So you’re thinking about visiting Madrid? You’ve made an excellent choice. Spain’s capital is an extremely friendly destination that happily accommodates tourists while still retaining its unique identity.
Duck down any side street, away from the souvenir stalls selling magnets and flammable flamenco frocks, and you’ll discover pretty little squares, dusty 100-year-old artisanal shops and the somber doors of cloistered convents.
Although I’ve been living here for 10 years, I continue to be surprised by the city, which, though small, seems to contain infinities. It’s particularly magical at sunset, when residents come out in force to walk their dogs, nip into the shops or have a caña – a small, chilled glass of beer with a good head of foam.
While other cities might feel frenetic, Madrileños always take life at their own pace. This is particularly important to bear in mind when you’re waiting to order a drink! Service is invariably slow, yet delivered with a winning smile. Still, it’s nice to feel that in the heart of a busy metropolis, nobody is rushing things. Here's everything you need to know ahead of your trip to Madrid.
1. Give yourself at least two days
Madrid is a compact, walkable city, but you’ll still need at least two or three days to get a proper handle on it. If you want to add in day trips to nearby Toledo, Segovia and Cuenca, give yourself at least a week.
2. Know how to get into the city
While the metro is the best way around town, it’s not necessarily the best way in, especially if you have a lot of luggage. From the Madrid airport's Terminal 4, you can catch the Cercanias train to Atocha via Chamartín and Nuevos Ministerios. From T1, T2 and T3, look out for the bus that takes you to Atocha. This will save you a long walk to the metro station. A taxi from the airport to the city center costs a fixed €30 rate.
3. Be ready for all seasons
Outside of summer, Madrid’s weather is notoriously changeable. This is particularly true in autumn and spring, when you might find yourself in shorts and a T-shirt only to start shivering when the sun sets.
In terms of style, anything goes. Spaniards are easygoing about fashion, though they will have a good laugh at your expense if they spot you wearing short sleeves in winter. Men should be aware that going topless in the city is frowned upon, even in the hottest months.
4. Pack some earplugs
Madrid is unapologetically noisy: conversations in bars are loud and dramatic, train carriages buzz to the beat of tinny speakers and on weekends citizens party way into the wee hours.
The best way to cope is to bring earplugs and make sure you book a room facing away from busy roads. Check reviews to ensure your hotel isn’t right next to a bar. That being said, night owls will have a blast.
5. Go exploring on foot
Madrid’s metro is efficient, clean and cheap. However, you can walk to most places within the center. It’s a great way to get to know the city, and you’ll find Spaniards more than happy to point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, many are so keen to show off their local knowledge that they might confidently give you incorrect information when unsure. If you spot a flicker of hesitation, take what they say with a pinch of salt!
6. Don’t stress about tips
Tipping is not the norm for most Spaniards, though some like to leave a euro or two. Understandably, this means that waiters don’t go the extra mile to please. If you are happy with the service, don’t be afraid to tip generously. When paying by card, you can ask taxi drivers and waiters to add the tip to the bill.
7. Go ahead and bring the kids
Madrid is a child-friendly city. Restaurant owners go out of their way to accommodate children, and you’ll often be offered a high chair if you come with a toddler in tow. You can also find playgrounds scattered around the city beside bars with outdoor seating, where parents can have a grown-up drink while keeping an eye on their kids. Plaza de la Luna is particularly good for this.
8. Spread the love
Spaniards love to gush over cute dogs and babies alike. So if you’re traveling with a child or a pooch, expect to get a lot of attention. Conversely, don’t be afraid to coo over other people’s adorable offspring/pets – part of the joy of visiting Madrid is striking up conversations with friendly locals.
Madrileños are also really relaxed about PDA, and you’ll often see oblivious young lovers in intimate clinches. In the town center, gay couples can walk down the street hand in hand and kiss publicly without anyone batting an eyelid.
9. Don’t take offense
Happily, Madrid doesn’t have the same problem with overtourism as Barcelona, though you might see angry graffiti railing against tourists in some areas. This is especially true in Lavapiés, which has been particularly badly hit by gentrification. If you’re worried about your impact on the local economy, avoid Airbnb.
Generally you’ll find most businesses are pleased to deal with tourists. Don't be offended, however, if they don’t respond in English to your questions; while younger staff tend to be confident speakers, the older generation was not taught the language and can be shy to engage. They may well get over their reticence if you have a bash at some basic Spanish.
10. Do take some safety precautions
Be wary of pickpockets on the metro: opportunistic thefts are common, and clueless tourists are a prime target.
As long as you keep an eye on your valuables, you should be fine to walk the city streets at any time of day or night. But be extra vigilant on the narrow sloping streets down towards Lavapiés, near Tirso de Molina metro and the tunnels by Plaza de los Cubos. There's been a spate of muggings targeting victims out alone and drunk late at night.
Lastly, watch out for daylight robbery in restaurants and bars. Make sure you see a menu before going in. Bill padding is the most common scam here, and without a price list to check, you may find yourself losing out to unscrupulous establishments.
11. Don't be afraid to drink the water
The first line of Madrid’s motto is, “I was built on water.” This is a reference to the abundant underground springs that used to bubble up underfoot. These may be long gone, but the excellent water pumped in from the nearby mountains is a source of pride to Madrileños. To me, it tastes much better than the bottled variety.