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  >  Study Abroad   >  5 Things to Do (and 5 Things Not to Do) When Studying Abroad in Spain

Spain is one of the most popular destinations for students looking to study abroad, and there’s no secret why. With a rich culture, stunning landscapes, and warm weather, there’s something in Spain to be enjoyed by everyone.

As with any big change in your life, studying abroad can begin as an intimidating and overwhelming experience. However, the best way to grow as a person is to overcome the adversity that comes your way. As someone who has studied abroad in Spain and experienced my fair share of challenges, I can tell you that certain mistakes are definitely avoidable! This guide will help you make the most of your study abroad experience and prepare you for life in Spain!

1.) Do embrace the Spanish lifestyle

From the first moment you arrive, you’ll notice that the Spaniards put a huge emphasis on enjoying life. People in Spain seem to never be in a rush. Walking very fast or being flustered in public can give off a negative impression; Spaniards like to take their time. Especially during mealtimes they like to relax, catch up with friends and family, and simply live in the moment.

The drinking culture in Spain is also very different than in the US. The legal drinking age in Spain is 18 years old, but many teenagers will start drinking beer or wine with their parents as early as 15 or 16. Drinking is seen as more of a social activity in Spain. It’s common to grab a couple drinks with friends and chat for a few hours multiple times a week. While Spaniards still like to party, they tend to be more responsible about drinking alcohol than many Americans. Instead of focusing on getting drunk, people in Spain use alcohol as a way to simply be more social.

Once you can fully lean into and embrace the Spanish lifestyle, you will enjoy your time abroad much more! Being able to take a siesta after lunch every day is so refreshing, and can help you catch up on sleep after a late night out.

Photo by Luís Cardoso on Unsplash

2.) Don’t expect things to be the same as they are at home

As mentioned before, Spaniards are known for their late nights out. In the US it’s considered pretty late if you’re out at a bar past 11pm, but in Spain, the night would just be getting started. It’s common to go to a bar around midnight and stay until around 2am. Then, you’ll make your way to the club where you dance the night away until dawn. Some say it’s a tradition for Spanish teenagers to stay out at the club until the churro shops open around 6am, and then get churros for breakfast on their way home! In addition to this, mealtimes are much later than in the US. Lunch time is usually between 2-3pm, while dinner is between 9-10pm. It’s not uncommon to see entire families with their young children walking around the streets after dinner at 10:30pm!

Shopping and tipping

Shopping will also be a very different experience in Spain. Don’t expect to see a Costco or Target anywhere nearby! In Spain, small businesses reign supreme. Shops usually have one main focus, such as fruit, or bread, or pharmaceuticals. You also shouldn’t expect the same variety that’s offered in the US. We don’t even realize how absurd it is to have an entire aisle in a grocery store devoted to cereal, with 30 different brands and types of cereal to choose from! In Spain, there will only be a couple different variations of a product to choose from, often making your decision much easier.

Lastly, tipping is not required in Spain. If the server was exceptional then it’s okay to leave a euro or two in appreciation, but nobody will think twice about it if you don’t leave anything at all. While I was studying abroad in Spain, I enjoyed this because it saved me some money. Meanwhile, my parents came to visit and uncomfortably felt cheap by not leaving a 20% tip every time. Since servers are not worried about getting a tip, they might not provide quite the same experience that we have come to expect in the US. The servers might not be as attentive, they might not smile as much, and they might not come back solely to ask if you’re enjoying the food. This is not to say the service is bad, but don’t expect the servers to be overly friendly and happy like they are in the US.

3.) Do get to know your city

You’ll be living in this new city for a while, so go explore! It can be tempting to travel to other countries or cities every weekend, but don’t miss out on the amazing things your city has to offer. Ask your host family, study abroad program director, or professors what their recommendations are for things to do around the city. Spain has a rich history, and the odds are high that your city has some interesting places to check out.

Even talking a walk through the park or finding the best spots to watch the sunset will make you appreciate your new home even more. Don’t worry if you get lost and need Google Maps to guide you home every day for the first few weeks. You’ll slowly start to recognize different streets and landmarks, and before you know it, you’ll be a navigation master!

Photo by Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash

4.) Don’t be afraid to practice your Spanish

Yes, you might not be very good at Spanish when you first arrive. But, that’s expected! In general, Spaniards are very patient and willing to help you if you ask. Even if you’re struggling to have perfect grammar, it’s likely that they’ll still understand you. The only way to get better is to practice, so don’t be afraid to do so! Talk to your program directors, professors, or host family in Spanish, and try to watch some Spanish TV shows in your free time. You might not notice your progress each day, but by the end of your trip you’ll be shocked by how much you improved since you arrived.

