Referring to culture shock in Spain, or any country, isn’t necessarily describing shocking things that are traumatic or illegal or uncivilized. The culture shock I’ve experienced in Spain tends to be annoying, frustrating, or puzzling. Things that you just have to accept as part of the Spanish culture, their way of life. They are not necessarily things that are so shocking that you want to skedaddle out of Spain pronto. Using the phrase culture shock is subjective. Culture difference is maybe a better term, but let’s call it culture shock, because that’s the well known idiom. And let’s face it. Differences in countries and cultures can be shocking to some people.

The first time I was in Spain, I experienced a few culture shocks, but most of the time I just went with the flow. On my latest adventure to Spain, I was reminded of many of those culture differences. Decades later, it’s clear some things will never change. This way of life has been working in Spain for centuries.

Here’s my round up of 15 culture shocks you’ll experience in Spain.

1. The language

This might be very obvious, but in Spain, the citizens speak Spanish. And they speak it rapidly. About the only thing they do fast in this country! Ha ha!

In many other European countries, English is widely spoken, especially in larger cities. This is not the case in Spain. Oh, sure, younger people may have learned English in school, and hotels and restaurants in tourist areas will have staff who speak some English.

The over 40-years-old crowd generally do not speak English. It’s a good idea to know a little Spanish before traveling to Spain.

2. Many smokers

The first time I lived in Spain, just about every adult smoked. No problem bumming a cigarette because everyone had a pack on them.

I’ve never smoked.

I stayed at a hotel in Torremolinos and an elderly man offered me a cigarette. I declined but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I finally took it. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He had to light it up as well. I thanked him and moved to another part of the room where I gave it to a young Spanish fellow to smoke.

My estimate back then is at least 90% of Spanish adults smoked.

Decades later, it still seems like everyone in Spain is a smoker. But let’s be fair, it is lower numbers. I’d say about half of Spain’s population are smokers.

Generally no smoking inside stores and restaurants, but patios are full of smokers. And that sucks. I’d love to sit outside on the sunny patio and enjoy a meal, but I have to stay inside where I can breathe clean air.

3. Spaniards are in no hurry

Spaniards are never in a rush. They walk slowly and then unexpectedly stop. Going shopping turns into a social event as people run into friends and stop to talk, blocking anyone else from getting past.

Spaniards like to walk slowly with several people abreast to form a human barricade. Seriously. You have to get good at shoving and pushing to move around on crowded sidewalks.

Madrid’s airport has moving sidewalks to help people walk long distances inside the terminal. Generally passengers walk instead of just standing still and letting the sidewalk carry them to the next section. I was behind a Spanish woman pulling a carry on suitcase, and walking slow enough that I was gaining on her. After she stepped off the moving sidewalk, she suddenly stopped. You’d think she could have gotten out of the way of the moving sidewalk and stepped to the side. But oh, no. She does the famous unexpected Spanish stop and I damned near tripped over her suitcase.

Fortunately I’m fast on my feet and jumped over it. She did apologize.

Anyone who walks faster than a turtle will have their patience tested by slowpoke Spaniards.

4. Slow banking

And speaking of slow – bank staff are slower than molasses on a cold winter day. If there are more than two people in line at the bank, there will be close to a one hour wait to see a teller. Maybe longer! That’s because the Spanish love socializing and screw everyone behind them that’s waiting in line.

That’s one of the more annoying culture shocks in Spain. If there are more than two people waiting in line inside the bank, go do something else and come back another day. Unless you have a couple of hours to kill.

5. Which floor am I on?

In North America, if we enter a five story building, the ground floor is the first floor. If we take an elevator and push the number 5, we will end up on the fifth floor.

In Spain, the first floor is usually up a flight of stairs. If your room is on the third floor, that would be like the fourth floor in Canada or America.

The number buttons inside elevators can get a little confusing. There will be a 0. That is the ground floor. Sometimes there will be a -1. That would be the basement. Though -1 or -2 might be the laundry area, parking, or the restaurant.

Has anyone seen an elevator in North America with a button showing floor 0 or numbers in the negative?

6. Toilets

In North America we’re used to toilets with a flush lever on the side of the tank. In Spain toilets flush with a button on the top that is pushed down. Actually there are two sections inside the “button”. Loosely, number one and number two. You press the side of the button depending on how big a flush you require.

It was annoying at one hotel I stayed at where the water in the toilet wouldn’t stop running. With any luck, in North America that problem can be solved by jiggling the lever. Maybe lifting the lid off the tank and manually lifting the chain.

No such luck in Spain. I grabbed the tank lid and lifted it, only to drag all the lever mechanism with me. It’s all attached to the lid. I couldn’t see inside the tank. But whatever I did, I jostled it enough that the toilet stopped running.

These toilets with the flusher on the top are common in Europe.

7. Water isn’t free

In North America if we go to a restaurant and order water with our meal, the server will bring us a glass. No charge.

Not the same story in Spain. If you order water, it comes in a bottle with a price tag.

Yeah, more plastic for the landfill. Not too environmentally friendly.

8. No free refills

If we go to a restaurant in Canada or America and order a soft drink with our meal and we’re still thirsty, it most likely comes with a free refill. Soft drinks usually come from a soda dispensing machine.

