Before you visit Spain, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Spain plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Spain, where rich history and unforgettable landscapes await!
Imagine it: Chic beaches, rugged coastlines, medieval cities, bustling festival seasons, and dreamy mountainscapes are just a few of the things that entice the senses when traveling in Spain. This country has it all, not to mention its striking architecture and legendary cuisine. Before you visit Spain, here’s everything you need to know.
Brief History of Spain
Spain has a long and drawn-out history, from conquering lands around the world to its historical influences by Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors. With a brief history lesson you will understand which regions were influenced more heavily by each of these groups. For example, southern Spain, particularly Andalusia, boasts heavy Moorish influence (Arabs and Berbers from North Africa) with places like the Arab Baths in Ronda and The Alhambra in Granada.
Let’s highlight some must-know details about the history of Spain.
Spain’s Early History
From about 900 BC, Phoenicians, who came from the land now known as Lebanon, traded with what is now Spain. In the land, several tribes of primarily Celts and Iberos were divided among the country. The Phoenicians founded several trading settlements along the coast on both islands and peninsulas. The Iberians gave the Phoenicians silver in return for wine, olive oil, and jewelry. The people of Spain were heavily influenced by the Phoenician culture. Around the same time, Greeks were also trading with Spain, influencing the culture of the land along the way. After them came the Cartagineses in 220 BC – a colony of people in Africa founded by Phoenicians – and founded the port city of Cartagena in Spain.
A few years later, Romans arrived and founded cities around various parts of the country. Romans were heavily successful in their pursuit of Spain and now remnants of Roman history dot the country. They built roads, made mining a prosperous trade, along with olives, grapes, and grain trading. However, the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, when the Visigoth invaded from the north and triumphed. During this time, Christianity developed in Spain.
Places like Mérida, Tarragona, Barcelona, Segovia, and Seville showcase some spectacular examples of Roman ruins and history – among many other destinations.
Moorish History & Spain in the Middle Ages
At the beginning of the 8th century, the Visigoth realm that conquered Spain from the Romans was destroyed by a Muslim invasion. In the year 711, Berber and Arab invaders from North Africa, triumphed in Spain, defeating the Visigoths at the Barbate River on July 19, 711.
During this time, battles between Christians and Muslims were commonplace. Then in 1348, the Black Death arrived in Spain and took a heavy toll on the population.
There was still constant unrest around religion. For example, in the 14th century, Jews endured a wave of persecution in Spain. Eventually, they were forced to either convert to Christianity or leave. Many chose to leave.
During the same time, Moors continued to rule in the south, particularly in Granada where they built the fortress-palace Alhambra. The fortress was never conquered by enemies. However, in 1492 the Moors surrendered their citadel to Catholic monarchs who ruled over much of the country. This triumph for Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon, the King, and Queen, unified the peninsula, as Granada was the last outpost for Moorish Spain.
Eventually, we get to the 16th century – The Golden Age. This was one of the great artistic and literary periods, producing the lasting works of art from painters such as El Greco and Velázquez, writers as Cervantes, and dramatists as Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca.
Spanish Civil War
Let’s flash forward. Later, the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936 during the dictator rule of Francisco Franco. Nationalists under General Franco fought against the seated Republicans. With the help of both Hitler and Mussolini, Spanish Nationalists eventually claimed their victory and executed thousands of Republicans. Then, after Franco’s death, the country shifted from a dictatorship to a democracy.
The Socialist Workers’ Party, led by Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, won the election in 1982 and worked hard to modernize Spain.
Modern Day Spain
In 1986, Spain joined the European Union and incorporated the euro in 1999. Unemployment in Spain peaked in 2013, and the country has been slowly recovering from the crisis.
In the region of Catalonia, where Barcelona is the capital, there are marches for Catalan independence from Spain. In 2017, the Catalan government conducted a referendum. The votes came in and declared Catalonia independent. However, it was found illegal by the Spanish government. In November of 2018, a judge ruled that the eight members of the deposed Catalan government be remanded in custody without bail. Some fled to other countries. Finally, on June 21, 2021, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned those involved in the attempted succession.
Languages in Spain
As you may have guessed, the official language in Spain is Spanish. This dialect of Spanish is also known as Castillian. This is the first language of over 72% of the population. However, there are several other local languages in the country.
Galician is spoken in the region of Galicia. and Basque is spoken in the Basque Country. Catalan is spoken in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, and the closely-related Valencian in the Valencia region. All of these languages have official regional status.
Despite some regions having their own official languages, the majority still speak Spanish natively. However, visiting some smaller villages in places like Catalonia, for example, Spanish is rarely spoken and the levels may be lower as a result.
As for English, plenty of Spanish citizens in cities can speak a good level of English. However, the English-speaking levels aren’t overly high in Spain.
A 2017 poll by Spanish newspaper El País, concluded that some 60% of Spaniards cannot read, write, or speak English. According to the poll, 27.7% said that they can speak English, followed by 9% French, 1.7% German, and 1.2% Portuguese.
