When deciding where to study abroad, it is tempting to choose major cities as your new home. Rome, Barcelona, London, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Sydney — all of these major cities tend to be students’ first choices for studying abroad. Additionally, all of these cities include populations well over two or three million people!
While it is attractive to pick these major cities for your study abroad experience, I have a few counter-arguments as to why a smaller city is a great choice.
First, it is important to consider this: what do you really want from your study abroad experience? Do you want to be completely immersed in a new culture? Or would you prefer to be somewhere where the culture is more similar to that in the United States? In any city in a foreign country, you will experience a new culture. However, the degree to which you will experience such culture will differ depending on what city you study in.
In terms of language, in major tourist cities it is more likely that more people will speak English. While this can be reassuring at times, it does decrease the need to practice the language of the country you are in. If you want to practice your language skills as much as possible, then a smaller city is the place for you; fewer people will speak English in smaller cities, thus allowing for language immersion.
Additionally, I feel the native culture can sometimes get lost in a big city. This is not to say that it is completely lost and everything is similar to the United States, but it is easier for a big city to adopt a fast-paced, modern lifestyle where authentic culture is not as prominent. For example, in Salamanca, Spain, the siesta is definitely practiced—all stores and most restaurants close from 2-5 PM, and Spaniards are found in their homes during this time. However, this concept of a siesta does not fare well in a major city like Madrid. Since Madrid is more modernized, there is no way that the entire city could shut down for three hours in the middle of the day. In a smaller city like Salamanca, though, that part of the culture is preserved and still practiced today.
Another aspect of culture that might not be as prominent in a major city is traditional food. In Madrid, there were many major food chains that can be found in the United States, including Starbucks, Five Guys, McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Burger King. While this kind of food can be comforting at times, I did feel tempted to eat American food over authentic Spanish food when I was in major cities with American chains. I will not lie, I did frequent the Salamanca McDonalds twice for some french fries; but other than McDonalds and Burger King, there were not many other American chain restaurants in Salamanca. Because of this, I was forced to try new foods and discover the best authentic coffee shops, tapas bars, and restaurants in Salamanca.
All in all, no matter where you study, you will experience a new culture, new people, and new lifestyles. But if you want to experience the highest degree of cultural immersion possible, I recommend that you consider studying in a smaller city. You will get to mingle with the locals, try the best of the best food, and practice your language skills in the most authentic setting possible. Step out of your comfort zone, and study in a city that, most likely, no one you know from the United States knows the name of. Trust me—your incredibly rich cultural experiences will be a great reward!