Why You Shouldn’t Miss Madrid on Your Next Trip to Spain

Aug 26, 2019

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While Madrid, Spain, certainly isn’t a new destination, it’s often overlooked in favor of Barcelona or Seville. On this episode of Miles Away, Zach Honig and TPG Senior Writer and longtime Madrid resident Lori Zaino discuss why you shouldn’t miss out on visiting the Spanish capital, with tips for making your trip a memorable one.

A view of Madrid from the Aloft Hotel. Photo by Lori Zaino/ The Points Guy.
A view of Madrid from the Aloft Hotel. Photo by Lori Zaino/ The Points Guy.

Madrid has been my home for 11 years and counting. While I’m fully aware of my bias, I think it’s truly the heart and soul of the Spain. Madrid is a cosmopolitan city with stylish amenities and bustling activity that still encapsulates the feel of a small, authentic Spanish village, giving residents and visitors the best of both worlds. Plus, it’s one of Western Europe’s more affordable capitals.

In this episode of Miles Away, Zach and I discuss a variety of topics related to Madrid, like what makes the city so alluring, rooftop bars offering the best views, which food markets to visit and tastier alternatives to sangria. I explain how to survive the city’s late meal times and why taking a siesta is not only accepted, but encouraged. Madrid is one city where you actually may not want to get rid of your jet lag!

This episode of Miles Away also shares useful trip planning info, like the best ways to get to the Spanish hub using your stash of points (hint: start saving those Chase and Amex points to transfer to Iberia Avios), logistics for navigating the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD) and why the city’s hotel scene is having a moment.

You can play this episode of Miles Away above, or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, including:

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Make sure to follow Lori Zaino on Instagram, where she shares travel tips and photos from Madrid and beyond.

If you have any questions, thoughts or topics you’d like us to cover, please email Zach at milesaway@thepointsguy.com, tweet him at @zachhonig or find him on Instagram — He’s @zachhonig there as well. And please don’t forget to subscribe!

Feature image by Lori Zaino for The Points Guy.

Full Transcript: 

Zach Honig:
Welcome back to Miles Away. Today we have Lori Zaino, who’s actually been in TPG longer than I have. So I’ve been here a little over four years. When did you start with TPG, Lori?

Lori Zaino:
Since the beginning.

Zach Honig:
The beginning.

Lori Zaino:
I’m an original.

Zach Honig:
And now you are a senior writer, so welcome to the podcast. You live in Spain?

Lori Zaino:
I live in Madrid. I’ve been there for 11 years.

Zach Honig:
Eleven years. Wow. So what brought you to live in Madrid? You know, in the very beginning, 11 years ago?

Lori Zaino:
Well, I studied abroad there. That’s when I met Brian and I was living in New York and I was working and I just was so attracted to the culture and the food and the people, and I just fell in love and I couldn’t wait to go back. So I finally did and then I never left.

Zach Honig:
Did you, did you set out to move there or you went on vacation and you’re like, I’m never going to leave?

Lori Zaino:
Well, I originally went to do a master’s degree, which was supposed to be a one-year program. Eleven years later, here I am.

Zach Honig:
So I’ve been to Barcelona many times myself. At least a dozen times I think I’ve actually been to Spain, but I’ve only connected in Madrid. I’ve never actually stayed in the city. And so you’re giving me some looks like, Oh, it’s definitely overdue.

Lori Zaino:
A lot of people tell me that. A lot of people say, Oh well I’ve been to Barcelona. You know, it’s kind of like saying I’m from the US and someone says, “Oh, I’ve been to New York,” and don’t get me wrong, I love New York, but it’s not completely representative of the entire United States. And Barcelona is a great city, but Madrid is really the soul of Spain, in my opinion.

Zach Honig:
Sell me on Madrid. Why do you love the city so much?

