Pilgrims' staffs on the Camino de Santiago (Photo: Paul Bloomfield)


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Spain travel information, including maps of Spain, food, drink and where to stay in Spain plus the best time to travel in Spain

Many sun-starved Brits don't look far beyond their nearest beach, but there’s far more to Spain than its boozy resorts. This was the country that had built an empire across south and central America at a time when Britain struggled to muster a few privateers to raid their homecoming fleets.

Despite its own civil war, Spain escaped the widespread damage of Europe's 20th century conflicts. Almost all Spain's provincial towns and cities have retained their medieval city centres, with narrow winding alleys keeping cars at bay, perfect for an atmospheric evening stroll and a plate or two of tapas at a local bar.

Such towns are so common it would be hard to pick out just a few. Toledo perhaps, home to the famous steel knives, where you can also tour the house of El Greco, or Gerona, in the heart of Catalonia. But almost any town will do: the pretty whitewashed villages of Andalucia, or the fortified hilltop villages along the Mediterranean coast and the Balearic Islands, all built high to avoid pirates.

Even the cities maintain their ancient centres. Seville, home to flamenco, or the quiet streets (at least outside the bull-running season) of Pamplona. Only Madrid, relatively recently conceived as a unifying capital, can't bring this human-scale sense of history into the present day.

Spain's centres are all infused by the country's fervent vitality. Lunch is late and long, while evenings last forever. It isn't clear when the Spanish sleep but it doesn't seem to be at night: even Spanish children play late into the night.

Spain has natural beauty to match its built environment. A wild and rugged interior shelters countless secrets and many national parks have been established to protect sensitive regions. Walkers can stroll through the pretty mountain villages and forests of La Marina, a world away from nearby Benidorm, while climbers can take their pick from the lofty Picos de Europa or the rugged Pyrenees.

As if mainland Spain was not enough, there are the islands. In the Balearics, hedonists and hippies still flock to Ibiza, leaving the sandy beaches of neighbouring Formentera and the shouldering mountains of Majorca's Tramuntana range almost totally deserted. On the Atlantic side, each of the Canary Islands maintains a distinctive character of its own despite a steady stream of inbound charter flights.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Walk like a Pilgrim. The Camino de Santiago is one of Europe's most important pilgrimage routes, from the Galician Coast to Santiago de Compostella. Devotees are easy to spot, walking with a pilgrim's staff and scallop shell
  2. Make like a Moor. It's easy to see why the Alhambra is Spain's most visited monument. A magnificent palace built in the time when the country was ruled by Morocco, it brings an Arab elegance to a beautiful setting
  3. Ready for Rioja. Producing wine is part of the Spanish way of life: every region seems to have its own, and if they can't make wine they'll make sherry or brandy. It's generally agreed, however, even in Spain, that Rioja is the best
  4. Gaze in Awe. Segovia's Roman aqueduct predates even the country's Moorish remains: a striking engineering achievement from the distant past
  5. Kite-Surf the Med. The town of Tarifa on the Costa de la Luz, almost within sight of Africa, is the windy centre for kite- and wind-surfing
  6. Shoot-em Cowboy. Europe's only desert, in Almeria, stood in for America as the set for countless spaghetti westerns. Dress up in a big hat and stride out, with no chance of bumping into Indians

Wanderlust tip

Although city dwellers rarely get time for a siesta, many Spanish businesses still close up shop in the afternoon. Time any shopping trips for the morning or evening. Many museums are closed on Mondays.

Barcelona draws huge crowds in the summer, and anything Gaudi is usually chock-a-block by midday. Start off early to beat the crowds, and book the Sagrada Familia for the earliest slot you can stomach, if you plan on visiting. Which you should.

I wish I'd known...

Wanderlust web intern Holly Gurr on the one thing she wished she'd known on her arrival:

"Meal times in Spain are much later than what I was used to in the UK. Spaniards customarily do not begin to eat lunch any time before 1:30 pm and it would not be unusual to see families setting down to dinner after 10pm. Stock up in between meals with plenty of tapas."

Katherine Price shares her tips for living the local life in Barcelona:

“Renting an apartment can be a great way to see Barcelona – you're living in the centre among locals rather than in the tourist trap areas, and it's usually cheaper. For breakfast and lunch, the markets are fantastic in Barcelona and are frequented by locals and top chefs alike for fresh fruits and breads, and the famous jamon iberico and manchego cheese.”

