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First Time to Spain? 10 Travel Tips to Plan Your Trip.

Alhambra photos, Granada photos, Alahambra

After my recent trip to Spain, many of you have written to me to ask questions like what’s the best time to visit the country, and whether it’s really possible for a vegetarian to survive without eating supermarket food. I’ve written travel tips for a first trip to Europe before, but I thought it would be a good idea to dig specifically into Spain this time. So here goes, ten travel tips to make your life travel planning to Spain simpler:

1. What’s the best time to go to Spain?

I skipped Spain during my first trip to Europe, assuming it will be unbearably hot in the land of sun, sea and sand in the months of May and June. My first impressions of Spain quickly changed that perception; the south of Spain indeed gets hot in the summer, but the more mountainous terrain in the north of the country remains pleasant, with the occasional rain. Winter starts in early November, and although Spain remains warmer than other countries in western Europe, it becomes cold enough to need boots and a good overcoat, even in the south of Spain, where rain is hardly uncommon in early winter.

So, according to me, the best time to travel to the south of Spain (Almeria, Andulusia, Jaen, Granada, Huelva), is just after the summer, from September to early November. This is also when the summer crowds have left, and autumn has painted the countryside in magical colors. On the other hand, the best time to visit the north of Spain (Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturia, Galicia) is in the summer months, between May and July.

Almeria photos, Almeria Spain weather, Segura de la Sierra Spain

Grey skies threaten the sunshine in Segura de la Sierra, Jaen.

2. How to get a Schengen visa for Spain?

Applying for a Schengen visa is never fun, certainly not when you own an Indian passport. If Spain is your first (or only) country of arrival in Europe, you need to apply early for a visa, which can take up to fifteen working days to be issued. Bear in mind that besides public holidays in India, the Spain embassy is also shut for public holidays in Spain.

In Delhi, it is easier to apply for a Schengen visa at VFS (Visa Forwarding Service), located in Nehru Place. Carefully put together the required documents for a Schengen Visa for Indians as mentioned on the VFS website, and supplement them with a covering letter and your resume, to show that you’re legitimately interesting in travelling to Spain. Applying for the visa costs INR 5,400. In Bombay, you can apply directly at the Embassy of Spain.

Spain church, Spain Jaen, Jaen photos

A “Lord of the Rings” moment at a church in Sierra de la Segura; makes the whole visa process worthwhile, no?

3. What to pack for Spain?

I answered this in the context of travelling in early winter, among one of the readers’ questions in November’s Ask Me Anything, but in a more general sense, the answer largely depends on when and which part of Spain you’re going to. If you intend to travel to the south of Spain in summer, you better stock up on summer wear and lots of sunblock, whereas if you’re headed north, carrying warm clothes and a good umbrella is essential; the north, especially Asturias, is prone to rainfall round the year.

Depending on whether or not you’re used to Europe’s chill, I would recommend stocking for winter in Spain as you would for any other European country. It is warmer than say France or Italy in the winter, but way colder than winter in Delhi, as I would find out the hard way. Checking the weather forecast on your travel dates is a good place to start.

Seville photos, Seville pictures, Seville Spain pictures

A street performance in Seville; Roman costumes work too!

4. Do they speak English in Spain?

Among my first impressions of Spain, I mentioned how not being able to get by speaking English in Spain was a myth. Truth is, I spent that week travelling on a press trip with Spain Tourism, which means we got around in chartered buses and taxis, stayed in non-budget hotels, and had English-speaking guides accompany us at most times. The moment I stepped out of that bubble and into the countryside of Spain, English was neither spoken, nor understood. It is almost impossible to check in, ask for room service, understand directions or timings, negotiate, and order vegetarian food, without some basic knowledge of Spanish, the primary language spoken in Spain. In Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia, Catalan is more commonly spoken, but Spanish is universally understood throughout the country.

Unlike France, people in Spain don’t tend to judge you if you don’t speak Spanish, but for practical reasons and especially if you want to interact with the local people, a crash course before your trip is highly recommended! (I intend together to put a list of the most helpful Spanish travel phrases and share them here soon).

Chocolate con churros, chocolate con churo, Spain desserts

Some things have a universal language, like this chocolate con churros!

