There’s no-one better to show you around a new city than a local. The only problem is, how do you meet them in the first place? Especially if Spanish isn’t your strong point, it can sometimes feel isolating being a tourist in a cosmopolitan, yet still mainly Spanish-speaking city like Madrid. Have no fear: an intercambio could be just what you’re looking for.

The word intercambio means exchange, and in this case it specifically refers to exchanging languages. A typical intercambio is held in a large bar, sometimes an Irish pub, where dozens of Spanish-speakers, English-speakers and everything-else speakers come along to chat to perfect strangers in order to practise their language skills. Language ability is always mixed: it doesn’t matter if your Spanish is limited to “Dos cervezas por favor,” because there’s always bound to be at least one person who speaks less than you. Madrileños (Madrid locals) tend to outnumber foreigners, though it remains popular with Madrid’s expat crowd and newcomers to the city looking to meet people. They’re always keen to practise their English on someone, so native speakers will definitely be in demand. Most importantly, they’re almost always free to attend, so you can enjoy a fun night out just for the cost of a few drinks.

Intercambios are a great way to meet people and pick up a bit of Spanish, particularly if you’re travelling solo or with a small group. Since few tourists come to these it can be a great way of getting a bit more local flavour, and definitely not something you’d find in any guidebook. It may sound scary to go meet a bunch of strangers in a foreign city, but they’re always well-organised, friendly and non-committal: if you’re not having fun you can leave at any time.

Some pointers for first-timers

Introduce yourself to the host Almost every intercambio has a host, who’ll do their best to pair you up with another group and find something interesting for you to talk about.

Teach some English The ‘exchange’ is the important part here: don’t be afraid to help people out with their English and offer corrections if they ask for it. Everyone loves learning about local phrases and slang, so think of things to tell them. I’m personally responsible for at least half a dozen madrileños who now know how to say “bare jokes”, “blud” and “innit”.

Talk to lots of people Just like being at a party, mingling is key: if you get bored talking to one person, don’t be afraid to join another group or get the host to introduce you to someone else. And with at least one intercambio happening every night in the city, if you really get bored you can leave and find another one just down the road.

Don’t be shy Getting into conversation with complete strangers can be a liberating experience. Be friendly and open, and you could find yourself heading to another club with your new friends after the intercambio has finished, or even meeting up later in your trip.

A few of the best

J&J’s Café and Bookshop, C/ Espiritu Santo, 47
Nearest metro: Noviciado
Wednesdays and Thursdays from 8
http://www.jandjbooksandcoffee.com/

An English-language bookshop and favoured hangout of the English teacher contingent of Madrid, intercambios are held on Wednesday and Thursday nights. There’s an English speaking host and bartenders to help get the conversation flowing, and usually a slightly more intellectual crowd than you might get at other nights. If you want some competition with your socialising, head to the raucous quiz nights every Friday at 11, where your obscure knowledge of 1980s TV shows or types of sausage may win you a pot of cash. A similar set up can be found at Bacchus (C/ Donoso Cortes, 58, nearest metro: Moncloa/Islas Filipinas), another bookshop/café whose intercambios run every Tuesday night from 8.

Café Madrid, C/ Mesón de Paños, 6
Nearest metro: Ópera
Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Madrid-Spain/CAFE-MADRID/286286309119

This café plays host to intercambios run by various different organisations, and is one of the most popular venues. Large and usually quiet loud, this tends to be one of the first intercambios that new arrivals to Madrid come to, and is close to a number of other popular nightspots for continuing the party afterwards.

Star Studio, C/ de la Salud, 7
Nearest metro: Callao, Gran Vía, Sol
Tuesdays from 9
Grazie Mille, C/ Mayor, 31
Nearest metro: Sol
Wednesdays from 11
http://madridintercambios.glo24.com/

These two nights are run by the Madrid Intercambios group, who run busy nights mainly populated by a younger generation. Tuesdays takes place at a popular bar and club in the centre, and usually continues with some dancing late into the night. Grazie Mille is an Italian restaurant and bar (definitely worth checking out on quieter nights of the week for its excellent pasta and tiramisu), which plays host to a more Italian themed intercambio. Expect young crowds, more than a few Italian faces, and if you’re lucky some free Italian food to boot.

O’Neill’s, C/ Príncipe, 12
Nearest metro: Sol, Sevilla
Tuesdays from 10
http://www.oneillspubs.com/

This Irish pub close to Sol claims to be the largest Irish pub in Europe (excluding Ireland itself, supposedly). This means its intercambios are always very busy and tightly packed – there are dozens of nationalities here every week and you’re bound to strike up conversation as you squeeze past people to the bar.

The Quiet Man, C/ Valverde, 44
Nearest metro: Gran Vía, Tribunal
Wednesdays from 9, Sundays from 7
http://madridbabel.weebly.com/index.html

Tends to be a slightly quieter affair, particularly on Sunday evenings where you can have a more audible conversation. These intercambios are run by the Madrid Babel group, which has as its tagline: “Somos internacionales, please don’t smoke”, a welcome change in Spain. The group also runs outings to cinemas, restaurants and even daytrips, worth watching out for if you’re having a slightly longer stay.

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