5.) Do live with a host family, if possible

Where you live while studying abroad in Spain can differ with each program. Sometimes students will live in university dorms, sometimes they will live in off-campus apartments, and sometimes they will live with host families. If you have a choice between these three options, I urge you to live with a host family! This is the best possible way to immerse yourself in the Spanish culture. You’ll get to experience how an average family in Spain lives, see what a Spanish home looks like, and most importantly, you’ll get incredible home cooked meals. I tried so many new foods thanks to my host mom, and I still miss her cooking to this day!

6.) Don’t expect everyone to speak English

If you are studying abroad in a big city like Madrid or Barcelona, many people will speak some level of English, especially if they work in restaurants or stores. But in smaller cities, like Granada, it could be rare to find someone who speaks more than a few words of English. Don’t see this as a negative though, because you’ll learn Spanish even quicker if you’re forced to speak it more often! Even learning simple phrases like how to order food at a restaurant or ask for directions will definitely come in handy.

Photo by Matteo Bordi on Unsplash

7.) Do Make friends with locals

You’ll spend plenty of time getting to know the other Americans in your program, but it’s also important to branch out and meet some local students. They’re often just as eager as you are to get to know someone from a different culture. By hanging out with Spaniards, you’ll get a better feel for what regular life is really like in Spain. Instead of going to all of the touristy areas of the city, see where they prefer to hang out. A lot of times, you’ll find that the local spots are actually way cooler than the touristy ones!

Another benefit is that you can practice your Spanish, and they can practice their English. You’ll also likely learn new phrases and words that people your age use, which is something you may not learn in class. Having cross-cultural understanding is a huge life skill that you can hold onto and build upon in the future.

8.) Don’t forget to have cash on you at all times

In this day and age, most people in the US use their credit/debit cards for nearly everything. Most big restaurants and stores in Spain will take cards, especially if you are in Madrid and Barcelona. However, don’t expect that you’ll be able to pay with your card everywhere you go! In particular, there might not even be a card reader if you are visiting a small shop or kiosk. Or if you’re just grabbing some tapas and drinks at a restaurant, it’s common to pay in cash.

*Side note: I also find the cash system in Europe to be much easier than in the US. Our $5, $10, and $20 bills are all the same size and color, but in Spain, the €5, €10, and €20 bills are all different lengths and colors. This makes it so much easier to tell them apart from each other when you’re quickly trying to pay for something. Also, there are no €1 or €2 bills. Instead, they are coins, and they even have a €0.50 coin which can be really useful.

9.) Do try new foods

Spanish food is so yummy! I tried so many new foods during my semester abroad and it totally broadened my horizons, food wise. Some of the best things I ate in Spain were: paella, patatas bravas, tortilla de patatas, jamón, croquetas, empanadas, churros, and cochinillo (sorry to all of my vegetarian friends, but this is a suckling pig and it was very tasty). My host mom also made many different types of stews and they were all delicious!

The coffee also tasted much stronger and fresher. Many people in Spain consider coffee in the US to be “agua sucia,” or “dirty water,” so give Spanish coffee a try! After leaning further into Spanish culture, I became a big fan of sangría. I usually don’t like red wine, but the sangría at every bar and restaurant was quite good! The food in Spain may be very different from what you’re used to eating in the US, but don’t be the person who only drinks Starbucks and eats at McDonald’s every other day. Eating like a local will make you even more connected to Spanish culture!



10.) Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone

“I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.” -Andy Bernard, The Office.

This quote accurately sums up what you’ll be feeling for weeks or months after you’ve returned home from studying abroad. While you’re living in Spain, it can be hard to realize how amazing of a gift this experience truly is. But once you return home, you’ll be aching to go back. With this in mind, make the most of every opportunity you have while abroad. You don’t want to return home and say that all you did was party at the club and drink. Look for experiences that you can’t have back home and take control of this adventure sitting in front of you.

When people ask me how studying abroad in Spain changed me, the number one thing I tell them is “confidence.” I gained so much confidence in myself throughout my time in Spain because I was constantly trying new things. I was going to bars for the first time, I was navigating by myself in cities I had never been to, I was planning and booking trips to other countries for whole groups of people, and I was speaking a language that I barely knew just weeks earlier. Studying abroad can certainly be an overwhelming experience, but believe me when I say it’s 100% worth it.

Do you want to study abroad in Spain? Check out the GRIIS (Granada Institute of International Studies) program. Granada is one of the best places to study abroad and learn Spanish. Check out my blog post on Granada to read more!

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