How to survive driving in Spain

Driving in a new country can be daunting.

Driving in a new country can be daunting.

If you are like me you will want to get out of the cities and explore the small towns in Spain. Not only are they usually more picturesque and quieter, but often they give a truer version of the people and culture of Spain.

To get to the towns you will most likely need to rent a car. Some places you can get to by bus or train, but the easiest and most direct way which also gives you freedom is by car.

However, driving a car in Spain can be a daunting experience.

Understanding the road signs, taking on the roundabouts, finding parking and learning the general customs can all be a challenge.

Challenge #1: Narrow Roads

Streets built for foot traffic 100's of years ago tend to be narrow.

Streets built for foot traffic 100's of years ago tend to be narrow.

As many of the towns and cities in Spain were originally built 100’s or even close to 1000 years ago, they were not designed thinking in modern traffic or parking. I don’t think they even expected a horse and cart to get through many of the streets, they were built as pedestrian only.

I remember the first time I rented a car when my parents came to visit. We had a little Clio and took a tour of Andalucia. At one point in Granada, we got lost in the maze of one-way streets and I found myself having to fold in the mirrors of the car to drive down a narrow street. A man opened the door of his house, saw me coming (no doubt saw the look of horror on my face) and promptly went back in his house so I wouldn’t run him over.

All around Spain there are streets so narrow that a person and a car cannot fit at the same time.


Spanish towns and villages are not meant to be seen through the car window. Find a parking spot and get out and walk around the town.

When you arrive at a town that you want to explore, follow the signs to a tourist office as there is often parking. Stop at the tourist centre and ask for suggestions on where to leave your car.

Avoid driving through the centre of any town or village. The streets all tend to be narrow, often on hills, full of one-way streets and are difficult to navigate if you have never been there before. 

Challenge #2: Parking

It is easy enough to say you should find a parking spot and just leave your car. However, another problem in Spain is the lack of parking. You may remember the space issue I spoke of in a previous article: "How to avoid looking like a tourist." This translates into lack of parking as well.

If you are brave enough to park on the street, you will see that the streets are colour coded.

Blue: Blue is for visitors. You can park for two hours in this zone. Look for the nearest parking meter and leave the ticket on your dashboard if you don’t want to come back to a fine.

Green: Green is for residents. You can park in a green spot, but only for one hour. Green spots are more expensive as they are trying to discourage non-residence from parking there.

White: White parking spots mean free parking. You don’t have to pay and you can park as long as you want.

Yellow: DO NOT PARK. Yellow is either handicap parking or a tow-away zone. You will get a fine if you park in a yellow parking spot (or come back to find your car towed away)

parallel parking in Spain

Before you come to Spain, you need to brush up on your parallel parking skills. I can’t ever remember parallel parking in Canada, or if I did it was on a street with 3 open spots and I could easily drive in.  I have learned the art of wiggling and getting the car into tight spaces—I don’t match my husband’s skill—but I am not bad for a small town Canadian girl.


Study google maps before you enter a town, look for a public parking and head there.

Challenge #3: Manual shift cars only

Another skill you will need to brush up on is driving a manual shift car.

Every car in Spain is manual shift unless it is special ordered. So unless you have never driven a stick shift in your life, or you have a health issue, it is best to just get used to the idea you will be driving a manual shift.

If you do need an automatic car you will have to negotiate this in advance with the car rental place and be prepared to pay a lot more for your car rental.

Challenge #4: Roundabouts

Once you get used to roundabouts or traffic circles or whatever you want to call them, you realize they are a practical way to keep traffic flowing. However, for an American driver who has never had to manage one, they can seem a bit daunting. For a British driver, even though you are used to roundabouts, you now have to learn to do them in the opposite direction.

The rules seem a bit fuzzy when it comes to roundabouts. Most drivers do their own thing and hope for the best.

My husband insists that you should enter the roundabout on the inside lane if you are not going to take the 1st exit. Later you signal and edge to the outside lane when you are close to the exit you need.  

Driver instructors teach the students that you should always enter on the outside lane and simply signal left until you get to the exit you want to go out on.

I often have a horrible sense that as I am exiting the roundabout someone who didn’t pay attention to my signal is going to plow into me as they are going continuing on. Fortunately, everyone seems to manage to go around without causing too much damage. In my 15 years here I don’t think I have ever seen an accident in a roundabout, so they aren’t as dangerous as they would seem.

The roundabouts that I find the most intimidating have a traffic light or two right in the middle. You start going around thinking all is well, and BAM a red light right in front of you. Traffic lights are only put in the larger roundabouts in the middle of the cities, but be aware you may come across such a situation.  

On the plus side, if you are not 100% sure where you want to go, you can keep going around the circle until you decide. 

Final tips for driving in Spain

Don't be put off from driving by this article. Renting a car gives you a lot more freedom and lets you see parts of Spain that you would never get to see otherwise. 

GPS is a lifesaver, make sure the car you rent has one—and that it can be converted into English. Or use Google maps on your phone. 

Take the back roads and enjoy the scenery!

If you have had any experiences driving in Spain I would love to hear about them.