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, these travel tips for Madrid will help you experience the Spanish capital in all its glory.
Madrid is known for its world-class museums, impressive architecture and vibrant dining scene. However, like any big city, it can seem daunting to newcomers at first.
With a few insider tips, you’ll be ready to jump right in! Here are our top travel tips for Madrid to help you make the absolute most of your trip to the Spanish capital!
Travel Tips for Getting Around Madrid
1. Know How to Get to the City from the Airport
Nothing says “stressful” like trying to get your bearings in a new city while fighting off jet lag. Our top travel tip for Madrid: Make sure you know how to get to where you’re going as soon as you land. Luckily, there are a few options for doing so.
You can catch the bright yellow Airport Express bus for €5 outside all four of the main terminals. Additionally, you can take line 8 of the metro or the Cercanías commuter train into the city. The stations for both are clearly marked inside the airport (note that the Cercanías train only departs from Terminal T4).
If you’re feeling especially beat after a long flight, you can also grab a taxi outside of any airport terminal and pay a flat rate of €30 to go anywhere in central Madrid.
2. Walk Around the City
You’ve made it to your hotel and maybe even taken a quick siesta to sleep off the jet lag. Now it’s time to 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 easily follow your own self-guided route. Explore the Plaza Mayor, Royal Palace, Plaza del Oriente, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de la Villa, and Mercado San Miguel, then wander through the historic La Latina neighborhood.
Another great option is to visit the Prado Museum, walk along the Paseo del Prado, stroll through Retiro Park and check out the Puerta de Alcalá before heading up to Gran Vía.
3. Take Public Transportation when Needed
While walking around the city is easily the best way to explore, sometimes you’re coming from further out or just need off your feet for a bit. When that happens, Madrid’s excellent public transportation system is there for you. One of our top travel tips for Madrid is to take full advantage of it!
Many cities lack great public transport, but Madrid is not one of them. The metro is a great public service with clean, modern trains and great connections. Trains come frequently and are a great option for moving around the city.
To get your bearings, the metro website has a great route planner that can show you how to get wherever you need to go. Once at the station, double check the large panels on each platform to make sure your stop is on the list of stops for the train’s route.
Local tip: Keep an eye on your purse or wallet as there can be the odd case of petty crime on the metro.
Travel Tips for Eating in Madrid
4. Order a Menú del Día for Lunch
Madrid is a relatively inexpensive city compared to many other European capitals, and it’s possible to eat well without spending tons of money. Case in point: the menú del día.
Served at most restaurants throughout the city, a menú del día is a set lunch menu with drinks and dessert included. You’ll choose from several first course options—usually soup, vegetable or rice dishes. Then select your second course which is typically meat or fish accompanied by salad and or potatoes.
A typical menú will also come with dessert or coffee, plus a drink and bread, included in the price. This is a great way to try several typical Spanish dishes. As lunch is the most important meal of the day in Spain, portions are typically large and filling!
5. Get Used to Spanish Mealtimes
Speaking of lunch, another essential Madrid travel tip involves the unwritten rules regarding Spanish mealtimes.
In Spain, lunch typically starts around 2 p.m. and dinner is served at 9 p.m. at the earliest. Madrid restaurants usually open for lunch around 1:30 p.m. and close around 4. Later, dinner service starts at about 8 p.m. and kitchens close at about 11:30.
Luckily, Spain’s unconventional eating schedule also incorporates a few more meals into the day. Most locals will often eat two light breakfasts—one first thing in the morning, and another around 10 or 11 a.m.—to hold them over until the late lunch. And if your stomach is growling between lunch and dinner, merienda—the traditional Spanish afternoon snack served between 5 and 7 p.m.—has your back.
Insider’s tip: If you need to eat outside of Spain’s typical mealtimes, look for a place that has an all-day kitchen (cocina abierta todo el día). These are usually safe bets for eating early!
6. Don’t Order Paella for Dinner
While Valencia is the birthplace of paella, we also have some fantastic places for this iconic rice dish here in Madrid. But one crucial travel tip for Madrid-bound foodies is that paella is always served for lunch—never dinner!
The reasoning goes back, once again, to Spain’s curious mealtimes. Because dinner is served so late here, heavy dishes like paella aren’t ideal evening meals. Instead, most Spaniards will enjoy rice dishes for lunch, allowing plenty of time to digest it over the rest of the day.
Many Madrid restaurants will offer paella for lunch once or twice a week. Look for signs reading hay arroz or hay paella to spot a place that’s serving up rice as the daily lunch special.
7. Go Out for Raciones
When dinnertime rolls around in Madrid, it’s prime time for ordering a round of raciones.
Seen on menus throughout the city, raciones are the way we do tapas in Madrid. They are shared plates of everything from Spanish cured ham to fried calamari.
Raciones are typically one type of food, expertly prepared and served with a bit of bread for making sure no drop of sauce is wasted. Do as the madrileños do and order a selection of dishes to make a meal.
Keep in mind that raciones usually provide enough food for three or four people. For smaller portions, you can usually order a media ración (half portion) which is a good size for two.
8. Don’t Eat in Plaza Mayor
Madrid’s Plaza Mayor is a spectacular 17th-century public square with grandiose arcaded architecture, a great atmosphere, and plenty of historic charm. The square is also lined with outdoor restaurants and cafés. That said, despite the picturesque surroundings, many of these eateries are overpriced tourist traps—not exactly ideal for sampling the best Madrid has to offer.
