Madrid is my favorite city, and I’ve been there numerous times. It’s old, large, lively, and urban, yet it’s pretty and has a small-town feel. I love the festive atmosphere, the food, and the walkability. People are always out and about, no matter what hour. They really enjoy food, drink, and conversation, and I’ve noticed that most people seem to sit and talk to each other — and look at each other — rather than looking at their phones. I’m always impressed with how clean the buildings are. There might be graffiti on some of the metal doors that cover shop doors after hours, but if you’ve seen the thick layers of grime and old peeling paint in Rome and the dirt and graffiti that cover everything in New York (a much younger city), Madrid looks downright sparkling. I love the architecture. Almost every building has balconies … bell towers from old churches decorate the skyline … many buildings have intricate carvings and spires … outdoor cafes fill the plazas … it all adds up to a lot of charm and character.
I’ve known people who have flown into Madrid and gone straight to their next destination in Spain, barely stopping to take a look. What a shame! Madrid is a wonderful destination in itself. Even if we are eventually heading in another direction, we always add a couple of extra days in Madrid on both the front and back of our vacation. We recently spent 10 days just in Madrid — no side trips — and could have easily stayed much longer without getting bored.
When to Go
Madrid gets very cold in the winter, so if you don’t want to bundle up and pack your heavier clothes, you might want to avoid it. It also gets very hot in the summer, and during the month of August many Madrileños leave the city, and many shops and restaurants will close for the entire month. But other than August, January, and February, the other months are great. May and October are peak seasons for visitors in Spain, as the weather is so nice at that time.
You might want to check to see if there are any Spanish holidays or festivals in Madrid at the time of your planned visit. We went in early December, not realizing that it was a long holiday weekend. The city was jammed with people visiting from all over Spain, and hotel rooms were more difficult to find. I have never seen the streets so crowded with people, and I was almost the only tourist there (my husband is originally from Madrid). Even though it was more crowded than usual, and waits for tables were longer, we had a fantastic time. The city was decorated for Christmas, and Plaza Mayor was turned into an outdoor Christmas shop, selling wreaths, festive hats, and items for elaborate nativity scenes. Despite the streets being thick with people, the atmosphere was festive and pleasant. There was no tension in the air, and people were calm and happy. My only complaint is the smoking. It seems like Spain did not get the bad news about cigarettes, because everyone seemed to be smoking. Even parents holding babies were puffing away. It was more noticeable because it was more crowded. (Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants or bars, but is allowed in outdoor cafes, which is where you really want to be if the weather is nice.)
Where to Stay
Stay in the city center so you can get around easily and have access to the museums, restaurants, and main plazas. Do not stay out in the suburbs — it is not worth any price savings. You will not get a feel for Madrid, and getting in and out of the city will be more difficult. Most of the things you will want to see are located around the main plazas: Plaza Mayor, Plaza Santa Ana, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Oriente, and around areas like La Latina. Personally, I don’t like to stay too close to Gran Via. It’s a major roadway with constant traffic, and I find it very noisy and too busy. I walk down there to see things, but I prefer not to make that my base. I stayed at Hotel Emperador on my first trip to Madrid, which was very nice, although kind of corporatey, but it was right on Gran Via. I’ve had bad luck staying in hotels around the Plaza Opera (also known as Plaza Isabelle II). I don’t know if it happens all the time, but when I stayed at Hotel Opera, drunks came into the square every single night and sang loudly and badly until the sun came up. I also stayed at Las Meninas around the corner. It was a bit more quiet, but our room was dark and smelly and extremely cramped, even by European standards. In general, Madrid is noisy, as people like to stay out late. Getting a hotel or apartment in a quiet corner or with double-paned windows is a big plus if you’re a light sleeper.
Two hotels in a quiet plaza are Roommate Laura and Palacio San Martin. Roommate Laura has very sleek and ultra modern decor. Our room had a gigantic picture of feet and a haughty Queen Victoria-type figure over our bed. Not really my idea of art, but we enjoyed our stay there. Palacio San Martin has more traditional decor, and I’ve stayed there several times. They have several different types of rooms, so make sure you get what you want. I prefer to be above street level, so people aren’t walking by my window all day long. I also stayed in the Petit Palace Posada del Peine, (pictured at left with clock), which is located at one of the entrances to Plaza Mayor. The street scene there is very lively, but the extra thick windows kept the noise out when we didn’t want to hear it. The downside is the weird bathroom, which is a semi-opaque glass box that didn’t offer much privacy, and the shower floor was the same as the rest of the floor, so everything got wet. (A lot of hotels in Madrid go for this super-modern decor, but it’s not always functional or comfortable.) Because of the bathroom, it’s probably not the best option for families with teenagers or anyone who is not on intimate terms, but it’s a great location and it’s the oldest hotel in Spain. Hotel Villa Real is also in a quiet location. The breakfast there is probably the best in Madrid. (Most hotels include a breakfast buffet of pastries, cereals, ham and cheese, yogurt, toast, coffee & tea, and most offer eggs.) We had a very large room here, but keep in mind that Madrid’s hotel rooms tend to be smaller than those in the U.S. Also, you will find that most king-sized beds are actually two twins pushed together. Most of these old buildings have very small elevators and narrow stairways that would not accommodate a king-sized mattress. All of the hotels I’ve mentioned are in easy walking distance to just about everything.
