Madrid is not too complex of a city for tourists- most of the tourist destinations are all within the central almond and thus generally no more than a 20 minute walk from each other. But to really adjust and acclimate to life in Madrid there are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Siestas do not exist, but late lunch and dinner is real.
Madrid, like much of Spain, has evolved past the siesta as we know it- where everything shuts down from 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM or 5:00 PM. Some stores still close, especially markets, but many stay open throughout the day. Yet do not expect to get lunch at 12:00 PM because people will just be ending their merienda, or mid-morning snack (which usually is an amazing pastry and a coffee or for some, a beer). An early lunch in Madrid is 2:00 PM. The same goes for dinner. Many of my favorite restaurants close from 4:00 PM until 8:00 PM, which is the equivalent of a 5:00 PM dinner back in the States. If you really want to blend the blend with the madrileños, try to eat around 9:30 PM.
Pro-tip for dinner: If the place is a “top” restaurant such as “top Italian” or “top Vietnamese” food in Madrid, make sure you make a reservation. Spaniards make plans late, but when they make plans, they lock it in.
2. Brush up on military time.
If its your first time leaving the country, it might come as a surprise that many other countries use military time, or the 24 hours clock, to differentiate between morning and afternoon. For instance, in Spain if you want to go to a movie and you’re looking at the times, 11:00 means 11:00 in the morning while 23:00 means 11:00 in the evening. Depending on how you’re communicating with someone, you should also specify. When I was looking for apartments for the Spring semester I would always indicate the time in military time, saying 16:00 instead of 4:00 PM. Even when talking to someone you may have to specify if you mean the evening or the morning, but it depends on the context.
Pro-tip for telling time: While the basic rule for military time is to simply subtract 12 from afternoon time (14:00-12= 2:00 PM), it helps to adjust if you switch your phone and electronics to the 24 hour clock. Very useful during those first few jet-lagged days.
3. The Gospel of Vale and No pasa nada
While Spaniards have the stereotype of being very passionate, loud and even blunt, they also have a very strange ability to be relaxed and flexible, especially when it comes to being punctual or things out of their control. The Gospel of Vale as I have dubbed it, is about saying vale, which is the equivalent of okay in Spain, just as often as a Spaniard would. While this seems complicated, it’s all about mastering the different intonations. There’s the sarcastic vale, the triple vale, and the ever-important questioning vale? It’s almost a lifestyle.
The second Gospel is of no pasa nada, which literally means, “nothing will happen”, but in the sense of “don’t worry about it”. Where would one hear this phrase? Well, if you need to break a 50 euro bill (which is all the ATM’s seem to give out), and you’re lucky enough to walk into a restaurant or store with a nice cashier or waiter (and you really need a lot of luck for that one) who will break your 50, you might get a “no pasa nada” after asking them. If someone accidently trips over you in the Metro, you can show off after they say “Disculpame” or “Perdoname” (both mean “excuse me”) by answering “no pasa nada”. It’s not as commonly used as vale, but it is one of the nuances that Spaniards would appreciate.
Pro-tip for Spanish nuances: If you really want to get fancy and fit in, you should learn how to fit in “joder” into everyday speech. While it doesn’t carry the same vulgarity as in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, it’s still not the nicest word to say. If you feel wrong saying “joder” as often as Spaniards do, I would suggest using what the elementary school kids use as a substitute: simply “jo” (pronounced “ho”), “jomama” or “jolines”.
Madrileños are very funny, and I can’t imagine studying anywhere else. As a general recommendation, I would suggest reading Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett before traveling to Spain for an extensive period of time. I read it this past summer, and it definitely gave me a general basis on Spanish culture as well as Spanish life. Most importantly, remember to keep an open mind when traveling in Madrid and all of Spain, vale?