Same thing if we order coffee or tea in North America. Refills are usually free.

If you order a soft drink in Spain, it comes in a can or a plastic bottle, depends what the restaurants stocks. And if you’re still thirsty while eating your meal, you have to buy another can of your soft drink.

There are no free soda/coffee/tea/water refills in Spain. That’s a culture shock!

Not to mention how environmentally unfriendly this all is. And expensive.

The only place you might get free refills are at fast food chains that have a self-serve soda dispenser.

I was in Leon on Columbus Day – October 12. Everything was closed, except fast food restaurants. There was a Domino’s near my albergue. Pizza and a soft drink with free refills at the soda dispenser was €8.99 Euros. The pizza came in one size. Real big.

Now that I think about it, pizza could be another culture shock. They don’t come in small, medium, and large. They are one size fits all. And sad to say, just like the old Alka Seltzer commercials: I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.

9. Tortilla

If I’m in Canada and buy tortillas at the grocery store, this is because I’m planning to make burritos or wraps. Mexican influence.

In Spain, a tortilla is more like a quiche – eggs, potatoes, onions, and cheese. It might have bacon or ham in it. Even if you order a vegetarian tortilla, it’s just as likely to come with tuna in it. A tortilla is usually served with a piece of bread.

A typical Spanish breakfast on the Camino de Santiago is a tortilla, cafe con leche, and orange juice.

I once ordered a veggie tortilla sandwich. The lady asked me if I wanted a small or large sandwich. I ordered the small. I hate to see what the large sandwich would have looked like!

10. Bland food

The food in Spain is not the greatest. When eating out at a restaurant, food is not seasoned, except maybe with salt, garlic and olive oil. There’s no pepper shaker on the table. There are no sauces or spices.


I asked a Spanish friend why the food isn’t seasoned and she said if the food is good, there is no need to season it. Yeah, I don’t think so. In my opinion, I could have cooked a better meal than just about everywhere I ate in Spain. Yeah, put me in that kitchen and I’ll give the people what they want!

11. Light breakfast

Breakfast in Spain will leave you hungry. The Spaniards eat a light breakfast. Usually coffee and a pastry. I also liked to order an orange juice.

Sometimes I got lucky and found a restaurant serving hot chocolate and churros. Yummy!

12. Late dinner

Another culture shock in Spain is that dinner is served late. Eight o’clock would be an early dinner for Spaniards.

And what sucks is that restaurants aren’t open. They close later in the afternoon, say around 4pm, and they don’t open again until 7pm if you’re lucky, but probably not until 8pm.

Or a restaurant is open all day and closes at 5pm. And doesn’t open up again for business until the next day. So no dinner rush at all at these places!

13. Pharmacies

Pharmacies are very different in Spain than they are in Canada and America. Here we can go into Long’s, Walgreen’s, London Drugs, or just about any pharmacy (drug store) and find a wide selection of medicines on the shelves for what ails us. We can also find vitamins, first aid supplies, many grocery items, snacks, drinks, toys, greeting cards, magazines, books, shampoo, cosmetics, toothbrushes, and a pharmacist filling prescriptions.

In Spain, pharmacies are kind of like Starbucks in North America – there’s one on every corner. They’re small shops. There will be a pharmacist filling prescriptions and there will be a few items for sale inside the store. Generally medicine for milder illnesses and possibly a small selection of first aid products.

14. Siesta

Another culture shock in Spain is the afternoon siesta shut down. Everything is closed, except for restaurants and bars catering to the “lunch crowd” that runs from about 2pm to 5pm.

Generally, department stores will be open during siesta. Some grocery stores might also be open, but if it’s a small town, they’re probably closed.

15. Closed on Sunday

A big culture shock in Spain is nothing is open on Sundays (or holidays). If you need groceries, you better have bought them on Saturday. There could be a few bars and restaurants open. That depends on the owners.

In larger towns just about every fast food restaurant you can find in North America will be open on Sunday. Which is great news if you like KFC, Burger King, or McDonald’s.

But it is infuriating if you’re a hungry tourist trying to find food on Sunday and you don’t really want a fast food burger.

Culture shocks in Spain

What do you think? Shocking? Or just culture differences? This way of of life has been working for Spaniards for decades, if not centuries.

For me, travel is about embracing new cultures and living like a local.

Not so easy when you come from a 24/7 society. I mean if I’m craving food at two in the morning, I can go to 7-11 or a drive thru McDonald’s.

Early bird? Let’s flip it around to six in the morning when a lot of chain restaurants and coffee shops are open in North America.

Not happening in Spain! Too early!

I had to catch a train from Madrid to Pamplona at 7:30am. There’s a Dunkin Donuts across the street. I had to walk right by it to get to the train station. It was closed! Missed business opportunity with the morning commuters.

Yup, it’s a different way of life in Spain. A bit of a culture shock to those of us accustomed to a 24/7 society, but it’s not the end of the world. A little advance planning and the ability to go with the flow helps a lot when traveling to Spain.

Published by Cheryl @ The Lifestyle Digs on January 22, 2024.

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