Spain, rich in an intense mix of cultures, foods, colors, castle ruins from BC years. It’s overwhelming and amazing, and sometimes, oh so difficult just because their clock is seemingly from another planet and will not budge much, or ever for the American tourist who is hungry now.
Yes, when planning your trip to Spain, in addition to researching places to go and things to see and do, keep in mind the clock. It will make or break your vacation especially when traveling with children.
Dining Hours: Lunch is typically served from 1430 until 1700. At 1700 restaurants close completely and will not reopen until 2100. Dinner is from 2100 until oh, midnight, 0100… whenever you are full and happy. If you are hungry at noon, you can find a bocadillo (sandwich) shop or grab a pastry or empanada at a patisserie (bakery). Bakeries follow the business hours below and close during the dining hours. Bars serve food all the time, but are often smoky. Unlike Germany, smoking hasn’t been banned from restaurants in Spain. When we want “dinner” and have our children with us, we eat a big lunch at their lunch hour so that essentially we’re full at 5. The 9pm dining experience though may be not what you want for your tired children is not child unfriendly. Families bring their children of all ages. If on a beach, the kids will bring scooters and ride along the boardwalk or play soccer on the beach until the dessert comes. But you will see lots of children at restaurants in Spain at 11pm and later. It is the cultural norm.
Business Hours: Small shops and most services are open from 0900/1000 until 1330/1430. The reopen from 1700-2100. Clearly, you are not meant to shop and eat at the same time in Spain. Grocery stores (Mercadona, Consum, Carrefore, Alcampo) do not close in the afternoon and are generally open from 0900 until 2100. Shopping centers and large stores like Corte Ingles are also open all day.
Local Holidays: It seems, in Spain, that there is a holiday almost daily somewhere. There are as many local holidays as national holidays including small village celebrations like bull runs and festivals. When planning your trip, try to find out if there are any local holidays during that time. They could enhance or hinder your time. Holidays bring crowds (especially in Barcelona!), but small local holidays can add a special bit of culture to your vacation. Look for parades and ferias. Most larger towns in Spain have a Feria sometime between April and September – days or weeks of celebrations, parades, fireworks, and fairs. For some festivals, you need to book rooms months in advance to have a place, so do plan ahead.
Language Barrier: I’ve heard that Spain has the lowest English ability in western Europe and from living here, I can believe it. Even in the big city, most of the people that I run into do not speak English. People are very friendly and helpful, but it helps to know some basic phrases. Barcelona and Madrid, with more tourists, do have a lot more English speakers.
Roads: This country is OLD. And with age come two-lane roads not quite big enough for one. If you are renting a car, get the smallest one you can fit into. If you are coming with a group, know that a 9 passenger VW is going to be a challenge when touring old mountain villages and the old city centers of even the most modern cities. Scraped door panels and broken mirrors are all part of the experience, right? The highways are easy. Many roads are better than many local German roads… but do beware of the older areas. Park and walk when you can.
Beaches/Towns: Unlike the states where the towns line the beaches, generally, in Spain the towns are a couple miles inland and the beaches are lines with vacation homes, apartment complexes, a couple shops, and restaurants that are open exactly when you aren’t hungry. If you want to tour a town, know that the beach is a drive, not a walk away.