Expat guide to Spanish culture and traditions


Updated on Jan 19 • 9 minute read

Life in Spain is full of rich culture and traditions. Whether you’re planning on moving to Spain or are already living in Spain, it can help to know the Spanish culture and traditions that influence how the Spanish live their lives. After all, you don’t want to make big mistake that can be avoided.

This guide is for you if you’ve questions about Spanish culture or life in Spain. Do the Spanish people greet each other with 2 or 3 kisses? Do youngsters really stay with their parents in their late twenties? Are people late to business meetings too? Does the siesta still exist? Am I expected to pay birthday parties all by myself?

What's the culture like in Spain?

Spain has a vibrant and warm culture. The people are passionate, expressive, and loving,. They prioritise family and make time to enjoy the company of their loved ones, especially over food. They live to enjoy life and that’s why they take things slowly. They don't hold back when celebrating traditional festivities and are proud of their artistic, historic, and cultural heritage.

To understand the Spanish way of life better, we’re sharing 18 important aspects that influence Spanish culture, customs, and traditions.

1. Naming tradition

Spanish people have 2 names and 2 surnames; the first surname belongs to the father and the second to the mother. Usually people are addressed with their first name and surname.

Spanish women don't change their surname after marriage.

It’s common to give family and friends a nickname. So don’t be surprised if you find out Kiko is actually Federico.

If someone's an acquaintance or in a formal setting, you can call them Don (male) or Dona (female) followed by their name. Generally, Spanish people switch to first name basis quickly as it’s in the culture to be informal and friendly.

2. Greeting others

It’s common to greet people, even on the streets, shops, or elevators.

When greeting a woman you know, it’s common to give two kisses, starting on the left cheek. Men usually shake their hands or hug if they’re close.

3. Language

In Spain, the main language's Castillian – also known as Spanish. Other official languages include Galician, Basque, Catalan, and Valencian.

In general, most people will speak Castillian so it’s highly recommended to learn Spanish at any of the language schools across Spain.

4. Communication style

The Spanish are direct yet welcoming and informal. You will hear less ‘gracias’ and ‘por favor’ and more (you) instead of the formal usted (you). But it doesn’t mean they’re disrespectful.

They love sharing their opinion, even if unasked. They tend to speak loud and are quite expressive. It’s common for them to interrupt out of excitement or to avoid awkward silences.

Then there's non-verbal communication. Get used to less personal space, more hugs and kisses, use of hands and facial expressions, more eye contact, touching of arms or shoulders as a show of affection, and seeing more PDA.

5. Family life in Spain

La Familia is arguably the most important social unit in Spain.

Most families in Spain are nuclear due to the aftermath of the economic crisis. Children continue living with their parents until their early thirties, unless they’re moving abroad or have found a long-term partner to live with.

Youngsters choose not to get married or have children until their mid-30s because of their unemployment status or the high cost of raising children. When they decide to have children, it’s common for grandparents to take care of their children.

Grandparents usually live independently, unless they’re no longer in good health.

No matter the choice of living arrangements, families choose to live in close proximity to celebrate joyous occasions and rely on each other when hardship strikes. Families make it a point to meet up frequently and most often gather around a shared meal.

6. Work culture in Spain

Spaniards work an average of 36.4 hours a week. A typical workday in Spain starts between 8:30 A.M. to 10:00 A.M. and end by 5:00 to 8:00 P.M.

When it comes to business etiquette, being late's unfashionable and people respect the hierarchy of command, especially in family-owned businesses or when it comes to very important decisions.

Although meetings are held to convey action points, employees do ask questions or interrupt, making the meetings feel informal and last longer. Afternoon meetings are not common as it’s usually lunchtime.

Overall, Spanish people emphasise building personal relationships before making any business decisions. It’s common to meet over lunch or dinner before getting to business or negotiations.

When it comes to criticism or rejection, it’s common to bring it up tactfully to avoid hurting their feelings, especially in public.

7. Student culture in Spain

Education's compulsory for children aged 6-16 years and is free at public schools.

