Study Abroad

Should I Study Abroad in Italy or Spain?

Rachael Taft

In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael writes about gap years and career development while traveling.

It’s no surprise you’ve narrowed down your study abroad search to two of Europe’s most iconic countries, both filled to the brim with culture and beauty. Italy and Spain are two of the most popular study abroad destinations for Americans – coming in just after the UK.

Both countries boast charming cities, renowned sites, scrumptious food, fantastic weather and friendly locals. In Rome you’ll find the legendary Colosseum, voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, while in Granada you can explore the breathtaking Alhambra, also a top contender for the title. In fact, the two countries have the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world.

If you find yourself unable to choose between such magnificent nations, here are a few key things consider.

The Language Factor

If you're planning to study abroad to work on your language skills, it shouldn't be too difficult to choose a destination. Want to learn Spanish? Study in Spain. Want to learn Italian? Study in Italy. Of course, it isn’t necessarily that simple. Each country has regions with different dialects, and this is something you should research further once you select your destination.

If you don't have much desire to learn a language, Italy offers more programs without language requirements. Most programs in Spain require some knowledge of Spanish or that you take a language class. Many also offer a more immersive experience, with regular classes offered in Spanish. In Italy, immersive study abroad programs are less common.

Even if you don't think the language aspect of your experience matters, give it some real thought. In the future, when you're out looking for a job, would it benefit you to have built on your language skills?

Top Rated Programs in Spain

Living in Italy vs. Spain

As to be expected, choosing one destination for your study abroad program means subscribing to an entire way of living. Overall, each country offers a different atmosphere, with varying attractions, activities and conveniences. Cities with large numbers of tourists and international students will probably be easier to navigate, with more English speakers, but might not be to your liking if you're looking for a truly immersive language and cultural experience. However, it is possible to study abroad in both destinations in English, assuming a few different factors.

Each country has a lot to offer in the realms of history, culture and cuisine. Check out the seat of the Roman Empire in Italy, or explore the influence of the Moors in Spain. If you’re a foodie, Italy never disappoints with endless offerings of pizza, pasta and gelato. However, Spain might surprise your palate with specialties like paella and gazpacho.

Let's weigh the pros and cons that each of these countries have to offer.

Popular Cities

Both countries offer study abroad opportunities in a range of cities. Some might prefer the large capitals of Madrid and Rome, where a larger variety of places to shop and eat afford students more conveniences and comforts of home. And of course, Rome hosts iconic sites like the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vatican City, while Madrid offers the world-class Prado museum and some of the liveliest nightlife in the world.

Others might appreciate the small-town feel of Siena, Italy -- which offers a unique glimpse of Tuscany, especially in its historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the famous Il Palio horse race is held each summer. Or one might prefer the delightful Andalucian region of Spain, where the living is easy, the people are friendly and the beaches are plenty.
Florence, Italy, and Granada and Salamanca, Spain, are medium-sized cities that host large student populations. Students give a boost to the nightlife scene in all three cities. Florence boasts must-see attractions like the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio and Pitti Palace. What Granada lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality, with the incredible Alhambra towering above the city, surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains, and a bustling nightlife that includes scrumptious free tapas with each beverage.

On one list of the best student cities in the world, Spain came out on top with Barcelona ranking 11th and Madrid ranking 16th, while Italy's first city was Milan, coming in at 21st.

Cost of Living

If you're especially budget-conscious, the cost of living – which tends to be higher in Italy than Spain – might be a factor in your decision. Rent prices in Italy are about 25% higher, which may translate into a higher program fee.

As for your daily expenses, restaurant and grocery prices are almost one-third higher in Italy than in Spain. According to one cost-of-living calculator, a beer in Italy costs twice that in Spain. The average meal in an inexpensive restaurant will run you €15 in Italy, versus €10 in Spain. However, cost of living also depends on where you live. A small town in Italy could be cheaper to live in than Madrid or Barcelona.

Travel and Transportation

For travel within Italy, trains are the best mode of transport, while in Spain buses, an even cheaper option, are just as widespread. For regional travel, Spain allows easy access to France, Andorra, Portugal and Morocco. Italy offers proximity to France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovakia, while ferries open up travel to Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Low-budget airlines allow for simple travel from both countries to all over the continent.

