City Guide to Madrid, Spain: Part 1 | Travel Tips & Tourist Information
Madrid is a fantastic city to visit, with an epic nightlife scene, fantastic food, great history, beautiful architecture, and a warm culture. So, whether you’re spending a couple of days in Madrid, Spain or a couple of weeks, these tips will help you make the most of your time in the amazing capital of Spain!
Plus, we make it easy to plan your sightseeing itinerary in Madrid, Spain with our extensive list of things to do and see!
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Be Prepared with the Travel Basics
The last thing we want to do when we arrive to a city is have to hunt down something vital that we forgot to pack. We travel with just a carry-on size backpack, so what we have on us is limited and we routinely end up having to find a store to re-stock. However, the most important things, the stuff we can’t do without for very long, are always packed in our bags. In the case of Madrid, Spain the things we were most glad to have on us were:
The summers are hot in Madrid, Spain and the sun is strong. Be sure to have plenty of sunblock and lather it on! We prefer chemical free sunblock that uses Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide for both UVA and UVB protection.
A European adapter is a must for charging our cell phones and laptops. Between using GPS to navigate the city and Geo-tag our photos, we run through battery on our cell phone like crazy! So, an external battery back is an absolute must, but even those eventually need to be charged too! Since it’s a gamble if your hotel will have a universal adapter, be sure to keep at least one in your bag. We have a universal travel adapter that’s compact, lightweight, and goes everywhere with us. And if you’re like us with multiple items to charge, also consider a small power strip that includes USB ports.
Calling and Data
When it comes to having data and calling on your phone, you have a few options. The simplest option is to add international data and calling to your US plan, so that once you land your phone will be ready to go.
Unsurprisingly, depending on your carrier, an international plan can be extremely expensive and limiting. Plus, even if you have a carrier that offers free or inexpensive international calling and data, you need to be sure and read the fine print. Your data speed will almost certainly be throttled!
The second option is to purchase a SIM card when you land, which you can usually find in the airport or at a convenience store once in town. Just be sure that your phone is unlocked (factory or carrier unlocked) and that you get the right size SIM card.
Buying your SIM in-country is usually pretty inexpensive but can be challenging if you’re unfamiliar with the language, need data immediately after landing, or land really late or really early and things are still closed. Also, keep in mind that depending on the country you’re visiting, you may have to fill out a form, provide a copy of your passport, or be outright turned down when you attempt to buy a SIM card.
The third option is our recommended option; Project FI, Google’s answer to cell phone service. After almost a year of traveling abroad (mainly Europe), we have yet to need to purchase a SIM, as we’ve always had data in every new country we visit. The best part is that with Project Fi we pay for what we use, no more, no less.
And yes, if all we cared about was price and nothing more we could certainly save a few dollars if we were willing to find a SIM in-country instead of using Project Fi. However, the countless hours we’ve saved by simply being able to walk off the plane and use data on our phones in the 22 countries we’ve been to is well worth it to us!
Spain’s national currency is the Euro, and depending on your travel style you may want to have some cash on you just in case. Most places, especially in city center accept credit cards, but smaller shops, cafés, and places further out are cash based.
Moreover, you may find that your American credit card won’t always work, since some establishments only accept European cards, or some aren’t set up to accept cards that don’t have a chip and pin priority (as of the publishing date of this article, US cards are still chip and signature priority).
So when you can, exchange some cash for Euros, or take Euros out of an ATM. We have a Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account that has zero international ATM fees, reimburses any fees other banks charge at the ATM, and provides near commercial bankers rate when converting currency (withdrawing) overseas.
Getting Around Madrid: Public Transportation, Taxis, and Ride Share
Madrid is a great walking city and most of your sightseeing can be done by foot. Walking is also a great way to get to know the different neighborhoods and discover hidden gems. However, if you need to go further, want to rest your feet, or need to be somewhere quickly, we recommend using Madrid’s public transportation system.
