1. Everyone speaks Spanish.
There are actually four languages in Spain:
Castilian is what the English-speaking world calls Spanish — you will primarily hear it referred to as “castellano” by Spaniards, although some still refer to it as “español.” This confused me for my first week or two living in Spain, as all the people who asked me “¿Hablas castellano?” were met by a completely blank stare from my end. Castellano has a markedly different accent from that of Latin American Spanish, most easily distinguished by the pronunciation of the letter “c” as “th.”
Catalan is spoken in the northeastern region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. It is the co-official language along with Castellano. While everyone from Barcelona understands Spanish, they will likely respond to you in Catalan. Many restaurant menus and signs however, remain in Spanish or consist of both languages.
Basque is spoken in the northern Basque country region of Spain, and some parts of Navarra, another autonomous region in the north. Well-known Basque cities include the gastronomical capital San Sebastian, and Bilbao, which houses the Guggenheim Museum. While plenty of signs, menus, and posters around the major Basque cities are in the Basque language, you will still hear plenty of people speaking Spanish; there’s no need to fret about trying to pick up Euskera as a visitor. The language itself isn’t Latin-based so it’s vastly different from the other dialects in Spain.
Galician is spoken in Galicia, the northwestern region of Spain right above Portugal. It is the co-official language in the region along with Castellano.
2. Spanish food is spicy just like Mexican food.
Spanish food is completely different from Mexican or any other Latin American cuisine. Hot sauce is not commonly used in Spanish cooking, not even as a condiment. The bottles of hot sauce you do find at supermarkets are bland compared to the spiciness of Mexican dishes. Most Spaniards I know do not (and cannot) eat spicy food.
3. All Spaniards love bullfighting.
Bullfighting is certainly one of Spain’s long-standing traditions and draws enormous crowds, but its popularity has slowly declined — and controversiality risen — in light of burgeoning movements against animal cruelty. It is illegal in the Canary Islands, and was also banned in Catalonia in 2010 (primarily for political reasons associated with the Spanish nation and Franco regime).
These days, the sport is most popular mainly in the South of Spain, the region around Madrid, and the northern region of Navarra, where the internationally renowned San Fermín (Running of the Bulls) festival in Pamplona is held every July.
Given all that, the average Spaniard has likely never been to a bullfight. As for the residents of Pamplona, many locals actually leave town around San Fermín in July, having developed a distaste for the influx of tourists and price hikes in restaurants and bars.
4. When you visit Catalonia, you’re visiting just a unique cultural area of Spain.
Strictly speaking this is true, but Catalonia possesses and takes far more pride in its own cultural and political identity than other regions of Spain. Many Catalans now think of themselves as a separate nation; in fact, there are ongoing Catalan independence/separatist movements to secede from Spain and become an independent nation.
The region was given autonomy in Spanish history, mostly when Spain became a republic; however, its identity was later heavily oppressed by the Franco dictatorship.
5. “Tapas” are a classic Spanish food.
“Tapas” are not an actual Spanish dish; it’s just a general word that refers to the small plates or appetizer-sized dishes in Spain. Larger portions, typically for sharing, are called “raciones.”
In the northern regions of Spain including Navarra and Basque country, tapas are even called by a different name: pintxos. It essentially means the same concept, although pintxos are typically served on a slice of bread.
6. You can eat Paella everywhere.
Actually, paella specifically originates from Valencia, so head there if you want the most delicious and authentic paella of you life. But Spaniards in other regions of Spain do not commonly eat paella on a regular basis. When the dish is served in Catalonia and other various regions of Spain, it’s likely catering tourists.
7. You can expect everyone to take a siesta in mid-afternoon.
Before moving to Spain, I had a very traditional perception of Spanish life, in which everyone would be asleep every day from 2-5pm. But having lived here for almost 6 months now, I have realized that the popularity of siestas depends heavily on the city and time of the year.
The main point of siesta is to rest during the hottest hours of the day (and after a heavy lunch), so it makes the most sense to take siestas in the summer — particularly in the blazingly hot southern region of Spain.
In smaller cities, the tradition of siesta is also more palpable. Not to mention, many banks close at 2pm and don’t reopen until the next day. But in major cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, however, the siesta doesn’t seem to affect city life too much. Most shops, restaurants, and services are open all day. Only more traditional bars or restaurants still close during the afternoon.
As for universities, unfortunately there is no siesta from classes. Classes still run all day, anywhere from 8am to 7pm.