Cultural Experience | Madrid

CT Dialogue: A California Girl in Madrid, Spain

Tips and tales from Emily Berg about her trip to Madrid!

One of the most amazing girls I have met in college, Emily Berg, had the chance to go to Madrid, Spain to study abroad.  Although she has graduated and is now a working woman, she had the chance to answer some questions about her experience.  If your curious to read about her trip day by day visit her blog:; I definitely recommend taking a peek!

1. Why did you choose Madrid to study in? Are you happy with that decision?

One of my main goals of going abroad was to improve my Spanish, so I knew I would either have to go to South America or Spain. I wanted to be in Europe so I would have the convenience of being close to dozens of countries that I was interested in visiting.  I knew I couldn’t go to Barcelona since they speak Catalan rather than Spanish, so that narrowed it down to Madrid and Granada. Ultimately I decided I wanted to spend my time abroad in a big city rather than a small town, so that’s how I landed on Madrid.

I can’t think of a better place to have spent my four months abroad. The Madrilenian lifestyle is unparalleled, from the afternoon siestas to the all-night fiestas that take place regularly in the bustling city. It’s in central Europe, so jumping from one country to the next on weekends was never an inconvenience.

2. Were you able to feel like a local by the end of the trip?

I definitely felt comfortable in Madrid by the end of the trip. I knew what metro stops led to my favorite parts of the city, I knew all of the best tapas bars, and I knew all of the native slang. I knew about the culture and the customs. I could communicate with Spaniards and be confident that they would actually be able to understand me. I knew the best reading spots in Retiro Park that I could visit when I needed an escape from the big-city lifestyle.

I felt comfortable, but I wouldn’t say I felt like a local. Every day I was there I was discovering new gems in the massive city, so I was never bored. I think once you feel like a local in any given place, things become monotonous. I made it a point to go on adventures and step out of my comfort zone and take chances, because I never really wanted to feel like a local. I wanted to feel like the novelty of the experience would never dull – and it didn’t. I fell more and more in love with Madrid every day.

Retiro Park image

Emily and her friend Morgan seeing Retiro Park from the water

Madrid Retiro Park image

Retiro Park


3.  What are some good sights to check out and what was your favorite?

My absolute favorite place in Madrid was Retiro Park. It’s known as the “Central Park of Madrid,” and you’ll understand why the moment you step through the gates. It’s unbelievable. It’s filled with exhibits and museums and has the most beautiful lake in the center where you can rent rowboats, which I highly recommend doing. I escaped here every opportunity I had. I would come here in the mornings to jog, in the afternoons to explore the museums, and in the evenings to read. Madrid is filled with museums, the most famous of which is The Prado. Personally, my favorite was the Reina Sofia, which is just a short walk from Retiro Park.

Other great places to visit are Puerta del Sol (the central hub of the city, located in the heart of Madrid), Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, El Rastro (a massive flea market downtown), and any of the dozens of “mercados” throughout the city. Mercado de San Miguel was my personal favorite, and is just a short walk from Sol. And one thing you ABSOLUTELY need to do: Go to a Real Madrid game at Santiago Bernabeu. Epic.

Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain image

Mercado de San Miguel


Enjoying a Real Madrid Game

4. What is the best food you can get in Madrid?

I ate Tortilla Española every day. Every. Day. I also gained 10 pounds in the four months I was there, so it might not have been the best decision. Madrid is known for its “paella,” which is essentially rice with massive pieces of shellfish, but I have a shellfish allergy so that was out for me. Madrid isn’t exactly known for its food, but as long as you like red wine and tapas you’ll find plenty to eat (and drink).

food, spain, madrid image

Emily enjoying some Paella!


5. If there is one day that stands out above the rest in Madrid, what was it? 

My last night there was probably the most memorable for me, simply because it was so nostalgic. When you go abroad, you put your all into the experience. You are most likely traveling on your own for the first time in your life, leaving your family and friends thousands of miles away. You give your heart to your new city. On my last night in Madrid, my friends and I went to our favorite bar (El Tigre, which has free unlimited tapas when you buy a drink) and ate our weight in tapas as we cried into our Sangrias. At the end of the night, a Spaniard who I had befriended early on in my abroad experience took me on a nighttime city tour on the back of his motorcycle. Since it was mid-December, the entire city was decorated with Christmas lights draping the streets. It was straight out of a movie.

6. Was coming back from Madrid difficult?  Did it change you in any way?

Coming back was very bittersweet. I think the toughest part was knowing that I was going back to reality – I would no longer be able to jump on a plane every weekend to explore a new country and experience a new culture. Parting with tapas was tough, too. I looked through pictures and videos from the trip every day for a good three months after I returned, wishing I could go back. I still often find myself thinking about it. Studying abroad is unlike any other experience you have when you’re young, and I absolutely think it affected who I am now. I learned that getting lost is not a misfortune, but rather an opportunity. That sometimes being irresponsible and making bad decisions is the best way to grow. That taking chances is completely essential to finding adventures.

7. What advice would you give to others about to go abroad?

Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Take your classes seriously enough that you’re able to pass, but don’t let studying and attending lectures monopolize your time. Studying abroad is, above all, an opportunity to open your mind and grow intellectually, culturally, and socially, and the vast majority of that growth will take place far from the classroom.


Madrid, Spain

Emily happily waves her Spanish flag!


Gian Ryan

UC Santa Barbara | 10 stories

Hi there! I'm Gian. I am currently a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara studying political science. In my teenage years I have been around the states and Europe to places like France, Spain, and England. I have visited Morocco and Lebanon. I am studying abroad in Florence, Italy in the coming fall. I'll be spending my summer in Los Angeles writing some fun and informative articles about traveling in college! Can't wait to get started.

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