Lock your backpacks and wear your purse in front of you. The pickpocket situation is terrible in tourist cities like Barcelona. Innocent looking children are scouted to scam tourists. They might come to you and ask you to sign a petition, then slyly grab your wallet. They might even hover around to find the perfect moment. With cross bodies, wear them in the front, with the zips facing your body. Avoid fanny packs with a clip in the back. Those can easily be unsnapped and snatched by bystanders. Avoid putting anything valuable in your back pockets. I’d convert a decent amount of cash prior to the trip, but only leave your hotel room with however much you need for the day. If you’re backpacking, I’d invest in a money belt that you can hide under your shirt, and won’t need to open in public. Consider locking your backpack zips or walk with your backpack in front of you.
- Please don’t be the loud and obnoxious American. I thought this was a stereotype, but I realized it’s true. Locals will not hesitate to stare you down or even be rude to you.
- The policemen look like models. Irrelevant, but just needed to put that out there.
- July is the worst month to visit. Spain’s heat waves are not a joke. Pack heavy on sunscreen and bring your shades.
BEAUTIFUL CITIES TO VISIT
There is so much to see beyond Madrid and Barcelona. In fact, the most beautiful beaches, palaces, and landscapes are not even in those two cities. Madrid and Barcelona are great, but are pretty touristy if you’re looking for a traditional experience.
- Madrid: For all this art and history lovers out there, this city is for you. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which was inaugurated by Queen Sofia, showcases phenomenal 20th century art from Spanish artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Picasso’s masterpiece, El Guernica, which conveys the horrors of the Spanish civil war, is alone worth the price of admission. Other attractions to see include Mercado de San Miguel, Temple of Debod (Ancient Egyptian Temple), Buen Retiro Park, Plaza de Cibeles, Puerta del Sol, Prado Museum, Plaza Mayor and Palacio Real. For all my Cable Girls fans, the entire show was shot in Madrid in Atocha train station, Gran Via, and Edificio Telefonica.
- Barcelona: This is the city for architecture geeks like me. Visit La Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family). It’s one of the most popular attractions in the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fun fact: Designed by the famed architect Antoni Gaudi, it’s been under construction for over 100 years and still isn’t complete! Other attractions include Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Museo Picasso, Arc de Triomf, Palau de la Musica Catalana, Parc de la Ciutadella, Montjuïc, Casa Batllo, and Parc Guëll.
- Granada: Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Granada has breathtaking beauty. This mystical city was the capital of a Moorish kingdom from the 13th until the 15th centuries. La Alhambra, A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 10 wonders of the world, is a massive castle constructed over many centuries. From lush greenery, fountains and rose gardens, this city has it all. Although now predominantly Christian, Granada has inherited rich Islamic, Jewish, and Gypsy influences. Other attractions include the Albaicín, Mirador of San Nicolas, Capilla Real, The Gypsy Quarter of Sacromonte, The Bañuelo (Traditional Arab Baths), La Alcaicería (Arab Spice Market), and flamenco performances.
- Cádiz: After living here for a month, this little beach town will always remain dear to my heart. If you want to end your Spain trip on a slow-paced, more relaxed note, this is the spot for you. This is the best place to visit if you want amazing seafood. Aside from that, you must visit the beaches and Roman ruins. Attractions include Castle of San Sebastián, Playa de la Victoria, Gran Teatro Falla, Torre Tavira, Cádiz Cathedral, Parque Genovés, Mercado Central for fresh produce, Gadir Archaeological Site, El Puerto de Santa María, and the Museum of Cádiz.
If you visit Cádiz, here are some of my food recommendations:
- The best gelato places are Narigoni, Heladeria in Plaza de Mina, and Bajo Cero.
- Panaria is a great cafe to study or work, with the best cappuccinos and free Wi-Fi. Bar el Periquito on Calle de la Rosa is a small hole-in-the-wall cafe with amazingly soft donuts, great cafe con leche, and friendly service.
- Visit Mediterráneo in Plaza de Mina for their fried seafood platter
- La Taperia on Calle Beato Diego de Cádiz has amazing food. Order their pulpo asado sobre base de patatas al pimentón and the berenjenas rellenas de queso cremoso a la miel.
- The best bakeries are Productos Típicos de Cádiz and La Médina De Tétouan on Calle Ancha (Moroccan Pastries)
- The best plaza to shop for clothes, accessories and fresh flowers is Plaza de Flores.
- Go to La Guapa for churros and Le Poeme for the cup of rich dark chocolate.
- Seville: The capital of the southern Spain’s Andalusia region, Seville is absolutely enchanting. Think horse drawn carriages, old-fashioned street lamps, royal palaces, grand plazas with fountains and canals. Plaza de España itself is the set of numerous films, let alone the Real Alcázar where Game of Thrones was filmed. Cathedral de Seville is one of the largest in the world, looking like something from a Harry Potter movie with its Gothic architecture. Flamenco at the Museo del Baile Flamenco is an absolute must-see while you’re here. Other attractions include
Museo de Bellas Artes, Parque de María Luisa, Metropol Parasol, Real Maestranza Bullring, Archeological Museum of Sevilla, and Barrio Santa Cruz. For amazing tapas, visit Taberna Coloniales.