5. Is Spain expensive?

Having travelled in other countries in western Europe, like Italy, Germany, France, Austria and Netherlands, I thought Spain was as expensive as an average European country. A meal at a small cafe will cost you an average of 4-6 Euros per person, whereas eating out in a decent restaurant could range from 20-25 Euros per person. Tapas bars are relatively cheap, especially in Andalusia, where the concept of tapas first originated, and it is easy to score free tapas with a drink or during happy hours. Public transport in Spain is cheaper than that in France, and a 2-3 hour bus journey on the southern countryside will cost only 5-6 Euros (it varies in different parts of the south though). Accommodation costs largely depend on what kind of a place you stay in; we found good deals for lovely boutique hotels at 45-55 Euros a night for a double.

On average, a budget of 100 Euros for two people per day is a very comfortable estimate, including staying at nice budget hotels, eating and drinking at local cafes or tapas bars, getting around with public transport, and indulging in the occasional fancy meal or Flamenco performance.

Staying at a cosy cave hotel in Granada.

Staying at a cosy cave hotel in Granada.

6. Can you find vegetarian food in Spain?

I can’t stop quoting Lonely Planet’s Spain guide, which notoriously states that a vegetarian travelling in Spain is advised to carry a small stash of vitamins and a big sense of humor! I have to admit that Spain can be tough as a vegetarian, but having survived (and often been culinarily delighted) for a month in the country, it is certainly not impossible! The main challenge in Spain is that rice or wheat are not part of Spain’s staple, atleast on the southern countryside, and rice is considered a Sunday treat in most countryside towns. The locals literally eat meat or ham for every meal; even at breakfast, among cheese and butter spreads, spreads with atun (tuna) and jamon (ham) often show up!

During the first week of my trip, I could indulge in higher end restaurants, courtesy Spain Tourism, and was delighted to have customized vegetarian Spanish meals whipped for me. I would highly recommend indulging in atleast one authentically Spanish meal at a nice restaurant, even if it means a slight dent in your wallet.

In bigger cities like Barcelona, Cordoba and Seville, international cuisines like Italian and Mexican, and regular sandwich shops are easy to find, which serve up a handful of vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns and villages however, you are at the mercy of local joints that pretty much offer potatoes, tomatoes and eggs in the name of vegetarian food! In my month-long trip, I probably ate eggs and potatoes in all possible shapes and forms, and occasionally got lucky in finding a pizza joint at a bus station or in a small town.

It is essential to know the names of the ingredients to be able to order vegetarian food, and even more essential to specify that you don’t want any form of meat, fish and especially ham in your food. I learnt the latter the hard way!

Spain vegetarian food, pictures of Spain food

Potatoes and eggs, anyone?

7. Do you need a Eurail Pass for Spain?

I ended up in Spain without a Eurail pass, simply because between getting my Schengen visa and tying lose ends before my almost impromptu trip, I had no time to get one. Also because the two country pass for Spain and Portugal doesn’t come with the awesome youth discount. Luckily, it all worked out in my favor; I never did end up going to Portugal, and bus transportation in Spain is way cheaper than trains. That’s right, I didn’t end up taking a single train in my entire trip!

Every state in the south of Spain has its own state company, but the Alsa bus service connects many of the routes and has accurate timetables on its website. In many smaller villages, even the locals were unsure of what time a bus would arrive, especially on the weekend, but Alsa solves that. The buses are comfortable, arrive and depart exactly on time, are almost 50% cheaper than trains, many offer Wifi on board, and have connections pretty much everywhere in Spain.

el rocio spain, spain photos, huelva photos

The buses connect even the most remote and bizarre towns, like El Rocio, where people still get around on horses instead of cars.

8. Where to go in Spain?

Unlike my first Euro trip, where I hopped from one country to another in western Europe, I decided to spend my second trip to Europe entirely in Spain. I wanted to make my way slowly through the gorgeous countryside of the south, taking in the endless fields of olive and the postcard villages, practicing what little Spanish I knew, sampling what vegetarian food I could find, discovering the hidden gems of the much-treaded south, soaking in the beauty of autumn, and essentially, living like a Spaniard, complete with long lunches, longer siestas, and indulging in Flamenco music and the Spanish guitar (though the last is reduced to the gypsy quarters now). Our plans were impulsive and flexible, and our final route turned out to be: Barcelona >> Almeria (Tabernas and San Jose) >> Granada >> Jaen (Segura de la Sierra and Baeza) >> Andalusia (Cordoba and Seville) >> Huela (El Rocio). I loved all of it, though I did crave for warmer weather in Jaen!

I did end up doing a fair bit of research on the north of Spain, but dropped that plan for not being sufficiently equipped for the cold. I most wanted to see the cidar and cheese country of Asturias, but everything else I read about sounded equally appealing.

