Seeing the world, one week at a time.
SPAIN & PORTUGAL TIPS & TRICKS
WHEN TO GO: Obviously, if you're looking for a sun-splashed Mediterranean holiday, you'll want to visit in the warmer months (Lisbon is at roughly the same latitude as Washington, D.C.), but for most other purposes, the Iberian Peninsula is a year-round destination. I went in early February, and while it was cold and windy with some light snow in Madrid, it was cool and pleasant on the coast in Lisbon. There was plenty to do as well, and accommodations and flights are cheaper in the off-season.
TWO DISTINCT CULTURES AND LANGUAGES: They share a peninsula, but Spain and Portugal are two different countries with two different cultures and two different languages. The Spaniards and the Portuguese are both proud peoples, and the Portuguese in particular will bristle at being thought of as 'Spain Light'. I accidentally ran across that when after four days of speaking Spanish in Madrid, I accidentally said 'gracias' to my Portuguese cab driver. (The word in Portuguese is 'obrigado'). A Portuguese friend I met on the trip told me the locals would actually rather you speak English to them than Spanish.
ONE CURRENCY: Despite that, Spain and Portugal are both members of the European Union, so there are no border controls between them and Euros are the currency for both.
SAFETY: In general, Madrid and Lisbon are both extremely safe cities... but as always, the basic rules of safety in unfamiliar areas are always a good idea.
LANGUAGES: English is fairly well-known in both Madrid and Lisbon, likely because they are capital cities that deal with a lot of British tourists. In fact, there were times in Madrid when I started trying to communicate in Spanish (I'd give myself a '3' on a scale of 1-10), and the person I was speaking with went straight to English just to hurry things along. And in Portugal, as I said earlier, they'd actually rather have you speak English to them than Spanish. But learn some Portuguese words and phrases if you really want to get along with the locals.
TIPPING: In many places in Western Europe, a tip is already included in the bill (indicated by the phrase 'service included' on the menu in the local language). If it isn't, a 5-10% tip is considered proper and acceptable, and in a lot of places leaving a bigger tip is considered arrogant.
THE CULTURE: One of my first introductions to Spanish culture was walking into a Madrid restaurant between 6-7 p.m. and finding it nearly empty. Spaniards tend to eat later in the evening, and yes, small plates of tapas are a thing there that allow a variety of flavors in one meal. Also, you have to have chocolate con churros for a snack or dessert at least once while you're there. In Lisbon, seafood is the main culinary attraction, with endless varieties of cod (bacalhau) one of the more traditional dishes. Have some amazing Port wine while you're there as well. Finally, be sure and catch at least one fado performance. It's beautiful, haunting, and a major part of Portuguese culture.
Walkabout III: Iberian Capitals