Home Spain Life in Madrid: 10 Things I Didn’t Expect as a Student Abroad

Life in Madrid: 10 Things I Didn’t Expect as a Student Abroad

by Brianna Kraemer
Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain | AIFS Study Abroad

Last Updated on June 18, 2024 by Brianna Kraemer

Packing to study abroad in Madrid a few days before I left the United States was stressful and overwhelming, not only because I was trying to make sure I had everything I was going to need, but also because of the fear and anticipation building up in me. I had no idea what a big city in Europe was really like or what to expect.

Now that I have been in Madrid for two weeks, I have been surprised by many things in a positive way.

1. The metro is very easy to use.

Having never lived in an urban, downtown city, I was nervous about what it would be like for me and if I would ever be able to get around using public transportation. It turns out that even people like me who have a really bad sense of direction can find their way around.

Getting lost a few times is part of the fun and makes for an adventure, but when you have somewhere to be — like class — it’s not as fun. Using just the regular Maps app on my phone is the easiest thing ever, and I did not even know this was the way to do it. I type in my destination and my phone immediately gives me different options and routes on the metro and bus. It tells me exactly what metro stop to walk to, what rail to take, when to get off, and then how to finish walking to my destination. I was so surprised that it was this easy and convenient.

Metro | AIFS Study Abroad

2. Madrid is a very clean and laid back city.

My expectation when planning to study abroad in Madrid was what I think of a lot of cities in the United States: loud busy streets, everyone in a rush, some garbage, and weird smells here and there. Reality set in when I was walking to class one early morning and people were spraying and sweeping down the streets.

Madrid is an extremely clean city and the people care about the cleanliness around them. Drivers are not pushy and do not honk every 10 seconds. These little things that I have discovered make it nice to walk the streets comfortably and stress-free, either alone or with a group of friends.

3. Nature does exist in city life.

Retiro Park in Madrid, Spain | AIFS Study Abroad

I’m from Colorado and enjoy hiking, snowboarding, and being outdoors. I knew my options would definitely be more limited here but wasn’t sure by how much. It turns out that there is a park just a few minutes from my apartment! Other parks, like Retiro, make you feel like you are not even in a city. Visiting parks like these is a nice way to escape the city feeling and relax in the sun.

A group of us decided to head for the mountains and try out a hiking trail which was a wonderful experience. Our monthly metro pass includes trains out of the city, so it was so nice to see what was beyond Madrid and in the small pueblos just an hour away. There are plenty of options when it comes to enjoying the outdoors.

Group of college students hiking outside of Madrid, Spain | AIFS Study Abroad

4. Technology changes abroad.

This one I found quite interesting. I wasn’t aware that based on your location, things on your phone will change, too. Back at home, I was in the middle of watching a show, but here in Madrid the show is not available. On the flip side, other movies and series are available here that weren’t available to me in the United States. It has been intriguing to see the change.

Additionally, there are apps that you can easily create an account for in the United States that would not allow me to create one in Spain. For example, I tried to create a Venmo account while in Madrid and wasn’t able to, so I eventually had to ask my mom to create an account for me from the United States.

5. Clothing style is very different.

I had never gone to Europe before, so when I was packing I simply looked at the weather and packed accordingly. Apparently that wasn’t the way to do it, because people do not seem to dress for weather here. Instead, once the calendar indicates a change in season, there is a change in one’s wardrobe.

The last few weeks have been beautiful and around 80º F. I prefer to wear shorts in this kind of weather, but I’ve noticed that you will never see a Madrileño — or a person from Madrid — wearing shorts. They dress very nicely in skirts, dresses, blouses, and most often jeans or pants. Something shocking I have seen is that some people wear thick winter coats in the mornings when it’s around 60º F outside. The leggings and shorts I brought will not be worn often, but I will still give up fashion for comfort on occasion.

6. English is very common, even in Madrid.

Many street signs, advertisements, and menus in Madrid have translations in Spanish and English. I have learned that American shows, movies, and music are what people around the world watch so they are used to learning and reading English. This is sometimes difficult for me as a student wanting to learn Spanish. When I am trying to talk to someone in Spanish, a lot of times they will default to English. The older generations tend to only know Spanish while most younger people speak both languages.

7. Everything happens later in Madrid.

The day tends to start later and meals tend to be shifted 2-3 hours later than in the United States. Lunch is typically around 2 or 3 in the afternoon and dinner around 9. It is very easy to get used to, but it’s a very different lifestyle than back home. People stay up much later and so the early mornings seem very quiet on the streets.

8. Things aren’t sold in one store.

A store called “Corte Ingles” is a massive department store with locations all around the city. It is very nice and convenient, but no single store sells everything you will need to buy while living in Madrid. I’ve found I have to do a lot of jumping around from one store to the other to get the things I need, whereas the United States has stores like Target or Walmart that tend to be all-encompassing.

9. Google Maps does not show everything around you.

The best thing to do when you are trying to find a restaurant or store in Madrid is to simply walk the streets and look around. I’ve found that, while helpful for transportation, the maps on our phones do not show all of the places around because there are so many. This is a bit different than I’m used to where I’m from in the United States.

10. Home is much closer than you think.

It’s scary to leave home when it’s where all of your family, friends, and comfortable life exists. In the long run I know it will be so worth it to be away for a short few months. I really expected communication with my loved ones at home to be a challenge during my study abroad in Madrid, but with FaceTime, WhatsApp and Messenger, I have been able to show my family what I am up to everyday and still feel like I am keeping up with things from 5,000 miles away.

10 Things You Might Not Expect About Life in Madrid | AIFS Study Abroad
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