Spain travel guide
From riotous fiestas and sizzling cuisine to world-class museums and cutting-edge art galleries, there’s a reason why Spain endures as one of the world’s most popular destinations. Like the country’s famous tapas, Spain itself is a tempting smorgasbord of bustling cities, scenic countryside and sunny islands, which visitors can nibble away at on repeat trips or consume in one giant feast. Either way, it is one appetising nation.
In spite of its myriad attractions, most come to Spain for sun, sand and self-indulgence, flocking to the likes of the Costa del Sol and Costa Brava to while away days on beaches and nights in clubs. An early pioneer of package holidays, Spain’s leading resorts have long been geared up for the mass market – from the Balearics to the Canary Islands – but it’s not all sprawling hotel complexes; quaint fishing villages, bijou retreats and secluded beaches abound if you’re looking to veer off the tourist trail.
Spain is much more than holidays in the sun, though. Away from the beach there’s an extraordinary variety of things to do; from climbing snow-capped peaks in the Pyrénées to hiking the ancient pilgrimage route of St James’s Way; from diving in the protected Medes Islands to stargazing in Tenerife. Alternatively, you could drop in on one of the country’s many festivals (think Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina and the Baby Jumping Festival) which are madder than a box of frogs.
And then there are the cities; Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, Valencia, the list goes on. Each one of these vibrant metropolises has their own distinct flavour; the Dali architecture and sweeping beaches of Barcelona seem a long way from the wide boulevards and soaring skyscrapers of Madrid (though the Catalans wish it was further).
But for all their disparities, these cities are bound by Spain’s remarkable history and enviable cultural feats, which are proudly displayed in the country’s museums, galleries and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Suffice to say, its popularity shows no sign of waning.
504,782 sq km (194,897 sq miles). Includes Balearics, Canaries, Ceuta, and Melilla.
46,064,604 (UN estimate 2016).
95.4 per sq km.
King Felipe VI of Spain since 2014.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy since 2011.
230 volts AC, 50Hz. European plugs with two round pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Most visits to Spain are trouble-free, but you should be alert to the existence of street crime, especially thieves using distraction techniques. Thieves often work in teams of two or more people and tend to target money and passports. Don’t carry all your valuables in one place, and remember to keep a photocopy or scanned copy of your passport somewhere safe.
Many people have their passports stolen while passing through airports, either on arrival in or departure from Spain. Take extra care to guard passports, money and personal belongings when collecting or checking in luggage at the airport, and while arranging car hire. There has been an increase in the number of thefts from hire cars. Remove all valuables from the vehicle when you park or store items out of sight.
In some city centres and resorts, thieves posing as police officers may approach tourists and ask to see their wallets for identification purposes. If this happens to you, establish that the officers are genuine and if necessary show some other form of ID. Genuine police officers don’t ask to see wallets or purses.
In any emergency, call 112. To report a crime, including stolen property and lost or stolen passports, visit the nearest Policia Nacional, regional police (Ertzaintza in the Basque Country, Mossos d’Esquadra in Catalonia, and Policia Foral in Navarre) or Guardia Civil Station to make a police report (denuncia). If you have had belongings stolen, you will need to keep the report for insurance purposes. If your passport is lost or stolen, you will also need the report to apply for an emergency travel document from the nearest British Consulate and to apply for a replacement passport when you return to the UK.
Personal attacks, including sexual assaults, are rare but they do occur, and are often carried out by other British nationals. Be alert to the possible use of ‘date rape’ and other drugs including ‘GHB’ and liquid ecstasy. Buy your own drinks and keep sight of them at all times to make sure they aren’t spiked. Alcohol and drugs can make you less vigilant, less in control and less aware of your environment. If you drink, know your limit – remember that drinks served in bars are often stronger than those in the UK. Avoid splitting up from your friends, and don’t go off with people you don’t know.
There has been an increase in reports of burglaries in areas with holiday accommodation and residential areas in major cities. Make sure your accommodation has adequate security measures in place and lock all doors and windows at night or when you aren’t in. If you’re a tourist and are concerned about the security of your accommodation, speak to your tour operator or the owner. Make sure you know the contact details of the local emergency services and the location of the nearest police station.
When driving, be wary of approaches by bogus police officers in plain clothes travelling in unmarked cars. In all traffic-related matters, police officers will be in uniform, and all police officers, including those in plain clothes, carry official ID. Unmarked police vehicles have a flashing electronic sign on the rear window which reads Policía (Police) or Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), and normally have blue flashing lights. Genuine police officers will only ask you to show them your documents and will not ask for your bag or wallet/purse.
If in any doubt, you should talk through the car window and contact the Civil Guard on 062 or Police on 112 and ask them to confirm that the registration number of the vehicle corresponds to an official police vehicle.