On our last trip we found an Airbnb rental right in Plaza Mayor. It was small but comfortable and had double-paned windows, so we could open them to let in the aliveness of the plaza, and then close them when we didn’t want to hear it. The location was fabulous. Downside to some of those old apartment buildings: lots and lots of stairs and no elevator. We were on the fourth floor and had 84 steps to traverse every time we went in or out. Carrying our luggage was tough, but otherwise we figured the exercise was good for us. If you have health problems, it’s something to consider, so make sure to ask questions before you rent. An advantage to being up higher is less noise than street level and less worries about possible break-ins. We loved staying there and really felt like we were a part of the city. We shopped in the grocery store and cooked our own breakfast every day to save a little money and calories.
From Madrid-Barajas airport, you can take a taxi, train, metro, or rental car to the city center. A taxi is always easiest when you don’t know exactly where you’re going and you’re carrying luggage. It’s also the most expensive option, at around 30 euros. Click here for information about taxis from the airport.
You can get the train at Terminal 4, which will take you to Atocha station, but you will still need a taxi or metro to get to your hotel from there, so if you have a lot of bags, that’s hauling yourself and your luggage a second time before you even arrive at your hotel. The train should cost no more than 5 euros, but could be free. Click here for information on free train tickets.
If you want to take metro, find out which stop is closest to your hotel. You can get the metro from the airport at Terminal 2 or Terminal 4. Note that some stops do not have escalators or elevators. (Personally, if I’m visiting a country for the first time, I don’t want to learn to navigate their subway system when I’m hauling luggage.) Metro should cost around 5 or 6 euros, depending on where you’re going.
There is bus service that runs all day from the airport, but it’s very slow and may not take you to exactly where you need to be, so I recommend the other options.
If you are staying in Madrid, don’t bother with a rental car. Madrid is very walkable and buses and taxis can help you out with the rest. Having a car in the city adds a lot of stress. Many streets are closed to automobiles and it’s difficult to figure out how to get where you want to go sometimes, and parking? Forget it. We’ve rented a car when we planned to stay in Madrid for a couple of days before driving to another location, but we immediately parked it in a garage and left it there the whole time we were in Madrid.
There are also private car services, and if you arrange your visit through a tour operator they will usually arrange pick-up at the airport for you.
Once you are there, plan to walk! It’s the best way to really see a city and get to know it. My husband and I walk Madrid from morning until night. When we get tired, we stop in a cafe and have something to eat or drink, then we move on. If we’re going someplace really far, we’ll walk as far as we can and then get a taxi for the rest of the way. (Taxis are everywhere.) We’ve taken buses too, but that’s usually when we are outside the city center. Get a map and use the plazas as your main landmarks. Eventually you’ll get to know your way around.
It will definitely help if you know some Spanish. At least learn some traveler’s Spanish so you can ask directions, order food, etc. You really won’t find many people speaking English unless they have to. If you’re used to speaking Spanish in Latin American countries, Spanish in Spain might feel very different. I was really comfortable with Spanish in Costa Rica, where they speak more slowly and use a lot of body language, but it was almost like starting over again when I went to Spain. I find that people speak very quickly and with minimal body language. Also, the use of the theta, or lisp, adds a bit of a challenge as well.
For me, the Michel Thomas beginner series very helpful when I was first learning Spanish, and I also like Notes in Spanish, which I used after I already had a good foundation. There are several free apps, and Say Hi, is a pretty good translation app that works in several languages.
Check here to see the exchange rate of euros when you’re ready to travel. You might want to check with your credit card company, as their rate may be slightly different. Make sure your credit card doesn’t charge a service fee for foreign transactions, and if it does, get a new card. Capital One and many travel-based credit cards do not charge a fee. Most places take credit cards, but there are still some that only take cash. For the best rates when changing money, get money out of the ATMs in Spain with your bank card that’s associated with your checking or savings account. You’ll be charged a fee, but not as high as a cash withdrawal fee on a credit card. Do not exchange money at the airport, as those rates are highest.
