There are so many factors to consider when choosing a study abroad program that it can be overwhelming. When looking for mine, I found myself going back and forth between programs for hours, flipping through the pages of the study abroad guide and considering all the possibilities. Did I want a summer program or a year-long adventure? Did I want to learn a new language or study somewhere where they spoke English? And what about the classes I would be taking? Would I want to take something to fulfill general education requirements or enroll in courses that would go towards my major?
I thought a lot about all these questions and went through my options carefully, but even when I finally chose a program — a four-week course that would take me to Ireland, Spain, and France — I had doubts about the location. I was excited to go to Ireland because we would be living in Dublin, but I had never even heard of the other two cities I would be visiting — Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and Rennes, France. What if they were boring? Would I regret choosing to study abroad in places I didn’t even know existed before signing up for the program?
Like most people, I’m drawn to the appeal of glamorous European cities like Paris and London, so I was a little hesitant to choose the program I did when there were other ones that went to bigger cities. But after my time in Santiago and Rennes, I gained a fresh perspective on the value of traveling in lesser-known cities. Here are five of the reasons I found for exploring smaller cities and why you should consider them when choosing a study abroad program:
- Lesser-known cities provide a more unique travel experience.
I was definitely more excited to go to Dublin than I was about the other two cities before leaving for my trip. I had seen movies about the city, read books that took place in it, and was able to scroll through countless Instagram posts geotagged with the places I hoped to visit. There was also many blogs and guides I looked at with everything from restaurant reviews to itineraries with all the hot spots of the city. However, there was not nearly as much information about Santiago or Rennes online, and I had a harder time getting excited about these places since I had virtually no information about them. Without vibrant pictures on social media to look at or guides to read through, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The unknown of these cities proved to be part of the beauty of them, though. I was able to experience them purely and completely in the moment, without any preconceived notions or expectations about them. Rather than rushing around to see the most popular landmarks or taking the same picture millions of other tourists have taken, I was able to experience them without feeling like I had to see everything that websites and my family recommended. I probably would never have gone to these cities if they weren’t part of my study abroad program, and though there were certainly times I wished we had gone to Barcelona or Paris instead, the ability to see a part of the world I never even knew about gave me a more unique experience.
2. You don’t have to deal with as many tourists and crowds.
Though visiting bucket-list destinations like the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum is an exciting part of traveling, it is also nice to have a break from overpriced entry fees and the giant crowds of people taking selfies. I’d like to think my time in Dublin was full of authentic experiences, but walking around Temple Bar with all the other Americans and seeing a few too many McDonald’s restaurants made it feel like I wasn’t far enough away from home or ordinary life. This was definitely discouraging, especially since part of the reason I wanted to study abroad was to get out of my comfort zone and experience new things.
That’s why when we first walked around Santiago de Compostela, the energy of the city felt vastly different from Dublin. While Dublin was busy and vibrant, with crowds of people and countless souvenir shops, Santiago was much more laid-back. There were still tourists but most of them had just completed the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago and were basking in the summer sun outside of the massive cathedral, laying on their backpacks and enjoying the completion of a long journey. Or in Rennes, where at night the streets and bars were filled with students from the nearby university who spoke broken English but still made an effort to talk to me and my friends. When visiting museums or restaurants in these cities, there weren’t crazy long lines or menus in English, and it made them feel less like tourist traps and more like places people call home.
3. Smaller cities provide more opportunities to interact with locals.
It’s easy to feel lost in the crowds and constant stimulation of large cities, and the commotion can be distracting. Getting a sense of the authentic culture and customs of a place is rendered much more difficult when many of the restaurants and shops are geared towards tourism. However, smaller cities are often less focused on profiting off of visitors, and it is easier to get a sense of how the locals truly live in these places.
My friends and I found this especially true when it came to visiting bars and clubs. While in Dublin we were constantly surrounded by other Americans and the especially popular bars were crowded with tourists taking pictures and buying overpriced pints of Guinness. In Spain, however, the locals always sparked up conversations with us when we went out and though there was obviously more of a language barrier than there had been in Ireland, it was easier to interact with people from the city.
Such an important part of being abroad is interacting with people who have different experiences and varying cultures from you.
At least in my experience, these kind of conversations were a lot easier to find in smaller towns and cozy bars than in the busy streets of crowded cities.
4. It is easier to become familiar and secure with your surroundings.
Part of the appeal of huge cities is that they are exciting and seem to provide endless options for entertainment. However, it can be overwhelming having to figure out complicated public transportation systems, figuring out how to ration your time to see everything, and having to worry about crime and theft. Smaller cities aren’t always necessarily safer, but they typically do have lower crime rates, and this is especially important for female travelers like myself. Though part of the novelty of traveling is seeing and experiencing things you ordinarily wouldn’t, being familiar with your surroundings and establishing a routine can be just as beneficial.
As exciting as it, studying abroad can also be very overwhelming, so finding a sense of familiarity was a comfort to me. Being able to make my way easily around a city, whether just to grab some café con leche or to visit a museum, helped me feel both more secure and actually allowed me to explore more than I normally would. In large cities, I’m much more cautious and am more hesitant to wander aimlessly around. In Santiago and Rennes I felt freer to be adventurous and walk around without anywhere to go in particular. Since I was less afraid of getting lost or being in danger, I was truly able to see as much of the city as I wanted to.
5. There’s more time to enjoy the little things.
My study abroad group’s time in Dublin was jam-packed with activities, including three-hour-long historical walking tours of the city, going to the theatre, and taking day trips to the coast. While these experiences were exciting, I didn’t have much time to bond with my classmates or relax. This changed in both Santiago and Rennes, for though we still had lots of classes and excursions, we also had more time just to take it all in. It gave us time to sit outside with a pitcher of Sangria and listen to street performers play guitar, or to do homework together in cafes.
I’m all for adventure but I found that it’s important to have time to reflect, too. Smaller cities taught me to truly appreciate the moment rather than rushing around taking pictures and pushing past other tourists.
Though I sometimes felt like I was missing out on seeing famous landmarks or monuments, exploring lesser-known cities opened my eyes to the value of being present and fully immersing myself in a culture instead of trying to do and see everything. Sometimes just sitting back with a cup of coffee and people-watching for hours is the best way to experience a city.