Planning Your Trip
Things to Do
What to Eat & Drink
With its gleaming, grandiose architecture, wide-open green spaces, and unrivaled tapas scene, Madrid isn't just a place to visit for the sake of checking it off your bucket list—it's an experience to be lived. And even though its monuments and museums are certainly noteworthy, it's the people and local culture that make the Spanish capital a worthwhile getaway. Spain's culture is famously laid-back, warm, and inviting, and few large European cities make it as easy for a visitor to feel at home as Madrid does. Sound good? Get ready for the ultimate Madrid experience—this guide will walk you through everything you need to know.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Spring and fall see the ideal combination of pleasant weather, few crowds, and low accommodation prices.
- Language: Spanish is the official national language of Spain, though many people will know English in central areas of large cities like Madrid.
- Currency: Spain uses the euro.
- Getting Around: Madrid boasts a large, inexpensive, and efficient public transportation covering all corners of the city and beyond. The metro and bus are cheap and easy to use, and the commuter trains (cercanías) connect the city to nearby towns, making day trips a piece of cake.
- Travel Tip: Madrid is generally a safe city, but petty crime such as pickpocketing is not uncommon. Keep an eye on your belongings and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
Things to Do in Madrid
At first, the possibilities of things to do in Madrid may not seem obvious. There's no Eiffel Tower, Great Wall, or other monument that's earned household-name status around the world. Part of that is due to the fact that Madrid is a relatively young capital city—it didn't earn a promotion to its current status as Spain's capital until the late 16th century, and before that was little more than a town!
But once you scratch the surface, you'll see that Madrid is positively bursting with things to see and do. Combining a metropolitan, cosmopolitan atmosphere with that famous laid-back Spanish vibe, it's a city meant to be savored slowly, piece by piece.
- Check out Madrid's world-class museums, including but not limited to the Golden Triangle of Art (consisting of the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen Museums).
- Explore the city's myriad of parks and gardens, from the famous Retiro to the sprawling Casa de Campo to the lesser-known Parque de Berlín.
- Head out for tapas, preferably on a sunny terrace in a picturesque plaza. More on Madrid's food scene in a bit.
What to Eat & Drink in Madrid
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Spanish food might be tapas, and here in Madrid, tapas aren't just food—they're a way of life. The art of going from bar to bar and digging into shared plates with good friends is something so uniquely Spanish, and a can't-miss activity for visitors to the city. And when it comes to the food itself, you're spoiled for choice—in addition to homegrown madrileño specialties, you'll also find plenty of equally fabulous dishes from all over Spain and the world.
Then you have the drinks. Madrid is home to just about every kind of bar you can imagine, from no-frills watering holes frequented by abuelos to sleek, modern joints serving up craft beer, fabulous Spanish wine, or handcrafted cocktails. The Malasaña neighborhood is particularly famous for its nightlife, and nearby Chueca is a stronghold for the LGBT community.
Where to Stay in Madrid
Just as there's a bar for everybody in Madrid, there's a neighborhood of the Spanish capital where you'll feel at home, no matter what your tastes are. If you want to be close to the center of the action, Malasaña is a popular choice, although it has become somewhat infamous for the amount of noise at night. Here, you'll find an eclectic mix of boutique hotels and trendy hostels.
If you don't want to compromise location for atmosphere, a great alternative is Huertas (also known as Barrio de las Letras). Wedged in between Puerta del Sol and the Paseo del Prado, this idyllic neighborhood offers hotels, apartments, hostels, and more. Another excellent choice is Lavapiés, a multicultural neighborhood where renting an apartment and living like a local is the way to go.
Madrid's central location right in the heart of Spain makes it easy to access from elsewhere in the country, Europe, and the world. Madrid-Barajas Airport is Spain's busiest and best-connected, with several transportation options to get you to the city center after your flight in no time. The city is also home to several train and bus stations, and forms the nucleus of the AVE high-speed rail network.
Culture & Customs
One of the most confusing aspects of Spanish culture for newcomers has to do with eating out at bars and restaurants. A few tips to keep in mind: tipping is rare in Spain, and you'll have to flag down your server to have them bring you the bill.
Many tourists may be somewhat familiar with the concept of the siesta—that midday break which allows locals to rest up at home before heading back to work in the afternoon (catnap encouraged but not required). Traditionally, this has meant that many small businesses will close up shop from about 2–5 p.m.; however, this practice is becoming less common in central areas of Madrid.
- Grab a menú del día for weekday lunch. This multi-course meal deal consists of a first dish (usually something vegetable-based), a second dish (usually meat or fish), bread, a drink, and dessert, all for one low price.
- Instead of taking a pricy taxi from the airport to the city center, hop on the airport express bus, cercanías train, or metro to get there for a fraction of the cost of a cab.
- Many of Madrid's most iconic museums have free visiting hours that are worth taking advantage of.