Madrid

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 people 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.

Madrid at sunrise

Photo by Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Overview

When’s the best time to 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.

How to get around Madrid

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.

Can’t miss things to do in Madrid

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.

Food and drink to try in Madrid

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.

Culture in Madrid

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.

Local travel tips for Madrid

- 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.”

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
Resources to help plan your trip
Spain’s capital offers the best of food, art, architecture, and nightlife. For the best address in town, book a stay at AC Palacio del Retiro, set on the Parque del Retiro. For Old World splendor and a star-studded past, check in to the Gran Meliá Fénix. Foodies will want to score a room at Hotel Hesperia Madrid, home to one of Spain’s top restaurants, while design lovers will appreciate the details—old and new—at Urso Hotel & Spa in the hip Salesas neighborhood.
Not sure what to do if you only have three days in Madrid? A short stay is enough to get a taste of all the flavors of this beautiful, diverse city. Get the best view of Madrid from the Circulo de Belles Artes before heading to an artisan market to sample delicious Spanish cuisine. Three days in Madrid would not be complete without a visit to one of the museums, strolling in the verdant Retiro Park, drinking chocolate with churros, and, of course, sampling some tapas.
Live like a local and seek out sunny moments surrounded by greenery. Pack a picnic, put on your walking shoes, and stroll these wonders like the Parque del Retiro, the Parque del Oeste, and the botanical garden.
Some of the world’s best are here in the Spanish capital. With the grand flagship collections like the Prado and smaller private museums, galleries carved out of repurposed warehouse space, art collectives, and funky public art, exploring Madrid’s cultural side may leave you breathless.
With just one day in Madrid it can be hard to choose what to do. A perfect day in the Spanish capital could involve a rowboat ride in the Retiro, a stroll down Gran Via to enjoy Madrid’s impressive (and impressively different) architecture, and—as a reward for all that activity—a taste of Iberian cheeses and meats. Alternatively, soak up the morning views from Circulo de Bellas Artes, and while away the afternoon relaxing in Madrid’s botanical garden.
The dining experiences of the Spanish capital encompass tapas joints and fine dining restaurants, so whether you opt for the tasting menu at the chef’s table or a simple plate of boquerones at a bar, enjoy the fresh tastes of Spain.
Spanish wines, gin and tonics, cerveza, vermut: Everything gets the Spanish treatment, whether you’re drinking in a fine cocktail lounge or in a neighborhood bodega. Try them all—the flamenco joints with live gypsy music, the pulsating dance clubs of Madrid’s youth culture, and the elegant hotel bars.
The Spanish capital will not disappoint—with knock-out museums like the Prado and Reina Sofia, art galleries, historic sites, busy and colorful markets, green spaces like Retiro Park—even if you just linger in the Plaza Mayor and people-watch, the city will win you over.
Don’t forget to take a piece of Madrid home with you—a Spanish fan, a pair of espadrilles or flamenco shoes, olive-oil soap. Follow the locals and browse chic designer clothing on Calle de Fuencarral or Calle Serrano. There’s no shortage of shopping, only space in the luggage.
AFAR spins the globe and sends novelist Mira T. Lee on a last-minute trip to Spain, where she rediscovers a forgotten side of herself.
Lavapiés, once overlooked, is the go-to district in the Spanish capital to find both traditional and modern Madrid.
A pot of cocido madrileño is served with a fascinating history—and lots of flavor.
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