Spain is the third leading destination for U.S. students studying abroad (Open Doors 2014 Report, IIE). In 2012/2013 alone, 26,281 U.S. students studied abroad in Spain. To put this number in perspective, it’s nearly the same as the student population of Virginia Tech or the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Students study abroad all over Spain. There are seventeen different regions of this kingdom (fifteen mainland) that you can consider for your study abroad experience. Each region is an autonomous community and has something different to offer by way of geography, culture, and cuisine.
Galicia is known for its outstanding beaches (more than 750 of them), high cliffs, fishing ports, harbors, greenery, woodlands, rivers, canoeing, and rafting. This region is often described as a “Celtic bridge” and “land of a thousand rivers.” Tucked away in the northwest corner, and separated from other regions of Spain by mountain ranges, Galicia is a unique study abroad destination for students. First, the region has deep Celtic roots with strong ties to Ireland. Myths, legends, and fortune telling is a prominent and visible part of the culture. Second, more than 80% of the locals speak Galician, in addition to Castellano (Spanish).
Asturias is often described as “Green Spain” or “Green Coast” (Costa Verde). Scenic, lush, green, mountainous, natural beauty—and the best national parks—make up this impressive region. Asturias, and all of northern Spain, is perfect for the outdoor study abroad enthusiast who likes horseback riding, fishing, hiking, climbing, caving, skiing, white-water rafting, sailing, surfing, and/or scuba diving. Life tends to be more peaceful in these parts. Artisany and gastronomy are plentiful, as well as ancient beliefs and customs. Asturias is marked by the Picos de Europa National Park and the Cantabrian sea.
Next to Asturias is Cantabria, also part of “Green” Spain. Like Asturias, Cantabria’s landscape varies greatly from the Picos de Europa mountain range to Saja (a natural reserve with eagles, wolves, and bears) to active cities like Santander, the capital, as well as villages along the coast. If you like leisure and sporting activities, Santander is a great place to study abroad during summertime. Enjoy the great outdoors, great weather (average 67°F in August and 49°F in December), festivals, and concerts.
Similar to the other northern regions, Basque Country is a mountainous green paradise. The Basque people have a unique culture and their own language (Euskera), in addition to Spanish. Because of the French influence, many people speak French, too. Bilbao is the largest city in Basque Country and home to the Guggenheim Museum of modern and contemporary art, one of the architectural wonders of the modern world. Surprisingly, the cost of living in Bilbao is among the highest for study abroad students in Spain.
Pyrenees Mountains, fertile green valleys, rivers, lagoons, and more than fifty natural reserves mark this ancient kingdom of Spain and create yet another paradise for the outdoorsy study abroad enthusiast. Pamplona, the region’s capital, is well-known for its Festival of Sanfermines, better known as the Running of Bulls, which dates back to the 14th century and was more vividly described by Ernest Hemingway. You will also find diverse architecture in Navarre from the Romans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
Castille and Leon
Castile and Leon is the largest region of Spain and home to some the country’s well-known cities and study abroad destinations like Salamanca, Segovia, Avila, Burgos, Leon, Valladolid, Zamora, Soria, and Palencia. This region is marked by its well-preserved cathedrals, castles, monasteries, and walled towns. Salamanca is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, and Segovia is where we find the famous Alcazar. The terrain is mostly dry, high plains surrounded by mountains.
This region is rich with natural resources and the center of wine production. You’ve probably heard of the wine, Rioja, which is among the finest in the world. Vines have been growing in the fertile valley of River Ebro since the Roman period. In addition to great wine, and food, the area is perfect for hiking, cycling, hunting, fishing, and other mountain related sports. The University of La Rioja (UR) is the only university where you can study abroad in this small, quiet region, located on a modern campus in Logroño.
Aragon is the place to ski, with some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees and the Iberian mountain ranges. It is landlocked, so there are no beaches, but there are plenty of things to see and do. The University of Zaragoza is the only public university in the region, with campuses in Zaragoza, Huesca, Teruel and La Almunia. In addition to offering a variety of excellent courses for Spanish-speaking students, the University boasts the oldest college-level Spanish language program for study abroad students, dating back to 1927.
