What to Expect on Your First Visit to Madrid, Spain
Madrid is the third largest city in the EU after London and Berlin, with over 3 million inhabitants in the city proper, and over 6 million in the larger metropolitan area. It is not only the capital of Spain, but the financial center of Southern Europe, and was ranked among the top ten most livable cities in the world in 2017, according to Monocle magazine. Madrid balances the preservation of its rich history with the needs of a modern, urban lifestyle. This dynamic city has a wealth of diverse neighborhoods and activities, and attracts millions of visitors every year. However, the large size and complexity of Madrid can be a bit overwhelming for some newcomers.
Here are some tips to help you find your feet in Madrid:
Madrid Metro: The Metro system transports about 2 million passengers a day through 300 stations covering 293 miles. Trains run from 6am to 1:30am every day, and people seldom have to wait more than 5 minutes for a train. The majority of stations are accessible for the disabled, and the Metro de Madrid phone app will help you plan your trip, find the station nearest you, and give updates on train status and wait times.
EMT bus system: Madrid also has over 200 bus lines serviced by over 2000 buses. After 11:30, the system operates all night on a reduced frequency night-bus system, with the same fares as daytime.
RENFE: RENFE offers a medium distance train service throughout the region, connecting Madrid to nearby cities.
Light Metro: Madrid has and is expanding an above-ground light rail system to complement the metro system beneath. It currently has three lines, totaling about 27km.
How to pay for public transit:
A single bus ride costs 1.50€, and can be purchased from the bus driver with cash (although they don’t accept bills larger than 5€). A single short metro trip is also 1.50€, and tickets can be purchased in stations. However, if you plan on taking public transit extensively, it is better to purchase a tourist pass. These cards can be purchased at any Metro station, and offer unlimited passage on any of the above transit systems for durations of 1-7 days. They are available in Zone A, which covers just the city of Madrid, or Zone T, which covers the entire Madrid transit system. Using the tourist card, an adult can enjoy unlimited travel within the urban area for a week for just 35.40€.
Madrid has a robust number of taxis, and they are widely available and reliable. As with many cities, some disreputable practices are unavoidable, so make sure that the meter is on when you get into the taxi and that fares are posted. A few cab services accept cards, but most will only accept cash. It’s wise to have cash ahead of time, or use a local taxi service app. There are several, and some will allow you to pay with the app instead of paying the driver.
English is widely spoken in Madrid, particularly in the service sector and in tourist attractions. However, 60% of adults in Spain, and 90% of older adults, do not speak English, so most signage, menus, and other printed information is in Spanish. Some familiarity with the language is helpful, and, again, an app may help you. The people of Madrid are warm and friendly, and generally speaking it’s possible to communicate despite the language barrier.
Madrid has a celebrated culinary culture, and meals are generally late and long. Lunch seldom starts before 2pm, and dinner never before 8 (and take posted restaurant hours with a grain of salt). While you can easily find international foods and flavors, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy rich, simple, and hearty Spanish foods like local hams and cheeses, omelets and olives. It’s best to bring a spirit of adventure to dining in Madrid, not because the foods and flavors are strange or unfamiliar, but because, no matter what you order, tapas are likely to appear at your table one way or another. These little portions are a fantastic way to sample different foods and flavors that you may not have experienced before. From there, you can move up to raciones, larger plates meant to be shared with friends.
Madrid is large, bustling, diverse, and fascinating. With so much going on, it’s impossible to cover it all in just one visit. But following these tips will help you make the most of your first visit, and prepare you for many more in years to come!