Between regional trains, the metro, and buses, you’ll be able to get just about anywhere you want to go. You can purchase unlimited passes, single trips, or a 10 pack of tickets at metro or train stations.
Taxis and Uber (use our link and get a discount on your first ride!) are also available, however they’re the more expensive option. If you opt to take a taxi, they generally aren’t difficult to find, but be sure to brush up on Madrid’s taxi fares so you aren’t overcharged. Furthermore, if you’re traveling to or from the Madrid airport (MAD) by taxi, don’t forget that the rate is fixed at a flat €30.
Assimilating to Spanish Culture
If you want to experience Spain, meet the people, and really see what Madrid is all about, then you’ll want to live like a Madrileño (a person from Madrid)!
Napping in the middle of the day isn’t just for grandparents in Madrid, it’s something that’s been built into the daily life of most Spaniards. Whether it be a quick 15-20 minute power nap or a longer period of sleeping, a large part of the city shuts down between 2 pm and 5 pm. This makes sense, since it’s the hottest part of the day and it allows residents to escape the heat by resting indoors.
Meal Times and Late Starts
One way to experience Madrid is to eat when the locals eat, but to do so you’ll need to push your meals back a few hours. Since the sun rises later in Madrid, between 6:45 am and 8:40 am depending on the time of year, days start later as well. So, while there are service jobs that start earlier, most people go to work at about 9 am and stores don’t usually open until 10 am.
For most, breakfast is a light meal consisting of a juice or coffee with a pastry, or even churros and chocolate. Lunch comes late in the day, between 2 pm and 5 pm, and thankfully, since you’ve probably built up an appetite since breakfast, it’s the largest meal of the day. Think of it like having dinner at lunchtime. To save money keep an eye out for restaurants that have a Menu Del Dia (Daily Specials Menu) which offers two to three courses, is very filling, and costs between €10 and €15.
Also, it’s customary to take your time and enjoy your lunch, so don’t be surprised when waiters leave you alone and aren’t rushing you to finish and pay the bill. It’s not uncommon for Spaniards to take an hour and a half enjoying their food and an additional hour or two to talk, laugh, and have a good time.
After lunch, around 4 or 5 pm, most restaurants close and don’t open again until dinner time. In Madrid, Spain the ‘early crowd’ would be considered those who dine around 9 pm, and the ‘average’ crowd those who dine at or after 10 or 11 pm. For example, the oldest operating restaurant in the world, Restaurante Botín, is in Madrid and doesn’t offer dinner until 11:45 pm.
Since lunch is the largest meal of the day, dinner is light and often a series of tapas or raciones that are enjoyed in a social setting.
After dinner, rather than sleep, the evening continues into the wee hours of the morning. We were told that night clubs and establishments stay open until 6 am because that’s when the metro starts running again. And in our experience, we’d have to agree, since we rose early and took a train at around that time. Indeed, at 6 am the majority of travelers were young adults coming home from what seemed to be a normal night out.
What to Eat and Not to Eat in Madrid
Food is such a huge part of most cultures, so when you come to Madrid, Spain you’re probably going to want to see what the city has to offer in the way of traditional food.
We recommend eating where the locals eat (they know best!) and trying some of the most traditional food for the region and city. It’s not difficult to find a list of traditional foods (churros, porras, and hot chocolate, tapas, cocido madrileño, bocadillo de calamares, tortilla de patata, etc).
However if someone recommends paella as a traditional food in Madrid, then you might want to second guess their recommendations. Paella is a rice based dish that comes from Valencia Spain, not Madrid. In fact, Madrid isn’t known for their rice, so if you’re determined to have Paella in Madrid (you’ll find it at most restaurants), you’ll want to go to a place that is able to prepare it well.
Additionally, keep in mind that Sangria is a drink you can order in Madrid, but if you want to drink what Madrileños drink, then try a Tinto de Verano. James Blick explains the details on his YouTube channel.
Tipping in Madrid
Tipping in Madrid isn’t customary. In fact, while you’ll see signs and jars that say they accept tips, if you take a moment to think about it you’ll realize they’re written in English, a good indicator that it’s for tourists!