Here we find Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Lleida. In addition to beautiful beaches and mild climate, this region is also marked by its own unique culture and strong Mediterranean influence. Most notably is the difference in language; everyone speaks Catalonian, in addition to Castilian Spanish. Montserrat is a mountain formation and Benedictine retreat near Barcelona. This magical place is highly recommended for good exercise during your study abroad program (if you hike up) and spectacular beauty.
Don’t confuse the region with the city! The region, Madrid, is home to the largest city and capital of Spain, also Madrid. Other cities in Madrid include El Escorial, Aranjuez, and Alcala de Henares. There are lots of public and private universities and other study abroad opportunties in this area. Madrid is unique in that it only has one province, which is also called Madrid. This region is the smallest (in area) of all the regions in Spain; however, it boasts the largest population (about five million) and highest density.
Extremadura is one of the most beautiful landlocked regions of Spain, which fortunately hasn’t been discovered by classic tourists. This brown-colored area with lots of natural paradise, water, and fresh produce is exquisite. First Roman, and then Moorish, the region has a rich history. The city of Merida is the capital of Extremadura and was also declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The Old Quarter of Caceres is a city of magnificent mansions and palaces, surrounded by Moorish walls and watch towers.
Castilla la Mancha
Have you read the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes? Well, this is the region where it’s situated, in the vast plains of central Spain. You will find plenty of Manchego cheese, wine, and fairytale castles here. Toledo is the capital of Castilla la Mancha and also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is a magnicent medieval city with historical monuments, grandoise establishments, Moorish mosques, and cobbled streets (lined with some great study abroad programs), surrended by ancient city walls. The following photo was taken by Australian photographer David Iliff.
The Valencian Community offers a fantastic climate, coastline along the Mediterranean sea, sandy beaches, and remains from remote civilizations (Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Iberians). Valencia is the capital and largest city in the region. It is also the third largest city in Spain (Madrid is the largest and Barcelona is the second largest) and one of the liveliest. Great seafood and citrus fruit (such as Valencia oranges) also brand this area. There is no shortage of study abroad opportunties here.
These islands are located off the east coast of mainland Spain, in the Mediterranean Sea. They include Mallorca, Minorca, Cabrera, Ibiza, and Formentera. As expected, the superb weather, beaches, and coves attract many tourists, especially to the largest island of Mallorca. For a quieter study abroad experience, consider Minorca—the second largest island—which actually has more beaches than Mallorca and a more relaxing atmosphere. There are also several important landmarks and monuments in Minorca.
Andalucia is a popular study abroad destination for students, particularly the cities of Sevilla, Malaga, Cadiz, and Granada. From beaches to mountain ranges, surfing to skiing, and important Moorish palaces and fortresses like the Alhambra, you can’t go wrong in this region. The cost of living index is among the lowest in Spain (ex. Seville 79.50 vs. Madrid 103.67) and the culture is rich and strong. Spanish folklore, Flamenco dance, and bull fighting all originated in Andalucia.
Murcia is a small region that isn’t well known, even among Spaniards. Nonetheless, it has a lot to offer and is growing in popularity. Mountain villages, nice beaches, friendly locals, thin population, and low cost characterize this region known to have wonderful tapas (Spanish appetizers) and high quality wine. The area is dry with several salt lakes, and it gets more than 320 days of sunshine per year. The World Health Organization rated Murcia as having one of the best and healthiest climates in Europe.
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago located just off the northwest coast of the African Continent. They are often described as “The Land of Eternal Spring.” You may have read about these islands in history books since in 1496 Christopher Columbus stopped here on his way to discovering America, and you may also stop off here while studying abroad.
The archipelago consists of seven large islands (Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, Hierro, La Palma, and Gomera) and six smaller ones. These islands are actually the tips of a volcanic mountain range in the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape and diversity varies considerably from one island to the next.
There are four national parks in the Canary Islands. Two of these parks have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The other two have been declared a World Biosphere Reserve.
The name Islas Canarias is thought to have derived from a Latin term Insula Canaria, which means “Island of the Dogs” (sea dogs or Monk seals). The original inhabitants of the islands regarded these now extinct sea dogs as holy animals and mummified them. When the Romans visited in ancient times, they named the islands canaari, which literally means “the ones who worship dogs” in Latin.