Last updated on May 1, 2023
No matter how seasoned a traveler you are, at some point, you’re bound to make mistakes when exploring a new destination. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can have a much more pleasant experience with some extra preparation. This post focuses on mistakes to avoid when visiting Spain’s capital, Madrid. This grand city is filled with incredible attractions, as well as opportunities to commit a faux pas or two. That’s why I’m breaking down the biggest tourist mistakes to avoid in Madrid to save you from any potential embarrassment.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links as explained in my disclosure policy.
This post is part of the Madrid Travel series. Here’s a full list of posts in the series.
Walking tour: A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Madrid with Map
Day Trips: The 10 Best Day Trips From Madrid
Tourist Mistakes: 6 Common Tourist Mistakes To Avoid in Madrid
Before we talk about things not to do in Madrid, let’s make sure you have skip-the-line-access to the city’s famous landmarks and museums and a ticket for the best tours and activities. You’ll find them all through my go-to tour operator, Get Your Guide. I’ve been going on Get Your Guide tours around the world since 2018. They are seriously the most educational and engaging tours out there, with the friendliest tour guides and the easiest sign up process. Check out my list of mistakes to avoid in Madrid. Then browse the Madrid city guide to find the best experiences in Madrid that you will certainly not regret.
- Don't Make These 6 Tourist Mistakes in Madrid
- Day trips from Madrid
- Ready to explore the best of Madrid?
- Frequently asked questions
- Travel Essentials I Can’t Live Without
Don’t Make These 6 Tourist Mistakes in Madrid
Expect people to speak English
Madrid may be an international city, but English isn’t as widely spoken as in other major European cities, like Berlin or nearby Lisbon. Don’t walk into a convenience store and start speaking English to the cashier. Chances are they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. This is also one of the tourist mistakes to avoid in Barcelona.
The reality is that you don’t need to speak Spanish to get around the city. Signs are easy to understand and the city is walkable. Just put your destination into Google maps or the Moovit app, which is more accurate in Spain for checking public transit schedules, and you’re good to go. That said, it helps to know some basic Spanish phrases. Even if you can’t have a conversation in Spanish, at least the person can point you in the right direction.
Useful Spanish Phrases To Know
Hablas Inglés? – Do you speak English?
Donde esta el baño (ban-yo)/ Donde están los aseos? – Where is the bathroom?
Donde esta el metro mas cercano? – Where is the closest metro?
Me puedes ayudar, por favor? – Can you help me, please?
Donde puedo coger (co-hair) taxi? – Where can I find a taxi?
Me gustaría – I would like…
Como llego a [insert destination]? – How do I get to [insert destination]?
Me llamo (yah-mo) [Insert name] – My name is [insert name]
Vengo de [insert country] – I am from [insert country] (Tip: the V in Spanish is pronounced like a B so vengo sounds like bengo)
Cuanto cuesta?/Cuanto vale? – How much is it?
No hablo (ah-blo) español – I don’t speak Spanish
Take a taxi from the airport to the city
Unless you’re traveling with a group, don’t like public transportation, or are just bougie, taking a taxi from Madrid Barajas Airport to the city is not the best idea. The rate for a taxi is a flat 30 EUR one way. On the other hand, taking the Cercanias (local) train will cost you around 5 EUR. You could also take the 200 Bus to the Avenida de America Station for 1.50 EUR. An Uber would even be slightly cheaper at around 20-25 EUR. Lastly, you can take the airport express bus, which goes to Atocha, Cibeles, and O’Donnell, which are all in the center of the city. This airport express bus costs 5 EUR each way. While taking a cab is convenient, I think you should consider other transportation options first.
Eat at the restaurants at Plaza Mayor
As a rule of thumb in Spain, you should avoid eating at any of the city’s popular plazas. That’s the case with Plaza Mayor, the main town square in Madrid and one of the must-see stops in any walking tour of Madrid. Plaza Mayor is wonderful place to sit and relax, with colorful, allegorical paintings that decorate the facade of the main building known as Casa de la Panaderia (The Bakery House). That said, the restaurants in this plaza are expensive, watered down, and catered to tourists. I eat here once and had the blandest paella I’ve ever had in my life! There’s no reason to dine at the restaurants at Plaza Mayor with so many great restaurants around the corner.