A typical school day in Spain starts at 9:00 and ends by 15:00 or 17:00 P.M., depending on if students have lunch at home and if they’ve after school activities.

Usually schools in cities offer after school programs so that parents can pick them up in the late afternoon. In smaller towns, children are often taken care of by a family member instead.

Attending a university isn't compulsory but many Spanish students study at a university to better their chances of getting a job. Overall, the university student culture in Spain is very lively and students study hard and have fun.

8. Daily routine in Spain

If you want to live like a local, you need to adopt the Spanish way of life. Of course, no two people are the same but how the daily routine in Spain unfolds is somewhat similar.

After waking up, Spaniards have a light breakfast which usually consists of a strong coffee and a small bite. Most have an almuerzo or mid-morning snack around 10:30 A.M.

Most shops open at 10:00 A.M. and remain open all day until 9:00 or 10:00 P.M. But if you’re in the suburbs, expect shops to shut down by 1:30 P.M. and not open until 5:00 P.M.

Most people have lunch at 1:30 P.M. In the cities, the idea of a siesta is gradually fading away and lunch breaks last 1-2 hours long. But in smaller towns and the countryside, a siesta will usually last 3 hours and no shops will open before 5:00 P.M.

Most are done with work by 8:00 P.M. Between 7:00 - 9:00 P.M., you’ll find lots of people enjoying a paseo or a stroll. If there’s a special occasion, people will also head out to socialise with friends or colleagues over tapas.

Dinner time's usually around 10:00 P.M. and is a light meal. Bedtime's usually after midnight.

On weekends, you can expect lots of busy streets as people shop and hang out with their friends and family. Expect bars and clubs to get crowded around 23:00 P.M. On Sundays, things are slower and quieter as it’s a day of rest.

9. Spanish food culture

Food's such an important part of Spanish culture. It’s the one thing that brings people together as most social gatherings are held over a meal. This reflects in the tapas culture, a style of eating that involves sharing small dishes.

Breakfast and dinner are light and lunch is the biggest meal of the day. The key to surviving later meal times is to have the mid-morning meal (almuerzo) and an evening snack or a few tapa dishes before dinner.

Each region has its own speciality. But overall, Spain follows a healthy Mediterranean diet which includes olive oil, beans, fresh and seasonal veggies, nuts, fish, and meat.

Some famous, traditional dishes found all over Spain include tortillas de patatas (potato omelette), albóndigas (meatballs), croquettes, calamares, gazpacho (cold soup), bocadillos (sandwiches), Paella – which is mostly a lunch dish, and churros.

There’re also some etiquettes. One of the most important etiquette includes la sobremesa – the act of sitting around the table and talking for hours after a meal's over. Another one is that you’re not supposed to hide your hands under the table; you’ve to keep your wrists on the table and elbows off the table.

10. Eating out

It’s common for Spaniards to meet outside instead of at home. Keep in mind that everyone might arrive 15-20 minutes late and that the party is likely to run late into the night.

Usually, the host who invites others pays for the meal; it’s not common to split the bill, especially among the older crowds. It’s also not common to tip in Spain.

If you’re invited for a meal and want to pay back, ask politely or pay back another time by hosting the next event. It’s rude to haggle over who will pay at the restaurant.

11. Social life and nightlife in Spain

If anyone knows how to prioritise social life, it’s the Spaniards. They make no excuses to see their loved ones during the weekdays or the weekends.

Much of the social life takes place outdoors, especially in the spring and summer. It’s very common for people to meet outdoors and go for a stroll (paseo), play an outdoor sport, or socialise with their friends over tapas.

The Spanish also have a late-night culture. On most nights, people don’t start dinner until 10:00 P.M. On weekends you’ll find Spaniards staying up late after dinner, chatting the night away.

The Spanish nightlife's full of energy and super welcoming. Bars and clubs remain open until 6:00 A.M. and it’s not surprising to see them have breakfast on their way back home.

Experience’s the best nightlife in these top Barcelona clubs.

