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LIFE IN SPAIN

Twelve Madrid life hacks that will make you feel like a local

What does it take to be a true Madrileño? Journalist and longtime Madrid resident Simon Hunter enlists the help of the Spanish capital's twittersphere, as well as drawing from his own experiences, to bring you the ultimate list of Madrid life hacks.

Twelve Madrid life hacks that will make you feel like a local
“Contact” parallel parking is one of the art forms Madrileños have to develop to get by in the city. Photo: Simon Hunter

Avoid changing Metro lines at certain stations

Madrid’s Metro system is a fantastic way to move around the Spanish capital, but it can have a few pitfalls. One of these is making a connection at Nuevos Ministerios, Diego de León or Cuatro Caminos – walking boots are recommended given the length of the tunnels you’ll have to traverse.

You should also avoid taking the stairs in Cuatro Caminos, even if the queues for the escalators are long. At 45 metres, it’s the deepest station in the network and is equivalent to a 15-storey building.

Choose to get on or off at the wrong metro station in Madrid and it may be a while until you see daylight again. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

 
Be ready for weather extremes

In winter months such as January you can expect lows of between 0 and 3ºC compared to average highs of some 35ºC in the height of summer. All self-respecting Madrileños will have two entirely distinct wardrobes to cope with these extremes, to usually be switched around and stored accordingly in early October and May.

But be aware, the arrival of summer can be deceptive: as the saying goes, “Hasta el cuarenta de mayo no te quites el sayo” – in other words, keep something warm to hand for when the weather takes its regular turn for the worse before June 9th.

And one last tip: always take a light jacket to the cinema in the summer. With the aircon cranked up to 11, you’re going to need it…

 
Stay away from the tourist traps

The Plaza Mayor is a must-visit location in Madrid, especially during the holiday season when the Christmas market is in place. But avoid the bars and restaurants that line the square, and head instead to the connecting streets and beyond.

The former are mostly frequented by tourists and visiting football fans and are greatly overpriced. Look instead for places packed with locals and always wait before ordering food at the bar – that way you’ll be guaranteed a tapa with your drink. And never frequent a restaurant that has pictures of the food on the outside…

Plaza Mayor isn’t the ideal place to have food or drinks in the capital, especially if don’t want to be overcharged. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

 
Learn to stay up ridiculously late (and make an unseen exit)

Madrileños are trained practically from birth to stay up ridiculously late (for proof look no further than the kids running around bars and restaurants well into the night). Keeping up with this rhythm requires some serious preparation, including a strategic nap before a night out as well as pacing yourself when it comes to drinking alcohol.

If it all gets too much for you, however, never, ever announce to Madrileño friends that you are leaving, otherwise they will expend all their energy on getting you to stay. Instead, find an excuse to disappear for a minute, turn off your phone and sneak away – a practice known as “una bomba de humo”, or a “smoke bomb”.

 
For toilet stops, look for El Corte Inglés

Madrid is shockingly short of two public services: water fountains and toilets. You can, of course, nip into a bar, but many establishments – particularly in the centre – will insist you purchase something before using their facilities.

As an alternative, El Corte Inglés department store is your best bet. They’re all over the city and boast plentiful and clean bathrooms. Be warned, however: the branch at Nuevos Ministerios is nigh-on impossible to navigate, and legend has it that there are still lost souls wandering around trying to find the exit after having popped in for a pee in 1997.

El Corte Inglés, Spain’s flagship department store and a lifesaver for many with full bladders. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

Leave the city in July, not August

August is still traditionally when most Spaniards get away for their summer holiday. Time was when Madrid would pretty much shut down completely during the eighth month of the year, but no more.

July is actually hotter, weather-wise, and the city is still very hectic during that month, meaning it’s a better option to hightail it to the beach. August is a wonderfully calm time in the capital, with less traffic, emptier streets and still plenty to see and do.

Get to know the waiters in your local bar

For many newcomers to Madrid, waiters – particularly those in what are dubbed “old-man bars” – can come across as spectacularly rude.