Before traveling in Spain, learning a few essential phrases in Spanish will be very helpful! We love this guide to essential Spanish phrases to use when traveling.
Demographics of Spain
From densely populated cities to small and picturesque villages, let’s take a look at the demographics of Spain. First off, Spain has a population of almost 47 million, making it the 6th most populated country in Europe. Most live in Madrid and Barcelona, but let’s circle back to cities shortly.
According to 2021 data, 84.8% of the population is Spanish. This is followed by 1.7% Moroccan, and 1.2% Romanian. The remaining 12.3% include a wide variety of ethnicities from Ecuadorians and Argentinians to British and Italians.
Spain’s largest cities are very diverse and cosmopolitan, and you’re bound to find locals from every part of the world calling the country home.
But why are Spain’s largest ethnic minorities Moroccans and Romanians? Spain used to have an open-door immigration policy with Morocco, meaning Moroccans didn’t need visas to enter. This eventually changed in 1985, but many Moroccans still remain. As for Romanians, many saw economic opportunity in Spain and immigrated freely through the European Union free movement.
Cities in Spain
From stylish Madrid to seaside Barcelona, visiting Spanish cities is one of the best reasons to visit Spain. There are dozens of cities in Spain, but let’s highlight a few of the largest cities. Here’s what to know about some of Spain’s top cities before visiting.
Madrid is Spain’s chic capital, nestled in the heart of the country. It’s the largest city with more than three million inhabitants, and it has a more hustle-bustle business side about it in comparison to other Spanish destinations. The city’s idyllic tree-lined avenues, surrounded by exquisite architecture create contrast with the quaint streets of Old Madrid. Lush parks, historic art museums, and a plethora of Spanish culture await any visitor to Madrid.
Valencia is the third-largest city in Spain, located south of Barcelona – also along the Mediterranean Sea. In Valencia, modern architecture meets a historic city center to create a charming atmosphere. It’s the birthplace of the famous horchata drink and home to the lively Las Fallas festival that happens every spring.
Seville, or Sevilla in Spanish, is one of the most beautiful cities in the south of Spain. It belongs to the gorgeous region of Andalusia. The city boasts Moorish-style architecture, the country’s largest cathedral, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and idyllic parks. It’s also celebrated for its cuisine and tapas culture.
Geography of Spain
Spain’s geography has it all. Surrounding oceans and seas, rugged mountains, flat desert lands, forests, waterfalls, and so much more. If you want to visit Spain for nature, you’re in for a world of a time.
First of all, Spain is bordered to the west by Portugal, France, the Pyrenees Mountains, and Andorra to the northeast. Spain’s only other land border is in the far south with Gibraltar, an enclave that once belonged to Spain until it was ceded to Great Britain in 1713. To the east lies the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain's Balearic Islands. Spain also rules two cities in North Africa and the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic.
Much of Spain’s interior (think the area of Madrid) is a high, dry plateau surrounded by mountain ranges. Rivers run to the coasts. The interior of the country gets very hot in summer and very cold and dry in the winter, making droughts common.
Plants and trees grow so well on the northwestern coast, in Galicia and along the Bay of Biscay, that the area is called Green Spain. It’s often compared to Scotland, actually. As it has such a comparison, rain is frequent.
As for the southern and eastern coasts of Spain, they are often swept by warm winds called sirocco winds. These generous winds come in North Africa and keep temperatures along the Mediterranean coast milder than the country’s inland.
Let’s talk about Spain’s climate.
It’s hard to generalize the climate of Spain as a whole, so let’s divide it up a bit, as some areas are dry and others are humid. In fact, Spain has one of the most diverse climates in Europe.
For the most part, the climate is temperate with hot summers and cold winters inland – think Madrid and Zaragoza. Then, cloudier, mild summers and cool winters are found along the coast.
Dry with temperatures averaging a high of 91°F (33°C) in the day and falling to an average of 61° (16°C) at night.
Temperatures get to about 52°F (11°C) in the day and fall between 33-35°F (1-2°C) at night.
Humid with temps averaging a high of 82-84°F (28-20°C) and dropping slightly to 70°F (21°C) at night.
Temperatures average a high of 57°F (14°C) and drop to an average of 41°F (5°C) at night.
Religion in Spain
Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution. However, the religion most practiced is Catholicism, and it has been the official religion of Spain since the 6th century. This is highlighted through important, popular festivals, such as during Holy Week (Semana Santa).
Surveys show that 27.5% of Spaniards are either atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. 68.7% of the population are Roman Catholic, but only a small percentage (about 27%) declare themselves to be practicing believers. The remaining religions are largely Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant.
Economy & Major Exports in Spain
Spain has a capitalist mixed economy. The Spanish economy is the sixth-largest in Europe behind Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Russia. After the financial crisis in 2008, the Spanish economy plunged into recession and has been slowly recovering since.
The country’s economy is strongly led by banking, crops and produce, mining industries, and manufacturing. Among Spain’s largest exports are cars, petroleum, vehicle parts, and packaged medicaments. The country mainly trades with other European countries like France, Portugal, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
What is Spain known for producing?
