This blog post was originally posted on August 12, 2016 and was updated on March 17, 2017.
Like all great cities, Madrid has its secrets. But with a little help, you’ll be able to unlock the mysteries of this vibrant metropolis!
From unraveling the intricacies of the siesta to finding the best tapas in town, let us help! Read on for our list of things to know before traveling to Madrid.
Photo credit: Son of Groucho
1. The siesta is real
When we talk about the siesta, we’re not just talking about a little nap after lunch. The siesta also affects when businesses open and close. One of the things to know before traveling to Madrid is that many shops aren’t open between 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Madrid is changing, but many businesses still operate on the traditional timetable when family-run establishments closed down while the workers ate a long lunch and then relaxed a bit at home.
Offices of all sorts also close down between these hours as well. When in Madrid, make sure to get everything you need in the morning or in the afternoon after businesses open up again. Larger shops and supermarkets, especially in the city center, typically stay open all day. Things are changing but be aware of closing times to avoid unnecessary delays!
Insider’s tip: Beyond the siesta, there are other opening-hour quirks in Madrid. Banks are typically only open from 9:00 am–2:00 pm and smaller shops close Saturday around 2:00 pm and re-open on Monday morning.
2. The olives with your drink are free!
In Madrid, when you order a drink, you’ll usually get a little bite to eat. Typically this can be olives, potato chips, nuts or even a piece or cheese or a slice of cured meat! The tapa, or snack that comes with your drink, is a Madrid tradition. If you want to eat something more substantial, you can order raciones which are shared plates of hot or cold food. Think platters of cured ham or aged Spanish cheese, crispy rings of breaded calamari, sliced tomatoes dressed with olive oil and sea salt and much, much more!
3. Buy tickets for the Prado Museum online
No trip to Madrid is complete without a visit to the Prado museum! The great works of Velazquez, Goya, Bosch and more make for an unforgettable art experience. But one of the things to know before traveling to Madrid is that purchasing tickets in advance will keep you from having to wait in a long line to get in! The museum’s website is easy to use and you’ll glide past the lines for easy entrance.
Insider’s tip: To avoid art fatigue, grab a map at the information desk and make a plan of what you’d like to see. The collection is so massive that it can feel a bit overwhelming. Some of our favorites are Goya’s Black Paintings, Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and, for foodies, there are spectacular still lifes bursting with fruit, vegetables, meat and period serving pieces!
It’s easy to wander the Prado for hours without seeing everything you want to. Make the most of your time by joining us on our Behind-the-Scenes Botin Lunch & Prado Museum Tour. You’ll skip the line at the Prado and our art expert will lead you on a guided tour of 20 of the museum’s most important works. After an aperitif at a century-old tavern, we’ll sit down for a leisurely three-course meal where you’ll enjoy the house specialty at the oldest restaurant in the world.
4. Lunch is late and dinner is later
In Madrid, a city that seems to never sleep, lunch typically starts around 2:00 pm and dinner can start as late as 11:00 pm. One of the things to know before traveling to Madrid is that restaurants usually open for lunch around 1:30 pm and close around 4:00 pm. Then dinner service starts at about 8:00 pm and kitchens close at about 11:30 pm. If you’re feeling peckish between lunch and dinner, you can always grab a late afternoon snack. You can get a merienda, the Spanish word for a sweet afternoon bite, at bakeries and cafés all over the city. These places typically serve food throughout the day. If you’re not up for churros and chocolate first thing in the morning, merienda is the perfect time to try this sweet Madrid treat!
5. Paella is a dish best served for lunch
Speaking of lunch… While Valencia is the city most famous for paella, we have fantastic places for this iconic rice dish in Madrid. But one of the things to know before traveling to Madrid is that paella is served for lunch rather than dinner. If you’re looking for the perfect place to indulge in this Spanish classic, take a look at our list of great places for paella in Madrid and enjoy an unforgettable lunch!
6. The city center is extremely walkable
Put on your walking shoes and hit the streets! Most of the historic sights in Madrid are easy to explore on foot and are close enough together that you can make a day out of strolling between them. Try visiting the Plaza Mayor, Royal Palace, Plaza del Oriente, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Villa, and Mercado San Miguel and then wander through the historic La Latina neighborhood. Another great route is to visit the Prado Museum, walk along the Paseo del Prado, stroll through Retiro Park and check out the Puerta de Alcalá. For dinner, embrace tapas culture by walking from bar to bar until you’ve had all the delicious Spanish food and wine that you can handle!
For a historic walking tour of the city center, join us on our Tapas, Taverns & History Tour. We’ll show you some of our favorite places and give your tons of tips for how to do tapas like a local. You’ll eat a delicious dinner of Madrid’s best foods while learning about the history of the city and getting to know the people who make the eateries of Madrid run!