6 Things That Surprised Me About Spain

Despite being one of the most popular travel destinations, Spain has never been on my radar. I took a couple years of Spanish in high school and had a few college friends study abroad in the country, but I knew very little about it when we decided to visit.

But flights were cheap and we wanted to travel somewhere at least a bit warmer than Kyiv for the holiday season … so Spain it was! We spent nearly three weeks in the country, splitting our time between Barcelona, Madrid and Sevilla. Knowing so little about the country, I had no expectations about our holiday, but there were a few things that surprised me about Spain.

balcony barcelona spain

It is covered in graffiti.

I’ve never been in denial about my adoration for tasteful and appropriate street art, but I found very little of that in Spain. There are wonderful opportunities for commissioned pieces on the sides of dilapidated buildings, which is the case in Kyiv. However, except for a single street worth of murals in Madrid and some handmade pieces hung up around Barcelona, I didn’t see any large-scale work to help beautify any of the cities we visited.

What I did see was graffiti – lots and lots of graffiti. And not just graffiti, but an exorbitant amount of tagging and promotional stickers attached to doors, walls, garages and gates. Up and down narrow streets, on buildings and street curbs … truly, spray paint and brightly colored stickers were everywhere. Trashy graffiti and tagging take a lot away from a destination. It demonstrates a certain amount of disrespect for a community and city (both by the taggers and the city, which appears to do nothing to stem the issues), and it’s just unappealing.

Not to be let off the hook, Kyiv may be teeming with lovely street art, but it also has a graffiti problem. However, I always thought of Spain as more “developed” than Ukraine, so perhaps that’s why the graffiti surprised me.

All the garbage.

Along with the graffiti, I found the three cities we were in to have over-heaping trash bins and litter strewn along the sidewalks. Granted, we were visiting over the holiday season, so some celebration detritus definitely made sense. Again, however, the careless tossing of trash made it feel like people (locals? visitors? both?) just don’t care enough to keep things looking nice. This is not to say there aren’t trash bins – there are, but many were overflowing or too small to accommodate the amount of garbage being discarded. Also, some of the narrow streets smelled like urine, but we saw many street sweepers and people hosing down the sidewalks, so I think they’re trying to wash away as much of the smell as possible.

I think this is one of those self-fulfilling prophesies: If the locals demonstrated how they believe the city should be cared for, visitors would follow that lead. Without that lead, there’s no reason for anyone to go out of their way to appropriately dispose of their trash.

And I’m not letting my own city off so easily here either; Kyiv has a big garbage problem as well. Too much trash and not enough care, money and/or effort to address the problem …

gaudi guellBut, oh, that architecture.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if there’s garbage on the sidewalk because everyone is so busy looking up! Spain is known for its famous architect, Antoni Gaudí, the mastermind behind Sagrada Familia and other colorful and creative buildings, particularly in Barcelona. We spent several hours walking Barcelona’s streets just looking at buildings with their towers and turrets, columns and colors, window shutters and well-decorated balconies. One of my favorite finds was a balcony with a line of birdhouses, songbirds fluttering to and fro.

Like many European cities, there were lots of instances where buildings of very distinctly different design styles stood next to each other, usually in a variety of colors and textures. The differences feel so striking for us, especially since we most recently lived in a city locked down by homeowner associations and the notion that everything needs to be uniform.

In Sevilla, there is a popular tourist site called the Plaza de España, which is a huge, semi-circle plaza with beautiful buildings outfitted with towers and bridges and fountains. It is one of the most photographed places in Spain … and it exists for no reason. It was built purely for aesthetic reasons for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair hosted by Sevilla in 1929, and it is still known simply for its architectural value. For me, Spain’s architecture was one of its key features.

Its fierce cultural heritage.

Knowing little about Spain before we visited, neither Cory nor I were aware that Barcelona and all of Catalonia are incredibly independent. In fact, we were told that 80% of the people living in Catalonia voted to separate from the rest of Spain a few years ago. And even though the country refuses to accept its interest in separation, the Catalan independence movement is alive and well, especially if the number of independence flags hanging around Barcelona are any indication.

We were also surprised to discover the primary language in Barcelona isn’t Spanish but Catalan. So much for those two years of high school Spanish …

Sevilla also has a rich cultural heritage, wearing its flamenco and tapas traditions like a well-earned badge on its sleeve. And Madrid clung to its ties to Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.

The siesta is a very real thing.

I always heard that the Spanish take their afternoon siesta time seriously, but I had no idea how seriously. The siesta is not a mere mid-day hour – it’s practically the whole afternoon!

