Like many college students, I chose my study abroad program location without having ever visited before. When my plane touched down in the Barcelona airport, that was the first time I had ever even been in Spain. Taking a taxi into the city was overwhelming to say the least. There were lots of unfamiliar sights and roads that seem to wind in every direction.
I’ve been on my semester program for a few weeks now and it still feels the same way sometimes, but for the most part I am beginning to be comfortable navigating around the city I now call home. The first week is the most overwhelming, but by following these few tips the transition into your study abroad city should be smooth!
Here are my top tips for getting to know your study abroad program location:
1. Research before you go.
One of the items that I was gifted before I left for Barcelona that I brought with me was a travel guide of the city. In the weeks leading up to my flight there, I scanned through the pages, looking at the different places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do. I also looked at the various types of public transportation that the city offered and figured out my apartment location relative to my classes as well as the tourist attractions I wanted to visit.
2. Take advantage of tours that your program offers.
For me, this was a bus tour around the city a few days after my arrival and then a walking tour around the Gothic Quarters. Other options for doing this are getting on a Hop-on Hop-off bus to familiarize yourself with the location of the city’s tourist attractions. AIFS also organized optional in-city trips to famous attractions, including the Sagrada Familia, which is a great opportunity to see the best sites of the city with your study abroad program’s group.
3. Carry a map with you at ALL times.
This can be digital, like downloading a city map on your phone, or a physical map. In my case, traveling around the city is done mostly on the metro, so I also downloaded a metro map on to my phone to be able to direct myself to certain locations via the metro.
4. Get a little lost.
If you have a free day, I recommend wandering around the city with no plan and getting lost. By doing this I ended up unknowingly walking into a few well-known sites, like the Arc de Triompf, that I had never planned to go to. I was also able to familiarize myself with the different neighborhoods of the city and figured out which ones I would want to go back to do.
5. Talk to locals.
Most locals will love to answer any questions you have about the city or recommend to you their favorite places, especially if you attempt to ask in their language. For Barcelona, there are millions of tourists that visit the city a year. Simply telling someone that you’re a student or greeting them in Spanish shows locals that you’re making an effort to learn and respect their culture. Lots of times doing this will also get you things like a free coffee at breakfast. One of the great things about going to school while abroad is that your professors are also there as a resource, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!
6. Find a routine.
The easiest way to feel at home and familiar in your city is to develop a routine. Once classes begin this will feel significantly easier but try to keep your life as balanced as you would at home. For me this was beginning to buy food at a supermarket to cook at home rather than eating out every day and getting a gym membership.
Choosing Barcelona as my study abroad program location gives me the unique opportunity to be able to become a local to a city of millions of weekend tourists. Even though I still feel lost in this vast city sometimes, following these tips has made those times fewer and further between.