My point is, Spain is not just about Barcelona and Madrid; its countryside has so much more to offer, and it would be a pity missing out on hiking through Europe’s only desert in Tabernas, living in the gypsy quarters of Granada, driving along the olive countryside of Jaen, watching a Flamenco performance in a cave in Cordoba, and seeing people get around on their horses in El Rocio. And I didn’t even see half of Spain!

Tabernas desert, Tabernas Spain, Spain desert

Gateway to the Tabernas desert (Almeria).

9. Where to stay in Spain?

Like most of western Europe, Spain has plenty of artsy, boutique and family run accommodations to choose from. A great option is that of Casas Rurales, essentially a room, a studio or a full-fledged apartment rented for short-term stay by families, typically in small towns and villages along the countryside. It gives you a chance to mingle with a local family (though most of our hosts spoke no English at all) and stay on a budget, while experiencing the comforts of a budget hotel. Booking.com, as always, was my booking engine of choice, and unlike in Turkey, booking online turned out to be much cheaper than doing it directly.

Spain casa rural, Spain where to stay, Jaen photos

Our lovely casa rural in Segura de la Sierra, Jaen.

10. How to find internet or Wifi in Spain?

One of the best parts of travelling in a developed country for a digital nomad or an internet addict is the ease of finding internet connectivity. Besides ensuring that all our accommodations offered free Wifi (most hotels and casas rurales do), we found Wifi connectivity in most public buses, as well as at many bus stations and cafes.

Most phone/SIM card operators like Vodafone have a strange rule in Spain, by which they don’t allow you top up your 3G/cellular data for more than 400MB! More crazy than the expense involved is the inconvenience. A local in Tarragona suggested using a Spanish operator instead, called Yoigo, which offers the standard 400MB of data, but free albiet slow cellular data for a month thereafter. And unlike the other operators, they don’t cut off your internet when the 400MB is over, they only deduct it from your main balance. Barring having to decode their occasional SMS using Google translate, it worked out just perfectly for the month I was there.

teterias, teteria Cordoba, Cordoba restaurants

A cosy Wifi-enabled teteria (tea house) in Cordoba.

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What other questions or tips do you have for planning a first time trip to Spain?

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Also Read:
Life in Ibiza: A Photo Essay
What I’ve Learnt From Winter in Europe
A Love Affair With Spain’s Wine Countryside
Flying Over The Bosphorus in Style

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41 Comments Post a comment
  1. Such an informative post, Shivya. The pictures are so very inviting. :)

    December 5, 2012
    • Thanks, glad you thought so. Planning to visit Spain anytime soon?

      December 5, 2012
  2. Really good stuff. However a complete guide for every traveler who wish to visit Spain.

    December 5, 2012
    • Thanks Jugmendra, hope you’ll be using it soon ;)

      December 5, 2012
  3. Great post. I always use booking.com as well for accommodation. I stumbled upon it one day and have been using it for the past year or so now.

    December 5, 2012
    • Thanks, and likewise; it is just such a fantastic setup!

      December 5, 2012
  4. Its a surprise when I read that Spain is not so crazy about rice coz their neighbours are so obsessed with it. And now when I asked a few friends of mine, they reiterate what you’ve said. That’s really a surprise for me as to how food cultures have changed very much despite the two countries being land locked on each other from more than one side. And then to think these were part of the same peninsula, a few hundred years ago as well. Rest of the points are pretty much on expected terms and as usual, you come with a lot of information and personal insight.

    December 6, 2012
    • I was surprised too; in retrospect, I think rice was what made travelling in Southeast Asia much easier. And now that I know Portugal has it too, I don’t have to prep myself for potatoes again! By the end of the trip, I couldn’t help but ask just how much plain meat someone can eat :o

      December 6, 2012
      • Yes, they live completely on meat and its hell for a vegetarian. I can imagine your plight, you poor thing! :/ I have a friend coming next week from Singapore, she is a vegetarian as well. And I am already finding places where I can take her over the course of 3-4 days. Although yes, Portugal is obsessed with batata (potato) as well though you have the option to get rice everywhere you go! And yes, rice is less common in most other European countries as well.

        December 6, 2012
        • Spain wasn’t hell for me as a vegetarian, infact much the other end. It was only in my last week when I was repeatedly in small towns that I thought I had more potatoes and eggs than blood in me :p

          I loved the variety of food; pastas, sandwiches, even some local dishes in other European countries I’ve been to. The freshness of the veggies and ingredients does it for me. But the concept of veggies is sort of unheard of in Spain! It was an experience!