12. Visiting guests

When visiting a Spanish home, keep in time that invitations will be later than you expect. It’s also almost expected that guests will stay long after dinner to talk over a coffee or alcoholic drink.

You don’t have to bring a gift each time. But if you want, bring things that can be shared immediately.

13. Gift giving

Gift giving's customary in Spain when visiting someone’s home or after a successful business venture.

When visiting a Spanish home, you could bring a not too expensive or flashy gift. You can also bring something that can be shared, such as chocolates, a cooked dish, wine, beer, etc. If the host family has children, it’s also common to gift them something.

If you gift flowers, make sure that it’s an important occasion and that you give an odd number of flowers (except 13 flowers).

When receiving gifts, it’s customary to open them immediately and thank them.

14. Spanish birthday traditions

Birthday's a special occasion and as the Spanish are a loving bunch, expect big groups of family and friends and lots of hugging or kissing.

One of the Spanish birthday traditions includes singing Feliz Cumpleaños. You may also see friends and family pull the birthday girl’s or boy’s ear as many times as they’re old.

It’s common for the birthday boy or girl to treat others by paying for the food and drinks. So keep in mind how many people you invite!

Presents are usually thoughtful and nicely wrapped. Friends may even pool in money to get one bigger, more expensive gift. If you’re receiving the gift, remember that it’s in their culture to unwrap gifts immediately and in front of everyone.

15. Traditional Spanish celebrations

Each region in Spain has unique festivals and celebrations, thanks to the regional differences and traditions. Overall, the Spanish celebrate their festivals with fervour and it’s a time of coming together and celebrating with parades, food stalls, dances, concerts, open markets, etc. Here are some Spanish traditions and festivals you should know:

  1. Holy Week or Semana Santa is a huge religious festival before Easter with a procession featuring life-sized biblical character floats.
  2. La Tomatina festival in Valencia is a day in August when people gather in the town square to throw squashed tomatoes.
  3. The Fallas festival of Valencia is a 5 day festival in March. It’s like a street party with fireworks, bands, procession, and burning of ninots – giant figures of those such as politicians.
  4. El Día de Reyes Magos is a Christmas tradition in Spain where the 3 Kings give Christmas gifts to the children. There’s also a parade to celebrate their arrival.

Bullfighting is steadily being phased out or has been phased out in Barcelona and the Catalan region. You may still see it in Pamplona.

16. Wedding culture

If you’re invited to a Spanish wedding, it’s good to know some wedding customs to understand what’s happening.

  • During the lasso ceremony, the bride and groom are wrapped with a rosary to unify them after the vows are exchanged.
  • The groom will gift the bride 13 coins made of silver or gold to represent sharing of wealth.
  • During the wedding reception, the bride and groom will come around and give gifts as part of the banquete de bodas tradition.
  • All guests can go up to the bride and groom and give them their gift or money in an envelope (sobres).
  • Men might cut up the groom’s tie and auction it off to raise money for the newlyweds.
  • Unmarried ladies can be seen wearing upside-down pins. Whoever loses it first is believed to be the next to be married.

As weddings become more modern, you may not notice all of the above traditions.

17. Fútbol culture

There’s no doubt that fútbol (football) is the biggest and most popular sport in Spain. It’s almost like a religion and even if you don’t enjoy the sport, you can’t avoid it.

There’s always some match to watch and it’s customary to watch a football match at home with friends, at bars, or at the stadium. You’ll no doubt feel the rush of the atmosphere as you watch people cheer, sing, and yell while wearing their team jerseys.

Barcelona and Madrid have fantastic teams and the rivalry can be quite intense. So make sure to not wear the wrong jersey or cheer for the wrong team.

Also, try to learn some fútbol vocabulary if you don’t want to feel left out.

18. Taboos

While on the subject of Spanish culture and traditions, it’s important to know some topics to avoid. For instance, don't speak of the Catalan and Spain issue or the Spanish civil war as people can be passionate and emotional about these topics.

Also don't plan anything on Tuesday the 13th as it’s believed to be an unlucky day.

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