Tipping in Spain is done on a smaller scale than in the U.S., as Spanish waitstaff are paid a fair wage and do not rely on tips. For small meals, drinks, tapas, and taxis, it’s common to just round up to the nearest euro or leave a few coins. For a more elaborate sit-down meal, you could leave 5% – 10%. For someone who carries your bags (not very common in a lot of hotels), a euro or two is fine. Private drivers and tour guides should get decent tips, as this is how they make their living. For a half day tour, the driver should get about 10 euros, and a guide 10 – 15 euros per couple. For a full day, the driver should get between 15 – 20 euros and the guide 20 – 25 per couple. Obviously, if you feel you’ve received exemplary service, feel free to add more.
What to Eat and Drink
It would be easier to say what not to eat and drink. Madrid is all about food and drink, and you’ll find good stuff everywhere. I would say don’t eat at VIPS and don’t eat at McDonalds or anything that looks like a fast-food place. You’re in Spain – eat Spanish food! I could be wrong, but from my observation, this is what I think the typical meal pattern of a Madrileño is: 1. A small bite in the morning. 2. Coffee and small pastry or light snack around 10:00. 3. Another snack around noon, this time something savory. I see a lot of people having a caña (small beer) in the bars with the noon snack. 4. Lunch starts around 2:30. This is a full meal with wine, and perhaps the only time of the day they’re eating a full American-sized meal. 5. Tapas and drinks in the evening. You’ll see people out at 5:00 and 6:00, but the tapas crawl gets busier from 7:00 – 10:00. 6. If they eat dinner, it’s at 10:00 and usually something light. (Most people seem pretty fit, except for the smoking, so this style of eating a little bit all day long and walking a lot seems to work.) As tourists, this works for us! We’re happy to pop in and out of bars all day long. (A bar is not just for drinking alcohol. It’s where you’ll get coffee, food, and social contact.) Here are a few tips, but be sure to read my article on Tapas in Madrid.
Breakfast: If you’re staying in a hotel breakfast is usually included, but if not, just step outside and you’ll see a number of bars open for breakfast.
Coffee: Coffee is not served in a big mug. You’ll get it in the smaller coffee cups that your parents used to have or an espresso cup, depending on what you order. Most bars serve espresso drinks rather than a pot of brewed coffee, and most of it is very good, but can be strong. You can get a solo, which is a shot of espresso, or an Americano, which is espresso with more water. A cortado is a shot of espresso with an equal-sized shot of warm milk. Cappucino will be served in a larger cup than a cortado, but will have mostly foam and can be stronger than the cappucinos we’re used to at home, and often stronger than a cortado. Cafe con leche is a shot of espresso with more milk than a cortado, but not as much as a latte in the U.S. As you drink, you’ll wonder why on earth they put cold milk in coffee in the U.S.
Lunch: You’ll probably want to try a paella while in Madrid. Strangely, really good ones aren’t that easy to find. I can tell you where NOT to go for your paella: Directly in front of the Petit Palace Posada del Peine near Plaza Mayor you will find a very small outdoor place specializing in paella. You order at a window with pictures of paellas. The paella there was hands-down the worst I’ve ever had in my life. While some paellas may not be up to snuff, they’re not usually truly awful. But these paellas are absolutely horrible. Stay away! The following are good sit-down restaurants for lunch, and I strongly suggest making reservations. These restaurants are not tourist traps and have good quality food that will cost the same as a nice dinner out in the U.S. Remember, lunch starts at 2:30 or even 3:00!
Note: Asking for separate checks is not a thing in Spain. When dining with friends, one person usually picks up the check and the others settle up later. I was once with a group who asked the waitress to make separate checks, and it nearly caused an international incident!
- A decent paella can be had at Casa Valencia. This is a white tablecloth, old-fashioned service kind of place. Order a pitcher of sangria, a salad or some razor clams, and a paella and enjoy. After lunch they brought a tray of nuts and nibbles, and I remember having the best candied oranges I’ve ever had in my life. This restaurant is about a half-hour walk from Plaza Mayor, so you can take a cab if you’re not up to walking. Afterward we walked in the park across the street and then went to the beautiful rose garden nearby. We kept walking and came across an Egyptian temple (Temple of Debod — totally unexpected) and finally ended up at the Royal Palace.
- Another option for paella is La Barraca. This place is cute and fun, so get the sangria and a paella and enjoy. Typical desserts are flan-style, like creme caramel and creme brulee.
