Thinking of studying Spanish in Spain?
Great idea! Immersing yourself in the culture is a fantastic way to boost your language skills.
But where is the best place in Spain to study?
This is a big, diverse country, and, as we’ll explain below, different cities and areas will appeal to different types of people.
We’ll look at seven popular destinations for language students and explain the pros and cons of each.
So let’s start off with one of the most obvious choices, particularly for those of you who don’t just want to study:
Cosmopolitan party city, or one giant tourist camp? Whatever your opinion, there’s no doubting that Barcelona is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Europe’s youth, rivalled only in recent years by Germany’s groovy capital Berlin. The city is packed with a massive variety of bars and restaurants, so if going out is big on your list of priorities, then Barcelona may be the place for you. It’s important to remember that while Barcelona is Spain’s second city, it is also the capital of Catalonia, a region with its own culture and, most importantly, its own language, which is fiercely protected. Most street signs are written in Catalan while information from public organisations is usually published in both languages. All state schools use Catalan, not Spanish, as the language of tuition, and many Catalans will use the local language rather than Spanish with friends and family. That said, all Catalans are, in theory, bilingual, and on the streets of Barcelona you are just as likely to hear Spanish spoken as Catalan.
Read our article on studying Spanish in Barcelona for more detailed information.
Despite having lived for 8 years in Barcelona, I’ve always prefered the vibe of Madrid. There are far fewer tourists and the whole place just feels more authentic. It’s obviously much more Spanish – no regional languages to contend with – but it also has a strong cosmopolitan side, with many immigrants from Latin America and north Africa. There aren’t the massive tourist or ERASMUS hoards so the bars are always full of people who look like they actually live and work in the city. And by ‘always’ I mean EVERY DAY, because Madrileños are some of the most sociable people on the planet, and bars are filled from Monday to Sunday, particularly in summer. On the downside, it is over 500km to the nearest beach. That’s one heck of a roundtrip if you fancy a swim on a hot summer’s day. And hot it will be if you visit Madrid in the months of July and August, when temperatures can still be up near 30 degrees even in the middle of the night.
Hemispheric – Valencia, Spain – Jan 2007” by Diliff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Spain’s third city, Valencia is situated slap bang in the middle of the Mediterranean coast. The city has its own beaches and quick connections to the broad, flat beaches found all along the coast in the Comunidad Valenciana. Valencia has its own regional language, Valenciano, which is a dialect of Catalan. However, unlike Barcelona, the main language in the city is definitely Spanish. While Valencia may not have the global pulling power of Barcelona, or even Madrid, there is still a lot going on. And if your goal is to learn Spanish then the more manageable number of foreign visitors will be an advantage as there will be less opportunity to speak English. On the cultural side, Valencia’s main attraction is the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, whose futuristic buildings by the architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela house museums, art galleries, an aquarium and other exhibition spaces.
Granada 01” by Mihael Grmek – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Ah, Andalusia! Land of flamenco dancers and bull fighters, Andalusia is a massive comunidad autónoma filling the bottom third of the Iberian peninsula. One of the poorest autonomous regions in Spain, it is perhaps the most fun-loving, fiesta -throwing area in the whole country. Granada itself is a small, historic city which is home to one of Spain’s most important Moorish buildings, the Alhambra, an imposing fortress complex whose sturdy walls still protect the finest palaces and gardens of an empire which occupied the whole of Spain for more than five centuries. Present day Granada packs a lot of life into a small space, so if you don’t want to study in a massive city, but do want access to a vibrant social scene, this city, on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, may be for you.
One of the prettiest cities in the country, Seville is authentic Andalusia, with loads to delight the history lovers among you. The old town is a wonderful labyrinth of sinuous alleys in which unwary travellers will almost invariably get lost. And that’s no bad thing because, although it can be slightly claustrophobic at times, the old town remains one of the best-kept historic centres in the whole of Spain.
Never a people likely to turn down an opportunity to have a beer or tapas with friends, the Sevillanos are known for being passionate and spontaneous, if perhaps a little old-fashioned in certain ways. This nostalgic side is most evident during the Feria de Abril, a massive celebration starting at the end of April, when the locals don antique dress and spend the best part of 10 days partying, dancing and socialising.
