There is no better way to get to know a new place than getting to know a bit about the language. Not only does it offer a window into local culture, it also opens a door to more meaningful, memorable interactions with locals. So even if you're wandering through a big city like Madrid or Barcelona, it pays to know a little bit of Spanish.
Luckily, in Spain, people will encourage even the most elementary Spanish every step of the way. Learn just a handful of these phrases, and you'll have to prepare yourself for a generous reception and effusive compliments over the high quality of your castellano (Castilian Spanish, from the Castile region—what English-speakers just call "Spanish"). It's just one of the many reasons that there is no better place to be a traveler.
If you want to improve your Spanish, here are a couple of essential resources and apps to take along on your journey.
WordMagic Unabridged English-Spanish Dictionary: If you’re traveling without phone data, this app is essential. Other dictionaries require Internet access to look up a word, but this dictionary downloads entirely to your phone or tablet, and is complete with phrases and recorded pronunciations. You can even change the region to get a sense of the local accent. You can even add new words to your favorites and make instant flashcards. I don’t know how I ever survived without this one.
Vox Compact Spanish-English Dictionary: This is my favorite brand of Spanish-English Dictionary because of the way it's formatted. It is particularly easy to find useful idioms and phrases under relevant words. I highly recommend this dictionary for anyone looking to dive deeper into the Spanish language. Here's a travel-sized version.
WordReference: Among online dictionaries for non-native speakers, this is the standout best. It offers recorded pronunciations and tons of useful phrases, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for in the dictionary, the very active forum will usually have an answer for you.
501 Spanish Verbs: Conjugating verbs is next-level language learning ... but it's also essential if you want to communicate on a more complex level. This book isn't just a great guide for how to conjugate individual verbs—it also offers easy-to-understand, in-depth instructions on each tense and when to use it. It's a must for any Spanish-language learner.
Real Academia Española: The governing body when it comes to the Spanish language, the RAE publishes a free online dictionary and app that provides a deeper level of variation and explanation of different words’ definitions for the more advanced Spanish learner (i.e., everything here, from definitions to grammatical terms, is going to be in Spanish). Their “Dictionary of Doubts” also provides insights on particularly problematic points of grammar and spelling. This site, though, is for more advanced speakers, as it doesn't provide English translations.
Greetings and Goodbyes
When you enter a shop or other establishment, make sure to greet the proprietor. In Spain, it's just considered polite.
Hello, Good morning Hola; Buenos días
Good afternoon Buenas tardes (to be used after 1 or 2 p.m., depending on the region)
Good evening Buenas noches
Goodbye Adiós; Hasta luego (see you later); Hasta pronto (see you soon); Hasta ahora (see you in a minute); Ciao (yes, you definitely can get away with this)
Kindnesses and Politesse
You'll run into even more useful phrases to achieve basic politeness in the next section, "Getting Around."
Gracias Thank you
Muchas gracias Thank you very much
De nada You're welcome
¿Cómo está? / ¿Qué tal? How are you?
— Bien, ¿y usted? I'm well, and you?
Vale OK; all right.
¿Habla usted inglés? Do you speak English?
No hablo español. I don't speak Spanish.
Getting Around in Spain
When you begin to ask someone a question, it's best to begin with a "hello" (¡Hola!) then an "excuse me" ...
Excuse me Perdón
Excuse me (could you let me through?) Disculpa
¿Dónde está ...? Where is ...? (looking for a place)
• ¿Dónde está el baño / el servicio? Where is the bathroom?
• ¿Dónde está el Prado? Where is the Prado?
• ¿Dónde está el hotel [name]? Where is the hotel [name]?
• ¿Dónde está el metro? Where is the subway?
¿Qué hora es? What time is it?
¿A qué hora abre? What time does it open?
¿A qué hora cierra? What time does it close?
When you're getting directions, you may hear the following words or phrases.
doblar to turn (as in, around a corner)
la esquina the corner of a street
a la derecha to the right
a la izquierda to the left
enfrente de in front of
Bars, Stores, and Restaurants
carnicería butcher's shop
frutería fruit store
hotel hotel (the "h" is silent)
Modes of Transportation
Getting to Know You
To have a more meaningful conversation with locals, start with some of these phrases. We'll offer them up in the informal "tú" (see "A Note on Formality" below), since you should be able to get away with this in Spain without offending anyone.
¿Cómo te llamas? What is your name?
— Me llamo ... My name is ...
¿De dónde eres? Where are you from?
— Soy de ... I am from ...
¿Qué te gusta hacer? What do you like to do?
¿Qué recomiendas? What do you recommend?
¿Qué tipo de comida recomiendas? What type of food do you recommend?
A Note on Formality in Spanish
Unlike English, Spanish has different words for “you” depending on the nature of your relationship with the person to whom you’re speaking. Luckily, Latin Americans generally take this a little more seriously than Spaniards do. You’ll probably be fine sticking to “tú,” the informal way of speaking. Usually reserved for friends and family, Spaniards use this term quite liberally, even with strangers, leaving the formal “usted” in the dust.
Spain is so darned informal, in fact, that it even has an informal plural form. Here's what you need to know about that.
Here’s another funny thing about the Spanish in Spain: they have two special words (and corresponding verb conjugations) for talking in the second-person plural. This is the grammatical form that we English speakers usually work around rather uncertainly and even guiltily, sneaking in a “you all,” “y’all,” or if you’re one of those Pennsylvanians, “you’uns.” There’s just no great way to say it in English, but Spanish has this problem rectified beautifully: Spaniards use “vosotros” for the second-person informal plural (the companion of “tú”) and “ustedes” for the formal version. “Vosotros” isn’t used in Latin America, unless you’re writing flowery poetry.