Spain is a marvelous country to travel around. Last autumn I spent two months in Spain and gathered some simple practical tips for visitors.
I’ve been to Spain four times already, and I’m planning to go visit again and again.
I love the atmosphere, the diversity, the people, the architecture, the language and so much more.
I’d like to share some tips from my experience for tourists and travellers in Spain that will make your visit run more smoothly.
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Trains in Spain: how to save money on tickets and more
I took the train several times in Spain, between Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, Málaga, Seville and Córdoba. I was really impressed.
The train system in Spain is modern, punctual and very convenient. The trains are fast, comfortable and with way more legroom than you might expect.
My first tip regarding trains would be to book your tickets in advance. It works in a similar way to booking flight tickets: the closer you are to the date of the train ride, the higher the price.
Reservations normally open 60 days in advance, so if you know where and when you’re going to travel, book as early as possible and you can save quite a bit of money.
The online booking system on the Renfe website is fast and easy to use. To see the English version of the site, click the word “Welcome” at the top. You want to register (top right) so your bookings will be saved on the site and you can always login and find them there.
The journey planner is pretty straightforward. If you’re going one way, enter only the departure date. Click “buy” and you’ll get a list of train times and rates. For the lower rates, look for “Turista” or “Promo” fare.
Note that if you run into difficulty using the Renfe site (I’ve seen some people on travel forums complaining about that…), there’s an alternative reain booking site called Loco2 that’s easier to use.
You get the ticket emailed to you and I like to save it to my Dropbox for backup.
You can print it yourself, but obviously you don’t always have access to a printer when you travel.
It’s easier to print them out at the train station: type the reservation code into the purple machines and have the ticket printed for you there.
In most stations there was an English speaking representative of Renfe who could answer my questions (e.g. where are those purple machines?)
Taken at the train station in Seville
My second tip about taking trains in Spain is to arrive at the station early.
In some countries you can just arrive at the station, buy or validate your ticket and get on the train, but in Spain it’s a good idea to get there a bit earlier.
You want to allow time to print your ticket and then line up for the security check. Every station I’ve been to had X-ray machines scanning the baggage of each and every passenger.
Then you need to line up again to board the train. There are no machines to validate your ticket, they are checked manually, hence the second queue. These queues are quite efficient, but they do take time.
Restaurants in Spain: some useful tips
The opening hours at Spanish restaurants can be tricky. Many of them are closed in the afternoon (siesta time) and are only open at meal times, i.e. lunch and dinner.
Spanish people eat relatively late, so lunchtime would be between 2 and 4pm approximately, and dinner time would usually start after 8pm.
If you’re hungry at 6pm for example, you may find that most restaurants haven’t opened for dinner yet.
Of course, in central parts of a city you can always find restaurants that are open all day long, especially the ones aimed at tourists, but these may be overpriced (and usually have those very unappealing photos of food displayed outside the restaurant). You may also find some bistros or cafes that are open in the afternoon.
An easy way to find a nearby restaurant that’s open is to search Google Maps for what’s nearby, if you have an internet connection. For example, search for “Indian restaurant” and you’ll get a list of the Indian restaurants nearest to you, and the search results also show the opening times.
When you enter a restaurant in Spain you’ll be asked if you came to eat (“para comer?”) and then you’ll be asked for the number of people (e.g. “para dos?” meaning “for two?”). Often the waitstaff will struggle with English, so it’s worth learning these easy phrases.
You are very likely find a “menu of the day” (Menu del Dia) at almost any restaurant. The menu of the day is displayed on a chalkboard or as a separate menu on your table. Don’t ignore it, because it offers great value.
It will typically include a starter, a main course, dessert and a drink at a considerably reduced price. Of course, you can still order as normal from the full menu if you don’t like what’s on offer that day in the Menu del Dia.
Tipping at restaurants in Spain is not mandatory. You can round up the sum, and even then they are likely to ask you if you want your change. On the other hand, some restaurants do add a service charge to your bill.
Free Walking Tours in Spain: you can learn a lot in a couple of hours
I like to take free walking tours, preferably on my first or second day in a new city. They cover the highlights briefly, so later you can decide what to explore further in your own time.
You get a general picture of where you are, the history of the place and some local anecdotes and tips. It’s also a good way to meet people on your trip (usually other tourists, but not always).
Free walking tours are led by enthusiastic guides and are tip-based, meaning you decide at the end of the tour how much you’d like to pay. For many guides this is their main and sometimes only source of income. The guides will try their best to make the tour as entertaining and engaging as possible.
You can also ask your guide for recommendations on where to go, what to see, where to eat and how to use the public transport. They’re normally happy to share their local knowledge.
In popular tourist destinations in Spain you’ll find several competing tour companies.
They all seem to have a similar route around the city and often leave from the same main square, so sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. The different companies use visual signs, like an orange t-shirt or a green umbrella to help you find them.
I like to read reviews on TripAdvisor to get an idea of what’s on offer and I’ve also written some reviews of walking tours I’ve been on in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia.
In Madrid I took the SANDEMANs tour with a very energetic guide who managed to tell us the complex history of Madrid in a couple of hours.
In Valencia I took the Emblematic Valencia Tour with a very knowledgeable guide. It was a great way to spend the afternoon and she also gave us some general tips about the city, beyond the usual historical stories and data.
In Barcelona I went on a Runner Bean Tour of the Old City. Again, you get a compact version of the history of the city centre in a couple of hours. It makes the rest of your visit much more meaningful.
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