- Toledo: 20-30 minutes away from Madrid by train, Toledo is the best day trip you can take. The city has so many historical monuments that the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the gorgeous castles and bridges to the city perched on hilly landscapes overlooking the skyline, Toledo is the most picturesque place you’ll visit in Spain. Definitely spend a night at the Hotel Los Cigarrales for the most magical views overlooking the castles on the hills. Cigarrales were recreational estates that royalty used as their getaways. Many of them have been converted into hotels.
- Córdoba: If you love architecture and history, this is the place to go. Every wall is adorned with colorful pots and yellow accents, the perfect background for a photoshoot. The top place to see is La Mezquita de Córdoba, a mosque-turned-church with elements of architecture from both cultures.
BASIC SURVIVAL SPANISH PHRASES
- Por favor! Donde esta [insert location] – Excuse me, where is [insert location]
- Cuanto cuesta? – How much is it?
- Puedo probar esto? – Can I try this? (you’ll be trying a lot of gelato flavors)
- Que es estos? – What are these?
- Hablas mas despacio por favor – Please speak slower
- Yo quiero [insert what you want] – I want [insert what you want]
- Me puedes ayudar, por favor? – Can you please help me?
- No hablo español – I don’t speak Spanish
- Hablas ingles? – Do you speak English?
- Soy de los Estados Unidos – I am from the United States.
DISHES TO TRY
- Arroz Negro: A delicious Valencian and Catalan dish made with cuttlefish or squid ink and rice. The black color can be a little daunting at first, but I promise, looks can be deceiving.
- Tortillitas de Camarones: Shrimp fritters made with a batter of wheat flour, chickpea flour, water, onion, parsley, shrimp, salt and pepper. The shrimp are extremely tiny (we’re talking half the size of your phalange).
- Tortilla de Patatas: Also known as the Spanish omelette, this is the go-to breakfast dish locals love. It can be eaten for any meal really (breakfast for dinner FTW), and you can often find grocery stores selling them inside pre-packaged sandwiches if you’re looking for a quick and filling meal. Yes, Spaniards really love their carbs.
- Pulpo Asado: the roasted octopus is to-die-for.
- Escargot: Yes, these creepy crawly land snails are a delicacy in Spain.
- Pisto: Resembles ratatouille; made of tomatoes, onions, eggplant or courgettes, green and red peppers and olive oil.
- Lentejas: a delicious lentil stew
- Gazpacho: It’s basically a vegetable purée or soup, served cold. Some people don’t like it, including myself. But definitely worth a try.
- Churros con Chocolate: Spanish churros aren’t like the Mexican churros you’ve probably tried at county fairs or even Jack in the Box. Find the most popular churro place near you and they will fry them in front of you, selling them by the pound. Make sure to come on an empty stomach for brunch because it will be filling. What’s different is these churros are thinner than Mexican ones and they are fried without sugar. You’ll get them wrapped in newspaper straight out of the frying pan along with packets of sugar and a cup of thick, rich dark chocolate to dip in. Don’t expect them to be sweet if you have a major sweet tooth like me.
- Seafood Paella: You’ll often find different types of paella, but seafood is the most popular. Also, beware where you get your paella because restaurants that advertise it with stock images tend to be subpar. Look for small, family-run restaurants or better yet, ask a local what the best place is.
- Patatas Bravas: A popular tapas, fried potatoes served with warm, spicy tomato sauce.
- Patatas Aliñadas: Spanish potato salad
- Huevos con Bechamel: hard-boiled eggs with battered bechamel
- Fried Seafood Platter
EXPERIENCES YOU NEED
- See a traditional Flamenco in Andalucia, the birthplace of the dance.
- Cooking classes
- Salsa classes
- Surfing on the beach
- Go to a football game: Even if you don’t care about football, you need to go to a Real Madrid or Barcelona game. Check the La Liga website and purchase tickets way in advance because they sell out quickly.
- La Tomatina: Named “the World’s Biggest Food Fight,” this is the messiest event you will ever go to. Yes, worse than Holi. Located in the small Valencian town of Buñol, which is East of Spain, participants throw tomatoes and get involved in a massive tomato fight just for fun every August. They literally throw tons of over-ripe tomatoes (that aren’t suitable for consumption or sale) at each other, turning the streets into rivers of tomato juice. Initially accommodating 50,000 people, the event has started limiting tickets to 20,000 people and they sell out quick so get them in advance.
- Pamplona Running of the Bulls: Ever heard of the event where bulls chase men dressed in white and red through the streets of Spain? That’s Running of the Bulls during the nine-day San Fermin festival held during July.
- Take a stroll around all the plazas
- Visit the local art museums
- Visit Roman ruins
- Ask a local for their favorite recipe
SPANISH SNACKS WORTH TRYING
- Milka brownies
- Doritos Chilli
- Lays Receta Campesina
WHAT TO BRING BACK
- Dulce Pimenton (sweet paprika that’s used in all Spanish food)
- Hand Fans
- Local snacks
- Spanish sweets and biscuits
- Leather bracelets
- Platform sandals
- Spanish jewelry from markets
- Woven bags