But really their attitude is more business-like than anything, and if you make the effort to get to know those in your local not only will they soften up, but they may even serve you up your regular tipple before you even ask for it.

The secret to conquering Madrileño waiters is confidence: a loud “¡Buenos días!” is always a good starter on arrival, and forget using “¡Oiga!” to get their attention like the guide books tell you, use “¡Cuando puedas!” (When you have a second…) instead.

Developing an almost telepathic relationship with the waiters at your local bar is a sign of integration in Madrid. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

If driving, beware the M-30 ring road and practice your parking

Madrid is a city that grinds to a halt when it rains, and nowhere is this more true than the M-30 ring road. In fact, even on normal days it turns into a car park during rush hour. As such, avoid it before 10am and after 6pm, as your journey will not be brief. And if you must take this city circular, make sure you know exactly where you’re going and which exit you need to take: there are myriad slip lanes and lateral routes and very confusingly you may actually have to take a right lane to go left and vice versa.

You’ll also need to perfect your “contact” parallel parking (assuming you can find a space in the first place), which involves stopping only when you lightly touch the cars in front and behind. With a bit of practice you’ll be amazed at the gaps you can squeeze into (see photo at the top).
 
Punctuality and distances are relative

When meeting with Madrileños, you should take all times as more of a guide than a definite plan. Everything is likely to happen one to two hours later than you expect, including, of course, the actual end of a night out. Madrid is a fantastically walkable city, but you should also be wary of claims that your destination “is just five minutes away” – five minutes can easily mean 40, with several bar stops along the way.

Don’t take claims such as “ya llego” (almost there) too seriously if you’re waiting for a friend in Madrid. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP

 
Get to restaurants early for a chance to bag a table

Madrileños love to eat late and dine late, which takes some getting used to. However, it can work to your advantage if you want to grab a table at a restaurant: get there at 1pm for lunch or 8pm for dinner, and you should have the place practically to yourself.

Whether you’re in the streets around Plaza Mayor or in another central ‘barrio’, finding a table to eat out in Madrid can be challenging. Photo: Ed Orozco/Unsplash

 
Escape to the mountains (and ski)

From the right vantage point, the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains are visible on the Madrid horizon, which makes for a stunning sight when they are snow-topped. Whether it’s winter or summer, an escape from the city to these stunning landscapes is a must, and there are plenty of public transport options to get you to mountain villages such as Cercedilla or Alpedrete.

Provided enough snow has fallen, a ski trip to the Valdesquí resort is also a treat – and if you need a bit of practice before you go, you can head to SnoZone at the Xanadú shopping mall. It’s Spain’s only real-snow indoor slope.

You may not have to travel as far as the Pyrenees or Sierra Nevada if there’s enough snowfall to ski in Valdesquí. Photo: Ines Ogara/Unsplash

Find a friend with a swimming pool

When the summer hits, and the scorching sun starts to super-heat buildings and sidewalks alike, your mind will inevitably turn to water. While there are plenty of public pools to enjoy (Lago is a particularly highlight), it’s a much better plan to cultivate a friendship with someone who has their own.

You don’t have to stray too far out of the city centre to find apartment blocks with communal swimming pools, and some of them are really impressive. Many end up deserted during the month of August once Madrileños up and leave for their vacations, so if you want to pull off the perfect summer heist, offer to house-sit for your friend to enjoy a free swim and a sunbathe every single day.

In landlocked Madrid, a friend with a pool is worth more than one who’s a doctor or IT expert. Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP
 
 
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Of course, every country has its own idiosyncrasies and is unique in its own way, but Spain certainly has the capacity to leave its mark on people, which partly explains why it’s one of the most visited countries on the planet. 

So what experience do you remember having or occurence that you saw that made you think ‘this is truly Spanish’? 

From the comical, to the inspiring, to the shocking, to the infuriating – can you remember a moment or an everyday occurrence when you thought to yourself ‘only in Spain’?

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