Top hacks for visiting Spain like a local
Perhaps this is your first visit to the sunny, welcoming country of Spain. Or maybe it's your eighth, eleventh or twentieth vacation there. Either way, Spanish culture is special, and if you'd like to have a more authentic and memorable time, there are a few hacks that are useful to know.
After 12 years of living in Spain, a master's degree in Castillian Spanish and marrying into a Spanish family, I’ve learned a thing or two about living, visiting and traveling in Spain like a local. To save you from making numerous faux pas (many that I have made myself) and help you avoid tourist prices, pickpockets and general discomfort/embarrassment, here are some key tips to enjoying Spain like a local, to enrich your trip and to help you immerse yourself in the wonderful culture, landscape and cuisine the country has to offer.
1. Choose your destination wisely
Spain is a country of beaches, mountains, islands, villages and urban hubs. Depending on the style of trip you want to have, choose your destination with care. While Barcelona, Marbella, Benidorm and Tenerife are some of the most popular hotspots for European travelers, get more in touch with the local culture by trying something a little different. Visiting cities or regions that fly more under the radar will ensure you avoid typical tourist price hikes, get a more traditional feel for the country and avoid being targets of travel scams or pickpocketing. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are some suggested alternatives.
- Want to visit Barcelona? Try Madrid
- Want to visit Marbella? Try Cádiz
- Want to visit Tenerife? Try La Palma
- Want to visit Mallorca? Try Menorca
- Want to visit Seville? Try Córdoba
- Want to visit San Sebastián? Try Santander
- Want to visit Malaga? Try Almería
- Want to visit Benidorm? Try Tarragona
2. Choose your neighborhood carefully
If you've chosen to visit Barcelona, Marbella or Tenerife, that's okay too. There are plenty of wonderful attractions to enjoy in all of those spots. But do some research to find the areas or neighborhoods you'd really love to spend time or dine in. Even if you do decide to make your base the more touristy Ramblas or Tenerife's all-inclusive hub of Playa de las Américas, seek out more local attractions within these areas. You'll save money avoiding touristy restaurants and discover new and interesting spots along the way. Seeing the main tourist attractions shouldn't necessarily be skipped, but you may find you enjoy some of the off-the-beaten-path spots even more.
3. Be an organized tourist
Traveling locally doesn't mean skipping the tourist attractions. It just means doing them in a savvier manner. Many of Spain's most popular attractions (think the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Real Alcázar in Seville) have online ticketing systems. Plan to purchase tickets ahead so you skip the line when arriving. For attractions that require a timed entrance purchase, consider checking out Google's popular times feature. When you google the attraction and scroll down, you can see a graph with the most and least popular times, ensuring you may be able to select a time to see your chosen attraction during a less busy time of day.
If you're traveling on a budget, many museums have days or times where you can enter for free or for reduced entry. Although these times are typically more crowded, it may be worth it to save some extra money.
4. Do things later (and yes, take that siesta)
If there's one thing that will call you out as a tourist, it's waking and eating earlier than the locals. Lunch begins at 1 p.m., but is most commonly had between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Find a spot with a set lunch menu, a Menu del Día. This fixed price menu that changes daily is usually a great deal: a drink (wine, beer or soft drink), starter, main course and dessert or coffee, usually priced between eight and 16 euro ($9 - $18).
Although restaurants open around 8:30 p.m., 10 p.m. is a much more normal time for dinner -- and even later on the weekends. When your crew rolls in at 8 p.m., you may get the tourist menu, meaning one with inflated prices. And you'll probably only be surrounded by other tourists, not getting a feel for what Spanish dinnertime is really like (hint: it's noisy and fun).
How can you possibly wait that long to eat dinner, one might ask? The key is the famous siesta. Napping after midday, especially in the intense heat of the summer when temperatures in many areas of Spain are nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit will ensure you not only avoid the hottest part of the day but gives you more chance of staying awake long enough to eat dinner -- and maybe even go out for a copa afterwards. For more information on what a copa is, see my next point.
