Spain has long been a classic Western European destination, particularly for students. Its unique culture and history have had a worldwide impact (Age of Exploration anyone?). In many ways, Spain’s historical legacy touches not only European culture, but North African culture, and American culture as well.
And within Spain itself, there are numerous cultural differences between regions, reflected in everything from dialect to cuisine to traditional dress. It really is one of the most well-rounded learning destinations; not to mention beautiful, fun, and delicious. For students traveling to Spain to study, intern, teach or volunteer abroad, here are seven stellar sights you have to check out.
1. Spain’s Geography
I can feel your eyes rolling already. Geography? How can that be an exciting reason to visit? But have you ever realized just how close Spain is to Africa? Spain’s southern regions are very close to Morocco and the two countries share a long history. When you visit the south of Spain, you’ll notice the North African influence in the architecture and food.
2. Spanish Food
Tapaaaaaas. (Actual spelling: Tapas. I just got excited…) Tapas are delicious, especially when authentic. But when partaking in a food tour or simply exploring the main distinct regions around Spain on your own, it will quickly become apparent that regional specialities are where it’s at.
Cuisine provides a way to dive deep into culture and learn about how local food and drink informs customs and traditions. For example, Northern Spain features a lot of seafood and sauces, while Eastern Spain, is where you’ll find a lot more heavy rice based dishes. Central Spain tends to showcase roasted meats.
Spain is actually incredibly mountainous, and the micro-climates throughout the country have allowed each region to craft their own specialities based on what’s available, what grows, and what livestock will thrive. After the 1400s, cuisine in Spain began to be more heavily influenced by New World ingredients such as corn, avocado, and South American cacao.
3. Eccentric Artists
Spain also lays claim to being the birthplace of influential art movements, namely surrealism. You’re probably very familiar with the razor thin mustachioed image of Salvador Dalí. As much mustache game as he had, he was also a prolific artist. You may know of the melting clocks, but when you visit his home, his eccentricities and talent meld to create a vivid depiction of him as an artist.
You can also visit the home of one of the most influential artists in modern history: Picasso. Clearly Spain has a way of fostering unique artistic talent!
4. Northern Spain
When most people think of Spain, they probably envision the central or southern parts - Seville, Madrid, Granada… But the northern reaches, along the Bay of Biscay, feature spectacular countryside, including the famous city of Pamplona. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because this is the site of the world-famous annual Running of the Bulls. This region is also well known for producing La Rioja wine. Visit in the summer for the best possible weather and views.
5. A Pilgrimage to Remember - The Camino de Santiago trek
There are numerous treks around the world that every adventurous traveler should attempt at least once. (See Stride Travel’s top 10 list). Spain is home to one of the more obscure: the Camino de Santiago trek. Travelers seeking a spiritual and physically challenging experience will love this walk through history. There are a few routes, but the most popular is 500 miles from Biarritz, France to Santiago, Spain. The markers along this ancient pilgrimage route are indicated by a white scallop shell and it is traversed by a wide range of people from students to retirees.
No matter when you’re visiting Spain, you’ll find a festival to enjoy. One of the more popular among travelers is the La Tomatina festival, which takes place in August to celebrate the patron saint of Buñol. The festival activities are simple: a large crowd gathers and engages in a tomato war. It may sound silly, but the jovial feeling and community spirit brings people back to this festival year after year. Other fun events to consider: Las Fallas in Valencia and Carnaval in Cádiz.
7. Music Traditions
Spain’s vibrant and passionate culture is full of music, and lively dancing is a part of daily life. Did you know Scotland isn’t the only country to lay claim to bagpipe music? Spain is the only other major country to have traditional bagpipes, known as Galician gaita. These are only in the North of the country, but throughout Spain you’ll find a variety of musical and dancing styles. These range from the precision of Flamenco to the freedom of Fandango. So snap on your dancing shoes!
With its diverse geographical, cultural, and historical offerings, Spain is one of the best study abroad countries in the world. When you tour different parts of the country with an experienced guide, aspects of local life and world history collide for an unforgettable and unique experience.
Whether your journey takes you to Spain or elsewhere, the study abroad experience is one no student should miss. It’s an invaluable way to gain independence, learn to cope with the unknown, and meet new friends from around the world. When students travel, the world becomes a more welcoming and more open-minded place.