Downtown Madrid Spain

Travel Guide: Tips from a Madrid Native on Food, Transportation, and Tourism

Would you like a free guide through Madrid from a long-time resident who knows the city like the lines of his palms?

Who can tell you how to enjoy every nook and cranny that makes the capital of Spain great?

Who will show you a side of Madrid that few encounter: not just as a sprawling metropolis, but as an intimate web of village-vibe niches?

As a former graduate of a college of Geography, and a resident of Madrid for over two years, you can trust me to be your guide.

I will show you Madrid at its best:

  • A city of efficient transportation, from the circular design of the city streets to the dense metro network, to the comprehensive connections to national and international destinations by train and airplane.
  • A city of fine if a tad expensive housing, whether hotels or residences.
  • A city of magnificent cuisine, both traditional and exotic, from paellas and tortillas and other tapas, to curry and sushi and other foreign delights.
  • A city of vast shopping opportunities, whether for a simple souvenir or for reasonably priced quality clothes.
  • A city of architectural wonder, from the Gran Via’s impressive megaliths such as the Royal palace to precious little gems such as the Temple of Debod.
  • A city of culture and entertainment, low-brow and high-brow alike, from voice-original (VOSE) cinemas to museums housing classical or modern art to musical events, whether at the national opera or in intimate “Candlelight” chamber concert settings.
  • A city of workout avenues full and varied both indoors and outdoors – whether you fancy a regular gym, CrossFit, Latin dance, or martial arts classes, or riding a bike, going for a jog, a walk through the park, or doing high-bar rises in the fresh air is more your style.
  • A city of marvelous parks for nature-lovers, from large and well-organized, such as Retiro, or vast and wild, such as De Campo, to little spots of greenery dotting the whole city like the spots of a dalmatian, usually cradling children’s playgrounds or outdoor fitness avenues.
  • A city with an active nightlife, some would say exceedingly so, especially those looking to get a wink of sleep.

Navigating Madrid: An Efficient Transport Network

Madrid Transport Network Metro


Madrid has an affordable, easy-to-navigate subway network with near-perfect coverage of the city center; one of the best metro systems in the world.

Unfortunately, it displays no complete map of how the metro lines intersect, so you’ll need to consult the official online map of the Madrid metro network.

At the time of writing (2021), the Gran Via metro station is undergoing repairs (as it has been for the past 2+ years), so the metro will skip it unannounced.

The radial street design ensures that there’s a straight path to any destination, regardless of your location, and that any place within the city center is at no more than a thirty minutes’ walking distance from Sol.

There are also numerous bus stops dotting the entire city, like a Dalmatian with a thousand and one spots.

You can pay by debit or credit card or by cash for your ticket, either from the cashier or from an automatic vending machine, although some bus drivers don’t “have time” to exchange your cash for a ticket (even though they do have time to wait for you to get out of the bus), especially when you’re in a hurry to catch your return flight.

The ten-journey ticket you can get in a metro station for twelve euros is also valid for bus journeys (single tickets are too, costing 1.5 euro plus a one-time 1 euro fee for your transport card).

One exception is the airport transport fee, which is five euros, and which you must know to request from the vending machine, which fortunately has English available.

Travel from Madrid International airport to the centre is relatively easy. Public transport is available but pre-booking a private transfer to your destination is also a good option. A Solhop airport transfer provides a simple process to pre-book and pay on arrival.

To travel to other parts of Madrid outside the center, I recommend the Cercanias, little in-city trains that cover longer distances than the metro network.

Madrid is also well connected to national and international locations, and a trip to Segovia, Toledo, or a similar location outside Madrid is just a couple of hours away by train.

If you ever need directions, you’ll find Spanish people tend to be welcoming and warm, energetic and chatty – sunny people, blending their temperament with their country’s Mediterranean climate. Plus, they have GPS-enabled smartphones.

Housing In Madrid: City of The Sleepless

Madrid Housing

Instead of a regular hotel, go stay at:

  • A Luxury Hotel

E.g. the Western Palace Hotel.

  • A Boutique Hotel

E.g. Palacio del Retiro

  • AirBnb or VRBO Rental
  • A Budget Hotel

E.g. Sleep’n Atocha

  • A Hostel

E.g. Petit Hostel


Housing Costs

The closer you get to the center, the more exaggerated housing prices become for both hotels and residences; a week’s stay in a three-star one-room hotel or a month’s rent for a couple of dozen square meters can easily set you back around a thousand euro.

