España is for Students

España is for Students: An Inside Look into Study Abroad in Madrid

Samantha Smith is a student at The Ohio State University and an ISA Spring 2015 Featured Photo Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Madrid, Spain.

1. Describe the place where you studied abroad in 140 characters or less.

Madrid: where you can wander for hours and never get bored; endless beauty, quaint cafes, history, shopping and the most fun you’ll ever have.

2. What was your day-to-day life like as a student?

I wake up to the sound of children playing in the school courtyard across the street from my apartment. I get up and open my blinds to find yet another sunny, clear blue-sky day. The weather is rarely ever grey here, which makes me happy and energized to get out and experience the city day after day. I say good morning to my host family and eat a quick breakfast with them before I head to school.

I walk down the street toward my metro stop, relishing in the warmth of the sun. I meet up with my friends at school and we spend the next few hours together in classes. After class we decide to grab lunch together at one of our favorite cafes with the BEST sandwiches and iced coffee.

Federal Café, Madrid

Federal Café, Madrid

We all head home for a little “siesta” – sometimes it’s nice to just curl up in bed and watch an episode of Friends. Later I walk over to Retiro Park, one of the most beautiful places in Madrid, to go for a run. I run through the gardens, around the big fountain, past the big glass house and end at the lake, where I stop to take a breath and watch the people paddle boating as the sunsets.

Gardens of Retiro Park

Gardens of Retiro Park

Palacio de Crystal, Retiro Park

Palacio de Crystal, Retiro Park

Alfonso XII monument on the east side of Retiro’s lake

Alfonso XII monument on the east side of Retiro’s lake

Later my friend and I have some homework to catch up on so we meet at our favorite study spot in the city center for some coffee and cheesecake.

Café con leche

Café con leche

La Ciudad Invisible, Madrid

La Ciudad Invisible, Madrid

After a little work, we start planning our night out. We decide to try a new restaurant-bar in the young and stylish Malasaña neighborhood where we can find cheap and delicious tapas. The night is young after that as we meet up with more friends and head to the discoteccas, hoping to see the sun rise before we go home.

3. What was the “vibe” of your city?

Madrid is a difficult city to try to describe in one particular way. Because it’s so large you can find many different neighborhoods with unique cultures and atmospheres. The overall vibe I got from Madrid was “casual and trendy.” The people aren’t always dressed in suits for work and the younger generation has a very retro-chic style that will make you want a new wardrobe. Food, shopping, scenery, history, anything you want can be found in the city center at places like Puerta del Sol, Gran Via, and Plaza Mayor.

Sam Smith - Madrid - photo8

Plaza Mayor

Plaza de Cibeles

Plaza de Cibeles

These areas are highly populated and always bustling with people and street performers, but for the days that you want a more hometown feel all you have to do is move a block or two outside the center to any of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Photo-worthy architecture

Photo-worthy architecture

There you can find quieter, narrower streets, family-owned restaurants, quaint cafes and boutiques. Anywhere you go the architecture will amaze you, and you’ll find little hidden gardens or parks along the way that are simply precious.

4. What types of activities did you do with your friends in your city?

(The answer to this question merits its own post. Check it out here!)

5. How much Spanish was spoken your city (as opposed to Catalan, English, Arabic, Basque, Klingon, etc)?

Traveling to Madrid, I wondered if my Spanish classes were enough to prepare me, if I’d experience culture shock, if I’d sink or swim. It’s intimidating at first but I came to love the fact that everyone around me was speaking Spanish. Eavesdropping on people’s conversations on the metro became a daily hobby to see how much I could understand. Just walking around the city you won’t here much English at all, except from tourists. But that’s not to say that Madridians don’t know English, because many of them do, you just have to ask. If they know you’re struggling to communicate they’ll switch to English for you, but in most cases it’ll be broken.

Traditional Castellano Spanish is what they’ll be speaking, and you probably won’t find any Catalan or other combination dialects. If you talk and make friends with locals you’ll learn more Spanish than any class has ever taught you. Young Madridians will teach you the popular way to say things (so you can sound like a person rather than a text book), well-known slang, and honestly probably a few cuss words. You’ll adapt and learn, and when you stop hearing the sound of Spanish all around you you’ll miss it.

6. How many hipsters did you see in your city?

So how hipster is Madrid? The fashion-sense is trendy, the people are young, and the government is progressive. So yes, you could say it’s hipster – at least more-so than other Spanish cities like Sevilla, Granada, Barcelona or Salamanca. Madrid is often perceived as the Chicago of Spain, a middle ground between some of the most traditional, hometown cities like Sevilla and the most booming, westernized ones like Barcelona. You can find the mainstream comforts of home when you need them, but there’s still plenty of Spanish culture to dive into and learn about.

Palacio Real de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid

7. Did you visit other cities in Spain? If so, what would say made your city unique? Why should a someone study there?

Madrid is unique from the other cities in Spain in that it offers the best of both worlds in terms of European city-life. Most other cities are either big and modern or small and historic – Madrid is both. It has a fast-paced big-city feel with extensive public transport and people-packed sidewalks, but instead of modern skyscrapers you can look up to see some of the most beautiful, colorful buildings.

Side streets of Plaza Mayor

Side streets of Plaza Mayor

The side streets get small, quiet, and cobblestone and feel like an old film or an antique photograph. It’s one of those cities that never sleeps–except for during siesta–so its nightlife is distinctive and impressive. Because they don’t eat dinner until 9 or 10, nights start late and go into the wee morning hours, even on weekdays. Experiencing the Spanish culture at the “discoteccas” and adapting to their sleep (or no sleep) schedule will be one of the most fun and entertaining experiences you have while abroad. The best part about Madrid is that there’s not just one good restaurant or bar or club, the options are endless, so every weekend turns into an opportunity to try something new and exciting.

A night out on Gran Vía

A night out on Gran Vía


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