- If you want to taste the food of Galicia in northern Spain, walk on over to Casa Gallega on Calle de Bordadores. You can get paella here too, but I haven’t tried it. This is a classic style restaurant with white tablecloths and good service. I had merluza (hake) Galician style, and hubby had lubino (sea bass) baked in salt. They break off the salt crust before serving. Both fish dishes were perfectly cooked and delicious. I fell in love with St. James tarts (tarta de Santiago) in northern Spain, and they have a very good one at this restaurant, so I highly recommend ordering this for dessert.
- Los Galayos sits right in Plaza Mayor, but it is no tourist trap. It’s not as expensive as the above-mentioned restaurants, and it is always full of locals. The food is very good and nicely presented. Los Galayos is one of our favorites, and we eat there on every visit, and we stopped at the bar every day for our morning cafe con leche. You can eat indoors or outdoors when the weather is nice. The soft baby artichokes with prawns and ham was unlike any artichoke dish I’ve ever had, and it was beautiful, too! The puntillitas are amazing, and I’ve never had them or seen them anywhere. They are tiny, fried baby squid served with peppers and egg. The first few times I ate them was outside in the dark, but on my last trip I had them indoors for lunch and I could now see that they had little tiny eyes. It was a bit disconcerting, so I tried not to look because they are so delicious.
- If you want to take a long walk or short cab ride to the ritzy part of Madrid, have lunch in Salamanca. There are a couple of highly rated seafood restaurants there. One is El Pescador. We received the royal treatment here. Service was absolutely impeccable. We shared a delicious seafood stew, which was plenty for two, and dorado (mahi mahi) baked in salt, which was perfect. As is the case in many of these restaurants that specialize in fish, there is absolutely nothing else served with it. No vegetable on the plate, not even a garnish. The focus is on the fish. Of course you can order salads, etc. The St. James tart here was incredible. Another good one in Salamanca is La Trainera. Again, seafood was the focus, nothing else on the plate, but it was perfectly done. Just look at the photo! Both of these restaurants were pretty pricey, but a good experience. Afterward you can walk around the neighborhood and look in the designer shops.
- Don’t want a big sit-down meal? Then go to Mercado San Miguel. You have to go at least once. It’s an indoor market with several little tapas bars inside. You can pick out something from one counter, then something else from another, get a sangria, wine, or vermouth and take it to a table and eat. It’s a lot of fun and there’s something for everyone.
Dinner: Dinner starts around 10:00 p.m. I usually eat my main meal at lunch and just do tapas at night, rather than eating a full dinner. Please read my article on tapas to get recommendations and tips.
Dessert: Save room for churros and chocolate! At least once you must go to the Chocolatería on San Gines. It is always busy. You’ll see other chocolaterías, but this one is the original and the best. The hot chocolate is like a cup of melted dark chocolate. It is not watered down with milk. The churros here are non-sweet, fried doughnut sticks that you dip into the chocolate. Honestly, I’d rather just have a spoon, but when in Rome… Here’s the procedure: Order at the counter. One cup of chocolate is enough for two people, and depending on how much you eat you can share one order of churros (tends to be small) or get two. After you pay, hold on to your receipt and find a table. Sometimes you have to wait, but there are tables outside, downstairs, and off to the side. A waiter will come to you, look at your receipt, and then bring you the goods. Dip and eat!
What to Do
Here are a few suggestions for those times in between eating and drinking:
Street Performers: You’ll be amazed at how entertaining it can be to simply walk around Madrid. Go to the main plazas. Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, and Plaza de Oriente often have street performers. Some look like statues, but if you put a coin in their bucket, they’ll move. In the evenings, the side streets often have great entertainment too. You could turn a corner and find a young man singing the most beautiful opera music you’ve ever heard. Or you might see a fiery flamenco performance, or a hip-hop dance group. Be open to discovering new things.
Museums: There are several excellent museums in Madrid, the Prado being number one. You can walk from the city center, and give yourself plenty of time to see the exhibits. Two of the most famous paintings on display there are Las Meninas and Christ Crucified by Diego Velázquez. Seeing pictures of these paintings does not compare to seeing them in person. You might also visit Reina Sofia, which has more modern art, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, not far from the Prado. All three museums complement each other and do not overlap, but if you only have time for one, go to the Prado. If you like trains, there’s a small railroad museum not far from Atocha, that would require a cab ride. There are a few old trains, and there’s one that kids and big people can climb on to steer the wheel and play around. There’s a working dining car where you can get a coffee and snack. When we went there was an antique toy fair going on at the same time, and the lines to get in was long, but it moved quickly once the doors opened. You might also want to visit the Royal Palace. If you walk to Plaza de Oriente, you’ll see it and can walk right up to it, but you can also arrange a tour.