Everything is slow to open and get moving in the morning. Shops don’t seem to open until 11:00 a.m. or after, and then, just once everything seems to be open, it all closes again around 1:30 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. Most things don’t reopen until 5:00 p.m. or so. As for restaurants, “lunch” is served from just after noon until about 3:00 p.m., and dinner service doesn’t begin until 7:00 p.m.

Cory and I adjusted to the new dining schedule quickly, but when we were hungry around our normal dinnertime, we had to settle for tapas versus full meals.

As for the siesta idea in general, I’m a big fan. I think Americans, specifically, work far too much, and a forced break during the day is a good thing.

Everyone (or, almost everyone) smokes.

We witnessed more smoking in Spain than we’ve ever seen in any other country, and it was downright disgusting. I’m so thankful people aren’t allowed to smoke in Spain’s bars and restaurants, but that doesn’t stop anyone from crowding around doorfronts, puffing away on their cigarettes. On more than one occasion, we watched people who were smoking lean through the doorways, exhaling a lungful of smoke as they spoke to someone inside.

By the end of our trip, Cory had a sore throat from all the residual smoke just hanging in the air, and I was definitely ready to stop holding my breath.

8 Responses to “6 Things That Surprised Me About Spain”

  1. Jill

    Thanks for this! Obviously visitors have seen pics of the buildings and churches & expect that, but disappointed to hear about the trash & graffiti. And the smoking…that’s a total turnoff for me.

  2. Ignacio Lopez caeiro

    I think that you commit many mistakes of appraisal. Three weeks it is very a little time to extract the conclusions that you extract and offer a lot of erroneous information. Sincerely I think that you misinform mas that you report

    • Isabel fernandez

      Well said. He speaks like if he was an expert in the matter! To begin with the majority of Spaniards dont take the ‘siesta’ but what he might be referring to is the ‘horario partido’ which people take to have lunch at home and share some time with family or just do an errand.

    • Sean

      I have been visiting Spain for about 2 months now, and I agree with everything the author says. Except, Spanish dinner starts closer to 9:00 or 10:00, not 7:00. 7:00 is too early for Spanish dinner.

  3. Maarten Wouters

    I agree. My biggest worry about Spain is the litter. I drove the whole way south and nearly on my whole trip I saw highways bit also country roads full with litter. Pitty because Spain has beautiful places! I guess due to the crisis the cleaning up has slown down a lot..

  4. Melissa J

    Visiting Spain this summer for 3 weeks (2019). Visiting Barcelona and the Costa Blanca (Valencia – Benidorm- Altea – Alicante), then drove up to Guadalajara and flew home via Madrid. I agree with the graffiti and smoke the author mentions. It was a major turnoff.
    I knew Europeans smoked a lot, but did not realize how much.
    I did not see that much litter, but much more than I am accustomed to, in particular in the ocean while taking a scenic cruise. This was very sad.
    The graffiti was every place I saw and nothing like street art. It was pure tagging for no purpose or to advertise something (real estate) for rent or for sale. In Barcelona walking through the Gothic Quarter I saw it, during the drives all over I saw it in small towns and on their historic buildings or fortresses on the tops of hills. Sad as I see no pride in that. (I live in a city that if there is any type of tagging, it is quickly ‘cleaned’ (painted) over in 24 hours, so to see no desire to clean or paint over it was incredibly disappointing.)
    It wasn’t such a turn off I wouldn’t return. But I would know what to expect more. I didn’t visit the whole of Spain, but nonetheless… be prepared if you go.
    Your morning cafe con leche won’t be ready until about 8am or 9am. Lunch ends by about 2-4pm depending where you visit. Dinner does not begin until 8pm at the earliest. I noticed 10pm-midnight was equivalent to the US standard of about 6-8pm for dinner rush. I loved this though. I am a nightowl.

  5. Irving Fabic

    I just did a 1 week group tour of Madrid, Toledo and Seville.I agree: graffiti is pervasive and are a big turn off for tourists like us.We spoke about it many occasions, and all the tour guide had to offer was apologetic remarks. And then there were the Smokers!Can’t the government pass laws against smoking near building entrances and public areas?If allowed uncorrected..Tourism will suffer.Which , I don’t think Spain can ill afford to happen, given its fragile economic situation.

  6. A . S.

    This was back in 2015… I can assure you that so far (as of 2020) it’s only got worse. As a local resident, I witness how absolutely every single surface has been spray-painted with those disgusting tags (walls, buildings, trucks, trains, etc); trash accumulates endlessly; smoking is more popular than ever, especially among teenagers… We could also talk about rising corruption, unemployment and criminality but that’s another story. This country and its society are decaying so fast that it’s hard to believe.


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