19 Things That Spain Does Better Than The U.S.

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American “tapas bars” just don’t cut it…

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in the United States and I’m a proud New Yorker for life, but if there were one place I would move to, it would probably be Spain.

I lived in Barcelona for five months on a study abroad program in college, and I traveled around the country to different regions from Basque Country to Andalucia. And since my semester abroad, I’ve returned to Spain almost every year. I guess I just can’t stay away, thanks to these things that Spain does better than the US.


The wine…especially the cava

Hannah Loewentheil

I absolutely adore Spanish wine, and I buy it often in the US. But in Spain, the wine is often cheaper and higher quality — even local table wine tastes amazing. The very same bottle of Spanish wine purchased for $40 in the States would probably be closer to $15 in Spain. On probably too many occasions, I would pick up a delicious €7 bottle of wine from the local bodega and drink it on the beach with friends. 

There are so many amazing Spanish wine regions beyond the most famous like Rioja and Ribera del Duero. There’s Galicia, home to briny Albariño wine, perfect for pairing with oysters and seafood and Txakoli, a super acidic almost lemonade-y white from the Basque Country. Then there’s the Canary Islands, known for electric reds grown in volcanic soil, and Cataluña, home to the Spanish sparkling wine called Cava. And that’s just barely scratching the surface.


The laid-back, relaxed pace of things

Hannah Loewentheil

I live in Manhattan, so it’s in my nature to constantly feel rushed, time-pressed, and stressed out. I often find myself speed-walking in the city like I’m late to an appointment only to realize I have absolutely nowhere to be and nothing to rush for. But transport me to Spain and I don’t have a care in the world. It probably has something to do that the Spanish are so laid-back and relaxed. 

The whole country exudes an aura of calmness and carefree bliss. People walk leisurely on the street, pass a few hours on a city bench, or spend an entire afternoon sipping on sangria. I always feel like in Spain, there’s no sense of urgency, and it’s so incredibly refreshing.


The freshly squeezed juice

Hannah Loewentheil

I don’t know how to express my love for Spanish juices (aka zumo or sucs, in Catalan). First of all, pretty much every restaurant — even hole-in-the-wall cafés — have orange presses for freshly squeezed OJ. But I’d like to talk about the juice stands scattered around Barcelona’s famous Boqueria market. Here, you’ll find dozens and dozens of flavors of incredible fresh juice (many of which taste more like smoothies). 

Whereas my local Juice Generation charges $10 for a cold pressed coconut water, my daily zumo de coco at the Boqueria cost me €1. I basically survived off these fruit juices, and they are one of the things I miss most about living in Spain. I have attempted to re-create it at home on numerous occasions, and it just never comes out right.


The beaches (~swoon~)

Hannah Loewentheil

Of course, parts of Spain are landlocked, but in this country that is even smaller than the state of Texas, you’re never too far from the coast. I was lucky enough to live in Barcelona where the beach was walking distance from my apartment, but the country is full of incredible beaches, each more picturesque than the next.  There’s the Costa Brava region in Northeastern Spain, which is dotted with golden stretches of sand, the islands like Mallorca, Formentera, and Ibiza — popular holiday destinations among the locals — the Atlantic beaches in Cadiz, and the Mediterranean shores of Marbella. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 


The jamón 🤤🤤🤤

Hannah Loewentheil

To call this stuff ham is really misleading. Jamón, the kind of dry-cured ham produced in Spain, is not your average deli meat. There’s jamón serrano, which is the most common, and then there’s Jamón Iberico, the crown jewel of Spanish ham, made only from Iberian pigs. 

There’s even a type of this stuff called Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, which ensures that the pigs were raised entirely on acorns. I’m no farmer, but a diet of acorns must do something special because this delectable meat quite literally melts like butter. I’m going to be honest: I’m not a huge meat-eater. In fact, I usually stick to seafood. But put a plate of Jamón Iberico in front of me with some crusty bread and I simply cannot stop eating it. 


The late dinner hour

Hannah Loewentheil

When I first arrived in Barcelona, it took a little while to adjust to the culturally appropriate mealtimes. Lunch is usually not served until around 2 p.m. and most people don’t sit for dinner until around 9 p.m. When I was growing up, we ate dinner around 6:30….and even earlier in the winter when it gets dark so early. But after a few weeks in Spain, I started to appreciate this new schedule. 