          Keep that list of places for me in Lisbon :)

          December 6, 2012
          • I am glad you had a good time despite the handicap. Portugal might not be that easy, unless you wouldn’t mind having the beans and a whole lot of batata. :P Haha, I sure will keep that list for you. But that is for Lisbon, where your chances are more than lets say Porto/ Coimbra or even Faro for instance.

            December 6, 2012
  5. Nishu #

    Loved your post and travel tips! We’re trying to decide between Spain, France. and Italy for our next month-long European vacation. I have been to France (mainly Corsica) and loved it. It also helps that we speak basic Spanish and French and are not vegetarian.

    December 6, 2012
    • I loved Spain and France, but the spirit of the Italian people made me fall so much more in love with Italy. And you can get by with basic Spanish in Italy; vegetarian food there is a delight even if you’re not vegetarian :)

      December 6, 2012
      • Nishu #

        Yay, we’ve been leaning towards Italy as well since it is known to be the one of the most kid-friendly European countries. Thanks for the recommendation!

        December 6, 2012
  6. Loved your travel tips. Wonder how even non vegetarians can eat the meat everyday for every meal. :)

    December 6, 2012
    • Priyanka, you are right. I am a non vegetarian who doesn’t enjoy this predicament anymore. Therefore I made it mandatory to go on salads once a day or even fruit. And I am coming home for good next month, told mom not to get me anything remotely meat-ish atleast for a month. :D

      December 6, 2012
      • Ya even I am a non vegetarian. But can’t eat so regularly. Enjoy the non meat-ish dishes for one month :)

        December 6, 2012
        • I know what you mean Priyanka. A lot of reviews for non-tapas restaurants on TripAdvisor said the same!

          Nikhil, I’m sure you get international cuisine (with veg options) in Lisbon, no?

          December 7, 2012
          • International cuisine with veg options , yes ofcourse (Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Thai whatever). As a tourist, you can keep trying out cuisines although once you decide to stay somewhere for more than a month, you got to start cooking (are you a good cook? ) than having to depending on food from outside. I meant from that point of view.

            December 7, 2012
  7. Just wondering what will be in store for those who do not take even eggs ! Though Spain is not on my agenda right now but the way you have presented the information by inter spreading with beautiful pics makes it worth reading.

    December 9, 2012
  8. rijuta #

    Hey Shivya,
    This is an amazing post! I just stumbled upon this page while doing my research on Spain. Wonder if you can help me with some more pointers on travelling between specific cities, neighbourhoods to stay in and any other suggestions on things to do and see. I am planning a 2 week trip sometime end of June or early July. As of now I have shortlisted Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Granada & Ibiza for my itinerary. However, I feel this might get too hectic and I would need to drop a place or two off this list. Would really love your suggestions on what places to do and how to do them. Oh btw I am a vegetarian too and I always have a tough time so I carry dozens of packs of maggi and some spicy snacks wherever I go :)

    April 30, 2013
    • Hey Rijuta,

      You’re right; 2 weeks to cover 5 places will be a tad too hectic, though the RENFE high speed train is fantastic and cover distances really fast. If you only want to do cities and can afford the high speed train, you could spend 2 days in Seville and 3 in each of the others. But my suggestions would be to do Madrid (which is beautiful, you can see here http://the-shooting-star.com/2013/04/05/madrid-photo-essay/) and then head south.

      You could spend 10 days in the south, and besides Seville and Granada, you could go do to Cordoba (which I absolutely loved and has fantastic flamenco). You could also explore smaller towns and villages if you have time. The Andalusian countryside is gorgeous. Do check the weather though – as it tends to get really hot in the summer.

      May 1, 2013
      • rijuta #

        Thanks a lot Shivya :)

        May 3, 2013
  9. Amal Gupta #

    Hey Shivya

    I am in Netherlands and want to travel Spain for 8N, 9D during October. This is with my family (wify & twins – 3years old) Barcelona & Madrid are on top of my list. Now having read the blog, I was wondering to cut-short a day both @ Barcelona & Madrid and add Sevilla. Can we listen some advise from the expert? Also being a veggie, seems to be a challenge

    June 30, 2013
    • Amal Gupta #

      Hi Shivya

      I have more-or-less finalised trip and am going to Barcelona and Malaga only. Also if you can suggest good places in-around Malaga, that will help

      Cheers
      -Amal

      August 8, 2013
      • Hi Amal,

        I haven’t been to Malaga, but it seems Cordoba is just an from there by train. I loved Cordoba, just a pretty town with a nice vibe. This should give you some more ideas – http://wikitravel.org/en/Malaga

        Sorry can’t be of too much help here. Have a great trip and share your suggestions when you’re back :)

        August 8, 2013
  10. Anu #

    Hi Shivya,

    Your blog is so informative for those of us who are just venturing into the world outside of America now that our kids are less dependent on us. My family (husband & 2 kids aged 8 & 5) are planning a trip to Spain sometime towards the end of June to mid July. What parts of Spain would you recommend we cover during our 10 day trip? Anything good we should see when there that you would recommend?

