This past summer, I spent two months studying abroad in Spain through a program at my university. I spent the first month living with a host family in the city of Gijón, which is right on the north coast. There are a few things I learned throughout this new and exciting experience that are unique to (or things I never realized about) this region of Spain.
Temperatures are mild, not hot.
This isn't Madrid or Barcelona. It gets cold, and many days were cloudy with rain showers. I was there from late May to mid-June, and I wore leggings and jeans more often than I wore shorts. The sunnier, warmer days hit the mid-70s and low 80s. And while that was perfect sunbathing weather to take a trip to the beach, the water is still FREEZING (I could never wade in past my ankles).
Topless tanning at beaches is common.
On sunny days, the Playa de San Lorenzo is absolutely beautiful, and a lot of people go there to soak up the sun. However, don't be surprised if you see women of all ages — from toddlers to grandmas — completely topless. While I had heard this was more common in Europe, it was still a small culture shock from how things are in the United States.
You'll almost always see/smell people smoking.
Indoors and outside. Most cafes have small ashtrays at the tables, and some places even have what I can only describe as cigarette vending machines. If you have a sensitivity to secondhand smoke, you may want to take this into consideration while you plan for your trip.
Cafe-bars are incredible, and we need them in America.
First of all, when you order a drink in Spain, you usually get a small dish or pastry with it for free/included in the cost. Coffee (which is INCREDIBLE in Spain) usually comes with a small muffin, cookie or slice of bread or cake. Alcoholic beverages might come with olives, some form of potato (tortilla española, fries, etc.) or another delicious snack. At a cafe bar, you and all your friends can enjoy either coffee or wine depending on what you're in the mood for, and the menu always offers something great! They also aren't too expensive.
Your Spanish doesn't have to be perfect.
While knowing the language is obviously helpful, I found the people to be extremely friendly and understanding. They might not be able to understand you at times, but they won't be mean about it. Some people know a little English or are at least willing to repeat themselves and speak more slowly.
Look for "aseos," not "el baño."
I know in high school my teachers always made us ask in Spanish to go to "el baño," but throughout Spain you'll notice signs for "los aseos" (literally "toilets"). If you need to find a bathroom, ask where the aseos are.
You need to visit the mountains.
This is a shot from Bulnes in Asturias. It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen, and I got some serious "Lord of the Rings" vibes.
Sidra is a traditional hard apple cider in the Asturias region, and you'll notice a lot of sidrerías, which are essentially bars that serve the popular drink. This beverage is truly part of the culture. It comes in a green bottle and is poured in a special way from very high up. It's a little tart and not high in alcohol content, and you are supposed to drink it all in one sip. I'm not really a fan of the taste, but I still recommend trying it!
Even if you aren't religious, visit a church or two.
The architecture is simply breathtaking.
Go to a futbol game.
I'm not a big sports person, but I still had a blast!
There are dogs EVERYWHERE.
Every day when I walked to class, I'd say I saw an average of 10 dogs and their owners out and about. A word of caution: Dogs will often do their business on the sidewalks, and just like in the States, not every owner is proactive about scooping poop. Watch your step.
The seafood is incredible.
It's amazing all throughout Spain, to be honest. It's fresher and not as expensive as it is in the United States.
Try a variety of wines.
The wines in Spain are generally named for their wine region (where the grapes are grown). I don't know a lot about wines, but I can honestly say I didn't try a wine in Spain that I didn't like. My favorites were Rioja (a red wine) and Cava (a sparkling white).
I had the time of my life studying abroad in Spain. If you are considering it, I recommend it 100 percent.