Walk around in flip flops
The surest way to scream ‘I’m a tourist!’ is to wear flip flops around the city. Madrileños (people from Madrid) and Spaniards, in general, don’t wear flip flops anywhere but the beach. My hunch is that, in the eyes of Spaniards, wearing flip flops to walk around the city is just plain tacky. Sure, you are free to wear whatever footwear you see fit. I just think it would be more tasteful to ditch the flip flops and wear sandals or flats. When in Madrid, do as a the Madrileños
Only eat paella and tapas
I wouldn’t say Spanish food is my favorite, but there are definitely Spanish dishes worth trying besides the typical paella and tapas. If you’re a meat-eater, then I’d recommend Rabo de Toro, oxtail in a garlic sauce. Another great dish to try would be Cochinillo Asado or suckling pig.
For Rabo de Toro, I’d recommend a restaurant called Casa Salvador, right off Gran Via. This small, family-run restaurant has a cozy atmosphere and the friendliest staff.
Address: Calle de Barbieri, 12, 28004 Madrid, Spain
Hours: 1:15 pm – 4 pm on Mondays and 1:15 pm – 11 pm from Tuesday to Saturday. Closed on Sundays.
For Cochinillo Asado, I’d recommend El Botin, which also happens to be the oldest continuously-running restaurant in the world. El Botin is a world-class dining experience that I highly recommend for anyone visiting Madrid.
Address: Calle de Cuchilleros, 17, 28005 Madrid, Spain
Hours: 1 pm – 11:30 pm Monday through Sunday.
A note about Spanish meal times
One of the aspects of Spanish culture that surprises foreigners, especially Americans, the most are the meal times. Generally speaking, Spanish tend to eat lunch and dinner late. Lunch typically starts at around 1 pm and dinner starts at 8 pm. If you want to go to restaurant, plan accordingly. Take a look a the hours of the restaurants listed above to get an idea of when you should go out to eat. You will even find that some restaurants don’t open for dinner until 9 pm!
Explore only the city center
While a ton of Madrid’s attractions, like the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum, are in the city center, there are beautiful and interesting places still farther out from the city center or within the community of Madrid. The city of Madrid is just one part of a vast and diverse community. That’s why I firmly believe you should get on the metro and explore areas beyond the center. These destinations will only take you about 30-45 minutes to get to from the center, but are definitely worth a stop:
This northern Madrid neighborhood is home to one of the major train stations and the main financial district in the city. It doesn’t get on people’s radars as a place worth visiting. Chamartin was actually the first neighborhood I stayed at during my first visit to Madrid. It’s a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood with cute cafes and flea markets. I think this area is worth taking a stroll.
The Manzanares River runs through Madrid. In the southern part of the city, you’ll find Madrid Rio, a huge recreational area created around the river. This area is great for the many bridges, gardens, and outlooks. I think it’s also one of the best places to take epic photos in the city.
Casa de Campo
This is the largest park in Madrid. While I don’t think it’s as beautiful as the more popular Retiro Park, it’s a relaxing place to spend a few hours. This park is massive so you’ll definitely want to pay attention to the signs so you don’t get lost. I walked around the park for almost two hours and still didn’t see all of it! You can take a boat ride at the giant lake in the center of the park.
There are almost 40,000 Madrid residents of Chinese descent who reside in the metropolitan area and tens of thousands more in the community of Madrid. A quarter of them live in a district to the south of the city known as Usera, where Chinese culture and traditions are strong. As such, this is the absolute best place to get Chinese food in the city. I went to the restaurants here with a Chinese friend of mine, and she had to translate because some of the restaurant owners don’t speak Spanish. The food was authentic and delicious as expected. It was as if I had been transported to China for a moment.
Day trips from Madrid
The surrounding community of Madrid is home to incredible destinations where you can make a day trip. These places to visit are just a 1-2 hour train ride away from the city. You can take a day trip to the El Escorial Monastery and to the nearby towns of Aranjuez and Alcala de Henares, which are just around 40 minutes away by train. Here’s a quick overview of these destinations.