It’s important to point out that in the summer months Seville can get really hot. Temperatures may reach 40 degrees, making it one of the hottest places in the Iberian Peninsula. Gingers beware!
Visa Aerea Salamanca 045” by Tamorlan – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The most famous university town in Spain, Salamanca has been an important centre of education since Muslim times. The capital of the comunidad autónoma of Castilla y León, this is a relatively small city, with no more than 180,000 inhabitants, and with a particularly high percentage of students. Visually, the city has everything you’d expect of an historic Spanish town, with an elegant main square, ancient cathedral and a low-level skyline which consists of an endless sea of red, tiled roofs. Salamanca fills with foreign students in July and August so if you want that university feel, you’ll love this place.
Previously a fairly grim industrial city (Think Manchester before the music-inspired 90s), Bilbao has undergone something of a transformation in the last few years. The main catalyst for this gentrification was the opening of the Bilbao Guggenheim (pictured above), the second European offshoot of the famous New York museum. The collection of contemporary art is pretty impressive, but the museum is world-famous for its extravagant building, designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Bilbao is the capital of the Basque country (Páis Vasco in Spanish) and is, like Barcelona, a bilingual city, with the local language, Basque, sharing equal status with Spanish. Like the Catalans, the Basques can be fairly protective of their language. However, on the streets of Bilbao you’re still most likely to hear Spanish. Fortunately, the Basque terrorist organization ETA ceased operations in 2011 and since then tensions between nationalists and non-nationalists have eased significantly, something which has fed into the general feeling of progress that you’ll feel around Bilbao.
If the idea of hordes of tourists makes your head spin, yet you like the advantages of big cities, San Sebastián could be just the place for you. Located on the edge of the Cantabrian Sea in the Basque Country, San Sebastián is a remarkably cosmopolitan city for its small size, under 200,000. Known for pintxos, world-class seafood and second only to Toyko in its number of Michelin-rated restaurants per capita, San Sebastián is also home to international festivals and world-renowned theatre and concerts. It also happens to be the most expensive city in the north, which is still nothing compared to Madrid and Barcelona. While San Sebastián is more international than cities in the neighboring northern provinces, you’ll hear much more Spanish, and Euskera, the regional language, than you will English. The north’s reputation for bad weather keeps tourism low compared to the big cities and mediterranean coast. But don’t be put off; “Bad weather” is relative to the rest of Spain, where many regions boast 330 sunny days a year.
Oh, and whatever you may have heard about ETA terrorists attacks, those days are thankfully long gone.
If you think Spain is all bullfights, flamenco, sangria, and hot summers, you’re in for a big, and if you’re a nature-lover, breath-taking, surprise when you visit Asturias or any of the other four northern provinces that rim the Atlantic and the Cantabrian Sea. Picture the craggy coast of the UK and its deep-green rolling hills dotted with sheep, and when the famous Picos of Europa are topped with snow, you might as well be in Switzerland. All that green beauty does come with a price. While you won’t find as much sun as you would in other parts of Spain, you won’t find swarms of tourists either, even during the summer. Asturias has three major cities, each one offering a unique blend of history and innovation. There’s Avilés, a steel-making estuary town, is a cultural hub; Oviedo is the capital city, known for its beautiful architecture, role in the pilgrimage route to Santiago, as well as its thriving bar scene. Gijón, Oviedo’s rival on the coast, is the largest of the three cities. It has the feel of a mini-city, and a party-loving spirit, which might surprise you given the majority of Gijonese are well over fifty.
When in Asturias drink sidra, eat hearty Asturian fare, and chat with the locals. Asturians are generally thought of as more rustic, down-to-earth types who keep more to themselves than out-going Andalusians. However, they’ll be just as happy to help in any way they can and if they take you in, you’ll be treated like family and may even make some life-time friends.
Need more information?
So there you have it! Seven suggestions for learning Spanish in Spain. If you’re still not sure where to go, drop us a line via our contact page and we’ll be happy to give you some more advice.