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Madrid Travel Guide: Exploring the Spanish capital’s bites and sites like a local

Inhale the smell of tapas, stroll through the historic plazas, and sip ALL the incredible Spanish wine because you’re in Madrid! When Caleb and I spent a week here, we fell in love with the city for its lively atmosphere, AMAZING food, friendly people, and overall energetic vibes. It’s the city that never sleeps, and we love it so much that we plan to move there eventually! 

Whether you’re a couple looking for an on-the-go, busy holiday or a more laid-back city break, Madrid? It DELIVERS. In this ultimate Madrid travel guide, we’ll cover EVERYTHING you need to know to plan your trip.

Let’s dive in starting with a sneak peak of our favorite spots to eat. Isn’t that the most important part of travel? 馃槒

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A pair of feet in bright orange shoes stand atop the Km 0 marker in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, the central point from which all distances in Spain are measured, indicating the historic and geographic heart of the country.

From A road trip to a plan trip: Your options for Getting There

Madrid is landlocked, so the only way to get there is by driving from another nearby European country you might be visiting as a couple.

Or, you can fly to Madrid (it’s me, captain obvious) from pretty much any large city in Europe on the (in?)famous cheap European airlines. If you’re a fellow USA-living couple, you can fly into Madrid from many major American cities, but you may just need to have a layover.

TAYLOR’S TIP: Taylor’s Tip: we always look for cheap flights using either Skyscanner or Going. If you’re from the USA and don’t use going, BOY OH BOY, you are missing out.

Visitors gather in the grand Plaza Mayor of Madrid, featuring the iconic equestrian statue of King Philip III set against the backdrop of the plaza's traditional Spanish architecture with ornate facades and spired towers under a cloudy sky

Where to Stay 

We’ve stayed in almost every main neighborhood in Madrid, and there are 7 areas that we typically tell other couples to stay. However, there are 3 areas that win overall. 

Here are our top recommendations at a glance, followed by a more detailed pro/con list of each:

The grandeur of Madrid's architecture is showcased in this image featuring a magnificent building with an elaborate clock tower, illuminated at twilight.

1. Sol/Centro (our top pick overall for location)

Pros:

  • Central location with easy, walkable access to main attractions and Atocha train station.
  • LOTS of accommodation options from budget to luxury.
  • Major metro station facilitates easy city navigation.

Cons:

  • Lacks the charm of other neighborhoods.
  • Restaurants tend to be pricier and cater to tourists.
  • It can be very crowded, especially during peak tourist season.

Hotel Recommendations are above or >> Click here to check out all the options, including prices and photos, for hotels in Sol<<

Cibeles Palace in Madrid, captured in soft evening light that casts a warm glow on the building's elaborate fa莽ade and detailed sculptures, with clear skies above and city life moving along its base.

2. Huertas/Barrio De Las Letras (our top pick for nightlife)

Pros:

Cons:

  • It lacks major attractions, though it is close to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

Hotel Recommendations are above or >> Click here to check out all the options, including prices and photos, for hotels in Huertas<<

A tranquil scene of Cava Baja street in Madrid, lined with historic buildings painted in warm hues, with balconies overlooking the quiet, cobblestoned street in the early evening.

3. La Latina (our top pick for foodies like us – our favorite area)

Pros:

Cons:

  • Predominantly, Airbnb accommodations can impact local rental affordability.
  • It can be noisy, particularly on weekends.

Hotel Recommendations are above or >> Click here to check out all the options, including prices and photos, for hotels in La Latina<<

A woman walks down a cobblestone street in Madrid with yellow buildings

How to Get Around

After visiting the city almost 10 times, Caleb and I have discovered many ways to travel around, but some are better than others. Here are the top 4 ways we navigate the city and recommend you do too:

  • Metro: With 12 lines and frequent services, the metro is our preferred method when we are not walking, and we recommend that you take it from the airport. 
A serene and rustic stone staircase leading through a leafy garden with mature trees, glimpses of ornate fencing, and classical stone finials, suggesting a quiet retreat within a Madrid park.
  • Ride-Sharing Apps:
    • Cabify: Offers the best prices and availability. Tip: Download beforehand to avoid connectivity issues.
    • Uber and Bolt: while these are available, we don’t recommend them. We’ve always found they have fewer drivers and higher prices.
    • BlaBlaCar: Connects you with locals for a unique journey if you guys are a little more adventurous! 
  • Public Bus: the main Bus, EMT Madrid, services over 200 routes, and they even have nut buses if you’re out late (trust us, you will be!) 

PRO TIP:

Do not worry about having cash. We were pleasantly surprised to get on the Bus and be able to pay by tapping our card. But we needed different cards for each of us, so try to travel with 2 cards: 1 for each of you!