If you're looking to do extensive traveling, be sure to choose a location in a larger city with ready access to transport, such as an airport or major train or bus station.

Culture and Customs

Spain and Italy are culturally similar in many ways and they share a number of similar customs. Both countries have family-centric cultures, strong religious ties, and both are suffering from declining populations. You will gain a glimpse of a slightly more relaxed way of living in both countries, where quality of living is valued over work, with most shops and businesses shutting down in the afternoons (siesta time!) and entire cities emptying out in the summer when locals flock to the coast for vacation. However, there are some differences.

In Italy, appearance and impressions are extremely important. “Bella figura” (“beautiful figure”) is a significant concept in Italian culture. It emphasizes the importance of presenting oneself well -- dressing well and acting confidently and appropriately. Despite the innate sense of drama in everyday Italian life, Italians do not like to look foolish, so it may be seen as a more formal culture.

In Spain, the culture and lifestyle is a bit more hedonistic. Fun and fiestas are the name of the game. During holidays and celebrations, Spaniards can be seen partying out in the streets until dawn. Parades, fireworks and even bullfights take place among the festivities.

While Italy was once considered the center of Western culture -- giving the world some of the best thinkers, artists and scientists -- its history as a country is still relatively new. Spain, on the other hand, has a long and arduous past as a nation. Different parts of the country are so distinct, that regional identity tends to be stronger than national identity, evidenced most recently by the increasing enthusiasm and support for the secession of Catalonia (of which Barcelona is the capital) from Spain.

Tips for Choosing a Program

Which country you choose might come down to which one offers the best program for you – one that fits your focus of study, your interests and your goals for your study abroad experience. Those majoring in the arts, particularly art history, fashion or design, may find Italy has more to offer them. Spain is a top choice for those with a major, minor or strong interest in the Spanish language, as well as subjects like international business.

If you have a strong interest in the arts, you may find Italy more fulfilling. Unless you’re into modern art, in which case you’ll find Spain -- known for the likes of Picasso, Dalí and Gaudí – more to your taste. If you're big into sports, the Spanish national football (soccer) team is the reigning European and world champion. Many a student has been known to return from Spain with a fervent love for Real Madrid.

To get the most of your experience, you might want to get involved at a deeper level. Perhaps this means choosing a program or finding a location that offers volunteer or internship opportunities, or directly enrolling in a national university, as opposed to one that caters mostly to study abroad students. Neither country is necessarily better than the other in this regard, but a little research may lead you to the right decision. Maybe you'll find something you can do alongside your studies, such as volunteering on an archaeological site in Spain or researching bottlenose dolphins in Italy.

If you’re looking to enroll directly in a national university, both countries have the same number of top-ranked universities, though Spain’s rank slightly higher. The following are in the top 300 worldwide:

Top Ranked Universities in Italy:

  • Università di Bologna (194)
  • Sapienza – Università de Roma (216)
  • Politecnico di Milano (244)
  • Università degli Studi di Milano (256)
  • Università degli Studi di Padova (298)

Top Ranked Universities in Spain:

  • Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (176)
  • Universitat de Barcelona (187)
  • Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (206)
  • Universidad Complutense de Madrid (226)
  • Universitat Pomeu Fabra (266)

Decision time!

Deep down, has your greatest desire always been to wander the canals of Venice or toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain? Or perhaps you're fascinated by Gaudí and dream of examining his work up close at the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell. Would you rather spend your weekends relaxing on the beach in Spain or wandering museums in Italy? Are you curious about your Italian heritage, or do you feel like you were born to dance flamenco?

If you find yourself drawn more to one country than the other -- whether it's the language, culture, sites to see, things to do, or just a feeling -- then listen to your gut!

You aren’t going to regret your decision to study abroad. It’s unlikely you'll regret your choice of destination either. Once you get settled into your host country, you’re sure to have an amazing time. The key to getting the most out of your experience is to give it some thought, figure out your true purpose and priorities for studying abroad, and choose what will best fulfill those objectives.

The real tough part? Returning home!