The rental agencies serve only the homeowners, encouraging them to set ever-higher prices so that the agencies may earn a few hundred more on their one-time commission at the expense of thousands to you over time.

It’s a seller’s market, courtesy of global overpopulation – hopefully, Corona helps curtail this dire economic and ecological issue.

Avoid Cheap Hotels

Avoid at any cost the cheap hotels sandwiched between restaurants, bars, and other shops, especially those on narrow streets close to the city center.

Take my advice, born of painful experience: the expense of a five minute walking distance to the center is worth the gain of your eight hours of sleep.

If you need convincing, let me describe to you what your experience in those hotels will be like:

1) First, there will be strident voices seemingly laughing sadistically at your misery from about eight in the evening to two in the morning from the four bars and two restaurants within hearing range,

2) From midnight to four in the morning, there will be motorcycle demons running crazy every few minutes to reinforce the nigh-inescapable noise,

3) Every couple of hours from midnight ’till six in the morning, you will be paid a visit by the Leviathan from the bellows of Inferno, a garbage machine with sirens stronger than an ambulance’s, coming to explode and crack every single shard of glass and aluminum of every last bottle and can right against your ear-drums,

4) Finally, towards six in the morning, you’ll get to sleep…for all of five minutes, before the restaurant resupply wagons boom awake, workers screaming at each other from the depths of their lungs, crashing and smashing those crates against each other such that it’s a wonder the soup is not already cooked before it reaches the kitchen.

Added to that, if you come to stay during the winter, you’ll be freezing your butt off. Madrid houses, including cheap hotels, have no thermal insulation, meaning you’ll need to wear a thick jacket indoors at all times (don’t count on the air conditioning either; if present, it’ll be either broken or too feeble to warm anything up; cheap hotels save on their considerable heating costs that way).

The upside is that you can go howl your agony to any corner of Madrid you like; you’ll have no choice but to explore Madrid’s rich nightlife.

The city really comes alive at night, with its bars, restaurants, and tapas spots serving excellent food.

Madrid Cuisine: From Spanish Tapas To International Delicacies

Besides the great tapas and other traditional foods, from Paella and Tortilla to Salmorejo and Gambas al Ajillo, Madrid also has a wide selection of exotic avenues staffed with good cooks, from Sushi and Ramen to Curry and Noodles.

Do expect to be charged extra for any snacks served to you (allegedly) “on the house”, even though you did not order them, so don’t be reticent to refuse those.

El Arozal

Madrid Cuisine Paella

For the rice lovers – and those looking to try a magnificent Paella – my first recommendation is El Arozal. I had here the best paella – and the best rice soup – I had ever eaten.

Casa de Valencia cooks it a bit too greasy for my taste, while the restaurants of Plaza Mayor are too expensive for what they provide (except maybe Los Galayos). You could easily spend sixty euro here for a few olives, a paella, and a couple of glasses of wine.

Several neighborhoods in Madrid are renowned for their delicious cuisine:


This is the neighborhood to go to for a romantic late-night dinner. It is stocked choke-full of bars, a great nightlife avenue, and for the more refined (in the pockets), also provides avenues such as the fifty-year-old Cafe Comercial (for which you’ll need to make a prior reservation, of course). These are mostly only open from 8pm or later, though.

For the vegans out there, right next to Malasana is Calle de la Hortaleza, at number 100 of which you’ll find a place truly dedicated to the healthiest, tastiest food I’ve ever tasted, Honest Greens. It’s the real deal, and you shouldn’t miss it on your stroll through Madrid!

La Latina

A daylight alternative to Malasana, its most remarkable objective is Calle de la Cava Baja, which is tapestried with tapas outlets.

If you’ve got access to a cooking stove during your stay in Madrid, another place to get great food from La Latina is Mercado de la Cebada, which sports a great variety of fresh, quality food; most of the kind you’ll need to cook yourself, though.

Madrid Shopping: For The Souvenir (And Clothes) Aficionados

The last decade has seen a tremendous normalization of business hours for many larger retailers and nearly all major cultural institutions, which no longer close for the long, late Spanish lunch (the “siesta”, from 2 to 5 p.m.). But smaller independent shops and offices do still close at midday, and virtually all stores are closed on Sundays and public holidays.