While you can use a taxi, we have always found them to be pretty expensive, so we recommend avoiding it. We should also tell you that while ride-share apps are great, Madrid’s traffic tends to be at a standstill sometimes, so your travel time might be double what the app says. That’s why we like walking!

A close-up of grilled mushrooms topped with herbs and tomato on a white plate with toothpicks, served as tapas on a wooden bar counter, embodying a traditional Spanish appetizer.

Where you MUST eat

Madrid is worth visiting for its food alone and it’s one the best foodie cities in Europe! It’s one of the main reasons we love going there. While we could literally fill this entire Madrid travel guide with restaurant recs, here are our top 7 “do not leave without going here or you should question your life” places to eat:

1. Casa Gonz谩lez: A deli with a hidden tapas bar vibe, popular for its selection of tostas and Spanish meats and cheeses.

What to order: A half portion of Spanish cheese and mixed Iberian sausage鈥攎assive servings!

The traditional fa莽ade of Casa Gonzalez in Madrid, featuring a red awning, displays a selection of wines and cheeses, with two men engaged in conversation by the storefront, reflecting the city's authentic culinary culture.

2. 4 Latas: A chic “Spanish fusion” bar with a cool, stylish atmosphere.

What to order: Sobrasada, brie, and honey bikini; it’s like a gourmet grilled cheese that will make your tastebuds fall of your head.

A rustic wooden table with a dish of grilled artichokes topped with thin slices of jam贸n ib茅rico, accompanied by a serving of toasted bread, exemplifying a traditional Spanish tapas meal.

3 Mes贸n Del Champi帽贸n: Famous for its unique stuffed mushrooms, a must-try in Madrid.

What to order: The signature stuffed mushrooms with chorizo and garlic that will make you never want to eat any other stuffed mushroom.

A plate of stuffed mushrooms with chorizo.

4. Perejila: Colorful and eclectic and always SO busy (in a fun way)

What to order: Sobrasada toast with manchego cheese and generous portions of mussels.

A Spanish culinary delight of tomato bread topped with melted cheese and pine nuts, a bowl of mussels, and a glass of vermouth on a marble tabletop.

5. Taberna La Concha: Known for innovative “fusion” tapas and homemade vermouth cocktails called 鈥淢anuela,” which is one of the best in Madrid.

What to order: Thai curry fish balls, stewed pork cheeks, and meatballs in tomato sauce.

Close-up of a plate of meatballs in a rich red sauce, dusted with a sprinkle of spices, paired with two dark red martinis, showcasing an appetizing meal setup.

6. Lamiak: Eclectic and vintage that we have found to always have a good mix of locals and tourists.

What to order: Beef cheeks with cheesy potato gratin鈥攎elts in your mouth!

A woman in a patterned sweater sipping from a glass of vermouth in a cozy bar setting, with a soft focus on the bustling background

7. GatoGato: A trendy spot with a creative tapas menu, perfect for a sit-down meal or something more cozy, quiet and romantic.

What to order: Charred lettuce with pistachio sauce鈥擟aleb and I dream about this one years after eating it. SO GOOD.

A plate of grilled lettuce garnished with green pistachios, served on a patterned plate, representing a refined and delicious tapa.

Iconic sites and things you should do

Eat. 

The end. I’m kidding. While eating is our favorite thing to do, here are some other “must do” s to add to your Madrid itinerary.

Main Tourist Sites

  • The Almudena Cathedral: a modern cathedral that we think you only need 20-30 minutes to see

TAYLOR’S TIP: route to the “mirador de catedral” at sunrise for your own private, stunning view of the cathedral at sunrise. Romantic and a hidden gem!

View of the Royal Palace of Madrid from the manicured green gardens of Campo del Moro, with a clear blue sky above, showcasing the expansive size and neoclassical architecture of the historic Spanish residence
  • The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) – Europe’s largest royal palace where the royal family used to live. It has 3000+ rooms, and it’s stunning inside and out.
  • Plaza Mayor – The largest square in Madrid, it is a great place to do some people-watching. Just DO NOT EAT HERE, please – all the restaurants are tourist traps with bad food and high prices.
  • Puerta Del Sol – The city’s central meeting point. It’s always packed with people!
  • The Golden Triangle Of Art – The Prado, The Arte Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums
  • Buen Retiro Park – a massive park in the city center that is great for a stroll or chill out!
Two individuals walking under a leafy metal archway on a gravel pathway in the peaceful setting of Retiro Park, Madrid, with topiary hedges and tall trees framing the scene on a sunny day.