Be aware of ‘highway pirates’ who target foreign-registered and hire cars, especially those towing caravans. Some will (forcefully) try to make you stop, claiming there is something wrong with your car or that you have damaged theirs. If you decide to stop to check the condition of your/their vehicle, stop in a public area with lights like a service station, and be extremely wary of anyone offering help.
Only use officially registered or licensed taxis.
There have been reports of lottery scams in Spain. A person receives what appears to be official notification from the Spanish Inland Revenue office (Hacienda) that they’ve won the Spanish lottery and should deposit money in a bank account to receive their winnings. It’s likely to be a scam if you haven’t entered a lottery, you’re asked to pay anything up-front and the contact telephone number is for a mobile phone.
Balcony falls (and balconing)
There have been a number of very serious accidents (some fatal) as a result of falls from balconies. Many of these incidents have involved British nationals under the influence of drink or drugs. Your travel insurance may not cover you for incidents that take place while you’re under the influence of drink or drugs.
Some local councils will impose fines to those caught behaving irresponsibly on balconies or practising ‘balconing’.
Take care when swimming in the sea. Some beaches, especially around Spanish Islands, may have strong undercurrents. Most of them have a flag system. Before swimming, make sure you understand the system and follow any warnings (a red flag means you mustn’t enter the water). You should take extra care if there are no life-guards, flags or signs. Follow local advice if jellyfish are present.
You should avoid swimming at beaches that are close to rivers. Don’t dive into unknown water as hidden rocks or shallow depths can cause serious injury or death.
Take care when walking along unmanned beaches close to the water’s edge as some waves can be of an unpredictable size and come in further than expected with strong undertows.
Further tips can be found on ABTA’s swim safe pages.
Temperatures in some parts of Spain can change very quickly. Take extra care when planning a hike or walk to check local weather reports for warnings of extreme heat or cold temperatures.
If an accident occurs whilst mountaineering, canoeing, potholing or climbing, or if you become lost in the mountains or other areas requiring mountain rescue, call 112 for the emergency services or 062 for the Civil Guard.
For advice on safety and weather conditions for skiing or other outdoor activities call the Spanish National Tourist Office in London on 020 7317 2028 or see the European Avalanche Warning Services.
The Catalonia region has started billing negligent climbers, skiers and other adventurers who have to be rescued.
Crossing between Spain and Gibraltar
Spanish border checks can cause delays when crossing between Spain and Gibraltar. There is no charge to enter or leave Gibraltar. Don’t hand over money if you’re approached by anyone claiming that there is a charge.
Driving is on the right. Driving rules and customs are different from those in the UK and the accident rate is higher, especially on motorways. In 2015 there were 36 road deaths per one million inhabitants in Spain as compared to 29 road deaths per one million inhabitants in the UK (Source: European Commission).
You must carry two red warning triangles which should be placed, in the event of an accident or breakdown, in front of and behind the vehicle. You must have a spare wheel and the tools to change it. If at any time you have to leave your vehicle due to an accident or breakdown or while waiting for the arrival of the emergency services, you must wear a reflective vest or you may face a heavy fine. UK provisional licences are not valid for driving in Spain.
Carry a certificate of insurance in case you’re stopped. If you are using UK insurance, always carry your certificate with you. Remember that this certificate is generally only valid for a stay of less than 3 months – contact your insurer if you are staying longer.
Spain has strict drink driving laws. Penalties include heavy fines, loss of licence and imprisonment.
On the spot fines can be issued for a variety of driving offences including exceeding the speed limit. Should you choose to accept the fine and pay within 20 days, it will be reduced by 50%. More information on how to pay is available on the Spanish driving agency website.
Seat belts are required for all passengers in the front and back seats. No children under the age of 12 should be in the front seat and small children must be in an approved child safety seat in the back seat. Your car hire agency will be able to provide a seat so let them know you need one when you reserve the car.
Talking on a mobile phone when driving is forbidden, even if you have pulled over to the side of the road. You must be completely away from the road. Using an earpiece is also prohibited but you’re allowed to use a mobile phone with a completely hands-free unit.
Unlicensed taxi drivers
Passengers caught using unlicensed taxi services are liable for fines of up to 600€. Make sure you book your taxi or airport transfer through a licensed firm.
Avoid all demonstrations and follow the advice of police and local authorities.
Timeshare and holiday clubs
Timeshare ownership is well established in Spain with many respected companies, agents and resorts operating legally and fairly. However, there are also many unscrupulous companies, some of which claim to provide various incentives, which don’t always materialise. Further information and advice is available from the Timeshare Consumers Association (TCA) and on the British Embassy website.