How to avoid looking like a tourist in Spain

Spanish Cultural Quirks

One of the most interesting parts of travelling is to delve into the culture of where you are visiting. Things will be done differently from what you are used to. This doesn't mean they do things poorly or wrong—simply that customs are different.

Spain is no exception.

Remember Spain is a very old civilization, so you can just imagine the customs that have been passed down from one generation to the next over the centuries and are simply done a certain way because that is "how we have always done things."

I will share a few cultural quirks with you—these are by no means the only differences you will find, just ones that I think you may find interesting. 

Space is shared

Just beyond this village, there are kilometres of uninhabited spaces, but in Spain people prefer to live with close neighbours. 

Just beyond this village, there are kilometres of uninhabited spaces, but in Spain people prefer to live with close neighbours. 

Spain has the lowest population density in western Europe (excluding Scandinavia)- but most of the population is squashed into the cities.

If you head out of the cities, especially in the centre of Spain you might be amazed to find large swaths of wide open spaces. You won’t see people, houses or towns for kilometres on end. But as you come into a town all the houses will be attached row houses. A farmer will go work in his fields during the day and probably have a little country house or cabin on his land, but at night he returns to the village and his row house next to his neighbour.

A farmer walking home to his house in the village. 

A farmer walking home to his house in the village. 

Even though the population density is low and there is a lot of space, houses are small and yards almost unheard of (except in the north of Spain). The cities are packed—the “tiny home” movement was incorporated here centuries ago.

This tiny concept spills over into life in general.

Apartments and houses are small, elevators are extremely tiny —we lived in one place where the elevator only was big enough for two adults—hallways are narrow, restaurants put tables so close that diners at the next table often join your conversation and some sidewalks are so narrow that two people can’t walk down it together.

You are given less personal space as well. People stand close when talking. Touching while having a conversation is not uncommon. Initially, I would find myself backing-up when a person was talking to me close-up, but the more I backed up the closer they would move in. I had to accept this lack of personal space as normal.

What time is it?

You might hear greetings at 2:00 or even 3:00 p.m. where people still are saying good morning (buenos dias)  The term good afternoon “buenas tardes” is not used until after lunch. If you have lunch early, you will still be hearing good morning for a couple of hours to come. 

If you missed the article about the Spanish eating schedule, including why you can't say buenas tardes until after 3:00 p.m., you may want to catch up here.

You never say “buenas noches” (good night) unless you are going home for the night. Often even at 8:00 or 9:00 in the evening the Spanish are still saying good afternoon.

Eating customs

Throwing napkins, toothpicks, shrimp shells and other unwanted objects on the floor is common in the traditional bars.  How will you know if you are in a bar that accepts this behaviour?  Look around; if when you walk in most people are standing at the bar instead of sitting at a table and there is a large collection of napkins and toothpicks strewn along the floor you can be pretty sure this place considers this type of behaviour as normal.

Don't eat on the street

Food is meant to be savoured and enjoyed, not eaten on the run. You won’t see people walking down the street eating a hot dog or with their coffee mug in hand.

It is considered very rude to eat while walking down the street.  

If you are in a hurry, simply head to a bar (especially the type I just mentioned above that throw napkins on the floor) and stand the counter and order what you want. Standing at the bar instead of sitting at the table is a signal that you are in more of a hurry. This is Spanish style “fast food.”

Fashion do's and don'ts

There are few things that scream “tourist” as much as ignoring the Spanish fashion rules.

Spaniards tend to dress well everywhere they go—although this trend is fading quickly especially in the larger centres. 

They dress for the current season, not the temperature of the day. If it is an unusually hot day in March you will see people dressed in long pants and often long sleeve shirts, with a jacket.  Although you can break out your short sleeve shirts, nothing will label you as a tourist faster than wearing shorts.

In the winter you will still see older women wearing fur coats even though the temperature is well above zero. As it is winter, they feel the need to flaunt the furs. It isn't necessary for you to run out and buy a fur coat for your trip, but be aware that in winter you will see people dressed as if they were in the middle of a -30 cold snap in northern Canada. Gloves, scarves, hats and leather boots all make it into the fashion do's. 

Wear beach wear at the beach only, not along the street. (going topless or in many cases nude at the beaches is fine, but cover up when you leave the beach)

Another thing that will scream tourist is if you wear sweats or yoga pants. Even though fashion standards are slipping in Spain, they still haven’t reached the point of going in public with sweats.

These are just a few cultural quirks that I have noticed as a foreigner in Spain. Leave a comment if you have noticed other differences that you have found either amusing, frustrating or interesting.