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Where in Spain Should I Study Abroad?

by Jon Brandt Mar 12, 2008
Spain is a great place to study abroad, but each city has a very different character. Which option is best for you?

Spain is one of the most diverse countries in Europe. Though Castilian is the official language, there are several spoken languages as well as regional dialects. These differences are only a part of what to consider while figuring out where to study.


Madrid is the capital, and as such is a cosmopolitan city with a great metro system, food at all hours, entertainment, and what many argue is the best nightlife in Europe.

Madrid has undergone huge changes in the last decade. As it has increasingly become a center of business in Europe and a premiere destination for travelers from all over the world, Madrid has lost some of it’s authentic Spanish charm and it has gotten a lot more expensive. This is not all bad of course, depending on what you’re looking for.

Just in the last five years, many of the tiny coffee shops that once served whiskey and coffee side by side and were adorned with legs of Jamon on the walls have been replaced by sleek new restaurants and bars. This has made the nightlife and general experience of going out in Madrid more colorful and diverse than ever. Madrid is also the most convenient place to get flights and trains, which, if you plan on doing a lot of travel while you study abroad, is something to take into account.


Barcelona, or “BCN” as it is commonly referred to by locals and expats, is another cosmopolitan city with a great nightlife and the unique culture of Catalan. Barcelona is known for its colorful party lifestyle and is sprinkled with impressive art and architecture from Antonio Gaudí and many other legendary innovators.

It is perhaps an even more popular tourist destination than Madrid which makes it a constantly-churning melting pot of people, languages, and cultures. With that however, comes crime and theft. Walking around by yourself at night, especially drunk, is a bad idea.

Las Ramblas, the big strip where people go to hang out, is a cool place, but can be dangerous; opportunists lurk in many of the city’s hot spots hoping to catch someone slipping. You need to keep your eyes open at all times and your hands on your valuables. Barcelona also has some great beaches that can be reached easily via metro, bike, or on foot.

One important thing to note regarding studying Spanish in Barcelona is that Castillano (the Spanish most people learn in high school and college in the US), is not the dominant language of Barcelona. Most locals in BCN speak Catalan, which is quite different from Castillano. If you want to learn Spanish that you can use elsewhere–especially in Latin America, make sure your program offers courses in Castillano.


Considered by many as the capital of Andalucia, Sevilla is a center of well-preserved Spanish culture. The summers are blistering hot, as Andalucia almost touches Northern Africa, but the hot nights tend to inspire people to go out. With over 4,000 bars, Sevilla boasts the most bars per person of any European city. A great nightlife is guaranteed and many of the restaurants serve some of Spain’s tastiest traditional cuisine.

Considered by many as the capital of Andalucia, Sevilla is a center of well-preserved Spanish culture.

Sevilla has a good bus system and is currently building a tram that will connect the city and the surrounding suburbs with above ground and subway cars. In addition, because Sevilla isn’t as large or crowded as Madrid or Barcelona, it’s cheaper. At a local bar in Madrid, a beer might cost anywhere from 4-6 Euro; in Sevilla it’s 2-4.

Sevilla also has great festivals throughout the year. Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Fería de Abril, are in close proximity for a reason: after a week of holy processions, the Sevillanos get wild for Fería. Full of friendly people, and situated next to a beautiful river, Sevilla is solid choice for the study abroad student looking for balance of parties and authentic Spanish culture. Madrid can be reached pretty easily for a weekend by taking a high-speed train called the AVE. It takes 3 hours and costs $50 USD one-way.


This small city in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the former capital of the Ottomans and Ferdinand and Isabel. At first you will find it hard to understand people. Words are clipped and colloquialisms dominate the dialect. However, if you can master the language here, no matter where you go in the Spanish speaking world, you should be able to understand what’s being said.

This small city in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the former capital of the Ottomans and Ferdinand and Isabel.

Granada has a law that says with any purchase of a beer you are entitled to free plate of tapas, so if you’re short on cash you can just head to the bar. This phenomenon has made Granada the Spanish capital of tapas and one can drink and eat for hours jumping from one bar to the next.

Due to it’s close proximity to N. Africa and large Moroccan population, Granada has some of the best kebabs in Spain. It is also home to another treasure: La Alhambra. This fortress and palace complex left by the Moorish monarchs is one of the most impressive tourist attractions I’ve ever visited and should not be missed–regardless of where you study in Spain.


Salamanca is a typical college town; most of the people there are between the ages of 18-35. The nightlife is fantastic. Only a short bus ride from Madrid, Salamanca can be pretty cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer. It’s a great place to study abroad because of the Intercambio program offered at the university. Students will speak part of the time in Spanish and part of the time in English, thus privately tutoring each other.


Oviedo, located in northern Spain, can be very cold in the winters and warm but not too hot in the summer. Tourism in the city is minimal, and you’ll have to speak Spanish to survive. Getting thrown into this environment can be intimidating, but it’s the fast-track to fluency, and can be made easier when you arrange a study / homestay program such as the one offered by Eurolingua.

San Sebastián

San Sebastián, located just south of France, on Spain’s northeastern coast, has just over 180,000 people, making for a cozy atmosphere and a laid-back way of life. It’s known for some of the best surfing in Spain. IHSpain offers a combined surfing and Spanish program.The city is located in the Basque region, and it’s necessary to learn a little Euskadi (the Basque language), to read the street signs.


Valencia is a large beach city. The locals speak a dialect of Catalan. In March, Las Fallas, a huge festival, brings people from all over Europe. Valencia will pretty much shut down for the festival. Every day will be filled with drinking, dancing, and singing. At the end of the festival, all of the floats (made of paper mache and some of which rise 70 ft tall) are burnt to the ground. No matter where you study in Spain, try to make it to the last weekend of Fallas. It is like no other party on Earth.

Which Program is Right for You?

There are hundreds of independent study abroad programs available if you aren’t going through your home university. Programs range in difficulty, price, and options, such as staying in an apartment with other students or living with a host family. One of the best programs available is Academic Programs International. API offers the same services and excursions as other programs, but it’s much cheaper. One semester with API will cost a little less than $9,000. With that in mind, if you go to an expensive school, you stand to save a lot of money by studying abroad with API. Another good program is International Studies Abroad. Like API, ISA has programs throughout Spain, offering placement, student assistance, and excursions. A semester with ISA will cost a little over $9,000.

For more information, contact these Matador Experts on Spain:

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