The other advantage of taking a siesta is to avoid all the shops being closed. Although many larger shops stay open all day, some of the smaller and more local businesses close midday for lunch and rest, usually re-opening again around 5 p.m.
5. Order like a pro (and in Spanish, if possible)
The Spanish are efficient when they order food and drinks. Saying things like, "ponme una caña" is completely normal, though in the US you'd never tell the barman to "give me a little beer". And what you're ordering is just as important:
- Skip sangria and order tinto de verano instead (this is a fresher, less sugary type of wine spritzer that's more commonly ordered by locals. When you try it, you'll see why).
- Skip the Guinness and order a caña, a small beer (in the heat of the summer, you'll see why this makes sense. By the time you're just about done, the beer is warm, and it's time to order another).
- Skip a margarita, daiquiri or mojito in lieu of a copa (a copa is a simple mixed drink with one type of alcohol mixed with soda or tonic water. The Spanish prepare these much better than fancy cocktails).
- Don't order paella in places where the menus show pictures of it.
- Try vermouth, sherry or local wines. These are cheap and delicious.
- Remember, you may get a free tapa with a drink order, especially at bars/restaurants in southern Spain. Seek these joints out, it's where the locals are.
- If you have dietary restrictions or allergies, triple confirm (have the information written in Spanish for serious allergies) with the waiter. Remember that in Spain, sometimes locals don't consider ham as meat, so if you're vegetarian or do not eat pork, confirm the dish you're order is both pork and beef free. Vegans will have a tougher time, but slowly, more options are becoming available in the larger cities for those restricted to a plant-based diet.
Learning just a little bit of Spanish -- even just easy words for food and booze can make your trip a lot easier -- and more fun. Locals will appreciate your effort, and you may even make a few friends as you stumble over forming a phrase or two.
6. Summer is hot -- so be prepared
While this may seem blatantly obvious, what's not as obvious is that air conditioning is very different in Spain. Some places don't have it at all, and some shops, hotels and restaurants won't have the same quality of air conditioning you'd find in other countries. If having AC is important to you or you tend to run hot, double check that your hotel or home rental has AC and keep your expectations under control. Or, avoid visiting during the hottest months of the year, July and August.
And of course, the telltale sign of a tourist is shockingly sunburned skin, so wear sunblock even if it seems cloudy. The Spanish sun can easily deliver a burn in no time at all, even in months like April or October.
A final tip is to use those handheld Spanish fans to beat the heat. They can come in handy, especially when on public transportation or to block the hot sun from hitting your face temporarily.
7. Be on alert for scams and pickpockets
Travel scams can happen to anyone -- even expert travelers. In fact, TPG Travel Editor Melanie Lieberman fell victim to a scam along the Costa Brava where all her belongings were stolen out of her rental car. TPG U.K. reader Bobby succumbed to a similar scam in the region, where he was tricked into thinking he had a flat tire. While he was distracted by the false flat fire, thieves stole his luggage. And you have to watch out for the trileros, or people involved with a common travel scam called trile, the cup game you should be watching out for in spots like Mallorca and Benidorm.
While you likely won't encounter violent crime in Spain, pickpocketing is extremely common, especially in crowded areas, tourist attractions or on public transportation, especially in Barcelona.
Staying alert, being aware of your surroundings and knowing about common scams and pickpockets are some of the best ways to prevent these things from happening to you. Leave your passport and back-up credit card at your hotel and have a backup copy of your passport or other important documents with you. Keep your belongings secure and never leave your purse/bags on the ground or on the back of your chair at a restaurant. Don't leave your mobile phone on the table either.
Travelers who have been the victim of a crime in Spain can call the authorities on 112, or call or e-mail SATE (Servicio de Atención al Turista Extranjero) for assistance with scams or any other precarious situations.
Armed with the aforementioned tips, you should be able to have a safe, fun and hopefully more local visit to Spain. Remember, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist either, just be a savvy one -- and keep an eye on your belongings.