Live Music: There are a few places with live music, but the schedules change depending on the day, so I recommend googling “live music Madrid” when you’re there. La Negra Tomasa often has live Cuban music after 11:30 p.m., and Café Central in Plaza Santa Ana usually has live jazz around 9:00 p.m. Joy Eslava is a disco-theatre next to the Chocolateria San Gines. You will often see a lot of young people lined up at the entrance late at night. There are other clubs for dancing that aren’t obvious to tourists, so employees of the clubs will hang around handing out cards to let you know about it. They’ll often ask you if you want to go to the club, and if you do, they want to personally walk you there. It may seem odd, but I perhaps they get a commission. My husband and I are always surprised to be invited since we aren’t that young, but we’ve gone into a few clubs just to check out the scene. You might want to see a flamenco show. There are several, and they tend to be expensive but often include dinner. Make reservations in advance, as they often try to charge more if you show up at the last minute.
El Rastro: If you’re there on Sunday, you have to see the giant flea market called El Rastro. You can buy just about anything there, new or used. El Rastro spans several blocks along Plaza de Cascorro and La Ribera de Curtidores to Ronda de Toledo and draws quite a crowd.
El Retiro: Stroll through “the lungs of Madrid.” The Retiro is a huge park in the center of Madrid with over 15,000 trees and beautiful gardens. You can walk, row a boat on the lake, and enjoy the fountains and sculptures.
See an Egyptian Temple: One day when we were strolling around the parque del oeste near the Royal Palace, we were surprised to find ourselves in front of the Temple of Debod. It’s a real Egyptian Temple dedicated to the goddess Isis that was dismantled in Egypt and rebuilt in Madrid.
People Watching: Sit in any plaza and just watch the show!
Day Trips: If you’ve had plenty of time to see what’s in Madrid and want to see something else, I highly recommend visiting the walled city of Toledo. It’s about an hour’s drive from Madrid. You can go by yourself, but taking a guided tour is always the best way to learn about what you’re seeing.
In my opinion, most Spanish people that you meet in restaurants, hotels, cabs, etc., don’t come across as very friendly right off the bat, but once you break the ice, they warm up and are quite nice. I can only think of one occasion on all of my trips where we had an outright rude waiter in Spain, compared to many that we had to deal with in Italy.
What to Wear
Madrid is a cosmopolitan city, and most people look nice. They do not usually wear shorts unless they are exercising, so I wouldn’t pack those. Comfortable shoes are a must. In winter, I wore comfortable, flat knee-high boots everywhere — over skinny jeans or tights, under wider pants, with dresses and skirts — and they served me well. In summer I had comfortable walking sandals. Jeans are fine, and I like to pack dresses since they are easy to travel with, along with a couple of pairs of lightweight pants. My husband brings a pair of jeans and some dressier slacks and collared shirts to wear with both. Bring layers: scarves, sweaters, and jackets for changes in temperature.
Madrid is pretty safe, but like any city you should exercise caution. The biggest problem is thieves and pickpockets in crowded plazas. They are very savvy and quick, so hang on to your belongings. Once we were sitting at a table in the Plaza Mayor and my son put his camera bag under his seat and put his foot on the strap. There were about 8 of us at the table, and within seconds a man dropped his jacket on the ground, covering the camera bag, scooped it all up, and quickly disappeared. We got a good look at him, and went back a few times and watched him work the plaza. We filed a police report and even pointed him out to the police, but they couldn’t do anything without catching him in the act. (If a stolen item is expensive, file a report for insurance purposes.) Based on our experience and watching this man, here’s my advice:
- Keep your purse, camera back, backpack, etc. on your body when you are eating in outdoor cafes or any crowded place. Do not drape it across a chair or put it under your seat or on the table. There are some theft-proof purses that allow you to hook the strap onto your chair. Wear a cross-body bag, as it’s more secure.
- Choose an inside table. I don’t mean indoors, I mean a table that’s not on the outer edge of a group of tables. We noticed that our thief worked the tables along the outer edges, as I’m sure they were easier to run away from.
- Keep your passport and valuables in the hotel safe, and carry a copy of your passport with you. Keep information about your credit card accounts and the customer service numbers to call in that hotel safe too.
- Leave flashy jewelry at home. Don’t struggle with money. Make sure your belongings are organized so you have easy access to your cash and credit cards, yet they are safe. Some travel clothes have secret pockets that are perfect for hiding cash and cards.
It’s easy to stay fit in Madrid if you walk everywhere. There are gyms and yoga studios, but if you’re out sight-seeing and eating tapas, just keep walking and you’ll keep the pounds off.