Madrid is the capital of Spain, and its largest city, but when it comes to tourism, Barcelona seems to get most of the love. That’s unfortunate, as Madrid is a truly wonderful destination worthy of being on everyone’s travel bucket list. I hope this guide will help you get the most out of your time in Madrid!
I love the small streets of the Centro district!
Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suarez International Airport is a major European hub. Unfortunately for travelers, the airline that hubs there is Iberian. While Iberian will get you to/from, they will not necessarily do so in great comfort in comparison to other European carriers. If you are flying from the East Coast, you might be better off flying on a US carrier. If you are flying from a non-hub city, or the West Coast, making a stop somewhere else might be preferable to the nonstop Iberian flight.
Sunset landing at the airport.
Taxis are easy to come by at the airport, and charge a flat €30 to get into the center of the city. You can get there via public transportation as well, but as I will explain a bit later, it may not save you much money.
Language and Culture
Spanish is obviously the primary language in Madrid. However, English is prominent. Train announcements are done in both languages, and enough people speak English that I never had a problem.
The biggest area of cultural difference for an American tourist is in the timing of meals. Spaniards are on a different schedule than we are, and than most of Europe. Coffee shops don’t open until 9 or so. Finding an open spot for lunch before 1pm can be hard. And unless you want tapas (more in a bit) or fast food for dinner, you will probably have to wait until at least 8pm. Make sure you plan accordingly, as even if a restaurant website says it opens at 5 or 6, they probably just mean the bar, with the kitchen opening a few hours later.
Casa Labra is a tapas bar in Centro famous for its cod croquettes. Try them!
So what are tapas? A tapa is a small bite. It could be meat, potatoes, a ham croquette, or any number of specialties that each bar/restaurant will have. Madrid residents will bar hop from place to place, having a drink and a tapa or two at each, before having dinner later at night. Some bars will give you a tapa for free with each drink purchased. (Note: drinks in Madrid are much cheaper and smaller than in America. Wine is cheaper than water, and comes in small glasses, and beer is not by the pint.) It is possible to make dinner out of tapas if you don’t want to wait until 8 or 9 to eat, but you’ll likely eat at the bar or standing up.
The Madrid transportation system is as good as any in Europe. It consists of surface trains and a subway. The subway is cheaper, but that’s a bit tricky. In order to ride, you will need to purchase a card that you’ll scan upon entrance. That card costs a few Euros, even if you only use it once.
The main Atocha train station in Madrid is your hub for out of town trips and other surface trains.
Fortunately, most sights tourists want to see are clustered within two districts, Centro and Retiro, and can be easily walked.
Royal Tour Guides
The Sad Story of the Jews of Spain
Other Useful Information
Tipping is not expected, either for food or for taxis.
Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere, but few residents in Madrid pay with anything but cash.
People in Madrid never seem to be in a hurry. So if you walk at an average speed (let alone like a New Yorker), expect to be one of the fastest walkers on the street. A simple “pardon” will get you past.
Puerta del Sol in Centro is typically crowded at night.
Madrid is a truly wonderful destination, home to an incredible art culture, amazing food, and a warm people. I strongly recommend including it in your travel plans, and hope this guide helps.
Don’t miss our other Ultimate Guide features from Mexico City and Japan.
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7 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Madrid!”
I have only been to Barcelona and lately Spain has been calling our names to come back and explore more. I’d love to see Madrid, actually my husband has been years ago and says its amazing. Good to know about the taxis at the airport, that seems hefty and will be good to be prepared for that expense in advance so there are no surprises!
Your husband is right; Madrid is awesome! I hope you get there soon!
How many times have you been to Madrid ?
Just the once, but I look forward to returning hopefully soon!