With its beaches and mountains, its cities and farmland, Spain has plenty more to offer than the coastal package holidays most people are familiar with. In fact, we’d recommend not going near the resort towns – avoid them and you’ll have a better experience in Spain.
Spain travel resources
Spain sits in the westernmost part of Europe, connected with France and Andorra in the north and Portugal in the east, with Ireland and the United Kingdom not too far away. Across the Mediterranean there’s Italy, Malta and Northern Africa: Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.
Bordered by the Pyrenees mountains in the northeast, with the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea on either side, and just about touching Morocco at its south-western tip, Spain is a large, geographically diverse country containing mountains, hilly farmlands and large urban centres.
City focus: Bilbao
Bilbao is an attractive city set on the Nervian River. It’s the capital of the Biscay province and is the largest city in the Basque Country, an autonomous community in northern Spain.
Bilbao is a beautiful city to wander through to take in the sights. Head to the Guggenheim museum first, and check out the gorgeous flower puppy outside. There are a myriad of churches to visit, and quite a few pleasant parks to picnic in. Stroll around Dona Casilda Iturriza Park, next to the fine arts museum, and visit the old town (Casco Viejo).
A ride up the Artxanda Funicular will reward you with spectacular views for the price of a public transport ticket.Read more about Bilbao
Getting to and from Spain
Getting into Spain by land is also easy as Spain is a member of the Schengen Open Borders agreement, along with most of its neighbours. Train, bus and car travel is easily available from Portugal and France, and while the small city-states of Gibraltar and Andorra are not members of the Schengen agreement, overland access by car is also easy. Gibraltar also has a walking border, for those only wishing to come over for a day, or for those wishing to avoid the entry taxes placed on vehicles upon entry and exit.
Ferries are available from Northern Africa and some other Mediterranean countries. Spanish ports are generally straightforward and clean, but can have very strict border controls garnering several passport checks (and stamps!) on both sides of some African ferries.
Getting around Spain
Spain has an extensive long-distance and local bus network. There is no one national bus line, per se, but there are several local bus lines that can be connected to cross the entire country. Unfortunately, there is no Spanish bus aggregation site allowing you to plan a journey from one destination to another.
However, if you know your Spanish geography and want to travel Spain cheaply, from one city to another, buses are the easiest and most economical way to go. Once inside Spain, go to your local bus station and check out the daily schedule. You can plan each leg of your trip this way, buying tickets in advance, on the day of travel from a bus station, or even just by stepping on a bus (if you’re planning on catching it at a rural stop with no station). The bus driver will take your money himself in these cases. For an example, check out Comes, a private bus company operating many routes in Andalusia (southern Spain).
Spain has an incredible network of high-speed trains running throughout the country which is a great option for those wanting to see more of Spain, more quickly than riding in buses. Remember that the country of Spain is the second-largest country in the EU (behind France) and getting from one end of the country to the other, even by train, can take days. Also keep in mind that much of Spain is rural, and cannot be reached by train.
However, if your journey includes two cities serviced by a train station, taking the high-speed trains in Spain can be a very pleasant experience. Renfe, the national rail company, offers extensive coverage between major cities. Most trains run express, stopping minimally, and include beverage cars, clean restrooms and usually, in-train entertainment, with most cars, even in second class, featuring televisions with movies, shows and radio with English translations or subtitles. However, you will, generally, pay for your experience, with tickets on Spanish rail averaging much higher than typical slow trains in neighboring countries. When travelling on a Eurail pass, that you will need a reservation to ride on most Spanish trains, and that will require that you pay an additional reservation fee in addition to what you have already paid for your Eurail pass.
Car and camper rental
Spain has an extensive network of roads and highways; in fact, driving is one of the easiest ways to get across the country. Most large rental-car companies can be found in major cities. The Spanish government honours all EU driver’s licenses as well as almost any other national driver’s licence, accompanied by an International Driver’s Permit (which translates your license into Spanish). The guardia (highway patrolmen) and the policia (local police) will both honour out-of-country licenses accompanied by this permit as long as you are also within your visa limitations.
Campervan rentals and campsites are very easy to find across Spain. Camping on most beaches and public areas is free and legal in the off-season months, though will come with a (minimal) fee in most coastal cities during the summer months (June-August). Campsites fill up quickly in these months with some campers coming in June and not leaving until the summer is over, so call ahead, reserve your campsite online or have a Plan B if your campsite is filled up.
Cycling and hiking
Spain is a vast and beautiful country with plenty of room for hiking and cycling. The road system in Spain is excellently laid out for cyclists and includes bike lanes in most major cities. However, with peaks as high as 3,500m, Spain is a very mountainous country; check your route before you leave to ensure the terrain is appropriate for your cycling ability.
With such an extensive network of mountains, Spain has no shortage of hiking trails. There are over 30 national parks across the country, boasting thousands of kilometres of hiking trails of all difficulty levels. The weather in Spain varies immensely depending on the region, and heavy rain, snow and high winds can be serious dangers, especially in the winter months (November-February).
Spain is located on a peninsula, and as such is surrounded by gorgeous coastlines, beaches and cliffs. Spain marks the beginning of the Mediterranean Sea and is a great starting place for any Mediterranean-based cruise; there are ports with cruise terminals and local marinas located all along the southern coast on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic sides. Sailing along the northern coast, in the Bay of Biscay, is a great option when sailing down from the UK along the western French coast and there are several excellent beaches and coastal towns.
Top 10 things to do in Spain
- Eat paella. Paella is arguably one of the most famous and delicious Spanish dishes containing rice, Spanish and African spices and meat (usually either mixed seafood or chicken). HINT: Stay away from restaurants with pictures of paella on their menu, it’s generally reheated frozen servings.
- See the bulls run. It’s a myth that the bulls only run once a year and only in Pamplona. Almost every town (even very small ones) often have running of the bulls annually timed during festivals or religious holidays.
- Party like a Spaniard. The Spanish have the whole fiesta thing down. Have dinner after 10 one night and stay out at the discoteca until sunrise. Top the night off with a late-night serving of chocolate y churros and you’ll have done it right.
- Visit a beach. Spain is almost completely surrounded by coastline. The beaches here are often wide, white, sandy and stunning. Sunbathing is a national pastime and is generally enjoyed topless – by both the bather and the casual bystander.
- Go hiking. A very mountainous landscape provides endless opportunities for hiking and other outdoor sports. Buy a walking tour or hiking guidebook and hit the trails.
- Visit the countryside. Spain is famous for its pueblos and they are the absolute best way to experience the Spanish way of life. You don’t have to go far outside any major city to find them.
- Drink local. There’s a strong drinking culture in Spain and most local communities have special drinks or liquors to their name. Cava, Sherry, Sangria, Tinto de Verano and Agua de Valencia are all good places to start.
- Take a siesta. It’s no myth that Spain shuts down at 2pm and reopens at 5. Rather than fight the current, prop yourself in a beach chair, a hammock or your bed and do as the Spanish do: sleep.
- Go to a feria. Local culture in Spain is huge, and as such, each town has a weeklong party to celebrate its existence. Ferias have food, drink and entertainment all locally grown and often draw a larger crowd than the town’s population.
- Go to a religious festival. Whether it’s Semana Santa in Sevilla, Carnival in Ibiza or San Fermín in Pamplona, you are certain to be infused with culture and most of the other items on the top 10 list.