Some of the best streets to get new clothes from are:

Gran Via

Mango, H&M and the world’s largest Zara draw attention here.

Clothes are not everything, though; you may also fancy a fine souvenir.

El Rastro

Madrid Shopping El Rastro

Rather than the tourist souvenir shops that everyone goes to for a memento, why not take a more unconventional stroll through the endless stands of the El Rastro, each peddling unique, often bargain antiques and interesting trinkets? One man’s junk may well become your treasure.

It is only available on Sundays, and, at least on Calle Mellizo, is open from about 10am to about 2pm.

I know my grandmother appreciated the lovely antique music box I bought for her from one of El Rastro’s shops far more than my mother appreciated the miniature ill-painted car ID board I got her from the tourist souvenir shop for the same price.


Madrid Architecture: For City Sight Seekers

Plaza Mayor

As most Plazas are, Mayor is a grand sight, filled with fancy restaurants offering overpriced Paella, and a really unique ice-cream vendor on the inside opposite to the Toledo entrance and a bit more to its west.


A few steps away from the Plaza is Sol, the very center of the center of Madrid, where you can often see dense crowds gathered for performances and for shopping in the nice clothes and other fine stores along the streets to the north. Sol also provides a straight road to everywhere of note in the central area of Madrid.

A street away from Sol – one of the most shop-dense streets to boot – you’ll find the most famous street in Madrid, Gran Via.

Gran Via

It houses many impressive sights, including the big Palace Gardens, several monasteries, the national bank of Spain, a lot of fancy shops including the biggest Zara in the world, and generally big buildings (hence the name).

 Madrid Architecture Gran Via National Bank

Palacio Real

The Royal Palace, while a sight to behold, is not always open to visitors. Its gardens alone, however, can be worth the cost.

Salamanca Neighborhood

The neighborhoods all have slightly different styles, but Salamanca stands out for its bourgeois mansion style. You can tell this is the city’s wealthy neighborhood from its quietude, cleanliness, and simple yet elegant design.


Madrid is also home to quite a few impressive monasteries; the Church got its lion’s share of colonial gold, of course, and it shows. For just a small optional donation, you get to admire what all that gold accomplished.

Madrid Entertainment: Low-Brow And High-Brow

There are plenty of cinemas in Madrid, but not all of them display movies with the original (English) voice. Instead, most feature Spanish voiceovers, which do not match the actors’ lip movements.

VOSE Cinemas

Three cinemas that feature VOSE (Voice Original Subtitulado Espanol) movies are Yelmo Cines Ideal near the center, Cines Verdi towards the north, and Cines Embajadores towards the south, but there are others as well.

Museo Del Prado

For all those faithful to classical art – real(ist) art, that is – the Prado museum is our home and country.

Here you’ll find real art: El Greco, Rembrandt, Durer, Velasquez, and the world’s largest Goya collection.

Towards its closing hours, entrance to the Prado museum is free, but what this actually means is that it costs you time standing in the long wait line hours ahead of the actual “free” hours.

Museo Reina Sofia

For those who have fallen under the spell of modern art – “abstract” and “contemporary” “art” -, you can find your own way to the Reina Sofia museum.

Here you may pay homage to self-deception as you speculate about each invisible shade of the emperor’s new clothes represented by the modern monuments to the destruction of beauty, sanity, quality, talent, effort, character, communication, and art itself.

Lesser-known yet also excellent museums include Thyssen-Bornemisza and Museo Sorolla.

National Opera House

For lovers of classical music, there is the excellent but expensive national opera, with performances from composers of genius and orchestras of talent and training.

CandleLight Events

For those looking for a more intimate setting, the “Candlelight” event’s chamber concertos provide a romantic atmosphere, with music ranging from classical to jazz to contemporary.

It is my favorite cultural event in Madrid, as unique for music as El Rastro is for shopping.

Flamenco Shows

Madrid Culture Flamenco


Nice combination of guitar and fast-paced dancing, gypsy-like. 

Teatro Real

For lovers of a classical theatre performance, this theater house near the palace also doubles as the seat of many an opera performance.

Teatro Espanol

Closer to Retiro Park, this excellent theater often has more local and national performances from Spain’s great patrons of the theater.

