A Guide to Living in Madrid

One British ex-pat offers a guide to living in Spain's capital, Madrid

Feature by Anamika Kohli | 18 Jan 2016

Having moved to one of Europe’s sunniest capital cities eight years ago, I’ve definitely had my fair amount of fiestas and siestas. But there’s a lot more to think about if you’re in search of blue skies, red wine and Iberian ham…

Image: Pedro Simoes, CC BY 2.0

Learn Spanish. Now.

Unless you want to hang around in tourist traps with English menus and be referred to as a guiri — the Spanish word for foreigners who aren’t of Latin origin — for the rest of your life, you’re going to need to learn the lingo. But fear not, in a city where everything is dubbed into Spanish and strangers still talk to each other on public transport the language isn’t too difficult to pick up. Complement those drunken conversations with the locals with a few Spanish classes and you’ll be speaking la vida loca in no time.

Working 9 to 5…

…doesn't happen when you're living in Madrid. Contrary to popular belief, Spaniards spend a lot of time in the office, with 9am-7.30pm working hours being the norm. This sometimes includes two hours for lunch (not enough time for a siesta unless you live very near your office), and finishing at 3pm on Fridays. So get ready to eat late, sleep late, wake up too early and catch up on your sweet slumber over the weekend.

La Crisis

As you probably know, the economic crisis hit hard in Spain, bringing with it job insecurity and a sudden need for Spaniards to learn English as a means of finding work abroad or holding onto existing jobs. Cue English fever, and more importantly English teachers in demand.

So if you think teaching English could be for you, the first step is to apply for a training course with an English language academy, simple enough to do from back home, and then start looking for work once you’re living in Madrid. Under the table work is also readily available, pays pretty well and can keep you going while you look for a steady job.

You don’t have the patience to teach English? Don’t bother coming to Spain, because you’re going to need a lot of it when you have to…

Photo: Edward Dalmulder [CC BY 2.0]

…get your paperwork in order

Patience is a virtue. Just keep repeating this over and over as you run around Madrid trying to sort out a residency card and a NIE (an individual ID number for all foreign residents), social security number, bank account, health insurance and pretty much anything else official in Madrid. The Spanish love their bureaucracy even more than the British, and making an appointment to get another appointment… to get an appointment… is all just part of the fun. My advice? Get a Spanish phrase book for the waiting times and take it like a man.

Get used to getting good wine cheap

No more ordering the ‘house wine’ and getting what tastes like pickled prune juice. Ask for Rueda or Albariño if you like white, or Ribera del Duero (has less body than a Rioja) if you’re into your red. They’re pretty much standard in any restaurant or bar, and tend to cost less than beer drop for drop. If you do like beer though, Mahou, the official beer in Madrid, is usually available on tap in different sizes ranging from a caña: a glass of beer smaller than half a pint, to a jarra: a pint-sized mug or jar. And remember, in most traditional bars the more you drink, the better the tapa: a little saucer with free food to reward you for buying a beverage… just the way it should be.

Image: Keith Williamson from Bigastro, Spain [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


It might seem like a surprise at first, but nobody goes out to bars that don’t serve food until around midnight, while nightclubs or discotecas don’t get busy until around 1am. They do, however, keep going until around 6am at which point you can either go home on the Metro, Madrid’s huge underground system, or do the traditional thing and get an iconic breakfast of churros and chocolate – a sugary, fried pastry snack intended to be dipped into a mug of gooey, thick hot chocolate. And then? Start again if you want – Madrid is truly a city that never sleeps… except at around 4pm in the summer when temperatures can reach an unbearable 40ºC.

Image: Sebastian Dubiel [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Bring your winter woollies and your summer swimwear. Yes. Both.

Madrid’s central location in Spain, as well as its high altitude make it the second driest city in Europe. But even though summer is a guaranteed scorcher, whereby friends with pools proportionately increase in popularity with the temperature, Madrid has bitterly cold, albeit short, winters. That said, the sun is almost always out making you feel less inclined to stay in watching shit TV.

Learn to love the great outdoors (if you don’t already).

The Spanish love to work for their lunch, and with the Madrileño Mountains being so close by it’s not uncommon to spend autumn afternoons going for walks around them before visiting picturesque villages and having a hearty Spanish meal. So be prepared to get some walking shoes and some fresh air. Seriously, the TV here is really bad.

Get moving

If you’re from anywhere but another part of Spain, you’ll probably think that flat sharing in the capital is pretty cheap — even if you want to live smack bang in the middle of the centre. Expect to have two months’ deposit, as well as three pay checks and possibly a work contract of some sort unless you’re sharing with people who are renting out a room, in which case you probably just have to go meet them and try not to act like a psychopath. A good site to find flat shares is Easypiso, whereas Idealista and Fotocasa are better if you want to move into an empty flat.

Get around

Although moving around Madrid on the Metro is relatively cheap compared to other European capitals, the new electric bicycles around the city are definitely worth checking out, and are ideal for those of you who are too posh to pedal. Go to http://www.bicimad.com/ for more information.

Image: Elemaki [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stop hating Sundays

One of the best things about living in Madrid is that there is so much happening on long lazy Sundays that you don’t need to think about Monday until Monday. The best hang out is Madrid’s buzzing neighbourhood La Latina where you can wander around the open air flea market El Rastro for some unique finds, before grabbing a seat and some tapas on a terraza; watching the beautiful people strut around until the sun goes down, at which point you realise you live in one of the hottest cities in Europe… in every sense of the word.

So, I think there’s nothing else left to say but… ¡Jamón!

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