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We’ve all committed major tourist errors in some way or another — especially when traveling abroad and immersing ourselves in a new culture or language.
I’ve lived in Madrid, Spain for 10 years now, but I definitely made some mistakes I wish I hadn’t when I first came to this city. Now, I often see friends and family members make the same blunders when visiting the Spanish capital.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, but skip these typical slip-ups and you’re guaranteed to have a better trip to Madrid. ¡Buen viaje!
1. Taking a taxi from the airport to the city center
Taxis charge a flat rate of €30 (more than $34) from Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) to anywhere in the city center. While this may sound like a dream compared to much more expensive taxis to and from airports in cities like New York, Rome or Paris, it’s actually the priciest method of airport transport in Madrid, and can also be annoying for the following reasons:
- Taxi drivers in Madrid often don’t speak English.
- They often claim they can’t accept credit cards, or that the machine is broken.
- You’ll regularly encounter taxi strikes, especially during summer holidays.
Instead of a taxi, consider one of the following alternatives:
- An Uber, for €18 to €27 ($20.50 to $31)
- Cabify, Spain’s version of Uber, for €18 to €27 ($20.50 to $31)
- The Metro, for €4.50 to €5 (less than $6)
- The Airport Express Bus, which stops at O’Donnell, Cibeles and Atocha for €5 (less than $6)
- The EMT Bus 200, which stops at Arturo Soria and Avenida America, for €1.50 (less than $2)
2. Ordering a la carte for lunch on weekdays
Rumor has it the menú del día was created by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who sought to provide Spaniards with an affordable midday meal. Franco is long gone, but the fixed-rate lunch option remains popular with both Madrileños as well as tourists.
A typical menu will be advertised outside the restaurant on a chalkboard. For a fixed rate (usually between €8 and €14), guests get a starter, a main dish, a drink — even beer or wine — bread and dessert or coffee.
These daily lunch menus are affordable and delicious, so skip a la carte ordering and do this instead. My favorite spots in Madrid for a lunch menu include Maricastaña, Momo, Banibanoo or any place offering gazpacho on a hot summer day.
3. Exclusively speaking English
One of the most wonderful things about Madrid is that it really remains an authentic Spanish city. Sometimes, you might feel as though you’ve been transported back in time. This also means, however, that not everyone speaks English.
The farther away you get from the tourist center, the less likely it is you’ll be able to find English speakers. Instead of getting frustrated, take this as an opportunity to try a phrase or two in Spanish. You’ll quickly find that if you so much as attempt a few words of Spanish, locals will enthusiastically welcome you — and maybe feel more inclined to try a few words of rusty English in return.
4. Getting your coffee at Starbucks
While Starbucks may be part of your morning routine back home, Madrid has tons of wonderful, local spots for coffee, including La Bicicleta, Mama Framboise, Toma Cafe, Cafelito, Pum Pum and Monkee. And standing in line at Starbucks is a surefire way to show you’re from out of town.
In fact, you can walk into almost any bar or restaurant in Madrid and find someone prepared to serve you a café con leche. You’ll even get to specify if you want your milk steamed warm or hot. If you’re really craving American coffee, just order an Americano — but please do so at a neighborhood spot. Still feeling overwhelmed? Consider this your coffee cheat sheet:
- Café con leche: coffee with milk
- Café solo: a small espresso shot
- Café cortado: a small espresso shot with a dash of milk
- Café largo/Americano: large cup of coffee
- Leche caliente/templada/fria: hot milk/warm/cold
- Desnatada/Sin lactosa/soja: Skim/lactose-free/soy
5. Wearing flip flops
It isn’t the end of the world if you wear flip flops, but it’s a very easy way to be pegged as a tourist. You’ll notice that locals do not wear flip flops in Madrid — instead, they reserve this footwear specifically for the beach.
While other forms of open shoes (strappy sandals, espadrilles, Birkenstocks) are more socially appropriate, don’t expect to see any Spanish people padding around Madrid in Havaianas. Between cobblestone streets and crowded tourist areas, flip flops aren’t the most practical option, so wear gym shoes, flats or another, more secure sandal instead.
6. Eating your meals at the usual time
If you show up for dinner at 6:00pm, everyone will know you’re a tourist. Sorry. Spaniards simply have a completely different schedule, due largely to the fact that the sun sets as late as 10:30pm during the summer. For this reason, everything is pushed back by a few hours.
It’s best to wake up a bit later and have a leisurely breakfast (I certainly wouldn’t recommend searching the neighborhood for home fries and eggs at 6:00am). And don’t expect any restaurants worth visiting to be open for lunch before 1:00pm (between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon is the normal lunch hour). Dinner spots rarely open before 8:30pm, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re all alone at the restaurant even at 9:00pm, as most restaurants remain devoid of locals until about 10:00pm.
Got kids? That’s OK, too. Children are welcome in bars and restaurants, though local little ones are definitely better at staying up late.
7. Skipping the siesta
If you’re following the local meal schedule, it should feel normal to have a brief rest after lunch — famously known as the siesta. You’ll soon realize if you’re traveling between May and October that the hottest part of the day is between 3:00pm and 5:00pm, making it easy enough to relax and snooze during this time. Plus, it will help you stay up late enough to make it to dinner that evening with the locals.
8. Expecting heavy air conditioning
While some spots in Madrid have window units or central air, this is not a given. You won’t find frigid, over air-conditioned malls, museums or movie theaters in Madrid — and if you’re visiting in the summer, be sure to confirm that your hotel or Airbnb has AC. Many large hotel chains will have AC, for example, but vacation rentals and budget hotels often don’t.
9. Only visiting the Prado —
While the Prado is Madrid’s most famous museum and should definitely be on your to-do list, make sure to put the Reina Sofia on your itinerary, too. This modern art museum houses Picasso’s magnificent “Guernica” painting that depicts the horrors of the Spanish civil war. The Thyssen, Sorolla and Archaeology museums are also sorely underrated.
10. — and the Mercado de San Miguel
Like Madrid’s museums, the city’s food market scene is nothing short of amazing. Besides the more touristy and central Mercado de San Miguel, tourists sell themselves short when they miss the local seafood stalls at La Cebada, the gourmet tapas at Platea, the chic rooftop of San Antón and the decidedly hip San Ildefonso.
11. Losing sight of your personal belongings
(Yes, I know you live in New York City and you’ve never been mugged, but Madrid is different.)
When you’re sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe, don’t leave your phone sitting on the table, or sling your purse on the back of the chair. At the hotel, always lock your passport in the safe, no matter how upscale the neighborhood appears.
Be alert, and if you’re approached by anyone offering you lavender, bracelets, or anyone that just seems a little shady, hang on to your belongings and back away from the situation. And take extra care on the Metro, especially if you’re not speaking Spanish, which can make it obvious to pickpocketers that you’re not local.
12. Insulting the ham
Smart tourists will, at all costs, stay away from any situation in which it could be perceived that you do not like the nation’s famous ham. (My Spanish husband once wouldn’t speak to me for a week when I mentioned that I preferred Italian prosciutto to Iberian ham.)
Believe it or not, the Spanish do not think that ham is meat. To them, it’s an entirely different entity. For this reason, if you’re a vegetarian, make sure to ask if the dish you’re ordering — even one clearly marked on the menu as vegetarian — comes with ham. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with visitors who order vegetarian meals and receive them garnished with ham.
Oh, and if you’re vegan, Madrid isn’t really the city for you. Sorry. Maybe try Berlin?
Feature image by Ana Guisado Photography/Getty Images.
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