Lori Zaino:
OK. Well, Barcelona, for example, it’s a great place and they have some really amazing architecture and you have the beach. Madrid is … doesn’t have maybe all of those huge famous landmarks that you might find in Barcelona, like the Sagrada Familia, but the whole city is like a landmark. It’s so authentic. It’s so Spanish. It has such a vibe and ambience. Everyone there, the locals, they just love life. They’re always out walking around — kids, you know, older people, everyone is out all the time in the plazas, the squares. It’s just, it’s got such a nice energy.

Zach Honig:
Is it a very walkable city?

Lori Zaino:
I always call it a small village. Even though it’s a capital city, it’s also easy to get around the city center on foot. It’s very doable.

Zach Honig:
Where do you live in Madrid?

Lori Zaino:
I live in an area called Barrio Salamanca. It’s known for shopping. So if you’re a shopper, you want to get to Barrio de Salamanca for all the big boutiques and some of the cooler small spots.

Zach Honig:
How would you spend three days in the city? You know, if you’re going for a long weekend, what would you say are the must-dos, the must-eats, where in the city would you kind of focus your efforts?

Lori Zaino:
Definitely check out the Retiro Park, which is kind of Madrid’s version of Central Park, but quite a bit smaller. It’s beautiful. Lots of monuments and fountains. That’s a really nice place to hang out. Be ready to walk around. It’s a walkable city, so bring your gym shoes, and Malasaña-Chueca is a great neighborhood for restaurants. You can walk around in Barrio de las Letras, they have poems on the street. It’s really … there’s a lot of cool neighborhoods you can check out. If you love art, the city has amazing art museums.

Zach Honig:
I’ve heard that before, yeah.

Lori Zaino:
They call it the Golden Triangle of Art Museums. They have the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen, and all three are fantastic. So if you love art, you’re in the right place. There’s a lot of other smaller museums. The Sorolla Museum is really impressive. It’s kind of a hidden gem, I think, that a lot of other people don’t know about.

Lori Zaino:
And eat and drink, it’s one of the greatest cities in the world for food. So you can spend a whole day or two days or as long as you want just hopping from bar to bar, having tapas, having tinto de verano, which is not sangria, it’s better than sangria.

Zach Honig:
Do they have sangria for the tourists or …?

Lori Zaino:
Oh, they do. But you shouldn’t drink it. Because sangria, they kind of throw in whatever they want. But tinto de verano is always the same thing. It’s red wine mixed with Fanta Limon, which is like a lemon drink or Gaseosa, which is kind of like Sprite, but way better.

Zach Honig:
What is the food like? Is it similar to Barcelona?

Lori Zaino:
I mean I may be biased but …

Zach Honig:
Tell me your favorite dishes.

Lori Zaino:
Well I think the best thing to do if you want to sample food is to check out some of the food markets. So everybody knows about the more touristy San Miguel market, but there’s markets all over the city from really chic cool ones like Platea. They have really gourmet tapas and different seafood and cheese bars, and different things that you can try all sorts of food, or you can go low-brow to some of these more local markets and just get a slab of meat on a slab of bread, which I know doesn’t sound so appetizing, but it’s some of the most …

Zach Honig:
Well, everything is very fresh too, right?

Lori Zaino:
Exactly.

Zach Honig:
I mean people are shopping for same day to cook at home. They’re going to the market every day to buy ingredients.

Lori Zaino:
Everyone, if you’re low-carb, it’s not like the city for you. Everyone loves bread there, but everyone’s thin. So whatever they’re doing is working …

Zach Honig:
A lot of walking?

Lori Zaino:
Oh tons, yeah. But you should definitely try one of the most famous quick dishes in Madrid, is bocadillo de calamares. It’s like a seafood sandwich, I guess, with fried calamari on a baguette.

Zach Honig:
I mean, so obviously you’re, you’re eating late and so you’re probably getting started pretty late too.

Lori Zaino:
I’ve had dinners last till 2am and that’s perfect because that’s when all the clubs open. But you know, it’s funny, everyone goes out for a drink after dinner. It’s called getting a copa. You get a drink after dinner. Everybody does it. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Everyone goes out for a drink after dinner. It’s just what you do. So a lot of bars are open ’til 3 or 4am, clubs open, 2, 3am.  I mean they open a little bit earlier, but no one actually goes until later. So if you’re ready to party, Madrid is your city.