At home, I often feel like there aren’t enough hours to accomplish all I want to do, but I love the way a late Spanish dinner extends the entire day. Not to mention eating late makes it easier to stay awake until Spanish nightlife really begins, which is far past my normal bedtime. Back home in New York, my husband and I have adopted a little bit of the Spanish lifestyle by cooking on the later side and embracing the last seating when it comes to NYC dinner reservations. 


The work-life balance

Hannah Loewentheil

Having grown up in the US and in New York in particular, I’ve always had a very particular view of work-life balance. In NYC, people live to work, but in Spain, they work to live. Of course, there are some exceptions, but the vast majority of people I met in Spain worked eight-hour days. They enjoyed leisurely lunch breaks (there’s no such thing as “desk lunch”), and they stopped checking their emails after the workday. There was always a clear sense of separation between work and life that is very often blurred in the US. People in Spain seem to work in order to make a living. Then they spend what they make and enjoy life to the fullest.


The tapas bars

Hannah Loewentheil

I have searched far and wide in NYC and whenever I visit other US cities, but I haven’t found a single tapas bar in the States that gets it right. Sure, there are amazing tapas restaurants in Manhattan, but a $10 plate of pan tomate just isn’t how tapas are meant to be. While there are certainly high-end tapas bars in Spain, the majority are casual and affordable.

In fact, there are still some traditional tapas bars mostly in Andalucia, where tapas are actually free snacks that accompany your drink order. The very best Spanish tapas bars are the size of a walk-in closet: they are standing-room only or are maybe equipped with barrels in place of tables. The wine and beer keeps flowing, as do the small, shareable plates like Spanish omelets, patatas bravas, padrón peppers, gambas al ajillo, and croquettas stuffed with ham or salted cod.


The food markets

Hannah Loewentheil

Just about every Spanish city and lots of smaller towns boast amazing neighborhood food markets where vendors set up stalls with fresh produce, seafood, meat, eggs, and so much more. There are counter-serve spots where you can sit down for a cappuccino with a ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast. 

La Boqueria, the famous covered market at the top of Las Ramblas, was one of my favorite places in Barcelona. I loved watching the locals do their daily grocery shopping, grabbing a little something here and there from the many food stalls. Each city has its own version of La Boqueria: There’s Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao, Mercat Central in Valencia, and so many more. To picture it, imagine the best farmers market you’ve ever been to in the states and then multiply that by 20. 


The public transportation

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One of the best things about living in Spain was the national railway company called Renfe. It’s a high-speed train system that connects the entire country, all the way from Málaga in the south to Girona in the northeast. While living in Barcelona, I could get to Madrid by train in about 2.5 hours. And from there, it’s about the same distance via train to Seville or Granada. The trains are quick, efficient, and best of all, super affordable. It was so much fun being able to hop on the train and see so many different regions of Spain.


The incredibly affordable budget flights

Hannah Loewentheil

Not quite unique to Spain, but something I love about Europe in general is budget air travel. While you can get lucky during an airline’s flash sale and snag a $40 one-way ticket, the same sort of budget airlines simply don’t exist in the US. In Spain, there was Vueling, a low-cost airline that operated flights throughout the country and the entire European continent. Plus, there are lots of other European airlines like EasyJet, Ryanair, and Eurowings that made it so affordable to explore different cities. I certainly took advantage of these affordable flights. In fact, I once flew from Barcelona to Dublin for just €2.99 simply because it was too cheap to resist. 


The lengthy midweek lunch hour

Hannah Loewentheil

Lunch, which usually takes place around 2 p.m., is the largest meal of the day in Spain. And whereas I’m used to grabbing a quick salad and returning back to my desk, the Spanish do lunchtime very differently. Even on workdays, they go out to restaurants and spend an hour or more eating, often drinking a glass of wine, and taking a much-needed break from the day. 

There’s no shoveling food into your mouth trying to make it back to the office as soon as possible. It’s a leisurely and relaxed affair. Many restaurants offer a menu del día during lunchtime, which is a special prix fixe menu with three courses and a drink (I should mention that water and wine were usually the same price). Now that’s something the US should definitely adopt from Spain. 


