The Spanish language – for English speakers it’s a hypnotic blend of rapid and rhythmic sounds, conjuring images of exotic places. Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world (by population), so knowing how to speak it opens many doors for authentic travel experiences.
I began learning Spanish last year as a hobby, going to classes one night a week after work. For me, learning a language was a way to feel connected to travel and a different culture without actually leaving home. Surprisingly, sitting in a class for two hours each week hoping to learn by osmosis turned out not to be the best way to learn Spanish. Without being surrounded by the language, all I had was a broken mix of verbs, tenses and vocabulary.
With two weeks spare, I decided to study abroad. An intensive in-country language course would be the best way to embrace the Spanish language, offering a chance to get to know a culture beyond the usual tourist route. That turned out to be the easy decision – choosing where to actually go involved wading through a minefield of websites and review threads, until I found one place consistently popping up: Salamanca, Spain.
What is it about this city that’s helped it become one of the best places to learn Spanish? Here are the reasons why I found Salamanca has earned its reputation.
The golden city is stunning
Salamanca radiates beauty. As the capital of the Castile and León region and about 200km west of Madrid, Salamanca is small enough that you can walk everywhere, so you can truly get to know the city. The Plaza Mayor is one of the most impressive I’ve seen across all of Spain – the buildings surrounding the square are a classic Spanish baroque style giving an air of antiquity, contrasted by the square itself which is a thrumming mix of cafes with outdoor seating, small shops and gelato bars, bringing the the square to life at all hours day or night.
Salamanca is also steeped in history, including an 800-year-old university and beautiful churches constructed from sandstone. When the afternoon sun hits, or under the nightlights, these buildings glow gold.
There’s also another side to Salamanca – a vibrant nightlife, thanks to the city’s reputation as a major destination for exchange students and language learners. Although it only has a population of 145,000, Salamanca swells with an extra 25,000 students during university semesters. A Salamanca local I met at an English/Spanish language exchange night proudly told me there are “close to 200 bars in Salamanca,” and in this city, you only start going out after 2am.
Their Spanish is easy(ish) to understand
Salamanca markets itself as the “Ciudad del Español” (city of Spanish), and after some time spent there, you soon realise why. Salamanca locals speak one of the purest forms of Castilian (think ‘Oxford English’) with a clear accent. Unlike in the South of Spain where you will hear the thick accent in cities like Seville and Granada, or in Barcelona where you’re more likely to encounter Catalan-speakers, simple interactions on the streets of Salamanca are much easier for learners, making it the best way to learn Spanish.
The range of Spanish schools
With its reputation as the city of Spanish, Salamanca offers a variety of language immersion courses. The sheer variety helps keep the prices competitive between the schools – but it also means variances in quality.
Do your research, and ask any potential school questions about the accreditations, class sizes, teaching styles, class ranking methods, and extra-curricular activities on offer. I chose a mid-sized school and was in a class of on average six people.
I opted to study Spanish for five hours a day, so my mornings began with an hour of conversation class in small groups, where we would pick a topic like ordering in a restaurant, or our daily commute to work in our countries, and practice piecing sentences together, vital in improving our confidence when speaking the language. Afterwards came two hours of grammar, and a final two hours putting that grammar into practice through listening exercises, songs, games, and pop culture history lessons about Spain and Latin America.
The teachers were all university-qualified, and the classes were taught fully in Spanish. Although that sounds challenging, the teachers had a knack of miming and using facial expressions to communicate a word when we were all staring back blankly, making classes an entertaining mini-theatre at times.
My school also offered diverse after-class activities to put the language I was learning into action. I went bike riding around the city, horse riding in the countryside with friends I’d made from China, Norway and Australia; I did a guided historical tour of the city (delivered in Spanish) and salsa classes – all the things to push your language learning to the next level.
Locals won’t speak to you in English
There’s nothing worse than trying to order tapas in Spanish, only to have the waiter smugly reply in English. In major tourist destinations like Madrid or Valencia, this is bound to happen.
Salamanca is the perfect antidote for this. While the city attracts day-tripping tourists, the majority of locals still only speak Spanish.
A café I went to for my daily caffeine fix even started helping me out with my Spanish, correcting when I would say ‘por’ instead of ‘para’, or teaching me new ways to say goodbye when leaving. This is the perfect interaction for an immersion experience, and the best way to learn Spanish.
The price is right
Being outside of the major hubs like Madrid or Barcelona, Salamanca is noticeably cheaper for accommodation and food. It’s entirely reasonable to go out for a caña (small tap beer) and a couple of tapas and expect change from five euro. When living in a place for a week or month for Spanish immersion, these small savings begin to add up.
One of the best-value places was El Minutejo, where the entire bocada menu is 1.60 and made fresh to order. Think succulent marinated pork and chicken skewers, or warm goats cheese and fruit preserve on toast. Another great pick for tapas is Meson Cervantes, on the second floor overlooking the Plaza Mayor. If you’re looking for coffee/tea and a chilled place to do your Spanish class homework, the vegetarian-friendly Namaste can’t be overlooked.
Proximity to Madrid/day trip destinations
Though far enough away from Madrid to enjoy the cheaper cost of living, Salamanca is an easy two-hour bus or train ride from Madrid – only 1.5 hours if you book an advance fare on the express train, meaning it’s possible to spend weekends in the bustling capital.
Salamanca is also the perfect proximity to day-tripping hotspots like Segovia and Avila, known for their medieval features like aqueducts and remnants of a city wall. The best part? You can use the trips to practice speaking Spanish while buying train tickets at the station, or asking for directions around town. ¡Qué bien!