    Also would you advise we rent a car out there or just use local transportation?

    Your suggestions are highly appreciated!

    Cheers,
    Anu

    December 27, 2013
    • Hi Anu

      I have traveled Spain with family (spouse + twins 3+ years old) for a 10D/N vacations in October. We spend 3 N/D (including arrival day @ Barcelona) and then to Andalucia region. In Barcelona, we visited Sagrada and a few other monuments. @Andalucia, our base was Torreminolis (close to Malaga airport) and then drove to Malaga, Ronda, Granada (alhambara palace)

      Spain can be divided in two parts – Cities (Barcelona, Madrid) AND then south spain (beautiful sea and amazing scenic villages & palaces). So if one is a more of a city traveler then it’s barcelona, madrid and if it’s scenic beauty, sea and a few monuments then it’s andalucia. Keep in mind, you are going in a crowded time, hence you need to buy tickets well in advance especially for Alhambara palace and other historic places.

      Any other questions, drop me email at reachamal@gmail.com

      December 30, 2013
  11. Reblogged this on Roiahl and commented:
    This was very helpful (: I’m planning my trip to Spain and Portugal and it will be great to keep some of these things in mind as I do my research.

    March 10, 2014
  12. Stuttgart Cars S.L. Camping-bus hollidays in Spain and Portugal.

    http://rental-campingvan-spain.com/

    Here there is still little known beautiful regions to discover as well as the famous regions we already known. The green Galicia offers coasts with dream beaches and sun along the whole country. The north-west of Spain offers too skying holidays in the mountain and a wide offer of cultural attractions.
    With all these options travelling in a camping-bus gives you all the flexibility and independence to explore without being dependent on places to stay at.
    We invite you to explore Spain and Portugal in camping-bus.
    For a taylor-made offer or any other further information please contact us and we will be pleased to advise you as best we can.

    April 6, 2014
  13. Divakar shetty #

    Hi Shivya,

    Interesting Blog and lot of interesting tips; I’m sure these will help during our visit to Spain.

    We are planning to visit Spain in October, our boardroom will allow us up to two weeks to breath out side daily boredom :-) We’d like to stay in an apartment, and visit places that are interesting rather than just tourist attraction.
    We would’t mind little bit of adventure, cultural trail along with art culture.

    We’d be really happy if you can help us with your guidance.

    Rgds,
    Divakar

    June 1, 2014
    • Amal Gupta #

      hi Divakar

      I have traveled Spain with family (spouse + twins 3+ years old) for a 10D/N vacations in October last year. We spend 3 N/D (including arrival day @ Barcelona) and then to Andalucia region. In Barcelona, we visited Sagrada and a few other monuments. @Andalucia, our base was Torreminolis (close to Malaga airport) and then drove to Malaga, Ronda, Granada (alhambara palace)

      Spain can be divided in two parts – Cities (Barcelona, Madrid) AND then south spain (beautiful sea and amazing scenic villages & palaces). So if one is a more of a city traveler then it’s barcelona, madrid and if it’s scenic beauty, sea and a few monuments then it’s andalucia. Keep in mind, you are going in a crowded time, hence you need to buy tickets well in advance especially for Alhambara palace and other historic places.

      June 10, 2014
  14. Riddhi #

    Hi, my name is Riddhi, I would like to visit Spain between 20-31 Dec 2014 (peak XMAS season) for my honeymoon (since we more fond of cold winters -snow specially compared to beaches). Can anyone please suggest me an itinerary or the best places to visit during XMAS ?
    Your response would really help me to plan my honeymoon

    June 6, 2014
    • Amal Gupta #

      Riddhi

      Spain should be a good destination to go even in winters. I don’t think you would get snow. For that, you can think about northern france (mountain ranges) or swiss; essentially alps region

      June 10, 2014
  15. manisha #

    is it ok to travel Spain in January..?

    June 9, 2014

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