Off the Beaten Path: Where to Get a Taste of Local Spanish Culture During Study Abroad

Interacting with local culture and people is essential to the study abroad learning experience. Read on for recommendations on where to do just that in Spain.

When students come to the University Study Abroad Consortium looking to spend a semester overseas, we encourage them to avoid touristy places, both when it comes to selecting a city and once they are abroad.

One of the most valuable learning experiences when you are studying in another country is interacting with the locals. Not only does this help you refine your language skills, but it also teaches you firsthand about a different culture and society.

Spain is a common destination for students looking to immerse themselves in Spanish language studies, and the country has a great deal to offer. If you are looking to have an authentic, non-touristy experience, try visiting some of the following destinations.

Casa de Cultura

One of the first places a student in Spain should research is the Casa de Cultura, a lively community center where different activities — such as talks, workshops, art exhibitions, installations, and movies — are shared for free. It is often an interesting place where you can observe and be a part of the evolving life of the city.

Like many European venues, it is not a coincidence that Casas de Cultura were often historically used for a different purpose: La Alhóndiga in Bilbao was a huge wine cellar; El Matadero in Madrid used to be just what its name suggests: a slaughterhouse; Las Cigarreras in Alicante was a tobacco factory; and the Koldo Mitxelena in San Sebastián was the only secular public high school in the city not long ago. These four buildings provide the local communities with public places where people get together and share culture.

All of these cities have wonderful offerings, both inside and outside of their Casas de Cultura. Here are just a few of the enriching cultural activities that each city has to offer:

Bilbao

In Bilbao, our students have swum in the spectacular glass-bottomed swimming pool designed by Philippe Starck in La Alhóndiga. Afterward, they have admired the Moorish decoration of the Café Iruña and enjoyed coffee and all sorts of pastries at the different Cafeterías Bertiz scattered across the Basque city.

Madrid

In Madrid, our students explore literature through amazing exhibitions at El Matadero, which make books and writers come alive. After getting their fill of culture, students look to fill their bellies at one of the venue’s three restaurants: Café Teatro, which was beautifully decorated by set designers; Cantine, which features freshly-cooked healthy meals; and La Terraza, which, in warmer months, allows diners to enjoy installations, music, and the clear Madrid skies.

If students want to explore dining outside of the Casa de Cultura, they can go to Café Gijón, a historic coffeehouse where many famous writers has sat to craft elegant Spanish poetry and prose.

Alicante

After indulging in a fresh-made cupcake from the Café Magnolia in Alicante, students can enjoy a 15–20 minute play in Las Cigarreras. For more nutritious local food, students can visit El Portal and try the delicious Mediterranean cuisine.

San Sebastián

Students can partake in the San Sebastián ritual of going to The Loaf, right across from the Zurriola beach, to buy their daily baguette after watching some free Creative Commons movies from the international San Sebastián film festival in the Koldo Mitxelena. Alternatively, students with some Euros to spare can watch official movies in Kursaal, the impressive modern building designed by Moneo, a Pritzker Prize winner. The building takes its name from the former Belle Epoque casino.

Like all Spanish cities, these four locations offer innumerable bars, restaurants, and cafés in which students can munch on something and start a conversation at almost any time. All of these cozy places have provided our students with a space to concentrate on homework, a much-needed change of scenery from the university classroom, and many happy memories. Chances are, while sipping some espresso or digging into your chocolate napolitana, you will make contact with new people, perspectives, and ideas.

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