Zach Honig:
Oh man. I’ll have to stay on East Coast time, but then I can do it, I think.

Lori Zaino:
Exactly. And rooftop bars. You should plan to go to a rooftop bar. They have a lot of new ones in Madrid. A lot of them are on hotels, so the best one in the city for really the most amazing views, is on top of the Circulo de Bellas Artes, It’s like an art center and it costs, I believe 4 euros to go up, and the views are incredible. It’s really worth the money that it costs to go up. And another one, I really liked the views from the Hyatt Centric rooftop. It’s a good one. Or the Dear Hotel has a great rooftop.

Zach Honig:
You’re staying very on brand. I appreciate that.

Lori Zaino:
Right. I’m like, I knew you would want to hear about the Hyatt one.

Zach Honig:
Speaking of money, though, is Madrid an expensive city? Do you have to, you know, budget quite a bit for your meals and drinks or is it all pretty affordable?

Lori Zaino:
I am going to go out on a limb and say I think it’s one of the cheapest European capitals, at least Western European capitals. Possibly Lisbon … can compete with Lisbon, but it’s incredibly cheap. Especially … you guys are here in New York.

Zach Honig:
Yeah, you can probably have a full dinner, drink pairings and then go out, and still spend less than just a dry meal in New York.

Lori Zaino:
Typically for dinner out, I won’t spend more than 25 or 30 euros, drinks included. That’s like an average, you know, but you don’t have to spend a lot to have a really nice dinner in Madrid, and lunch menus, go for the menu del dia, it’s the daily lunch menu. You’ll see them on chalkboards outside. So they typically include your choice of, they’ll give you maybe four appetizers and you pick one, a couple of main courses and you pick one. It will also include dessert or coffee and a drink, which can be wine, beer, water, whatever you want. But they’re usually anywhere from 10 to 15 euros. But that’s what you pay for a glass of wine in New York on its own so …

Zach Honig:
Yeah, easily. I know you are a super Madrid buff, which I appreciate.

Lori Zaino:
I’m very biased.

Zach Honig:
You’re going to have to show me around when I come, but say you have more than three days and you want to see a little bit more of Spain, you know, are there, are there a lot of day-trip options? Can you still stay in Madrid and explore some of the country?

Lori Zaino:
Oh absolutely. There’s Segovia nearby. They have a really famous Roman aqueduct. They have a castle that looks like the Cinderella castle at Disney world, a beautiful cathedral. There’s also Toledo, which is known for art and it’s kind of hilly and cobblestone streets. You’ve got Avila, which is a medieval walled city. There’s tons of places you can pop over.

Zach Honig:
And do you need a rental car or can you take trains pretty easily to get around?

Lori Zaino:
Oh, you can take trains everywhere. You’ve got buses. Trains are good. You can always rent a car, but I think it’s kind of scary sometimes to drive in Europe

Zach Honig:
It’s pretty clear why you have not come back. So we need to take a quick break and when we come back from the break we are going to dig into points-and-miles options for your trip to Madrid.

Zach Honig:
I’ve actually connected in, Madrid quite a few times even though I’ve never been to the city, because it’s the hub for Iberia, right?

Lori Zaino:
Right. Have you been to all terminals or just the OneWorld Terminal?

Zach Honig:
I’ve been to the new terminal, which was new when I went in college, so it’s probably not very new anymore.

Lori Zaino:
That was a while ago, Zach.

Zach Honig:
It was very impressive. It was. It was impressive at the time. It was definitely the nicest terminal that I had been through. And then a huge, huge terminal. I remember walking, endless walking on arrival and then getting to my gate when I was leaving too, so which terminal is that?

