I wasn’t really sure what to expect when my plane touched down in Madrid last week. I had tried to read a travel book about the city but quickly became overwhelmed with how much there was to know, and while I’m not one who will completely wing it when traveling, I also believe in leaving room for adventure, and that’s what I did. I got a general layout of the city, learned a few of the local customs and decided I was as ready as I’d ever be to take on my first city in Europe solo. What helped and what hurt along the way? Here’s a few things I learned in six days while visiting Madrid, Spain.
1. Learn your transportation options.
Madrid had an amazing subway system that was remarkably easy to navigate even though it was all in Spanish. The trains were color coded and numbered with their end stops clearly marked so you’d have less of a chance going the wrong direction. Another bonus was that there’s only one train ran on each track, unlike New York where you really have to pay attention to what train number you’re getting onto at the platform. I did have a tricky time buying a pass from their automatic kiosks and ended up purchasing a 10 ride pass for around 15 euros. The trains were clean and the stations were well lit and safe. I only took a taxi twice, and neither of my cab drivers knew English beyond what I knew in Spanish. Rates were comparable to New York rates with a flat fee from inside the city to the airport. With how small and winding the streets are, walking is preferable unless you’re headed out of the main part of Madrid. Buses were also quite common, but I never found myself needing to use them.
2. Madrid is in no big hurry.
I’ve heard this is true for all of Europe, but we’re just talking Madrid. When I left my best friend warned me “Be prepared for every meal to take three hours.” and she wasn’t kidding. When at a sit-down restaurant the service staff are in no hurry to rush you out, whether you’re there for a full meal, just tapas or drinks. Only once was my check presented to me before I had to ask for it. While this certainly isn’t a terrible thing (I liked the time to myself to really enjoy my food), it could be a bit of an issue if you’re on a schedule (or from New York and are used to GOGOGOGO).
3. Mealtimes are totally different.
Breakfast isn’t really a thing in Spain. In fact just this morning I was thinking about the giant lie I’ve been told my whole life that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Maybe it’s because I was totally off schedule, but I didn’t really miss breakfast. For the most part, breakfast in Madrid consisted of a pastry, perhaps a croissant with ham and cheese and some coffee or juice. The portions were never huge, just enough to get you going. That being said, a late lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Madrid. I noticed rush hour at restaurants was between 2 and 5 pm with people ordering large elaborate meals that I’m used to as dinner. From about 5 to 9 pm most eating establishments were either closed or empty, refilling as people come back out for drinks and smaller plates of shared food (tapas). Since I was on my own most of the time I simply ate when I was hungry and kept eating until I was full. I also kept a stock of granola bars and juice in my room because I always seemed to wake up around 4 am starving.
4. Learn a bit about the food.
Everything I ate in Madrid was amazingly delicious, but incredibly difficult to order. I’m fairly certain I only came across two menus in English and one of them was at McDonald’s (Hey, the language barrier can be really rough when you’re super hungry. #2 it is!) While some servers were accommodating, many of my meals consisted at pointing at something that seemed to make sense. One tiny cafe I walked into didn’t even have menus so I just said “I want to eat.” and I was brought delicious little open faced ham and bruchetta tapas. It’s worth figuring out a few major things though, especially if you have food sensitivities. One of the more popular dishes was gulas, or baby eels (nope), as well as Iberico ham which can have a pretty serious side effect of guilt if you’re not into eating designer baby animals. Several times I was served veal when I had asked for beef and if you order Paella, be prepared for an extra 45 minutes of waiting as they prepare it.
5. Learning some basic Spanish is a good idea.
I took Spanish all through school, and while I was never fluent I always joked that I could probably at least find a restroom in Spain. LIES. It seemed as though every establishment called them something different and a lot of them weren’t too keen on clearly labeling between men’s and women’s. The only other people I knew on my trip was a mother and son from Puerto Rico who spoke fluent Spanish. Even the mother had a hard time understanding a lot of what was said, apparently their Spanish was far more formal and spoken much (much!) faster. After a day or two I became far more comfortable with the little Spanish I do know and I also learned to anticipate what was being asked of me, which made things slightly easier.
6. The rooms are (most likely) tiny.
I thought I had stayed in some small rooms in the states — my single room in Madrid was so small it didn’t even have a bathroom door and the door to the hallway bumped into my bed when I opened it all the way. Also, make sure your hotel has air conditioning (that works) especially if you’ll be there during a warmer time of year. While it never got above 60, my room was always at a toasty 75-80. It was a really nice room, plenty cozy, but if you’re traveling with kids look at vacation apartments or you may end up hating everyone you live with by the time your vacation is over.
WiFi was fairly easy to find and somewhat reliable. In fact, it was free at most hotels. I did need to bring a European converter with me, despite being told most hotels would have them available. I kept my phone in airplane mode and relied on free texting apps to stay in touch with people when near WiFi. I learned real quick that you need to have something resembling a plan in anything you do because you can’t just turn on your phone to find the answer (that is unless you want to spend hundreds on foreign data charges.) Think of it this way, it will give your kids a chance to pretend you’re in the dark ages before smart phones and you actually had to establish meeting points and times! (And know how to read a map.)
8. What to do.
Honestly my favorite thing to do was simply walk around. There were plenty of shops to walk in and out of, restaurants to stop at and places to just sit and people watch. There were amazing parks, some really great museums and some historical sites that I still can’t believe still exist (The Royal Palace of Madrid for one). Audio tours are available at most locations, but I was just happy to wander through each place taking in everything on my own. I would have liked to go to a Flamenco show, but they all seemed a little too touristy. There were options of open air bus tours and a tour of the Real Madrid stadium, but exploring on my own was plenty for me.
9. A few other bits of wisdom learned.
Have cash before you go, and plan on doing most — if not all — small transactions in cash, i.e. euros. Many establishments don’t accept credit or debit cards and if they do it can be spotty on which ones they’ll accept. Another thing that was strange to get used to is that tipping is not customary in Madrid, not for cab drivers or restaurant staff. The general rule of thumb seemed to be round up to the nearest euro. It was nice not having to worry about gratuities, but at the same time it felt really strange to just pay for what I had and leave. (Same with taxis.) You can tip, of course, but chances are you’ll get a funny look or two.