Spain produces large crops of wheat, barley, vegetables, tomatoes, olives, citrus fruit, grapes, and cork. The sunny country is also the world's largest producer of olive oil and Europe's largest producer of lemons, oranges, and strawberries.
Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil – even more than Greece or Italy! The country’s abundance of countryside and humid climate is perfect for growing olives. That’s why olive oil and a side of olives are popular in Spanish cuisine. Taking home a bottle of olive oil is an excellent souvenir from Spain!
Wine & Cava
Spain is famous for its wine and cava! There are many vineyards and wineries throughout the country, and the drinks are a staple in the Spanish lifestyle. From red Tempranillo to white Verdejo, you can find all sorts of grape varieties in Spain. Plus, cava varieties are a must-try, especially in the region of Catalonia.
For some perspective, markets sell bottles of wine for as little as 1€ and a typical glass of wine in a restaurant is between 2-5€. Not bad, right?
Estrella Damm Beer
Estrella is a Barcelona-brewed lager that is popular all around the world. While primarily drunk in Spain, the beer can often be on tap at bars in the UK, US, and throughout Europe.
Cultural Traditions in Spain
While each region has its own set of traditions, let’s highlight a few must-know cultural traditions in Spain.
Flamenco is both a folk music genre and a form of dance. It involves the guitar, vocals, palmas (handclapping), dance, and even stomping. Flamenco can be two performers or more, and it derives from the south of Spain in Andalusia. Women may also wear unique long Andalusian-style dresses. You might recognize the red dress dancing emoji!
Seeing a flamenco show is one of the best things to do in Spain. While you can find them throughout the country, Andalusia is probably the best region for the most authentic flamenco.
Spaniards can find practically any reason to celebrate. Whether it’s to celebrate a saint, music genre, or the neighborhood of a city, festivals are a big deal in Spain. For example, in Barcelona, each neighborhood has its own festival. Then, in Valencia, Las Fallas celebrates Saint Joseph with fireworks, fire shows, parades, and giant displays.
Dia de Sant Jordi
If you’re in the region of Catalonia in April, you’ll see the streets dressed with book vendors and red roses – even the famous Casa Batlló in Barcelona gets a red-rose makeover. This is essentially the Valentine’s Day of Catalonia. Couples exchange books and roses, following a folklore legend about a dragon, princess, and saint.
Three Kings Day
While Christmas is important in Spain, Día de Los Reyes Magos is even more significant. This day – January 6th – celebrates the Three Kings. Children are given more presents, and there are street parades and celebrations in the days leading up to the holiday.
Food in Spain
Mediterranean cuisine takes center stage in Spain, with big lunches, tasty tapas in the evenings, and glasses of wine or beer.
A typical Spanish breakfast includes coffee and pastries, sandwiches, or potato omelets. Some enjoy a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice as well. Lunch is between 2 to 4 p.m., and it’s typically the biggest meal of the day, meaning locals usually take a long lunch with a beer or wine. Many local restaurants serve a daily lunch menu called “menu del día” that includes a starter, main dish, dessert, and drink. Prices for a menu del día range anywhere from €8 to €15. Dinner is smaller, served anywhere from 9-11 p.m, and smaller plates or shared tapas are most popular.
Here are a few of the most popular Spanish foods to try when traveling in Spain.
Originating from the region of Valencia, paella is one of the most famous and quintessential Spanish dishes. A typical paella Valenciana includes chicken or rabbit, saffron, runner beans, butter beans, oils, and spices. You can find vegetarian and pescatarian paella, too.
Tortilla de Patatas
Tortilla de patatas, or the Spanish omelet, is a classic Spanish dish that is served by itself as a tapa or on a sandwich. It’s a mix of egg, potato, salt, and olive oil. It can be served more firm or creamy, depending on the restaurant’s or family’s recipe. It’s an easy-to-find and must-try dish when traveling in Spain!
This soup is sprawling across menus in the south of Spain. The ripest tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, bread, peppers, and cucumber are blended until nicely smooth, then chilled and poured into bowls or glasses. Then, salmorejo from Córdoba is a thicker version using bread as one of the ingredients.
Spain Travel Tips to Know
Before you head off to the land of tapas, here are the travel tips to know before traveling in Spain.
- Spain uses the euro (€) and the majority of places accept payment by card. However, some may have a minimum purchase of €5, and small places may not take cards at all. Have a bit of cash on you!
- Barcelona and Madrid are two of the biggest pickpocketing destinations. Here are some tips to avoid getting pickpocketed in Europe.
- Local shops often close for siesta between 2-4 p.m. (or even 5 p.m.) so keep that in mind when planning your days.
- Most clothing stores and supermarkets are closed on Sundays.
- If you come in summer, prepare for the heat. Bring linen layers, sunscreen, and a proper sun hat.
- Explore more than just Barcelona and Madrid. Small villages are some of the most picturesque places in Europe.
- Tipping isn’t necessary, but it is always welcome. Bills might say “Tip is not included” in bold English. This is only to entice tourists to leave a tip.
- Call 112 in the case of an emergency!