Photo Courtesy of César Viteri Ramirez
Madrid, the heart and soul of Spain, conjures swirling wine, salty ham, stomping flamenco boots, and the colorful bravado of bullfights. A cultural epicenter, the city has art that gushes from museums and infuses ancient roads with new breath and life. Madrid is entrenched in tradition, but the peop…le are in constant motion—museum-hopping, street-strolling, tapas-eating, and sangria-drinking. Don’t forget those magical sleepy hours of siesta when a blanket of silence allows the city's batteries to recharge. Slip into the Madrileño lifestyle, enjoy the lingering moments of each day, and take advantage of every hour of the night.
What to know before you go to Madrid
The sun is nearly always shining in Madrid, which makes it an ideal destination year-round. For a truly local experience, skip August, as many Madrileños shut down their businesses and travel to escape the brutal, dry heat. May 15 marks the anniversary of 15-M, the 2011 student protests against austerity policies, and the whole month is a hotbed of protests, marches, and political demonstrations in the downtown area. This is also when the famous San Isidro bullfights take place, so the city is absolutely bustling.
The unbeatable convenience of the AVE, Europe’s fastest high-speed train, makes traveling across Spain a cinch. For arrivals by air, Madrid Barajas Airport is located in the northeast of the city, and from there it's a cheap train ride to anywhere in the city. A taxi bank awaits outside the arrivals area, with a €30 fixed fee to get into the city, with a €5.50 supplement (about US$6.25) when leaving the airport. For bus journeys, ALSA is the best for both domestic and international travel from Madrid, but the overnight options tend to be long and punctuated with several stops.
Madrid’s Metro is easily one of the best in the world, covering the entirety of the city with regular service. Employee strikes are becoming more frequent, and this can sometimes lead to 20-minute wait times. On strike days, you’re typically better taking a taxi or pounding the pavement. Don’t dismiss the bus system—it's one of the better ways to stay above ground and take in more of the city than you thought possible. The Madrid Transport system has a highly functioning website in English, allowing you to plan your public transit easily.
Sunset at Temple de Debod after a ride on the cable cars in the southwest part of the city is one of the most magical experiences you can have in Madrid. The capital sparkles like a jewel under the setting sun, the river gleams below like a gold necklace, and you are sailing above the city.
A foodie haven, Madrid is home to fabulous ham, cheeses, wines, and desserts all served in places packed with character. The eyes of the culinary world in Madrid are focused on the future—expect to see many fusion restaurants and unique takes on Iberian classics. The Spanish tradition of tapas is alive and well, and the smaller portions allow diners to sample all the famous food and drinks—jamon serrano, paella, gazpacho, riojas, and riberas—without busting the belt.
The Tavernas and Tapas walking tour, organized by AFAR’s travel partner, Context, and led by either a culinary expert or a chef, explores all the tasty angles of Madrid’s tapas food culture.
From flamenco and soccer to bullfighting and ham, Madrid has a proud tradition of culture seeping from every corner of the city. Hemingway’s haunts dot the trails of downtown, and the tapas and beer spill out into the streets, begging you to stop and spend a moment soaking in Madrid.
Epiphany, in early January, is Spain’s favorite holiday, when presents and parades abound in the city. The entire downtown closes to enjoy and participate in the parade, while the Three Kings throw candy to the cheering crowd. To see the real spirit of Madrid, visit in mid-May when the San Isidro festival transforms the city into an earlier version of itself. Everyone, young and old, dresses in traditional Madrileño costumes and dances the night away in the San Isidro neighborhood. This is also when the famous San Isidro bullfights are held at Las Ventas arena, and the city pulses with energy.
- Except in downtown Puerta del Sol, the siesta is alive and well and is taken anywhere from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Live like a local, plan your shopping accordingly, and enjoy the silence of the city in these hours.
Tranquilo (think tranquil) means "to calm yourself" and is the motto of the Spanish lifestyle. Service may be a bit slower here, but enjoy the ride, shrug your shoulders, and indulge in people watching. There is no rush.
- Tipping is not customary at most restaurants. If your service was exceptional, by all means show your gratitude, but for most occasions simply leaving the change (under 1 euro) and departing with Gracias ("thank you," pronounced gra-thee-ahs) is appreciated. Of course, this does not apply to high-end venues, where tipping norms are adhered to.
- Look out for the lisp! Madrileños (locals) have a heavy lisp and speak at lightning speed, usually only pausing to roll their eyes or light a cigarette. Don’t be disheartened if you cannot understand them. Just join in and say vale (vah-lay), which means "okay."
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Brandy Bell is a travel writer currently living in Madrid, Spain, where she dabbles in everything from nunchucks and hula hooping to street art. She is on a quest to build a recycled cello, perfect a French accent, and is currently planning a trip to South Africa where she hopes to skin dive with Great Whites. Follow her journey at Itsoneworldtravel.com.