Young Europeans daydream about Spanish beaches, late nights in Madrid, and the endless, epic parties of Ibiza, but most Americans think of Spain as just another European country with museums and old castles. The glory of great Spain, coupled with its lackluster reputation among Americans, make this incredible country the most underrated destination in the world for American study-abroad travelers.
If you’re trying to decide between studying in Spain and Latin America, make sure that you also read our comparison of study-abroad destinations for Spanish students for our take on the key differences.
Many Americans aren’t familiar with Spain today because of strong political differences in the last century. Today, young Americans view Spain as a second-class European citizen: it lacks major consumer exports like the cars of Germany or wine of France, and it rarely breaks into U.S. news. Americans are, of course, familiar with Spain’s colonial conquests, strong Catholicism and famous traditions. But while Spain’s history, bullfighting and graceful flamenco will forever remain a part of the country, Spain is better defined by its rich and thriving society, unique in culture and lifestyle.
Characterizing an entire society in a few brief paragraphs is an impossible task. That said, a handful of visible traits set Spanish society apart from the rest of Europe.
First, Spain plays host to European vacationers and adventurers from around the globe who infuse the country with a unique cosmopolitan flair. English, Germans, and Dutch flock to Spain’s southern coast to soak up the sun during summer. Barcelona, on the eastern coast, hosts a mix of French and Spanish people just as the region’s language combines its French and Spanish roots. Madrid has an international flavor just like other major European capitals. In a well chosen study-abroad language school, you will meet a great variety of Europeans who come to Spain to improve their language skills and have some fun in the process.
At the same time, the Spaniards maintain their own strong culture of family and tradition. In particular, the Spanish impart great value to their relationships. They stay in close touch with their large families, often choosing never to leave the city or region in which they were born. In keeping with their dedication to family and community, Spaniards maintain a pace of life that leaves room for both work and relaxation, including an afternoon siesta after an enormous lunch.
At night, young Spaniards can often be found bar-hopping in large, unwieldy groups, happy to bring a couple of Americans along for the ride. While the thriving nightlife of Spain is universal, the vibe varies from region to region. You can learn about each area’s social posture in our guide to Spanish cities.
Art and Architecture
Like its Mediterranean neighbors, Spain is replete with relics of its long and important history. Great art, beautiful palaces, looming cathedrals, and battle-scarred castles are spread throughout the country.
Because of its long history of occupation by the great empires of the Western world, Spain contains a striking mixture of medieval castles, ancient Roman structures, Moorish palaces, and Catholic cathedrals. The royal palace of Madrid, the University of Salamanca, the Alhambra palace of Grenada, and many more marvels of the past leave a lasting impression on visitors.
Spain is home to an incredible collection of historic art and architecture. Madrid, in particular, has a collection of pre-modern (before 1850) Western European art rivaled only in Paris and Italy, complete with paintings by El Greco, Ribera, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Murillo, Goya, Titian and Rubens — all in one museum, the Prado. Much of the work Spain’s famous modern artists — Picasso, Miró, and Dalí — has been collected by museums outside of Spain. However, some incredible specimens from these prolific men remain in Spain, including Picasso’s most celebrated mural, Guernica.
Why Americans Don’t Know Spain
From 1938 to 1975, Spain was ruled with an iron fist by Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his authoritarian regime. Franco was an unrestrained conservative who controlled all expressive outlets in the country, eradicating any notions of personal, political or sexual freedom from the press, published works, film, theatre, public assemblies and even personal conversations. During this trying time in Spanish history, Spain’s cultural and industrial contributions to the Western world halted, as did the tourism industry. When the advent of jet airplanes in the 1950’s made overseas travel practical and affordable for ordinary people, these conditions in Spain made England, France, Italy, and West Germany much more appealing to Americans.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain rapidly emerged from this stark and oppressive era with an outpouring of liberal, rebellious sentiment. Spanish theatre and cinema transformed from regulated to risqué, university campuses became amplifiers for a political backlash promoting full freedom of expression, and beaches went topless. As a result, Spain soon became a leisure capital of Europe, drawing revolutionary theatre, the hottest DJs, and hordes of vacationers from the North. Americans, however, continued to travel to other destinations. Today, thirty years after Spain’s liberation, the country still remains a relative unknown to many Americans despite its reinvented role in the European community.