Further Reading

Travel in Spain: vital statistics

  • Capital of Spain: Madrid
  • Population of Spain: 46 million
  • Languages in Spain: Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Basque.
  • Time in Spain: GMT+1
  • International dialling code in Spain: +34
  • Voltage in Spain: 220AC 50 Hz
  • Visas for SpainVisas for Spain
  • Money in Spain: Euro (CRI). ATMs are plentiful and foreign credit cards are widely accepted, although most places will ask to see photo ID and some will insist on seeing your passport. Locals aren’t the most generous tippers in the world - but tips of between 5 and 10 % are appreciated.
  • Travel advice for Spain: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
  • Spain Tourist Board: Spanish National Tourist Office

    When to go to Spain

    To avoid the crowds, avoid sweltering August. Spain effectively shuts down as locals flock to the coast. For pleasantly warm temperatures and more towel space on the beach, May, June and September are good months to visit.

    As for the climate, Spain is generally hot and sunny from April to early November. Temperatures can be brutal inland during July and August. Winters can be chilly and rainy inland and in northern regions but remain mild in the south. The ski season usually runs from Mid-December to early-April.

    Spain is famous for its gloriously madcap festivals and it may well be worth timing your visit to coincide with a local fiesta. Pyromaniacs love Las Fallas in Valencia in March where giant, lovingly crafted, papier-mâché figures are set alight on the last night. Barcelona's little known sweet-throwing festival, the Fiesta de San Medir, is a hit with kids in March while foodies salivate at Trujillo's cheese festival at the end of April. In the summer you can run with the bulls in Pamplona (July 6-14) or pelt tomatoes at complete strangers at the messiest fiesta of them all, La Tomatina in Bunol (last Wednesday of August).


    International airports

    Madrid-Barajas (MAD) 10km from the city; Alicante (ALC); Barcelona (BCN); Bilbao (BIO); Malaga (AGP); Santiago de Compostela (SCQ); Seville (SVQ); Valencia (VLC). Some airlines serve Barcelona from Girona (GRO) and Reus Salou (REU), both of which are approximately 100km from Barcelona city centre.


    Getting around in Spain

    There's an extensive network of internal flights but with the ever-expanding high-speed AVE train, domestic flights are becoming less popular. Iberia, Spanair, Vueling and AirEuropa are the major operators.


    Spanish trains, operated by RENFE, are punctual, comfy and easy to use. Book early online for discounts but expect to pay more for faster services like the Euromed or AVE.


    Bus travel in Spain is cheap and efficient: Alsa has an extensive service.
    Motorways are well maintained but remember to factor in the price of the tolls. Petrol is expensive.

    Spain accommodation

    Top of the pile are Spain's Paradores, a state-funded chain of luxury hotels housed in historic buildings, often with an enviable setting thrown in. Further down the scale, there's something for every budget, from hip boutique properties to cave hotels, cavernous hostals to tiny hospedajes (guesthouses). Campers are well cared for with literally hundreds of authorised campsites. Many Spanish holidaymakers stay in casas rurales (rural houses) which can offer excellent value for money if you're staying for a night or two. In mountain areas, trekkers can stay in refugios (basic dorm huts) on a first-come, first-served basis.



    Spain food & drink

    It's easy to spot the Brits in Spain: they're the ones dining in empty restaurants at 7pm. Most places don't get busy until much later. Follow the locals' example by taking advantage of the menu del dia (a great value set lunch) and then sharing a few plates of tapas with friends late in the evening. Look out for arroz negro (a messy black version of paella made with squid ink), tasty patatas bravas (spicy fried potato) and pata negra (a sought-after type of cured ham). Spain is not vegetarian friendly although Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia have a choice of salad bars and veggie restaurants.


    Health & safety in Spain

    EU citizens are entitled to a refund of any medical bills providing they have an European Health Insurance Card. Recent years have seen invasions of jellyfish (medusas) on the Mediterranean coast so listen out for warnings from lifeguards or look for a flag. Pickpocketing and mugging has become a big problem in Barcelona, so take extra precautions there, especially on las Ramblas.


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