Hidden Gems

  • Secret Nun Cookies: Yep, you read that right. You can buy DELICIOUS cookies from cloistered nuns in a convent. You must buy the sherry cookies. We ate an entire box.
  • Cocktails at Salmon Guru: This bar is always among the top 100 bars in the world, and the cocktails are totally crazy. It’s not a quiet or romantic bar, but it’s fun to do once.
  • Secret seafood party at Marcado De La Cebada: all the fishmongers sell their fresh catches on Saturday afternoon with free-flowing wine. We found it overwhelming and fun at the same time.
  • El Rastro Flea Market – This open-air flea market is only open on Sundays, but it claims to be one of the best in Europe. We’ll let you be the judge of that!

Romantic stuff

A couple sitting peacefully at dusk by the Templo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple in the heart of Madrid.
  • Sunset at Templo De Debod– while everyone and their dog (literally) goes to this Egyptian temple for sunset, it’s GORGEOUS. Just make sure you walk past the main viewpoint down the path. We had just as nice of a view with fewer humans.
  • A Flamenco Show at Cafe Ziryab – an off-the-beaten-path location that we think has one of the most authentic shows!

>> Click here to check prices and availability <<

A woman savoring a glass of white wine in a modern cooking school in Madrid, with a clean, sleek kitchen setting that hints at an intimate culinary experience
  • Take a cooking class with bottomless wine – we got to cook a bunch of tapas together while our wine glasses were always full, and we had such a blast. You’ll come home with great recipes and have a unique evening together! We still talk about this experience.

>> Click here to check prices and availability <<

An empty wine glass sits on a wooden table in a wine shop in Madrid

>> Click here to check prices and availability <<

TAYLOR’S PRACTICAL TIP: our only complaint here was that they gave you a small bag of crackers, which was not enough for all the vermouth. MAKE SURE YOU EAT FIRST! We learned the hard way鈥

Evening view of 'La Casa del Abuelo', a traditional Spanish bar, with its warmly lit facade and patrons enjoying drinks at tables on the sidewalk under a quaint street lamp

When you should plan your vacation

In my opinion, and Caleb’s, the absolute BEST time to visit Madrid is either in May or early October. Both months are part of the “shoulder” travel season, meaning they are less touristy but still lively enough to feel like you’re experiencing “authentic” Madrid. You’ll also want to spend at least 3 days there.

During both months, the average temperature is around 20-21 C (68-70 F) and sometimes a bit warmer. So, yes, it’s basically perfect to be able to walk around and burn all those iberico ham and Rioja calories off.

Retiro park surrounded by green grass

Safety

Madrid is generally safe to travel, especially when traveling as a couple. You’ve got the whole “safety in numbers” advantage that solo travelers might miss!

However, like ALL big cities, don’t be dumb. Sorry to be blunt, but we call it like we see it. Avoid strolling down dark, secluded alleys at night (especially after enjoying some Rioja!) or flaunting expensive jewelry. Always keep an eye on your belongings, especially in crowded spots like Gran V铆a and Puerta del Sol, where pickpocketing can be an issue.

Caleb sticks to wearing a money belt (though he’s not a fan because it’s pretty much like a skinny fanny pack), and I swear by my Travelon anti-theft purse.

A smiling woman standing in front of the grand Cibeles Palace in Madrid, her cheerful presence complementing the elegance of the historic building bathed in sunlight.

Entry & Exit Requirements 

The requirements are the same as in other parts of Spain, such as Mallorca. If you are coming from the USA, you’ll need a valid passport for 3 months from departure. But, 6 months is better!

You also can’t stay longer than 3 months without a special visa if you’re from the USA.

The storefront of Mercado Jam贸n Ib茅rico invites passersby with its bold signage, offering a taste of Spain through jam贸n, cheese, and wine, epitomizing the rich culinary culture of the region.

Travel Tips To Know Before You Go

  • Language: The main language is Spanish. However, you’ll get around with English just fine in the tourist areas. But do try to learn some basic Spanish phrases.
  • Currency: Madrid uses the Euro.
  • When looking for where to eat, We have found locals to grade restaurants REALLY hard on Google reviews, and some of the best spots have low stars. Look for spots that are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people. You might be intimidated, but just try them out!
  • Don’t bring big bags to tapas bars: this is one of our top tapas tips because we made this mistake so many times. These bars are packed and you’ll look like a tourist fail just pummeling people with your bag. 
  • Madrid Tourist Pass: get this if you plan to travel on public transport a fair bit.

There you have it folks – everything you gotta know to plan an amazing trip to our favorite city! If you have questions, just let us know in the comments and we’ll get right back to you!

When you’re in the city, you can’t miss a food tour. We do them in every city, and this one was so good that we did it twice and wrote an ultimate food tour guide about it! If you want authentic, local food without the hassle of finding it, you have to read that guide.

Other Posts About Madrid:

Free Email Course: Madrid Made Easy

Discover everything you need to know to plan an EPIC Madrid Getaway in our free email course!
A couple stands embracing while looking at the Almudena Cathedral during sunset in Madrid, with the grand architecture and clear skies in the background

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