There are, however, some great bars and restaurants near Plaza Mayor. While not located right on the square itself, you can find some true foodie gems within easy walking distance.
And if you’re looking to enjoy a meal al fresco with more of a neighborhood vibe, great options can be found in nearby Plaza Santa Ana. This square is a favorite among madrileños, lined with bars and eateries featuring traditional Spanish favorites and modern takes on classic dishes. In winter, there are even large heaters to make outdoor dining a year-round option!
9. Order Drinks the Spanish Way
When it comes to beer, you won’t find any steins as big as your head here in Spain. Instead, our draft beer of choice tends to be quite a bit smaller.
Most Spaniards will order beer by the caña, a comparatively tiny draft beer (about 20 cl, or just under 7 ounces) with just a bit of head on top. There’s a method to the madness here: The caña‘s small size allows it to perfectly chilled while you eat a single tapa. You can order one by asking for “una caña, por favor.”
If you’re more of a wine person, vino tinto will get you a red wine and vino blanco gets you white (usually just the house stuff in both cases). If you want to get more specific, keep in mind that in Spain we order most wines by the region—not the grape! Brush up on a few common Spanish wine varieties so you can get the perfect glass or bottle.
10. Enjoy Your Free Tapa
In Madrid, when you order a drink, you’ll usually get a little bite to eat along with it. Typically this can be a small dish of olives, potato chips, nuts, or even a piece or cheese or a slice of cured meat. The best news: it’s free!
This small snack is what locals consider a tapa, and it’s one of the best Madrid traditions if you ask us! If you want to eat something more substantial, you try some raciones as described above.
Travel Tips for Sightseeing in Madrid
11. Check Out Museums During Free Hours
One of our top budget travel tips for Madrid: Take advantage of the free visiting times at some of the city’s best museums! Many Madrid museums open their doors free of charge during certain time periods throughout the week.
- Prado Museum: Mondays–Saturdays from 6–8 p.m., Sundays and holidays from 5–7 p.m.
- Reina Sofia Museum: Mondays and Wednesdays–Saturdays from 6–8 p.m., Sundays from 1:30–2:15 p.m.
- Thyssen-Bornemisza: Mondays from 12–4 p.m.
- Sorolla Museum: Saturdays from 2 p.m., Sundays all day
- Museo del Romanticismo: Saturdays from 2 p.m., Sundays and holidays all day
Insider’s tip: If you love the idea of free hours—you’re not the only one! Many visitors take advantage of them, and start lining up ahead of time to get into the museums. Get an idea of what you want to see ahead of time so you can plan accordingly.
12. Buy Tickets for Major Attractions in Advance
Life is too short to spend your valuable time in Madrid waiting in long lines. The good news, though, is that many of Madrid’s top sights offer online ticket sales that allow you to skip the line.
One of our top travel tips for Madrid is to do a bit of research to see if your chosen attractions allow you to book online in advance—and if so, do that. You’ll be able to stroll right past the long line for day-of tickets and right into the Prado or the Royal Palace—and take full advantage of your time in Madrid!
Spanish Culture Travel Tips
13. Embrace the Siesta
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 our top travel tips for Madrid is to plan ahead if you want to go shopping or run errands!
Many businesses—especially those that aren’t located right in the center of the city—still operate on the traditional schedule. Smaller, family-run establishments close up shop for the afternoon while staff members eat a long lunch and then relax a bit at home. Make sure to plan your errands for the morning or the afternoon after businesses open up again.
However, larger shops and supermarkets, especially in the city center, typically stay open all day. Things are changing, but it’s a good idea to be aware of closing times to avoid unnecessary setbacks!
14. Learn Some Spanish Before you Come
Many employees at hotels and tourist attractions in Madrid will speak English. However, that’s not always the case at restaurants and in smaller shops. Brushing up on a bit of basic Spanish isn’t just one of our top travel tips for Madrid—it’s a way of showing respect to the locals that will almost certainly earn you an appreciative smile for trying.
To get your morning caffeine fix hassle-free, check out our guide to ordering coffee in Spanish. There are also great translation and dictionary apps that work wonders on getting through a Spanish-only menu. WordReference is a great option, and even the old standby Google Translate has improved a lot in recent years.
Here are a few handy phrases in Spanish to make a great first impression:
- Hola: Hello
- ¿Hablas inglés?: Do you speak English?
- No hablo español: I don’t speak Spanish
- Por favor: Please
- Gracias: Thank you
- Hasta luego: See you later (typically said when leaving a shop or restaurant)
- Vale: OK
Travel Tips for Madrid FAQs
In our book, the more time in Madrid, the better! But for first-time visitors, three to four days is usually a good enough amount of time to see most of the major sights and some off-the-beaten-path hidden gems.
Madrid is a very safe city overall. People tend to be out and about in central areas even well into the night, and many streets are well lit. Violent crime rates are extremely low, though pickpocketing is not uncommon—keep an eye on your belongings and stay alert, and you should be fine.
Staff at establishments catering specifically to visitors, such as hotels and tourist attractions, will usually speak English. At shops and restaurants, you may encounter an English-speaking member of staff, but it’s not a given.
Update Notice: This post was originally published on June 9, 2016 and was republished with new text and photos on June 11, 2021.Want our insider’s guide to eating in Madrid? Just add your email address in the form below!
Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.