When you the word “Spain,” a few images probably come to mind. People often think of paella, flamenco dancing, bullfighting, tapas, siestas, and sunshine when they think about this country.
Stereotypes about this fascinating destination have made their rounds in the international sphere. While these things do exist within Spanish culture, they aren’t as prominent as you might think.
Visit, and you’ll find that Spanish culture is much more nuanced. It is a country with diverse regions and cultures that may surprise you. You’ll find differences north to south, east to west, and everywhere in between.
Uncovering these details is what makes exploring this country so exciting. You could visit Spain an infinite number of times and still not discover everything about it.
Ready to challenge your preconceived notions about this delightful destination? You’re in the right place.
Here are five things about Spain that might surprise you when you visit.
1. Paella can’t be found everywhere
Paella is a dish that is strongly associated with Spain internationally.
Naturally, you might think that the must-try dish is paella when you visit Spain.
Paella is absolutely a mouthwatering dish that you should try if you get the chance. With rice, saffron, and a variety of proteins, it satisfies every hunger.
However, it is not a national dish. It is regional cuisine from the autonomous community of Valencia.
Not every region of Spain does paella well, and not every restaurant will carry it. In very touristy areas like Madrid and Barcelona, tourist traps sell commercialized versions of the dish because that’s what visitors are expecting.
Find a place that prepares it in a traditional shallow pan from scratch or travel to Valencia.
Also, stay open to trying other mouthwatering dishes that are famous in the region you are visiting.
2. Mealtimes are different
One of the biggest surprises for tourists visiting Spain is how different mealtimes are. Restaurants and tours might be on a different timetable than expected. Meal structures might also deviate from expectations.
Generally, Spanish people eat breakfast (desayuno) from around 7 am – 9 am. Breakfast typically isn’t very hearty. Usually, it is something small and sweet like toast or a croissant to eat with coffee or orange juice. Some people also eat a snack around 10:30 am – 12 pm to fill themselves until lunch.
Lunch (la comida) is the most substantial meal of the day, served anywhere between 2 pm- 4 pm. It’s typically a large meal with multiple courses (appetizer, main course, and dessert). If you’re eating out, try a menu del día (menu of the day) for a set meal that includes all these courses.
Some people might eat a snack between 5:30 pm – 7 pm and eat a light dinner or tapas from 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm, sometimes even later.
3. Spanish is not the only language spoken in Spain
Spanish originated in Spain, but did you know it isn’t the only language spoken there? There are a few regional dialects and languages spoken throughout the country.
If you visit Barcelona, you may notice signs around the city that look a bit French. That is because they are in Catalán, a mix of Spanish and French. While English and Spanish are recognized and well-known in the city, many locals prefer to use their native Catalán.
In Basque Country (País Vasco), many people speak Euskera. It is fascinating because it has no linguistic relation to any other language in the world. Its uniqueness is a source of pride for the Basques.
Travel to Galicia, and you’ll find many people speak Galician. This language has a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and Celtic influences due to influences from past interactions between the cultures and the proximity of the region to Portugal.
4. Bullfighting and Flamenco aren’t as popular as you’d think
One of the most recognizable parts of Spanish culture outside of Spain is bullfighting and Flamenco dancing. It’s talked about so often that you would think it would be everywhere!
That is not the case.
Bullfighting and flamenco do exist and are very popular in some places.
Some cities have impressive bull rings with longstanding histories. However, in popular culture, it isn’t a national pastime. Many people in Spain disagree with bullfighting, and there is relatively low interest nationally in the sport.
Along with this, many people believe Flamenco to be ubiquitous in Spanish culture to the point that every Spaniard should know the dance. Flamenco is a southern Spanish tradition most popular in Andalucía. While there are tablaos (Flamenco venues) in tourist cities like Madrid and Barcelona, the best ones are in the south. Other regions in Spain have their own traditions and dances, including muiñera in Galicia and jota in Valencia, Catalonia, Galicia, and Aragón.
5. Spain has diverse regions
Spain is far from being a cultural monolith. Each of its 17 regions (autonomous communities) has unique features.
Places like Madrid and Barcelona are very cosmopolitan with stunning architecture.
The communities in southern Spain have many of the cultural traditions and characteristics people expect from Spain. These include Moorish architecture, flamenco, paella, fiestas, and warm weather.
The northern communities have cool and rainy climates during the winter and have strong French and Celtic influences. You’ll find jagged mountains and beautiful coastal villages here.
In the center, you’ll see expansive plains, windmills, and evidence of Roman occupation.
Venture off the peninsula to experience island life in the Balearic and Canary islands, with distinct coastal cultures.
No matter where you go, you’ll find fascinating local traditions and unique food and culture.
Spain, as one of the most popular destinations in the world, has a plethora of experiences and opportunities to offer beyond what many people know. From the depth of its culture to the breadth of its food, from the passion of its dances to the enjoyably slow mornings, you can find pleasant surprises woven into the fabric of all Spanish life.
About the Author
Kelsey T. is a freelance writer and international education professional from Southern California. Her global experience includes volunteering in Costa Rica, studying abroad in Spain and Morocco, and teaching English in Spain. Additionally, she has traveled to over a dozen countries in Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. Today, Kelsey dedicates her time to travel writing and helping college students study abroad.