El Escorial Monastery
El Escorial sits high up in the hills of a town of the same name, about 30 miles west of Madrid. Although it now a monastery, this complex has also functioned as a residence for the King of Spain. There’s also a grand royal palace on the property, in addition to a library, a museum, and a pantheon. One of the must-see places here is the garden outside the monastery.
Aranjuez is a picturesque town about 25 miles south of Madrid. The best attraction in this town is the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a 16th-century royal residence. It gives the royal palace in Madrid a run for its money. This town feels a bit like France in some parts, with the well-manicured lawns and Versailles-esque architecture.
Alcalá de Henares
Alcalá de Henares is famous for being the hometown of Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote what is possibly the most famous Spanish language book of all time, Don Quijote de la Mancha. This is a charming town with narrow streets and beautiful backdrops where you can get amazing photos.
Once the capital of Spain, Toledo is a historic city, located under 90 minutes away from Madrid by train. Be sure to explore the Old Town, filled with narrow streets and magnificent buildings. Because the city is perched on a hill, there are steep, Arabic-style stairs leading up to the entrance. You can climb them to get some exercise before visiting the Toledo Cathedral, a hauntingly beautiful Gothic cathedral built in the 13th century. If you’re interested in art, several museums are worth checking out, including the Museo del Greco. If I had to choose one day trip from the four listed here, I would choose Toledo. I guess you could say that I saved the best for last.
Ready to explore the best of Madrid?
Book a highly-rated guided tour from my go-to tour operator for all my travels, Get Your Guide. I’ve been on dozens of Get Your Guide tours in places like Madrid, Barcelona, and Granada and love how educational and engaging they are! I always leave with tons of notes, new insights, and stories to tell. Feel free to choose the tour that most interests you. When you click on any of the three popular tours below, you can also see hundreds of other tours in Madrid to choose from. A Get Your Guide tour will add an extra dose of amazingness to your trip. Safe travels!
Frequently asked questions
How do you not look like a tourist in Madrid?
To ensure that you don’t look like a tourist in Madrid, follow these simple rules:
- Don’t speak English to the locals and assume they’ll understand you
- Don’t walk around the city wearing flip flops
- Don’t eat only paella and tapas
- Don’t go out to lunch before 1 pm
- Don’t go out to dinner before 8 pm
- Don’t take things too seriously.
Is it safe to walk in Madrid at night?
It is perfectly safe to walk around Madrid alone at night. As a solo female traveler who lived in Madrid for a year, I walked around alone at night – sometimes as late as 2 am – without any problems. Just practice common sense. Let friends and family know where you’re going. Pay attention to your surroundings.
Is Madrid safe to walk around?
Madrid is safe to walk around, even for solo female travelers. There is some petty crime, like pickpocketing, but for the most part the city is safe for tourists. There are relatively low crime rates compared to other big cities of the same size.
Do people wear shorts in Madrid?
People wear shorts in Madrid in the summer months of June to August. As a rule of thumb in Spain, dress for the season, not the weather. That means to not look like a tourist, you should be wearing dresses, shorts, skirts, and loose-fitting clothing in Madrid during the summer.
Is it safe to use the metro in Madrid?
It is safe to use the metro in Madrid. There aren’t any areas within the city center that would be considered dangerous, no-go places. Just be sure to watch your belongings and pay attention to your surroundings like you would in any city.
Travel Essentials I Can’t Live Without
The CabinZero 36L Backpack – this trusty backpack has been my go-to luggage for both domestic and international trips since 2018. I’ve used dozens of backpacks over the years and keep coming back to this one. I almost never check in luggage so I need a carry-on bag that is spacious, sturdy, and comfortable, with a laptop compartment. The Cabin Zero 36 L fits the bill. The size makes it small enough for a weekend getaway and big enough for a month of backpacking in Europe. The bag also comes with a tracker in case it gets lost. How convenient! Check out my complete review of the backpack.
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For more travel product recommendations, check out my travel essentials page.