The olive oil

Hannah Loewentheil

What can I say about Spanish extra virgin olive oil? Blame it on the Mediterranean climate or an abundance of olive groves or whatever, but it’s next-level delicious. The cheapest olive oil you could buy in Spain is better than many of nicest olive oils in the US. There are so many different kinds of olive oil from pretty much every region in the Iberian Penninsula, but they’re usually a blend of fruity, nutty, rich, and savory. And of course, Spanish cuisine capitalizes on this abundant and delicious product. Every time I go to Spain, I make sure to bring back a few bottles of olive oil to gift my friends and family…and to hoard to myself. 


The candy stores

Hannah Loewentheil

Spain freaking loves candy, and I am so here for it. Candy stores are all over the place — the kind where you walk on in and fill up a cute container with as many different kinds of colorful gummy candies that you can squish together. Sure, we have pharmacies and grocery stores stocked with all the popular chocolate bars, Starburst, Reese’s, etc…but penny candy stores like those in Spain are hard to come by in the US.


The drinking culture

Hannah Loewentheil

The way that people think about alcohol in Spain feels different from the drinking culture in the US. The Spanish drink often, but they don’t abuse alcohol. It’s more common than not to see people drinking a carafe of wine at lunchtime (yup, even on workdays). Beer is even served at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person get carded in a restaurant in Spain. But I have certainly seen what appear to be teenagers enjoying a small glass of vino at a family dinner. It feels as if wine is something that should be enjoyed to enhance the flavor of food rather than a substance with which to get wasted.


The architecture

Hannah Loewenteil

There’s no single style to describe Spanish architecture just like you can’t categorize all of the architecture in the US. But overall, Spain is a design-lover’s dream. Barcelona has a distinctly whimsical, playful, and creative feel to it, thanks to the work of Antoni Gaudí (you’ve probably heard of La Sagrada Familia). Then there’s the Gothic Quarter, made up of medieval cathedrals, narrow alleyways, and arches that make you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time. 

Hannah Loewenteil

In Southern Spain, the architecture is a blend of Moorish, Roman, and Spanish styles that manifest themselves in elaborate gardens, orange groves, ornate carvings in stone, and glazed ceramic tiles called azulejos. In Granada, the palace and fortress called the Alhambra quite literally took my breath away. Bilbao and Valencia are two cities known for their cutting-edge, iconic buildings like the Guggenheim Museum and the works of Santiago Calatrava. 


The fútbol

Hannah Loewentheil

I’m no serious sports fan, but attending a football (aka soccer) game in Spain is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Each football club is basically a cult and the fans are not messing around. I went to a totally insignificant FC Barcelona exhibition game at Camp Nou and it was one of the coolest sporting events I’ve ever witnessed.


The Mediterranean climate

Hannah Loewentheil

Unless you live in Florida, California, or one of the rare places in the US where the weather is consistently delightful, winter in the States can be brutal. But not in Spain, where a Mediterranean climate means the temperatures hardly ever fall below freezing. There are a few exceptions, like the Pyrenees Mountains where you can go skiing, but for the most part Spain stays temperate and mild year round. When I was in Barcelona, a light jacket was the heaviest layer I ever needed, even during the winter months. In most of the country during the coldest months the weather hovers in the 50s and 60s. 


And finally, the cuisine

Hannah Loewentheil

I could eat Spanish food for my entire life and never get sick of it. It’s easy to think that Spanish cuisine is made up of paella, tapas, and churros but it’s so much more than that. In Basque country, tapas are bite-sized snacks held together with toothpicks called pintxos. In Andalucia there’s refreshing gazpacho and my personal favorite, salmorejo: a thick and creamy cold tomato soup blended with bread. There’s also a huge culture of tinned seafood, which I could really get behind.

Plus, tapas are pretty much the perfect meal because you get to try little bites of so many delicious things.

Hannah Loewentheil

I particularly loved the regional specialties in Catalonia like escalivada (smoky, charred veggies garnished with olive oil and salt), fideuà (a paella-like recipe made with short, dry pasta), and arròs negre (black rice always served with garlic aioli). Spain is also home to a huge gastronomic movement, which was spearheaded by the famous chefs Ferran and Albert Adrià. It stills lives on today in the form of lots of experimental restaurants focusing in molecular gastronomy, which push the boundaries of flavor and texture. 

Have you ever lived abroad or traveled somewhere that made you feel like you could stay there forever? Tell us in the comments below!

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