Locals almost never tip, as establishments usually pay their workers well and offer good health care (of course, this is a general statement and can vary in specific situations).
There are even bars where tipping isn’t allowed, although at up-scale restaurants you can find that tipping is accepted and may even be included on the bill (be sure to check the bill for a charge listed as ‘servicio incluido’). Often, establishments will round up to the nearest Euro or bank note denomination, making the transaction simple and therefore automatically including a small tip.
As you can see tipping really isn’t necessary, but if you’ve received great service and want to tip, consider five percent to be appropriate of good service and ten percent to be commensurate of excellent service. Also, whenever possible tip in cash, as a tip on a credit card will go to the owner of the establishment and may not be distributed to your server.
Parks and Gardens: A Way of Life in Madrid
Nightlife in Madrid is vibrant and if you’re looking for something to do ‘after hours’ you’ll have no problem! On the other hand, if you want to explore Madrid’s culture during daylight hours, look no further than the parks and gardens. They’re scattered throughout the city and vary in amenities, design, and size, but what they all have in common is that during good weather, they’re filled with people!
Madrileños enjoy leisure time in these green public spaces and if you sit and watch the people go by, you’ll notice they’re used as places for meeting spaces, fun and games, recreation, and leisurely strolls. So, if you want to live like a local, explore the parks and find your favorite one, there are so many to choose from!
Personal Space and Greetings in Madrid
If you’re from North America, you may not even realize it, but you’re probably used to a significant amount of ‘personal space’.
Around the world, personal space varies from culture to culture and it’ll probably become evident rather quickly in Madrid that Spanish culture has a smaller area reserved for personal space. It may take some time to get used to, but don’t be surprised when strangers seem to get a bit closer than you like or are at least accustom to.
Additionally, even in the large busy urban capital of Spain, displays of affection are much more common. Keep in mind, in Madrid a handshake is rather formal and limited to business acquaintances and greetings. And between both sexes a kiss on each cheek is common. For us, this was a bit surprising and awkward at first, as even people we just met greeted us this way, but it didn’t take long for us to appreciate the warm and personal greetings!
Sales Tax (IVA) Refund in Madrid
You may notice that in Spain you’ll pay a sales tax called IVA, or ‘Impuestos sobre el Valor Añadido’. This value added tax ranges between 10% and 20% depending on the type of goods purchased.
If you’re wondering why you have to pay these taxes if you aren’t a EU (European Union) citizen, then you’ll be glad to know that in some cases, you don’t have to. The bad news though, is that getting a reimbursement takes a bit of extra work and planning.
Lodging and food purchases aren’t valid for a reimbursement, but most goods, if left in packages and unused while in the country, are eligible. You’ll need to read the specifics of the law, making sure you follow all of the steps, but the basic are:
A minimum spend amount at each merchant must be met, at the time of our visit it was €90.16. Unfortunately, you can’t add multiple transactions together to meet the minimum spend amount. This makes shopping for multiple items in one store, rather than multiple shops, a good idea.
Request the correct form from the merchant. Many stores will have signs in their windows indicating ‘Tax-Free Shopping’. Be sure to have your passport with you and to keep the receipt.
Don’t use or unpackage the goods while you’re still in Spain. Likewise, be sure to have them with you when you go through customs at the port, border, or airport.
File for the IVA tax reimbursement with customs. They may request to see the items purchased for verification along with your receipts. The process could take time, so be sure to arrive well in advance of your scheduled departure.
You have three months from purchase date to submit for an IVA tax reimbursement.
For more IVA information specific to Spain Premier Tax Free is a good resource. For general European Union VAT (Value Added Tax) reimbursement information, along with some good tips, Rick Steves has a handy article.
The vibrancy of Madrid and its people won’t quickly be forgotten. You’ll certainly want to make the most of your trip by immersing yourself in the culture and being prepared for your time in Madrid. But if you stumble a bit, don’t worry, as people are overwhelmingly kind and helpful!