Lori Zaino:
Well, right. So Terminal 4 is the newish terminal that you mentioned, and it actually has two parts. There’s the satellite terminal and then you have the regular part and there’s a little train that takes you between the two. So that’s the OneWorld terminal. And then the other three terminals. Terminals 1 through 3 are in another area, about 10 minutes away by bus or car from Terminal 4. So if you’re, say, flying into Madrid on Iberia and then you’re connecting to, say, Ryanair or Air Europa or Air France or something like that, you’re going to have to take the bus. I mean I guess you could get a taxi, but there is a bus that goes to all the terminals to get to the other three and then you can walk between those.

Zach Honig:
Oh, OK. Yeah, no, I was definitely, I was connecting to, I think it was another Iberia flight on both of my trips through Madrid, so it was very easy to do. So maybe not the best hub to pick if you’re connecting, you know, to another airline …

Lori Zaino:
Why would you just skip Madrid?

Zach Honig:
Yeah, exactly. You’re probably …

Lori Zaino:
You should stay in Madrid for a few days and then take your Ryanair flight out to, you know, Bologna or …

Zach Honig:
Since you’re buying multiple tickets anyway, you might as well, you know, pop in a stopover there.

Lori Zaino:
Yeah. And Madrid is, like I said, it’s a cheap city. It’s really easy to get to the city center from the airport.

Zach Honig:
Can you take a train just from the airport?

Lori Zaino:
Just so many ways. You can take the Metro. It’s about 45 minutes. I mean, depending on where you want to go. There’s airport buses that leave from different places around the city. One’s 24 hours. You can take the train system, which is different from the Metro. It’s only about 20 to 30 euros in an Uber and it’s a flat fixed rate from the airport to anywhere in the city center for 30 euros in a taxi and it’s only about 20 minutes, maybe less if there’s no traffic. So it’s really just easy.

Zach Honig:
You fly the low-cost carriers as well, but I see you on Iberia quite a bit. Every time you come to the States, are you flying Iberia?

Lori Zaino:
Not always. I do Oneworld, so sometimes American, but you actually have a ton of of different choices from the US. United flies there, Delta, American and then obviously Iberia and then if you want to change, you have Norwegian and you have a ton of different carriers, if you want to be changing around Europe.

Zach Honig:
It’s very, very, very well-connected city.

Lori Zaino:
It’s very easy to get there.

Zach Honig:
And Iberia actually has some very good redemption rates, if I recall, especially if you’re going off-peak.

Lori Zaino:
They do and they’re flying their new A350 now from Chicago, which is exciting.

Zach Honig:
Oh nice, OK. Have you been on board yet?

Lori Zaino:
I have, I’ve reviewed business class, I’ve reviewed premium economy and JT Genter has reviewed economy.

Zach Honig:
OK. I think we have it covered.

Lori Zaino:
I think I got the better end of the deal there.

Zach Honig:
I would say so. How? How’s the new biz?

Lori Zaino:
It’s nice. It’s, you know, Iberia. They’re not my favorite airline, but it’s the most convenient really if you’re living in Spain, and they do have some great redemption rates, as you mentioned. You can get there off-peak for 34,000 Avios one-way from Chicago.

Zach Honig:
And that’s business class right?

Lori Zaino:
Yes, business class, which is really a great redemption if you consider that’s a long flight.

Zach Honig:
Yeah, it is. It is. I mean especially coming … if you’re on the westbound leg, I mean, it’s seven and a half, eight hours.

Lori Zaino:
More. I mean it was, it’s almost nine, I think, sometimes if the winds are strong and you’re fighting against …

Zach Honig:
Enough time to really enjoy it.

Lori Zaino:
Right.

Zach Honig:
For 34,000 Avios, it’s not bad.

Lori Zaino:
Well the interesting thing about Iberia’s off-peak calendar, which you can find online, is that it’s really different maybe from the peak times for say America, and they’re working with Spanish time. So July and August are when most Spanish people go on vacation and so those are all peak times, but there’s a lot of holidays in the US that you might be able to get off-peak, like around Thanksgiving, most of October, second half of September is considered off-peak. A lot of November around Thanksgiving too. So you have a lot of options to get those off-peak tickets.