If you enjoy the more cerebral kinds of entertainment, Madrid has you covered with educational opportunities as well.

Education in Madrid: For The Eternal Students

What better place to learn Spanish than the capital of Spain?

I learned Spanish from the Cervantes-certified SpanEasy school, which also enabled me to get my NIE (resident’s ID card, needed to get a house or job contract).

Besides Spanish, the city offers a wide array of educational opportunities, from art and acting schools and workshops to various languages, dance, yoga, and martial arts courses.

Madrid’s Parks: Oases For Outdoor Lovers

There are many green spots in Madrid – little Parks dotted all throughout, even in the very center. Many of these are the seat of children’s playgrounds, dogs’ oysters, or outdoor fitness avenues.

But there are a couple of big ones as well.

Retiro Park

Madrid Parks Retiro

These are the crown jewels of the king of Madrid’s parks:

Madrid Crystal Palace

  • Palacio de Cristal (crystal palace) towards the east, where you can (theoretically) admire exhibits of modern art; alas, on my last two visits they were too “abstract” to even be seen with the naked eye. A great improvement, in my view, one all modern art should emulate.

Insider tip: there is an intimate cave just outside the lake in front of the palace – a nice kissing spot (if it weren’t for all the bystanders waiting in line to get a romantic selfie) due to the heart-shaped rock-framed view of the pond from one of its larger crevices.

  • Lake towards the west, where you can rent a paddleboat to row across the lake.

Insider tip: as all men looking to woo a lady should know, rowing really 

brings out your chest and shoulders 😉

  • Street performances, usually around the lake, from puppet shows to wandering musicians.

Insider tip: Alfonso XII’s monument with the great lion sculptures on the side of the lake makes for an impressive place to take pictures (e.g. for your honeymoon anniversary album).

  • Picnic-ripe grass fields spread all throughout the park make it one of the best places to chill out and enjoy the relaxing sounds, scents, and textures of Nature. You may have the luck of finding a spot right next to one of the little rivers and ponds where ducks make their home.

Insider tip: pay attention to your placement, lest you also enjoy the textures of sprinkler jets.

If you stay towards the north of Madrid, you’ll get a fine view of some mountains. This is but a precognition of the National Park just a few train stations away from Madrid. My wife and I plan to go horse-riding in that park at some point. 🙂

Madrid River

Along the river’s shores, you can put down a mattress, soak in the sunlight, and inhale the scent of ducks and swamp weeds by the river beach. It’s really charming, especially during rain.

Many come here for a picnic and for fresh air, such that you may often have difficulty finding a free spot to put down your own mat.

As with Retiro, there are often street performances to be heard and seen here.

Another notable feature is the multitude of fitness opportunities, from bike lanes to high bars for vertical push-ups.

You can also relax and enjoy a view of the river and the surrounding park in any of the small restaurants and bars strutted along the way.

Insider tip: there is a great view towards the river park from the restaurants on the last floor of the Plaza Rio 2 megamall.

Madrid Al Campo Park

For those looking to get even closer to nature, you may find Al Campo Park more pleasing. It’s a great place to take those photos “back to Nature, but never more than an hour’s walk from a restaurant” (as Thoreau put it) to prove you did it, you would think you.

Madrid National Park

If you’d rather wander into even wilder nature, this protected yet safe wilderness area is just a few train stops outside Madrid.

You can go horse riding or tent camping here; check out the area’s AirBnb experiences for the offers of locals.

Madrid’s Sports: Avenues For Fitness Enthusiasts

Madrid Fitness Dance Tango

For sports enthusiasts, Madrid’s sweet landscape choices cater to every taste.

Indoors, you have everything from good old’ gyms to CrossFit avenues, from martial arts dojos to dance studios (especially Mumbo and Tango) and yoga workshops.

Outdoors, there are many small jogging-ripe parks, bike lane areas, stretching exercise zones.

The River Park, in particular, draws many outdoor fitness enthusiasts, as it has it all: basketball, tennis, and football courts, bike and scooter lanes, plenty of space for jogging, and bars for high-rise push-ups.

In conclusion

Madrid is a worthwhile destination – whether you seek to relax outdoors, to see other sights in Spain, to taste local foods, to learn Spanish and other skills, to meet new people, to see a good movie or theater show, or to taste culture whether artistic or musical, Madrid has it all, and it has the best of it.

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