My first Madrid post serves the tourist who’s visiting for a few days. It gives basic info on the MUSTS in Madrid such as Rastro, which is the Sunday flea market. As well as a DIY walking tour of landmarks in the city center. I also listed some amazing places to visit outside the center for you to pick from. The second post is on Where to Eat & Drink in Madrid. A comprehensive list of my fave spots I frequented during my two years living in this lively city.
In this post, I break down Madrid for the traveler who wants to visit like a local. I’ll share every relevant thing I’ve learned while living in Madrid, such as late dinner times, as well as the best ways to travel. You’ll be surprised by the many travel options that Spain offers and the diverse possibilities for near travel from Madrid. Let’s begin by listing the best neighborhood, aka barrios, in Madrid.
“This post focuses on the coolest neighborhoods in Madrid,
as well as tips and tricks to experience the city like a local.”
BEST BARRIOS IN MADRID
Lavapiés is a short walk from Sol and it is one of the most affordable neighborhoods near the center. It has numerous bars and restaurants to enjoy and is home to Tapapiés, a food (more specifically, tapas) fest celebrated in October. Many of the restaurants in the area offer a special and affordable (€1-2) tapa for the event. Beware of the many Indian restaurants in the area, most of them are tasteless.
Tapapiés is how I found one of my favorite spots in Madrid, Toscanaccio, a small and family-owned Tuscan bakery. I honestly visited this place weekly. It is delicious, affordable, and offers veggie and vegan options. It has both savory and sweet choices. MUST WHEN IN LAVAPIES!
“If you’re a risk-taker and want to blend in with the locals and expats…”
If you’re a risk-taker and want to blend in with the locals and expats, stop by Plaza Dos de Mayo in Malasaña. Beware, it smells like piss most of the time. The reason being that this is the most popular area for “botellón” which is the Spanish tradition of sitting and drinking on the street. It is not legal to do so, but most days, the police looks the other way. Police cars will show up later in the night to disperse the crowd so as to avoid noise complaints, and there are people who have been fined in this plaza, so this is an “at your own risk” experience.
Malasaña is a cultural hub and also the home to the Conde Duque Cultural Center, which hosts all kinds of events. From art exhibits to free concerts, even beer fests. This barrio is also home to numerous boutiques, bars, restaurants, and local specialty stores.
My favorite thing about Malasaña is its plentitude of original street art thanks to a festival called “Pinta Malasaña” where shop owners select an artist to decorate their storefront. This fest is celebrated annually, keeping the art fresh and different every year, while making way to new local artists.
La Latina is the neighborhood for foodies. It is home to the many restaurants and taverns for all tastes and budgets. I made a list of my fave restaurants in this area including El Buo and La Taberna Sanlúcar in the Where to Eat and Drink in Madrid post. There are infinite options to choose from in La Latina. You can walk around and look at the menus posted outside, just be mindful that most places close after lunch and open for late dinner.
For drinks, I recommend Hopper, which has amazing cocktails and a great happy hour. On hot summer nights, I went to the rooftop of El Viajero, just be mindful that you’ll have to be patient and wait a while to get seated. Another great rooftop that is frequented by travelers, since it belongs to a hostel, is The Hat. In your in the mood for Asturian cider, a cute place with a terrace near the metro stop is La Bobia. The bottle of cider is affordable and shareable. It is also low alcohol content, and great day drink.
Goya is a “pijo” area. Meaning that people with funds tend to live or visit this area. Hence, it is a bit posh but has the best-stocked stores in my opinion. It is near Retiro park, so you could easily exit from the north side of the park and walk around Goya. The plaza is known for the Wizink Center where many international artists have performed. Unlike Gran Via, It is not usually crowded nor are the stores picked out, except for Christmas time. Although busy, it is beautifully decorated during Christmas and there’s plenty of local restaurants, so this area definitely deserves a visit if you’re in Madrid for a longer stay.
DON’T buy day trip tour packages NOR pay for museums!
THINGS TO KNOW
- Museums are free during the last 2 hours.
Arrive 30 minutes before the free hour (6pm or 7pm, depending on the day) to get in line. It will be long but it will move fast as soon as the doors are open for free visitors. Check each museum’s website for their schedule:
- Thyssen Museum is free on Mondays but closes at 4pm.
- History Museum of Madrid is always free
- Avoid route buses during rush hour.
- Avoid bocadillo de calamares.
I love calamares but fried calamari on a dry baguette is not the best. Drier than a torta de tamal (yet another Mexican reference, worth a Google)
- Avoid taxis departing from the center.
Use Uber or Cabify., they cannot enter the small streets but can pick you up on main avenues that are always near. Taxis tend to overcharge and taking longer routes, with the additional fee if you get picked up at the center.
- Tap water is potable and tastes fine.
Don’t pay for water, buy vermouth or wine instead.
- Don’t buy day trip tour packages.
These are sold at kiosks and they’re rushed and overpriced. It’s really easy to move around by train or bus to other cities. Below are the details on how to DIY day trips like to Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca, Zaragoza and El Escorial/San Lorenzo from Madrid.
- Spanish schedule:
- breakfast 9-10am
- lunch 3pm: shared rations & tapas (small plates) or menú del día (a preset menu that includes appetizer, meal, drink & dessert)
- dinner 9-10pm
- Eggs are also for lunch and dinner
- Paellas in Madrid tend to be frozen.
It’s best to try it in Valencia or Murcía, even Andalucía
DAY TRIPS FROM MADRID
Use the renfe website for checking train schedules. Cercanías trains move within the Comunidad de Madrid, meaning the outskirts. For example, you can take the Cercanías train to El Escorial which is still Madrid Comunidad, but it’s not Madrid city.
- To visit Segovia or Toledo, you need a Long Distance train (tren de larga distancia) which is also renfe.
- If you want to go to Barcelona or Málaga, you can take the AVE, which is the fast train to further Comunidades.
- Barcelona being in Catalunya, for example
- Málaga is in Andalucía
- Segovia is Castilla León
- Toledois in Castilla de la Mancha,
Both Castilla León and Castilla de la Mancha are the neighboring Comunidades to Madrid. The easiest way to understand this is by imagining that the Comunidades are like States.
Once you’ve arrived at the station you can use public transportation to get to the city center or wherever your lodging is. To explore the schedules of metros and buses in Spanish cities or in other European countries I recommend using Citymapper and the Moovit app. You can see The Essentials blog post where I explain how to use these. Google maps tends not to have accurate info on buses in small cities like Toledo.
Feel free to reach me with any questions regarding travel within Spain, especially departing from Madrid. I was once a lost tourist and know the struggle. Spain is incredibly easy to travel, not only because of its size but also because of its many transportation options within the country. You have the option of using low-cost airlines, fast trains, comfortable buses, and BlaBlaCar. This last one is a ride-sharing app where you travel in a local’s car. Much more affordable and faster than other road transportation options.
Wherever you go, I am sure you will have a blast in this beautiful and diverse country. Follow me on Instagram @joyzcortez for more pics and travel ideas! Enjoy every moment of your travels and always BE PRESENT!