Zach Honig:
That calendar is built more around people leaving Spain than coming to visit.

Lori Zaino:
Exactly. So it really benefits a US traveler that has different times when school lets out. What I really love is that I can transfer my Chase and my Amex points to Iberia as well, which makes it really easy to get a bank going there.

Zach Honig:
Let’s talk a little bit about the hotels. I know that you live in Madrid, so you’re probably not staying at the hotels, but when friends come to visit, what recommendations do you, you know, do you have for them?

Lori Zaino:
Madrid is having a moment with hotels right now, actually. If you want to use your points, you’re in luck. There are so, so many points properties in the city, around the city, outside of the city, that you can stay in. One of the most popular ones is the Western Palace. It’s a Bonvoy that’s 50k per night for redemption and they just renovated it and we have a review out on the site if you want to check it out. Another Bonvoy option is the Santo Mauro.

Zach Honig:
Another what option?

Lori Zaino:
Bonvoy. Or we could say it in a Spanish accent. It would be like Bonvoy, since we are talking about Spain. So um the Santo Mauro. It’s an Autograph Collection property. It’s also 50k points. We have a review up if you want to check it out. It is in an old palace and it’s a really beautiful property. It’s very exquisite.

Zach Honig:
Is the Western Palace in an old palace as well?

Lori Zaino:
I believe so actually.

Zach Honig:
So two palace Bonvoy hotels.

Lori Zaino:
A lot of buildings in Spain are old palaces actually. So a lot of hotels, there’s a lot actually that are, that are in old palace buildings.

Zach Honig:
How would you say World of Hyatt in Spanish?

Lori Zaino:
El Mundo de Hyatt (laughter)

Zach Honig:
That sounds better yes, but if you have your World of Hyatt points, you have a couple of other options …

Lori Zaino:
There is the Hyatt Centric, which I love that rooftop. It’s only 20,000 points per night. The Hyatt Centric properties are focused on kind of getting into the local vibe. So they have big fans, like Spanish fans that are used to cool off. Oh, that’s another way to beat the heat. You have to have one of those handheld wooden Spanish fans.

Zach Honig:
You just carry it around with you and just fan yourself all the time.

Lori Zaino:
Yeah, especially on the subway. You’ll see like lots of people doing that, or it’s sometimes to block the sun. You’ll like hold it in front of your face while you walk. If you want to look very Spanish, you can do that. [inaudible] I mentioned, just opened a new hotel there. It’s 25k Bonvoy.

Zach Honig:
25k Bonvoy.

Lori Zaino:
I keep changing the way I say it though. I’m like I’m just going through all sorts of pronunciations.

Zach Honig:
And then come next year, we’re going to have a few more Bonvoy options.

Lori Zaino:
Oh, right. So when I said Madrid was having a moment with hotels, I was, it’s real. The W Madrid is opening in 2020; there’s a brand new Four Seasons that has been under construction forever. It’s going to be open in 2020 and it looks really stunning. I cannot wait to check it out. Let’s do a staycation.

Zach Honig:
Maybe I’ll wait until 2020, or I’ll come this year, and then I’ll visit again in 2020 and we’ll check out some hotels.

Lori Zaino:
Well you’re gonna have to come a few times because the Ritz Carlton renovation will be complete also. So you’re gonna have to check that out.

Zach Honig:
You had mentioned hostels, but it sounds like they’re pretty nice, right?

Lori Zaino:
Yeah. I mean Madrid has a little bit of everything and it’s an affordable city. So if you’re going there and you don’t have points or you want to save them for a redemption that you feel is a better one, you can usually get a cool boutique hotel or a boutique hostel for a decent price.

Zach Honig:
And Airbnb? Are there a lot of Airbnb options?

Lori Zaino:
Lots of Airbnbs. Although the city is starting to regulate them a little bit, you can still find a lot. And I find that the Meliá brands … it’s a Spanish brand … they have some hip properties around the city. The Room Mate Hotels are kind of cool. So you’re not going to be stuck if you don’t have points.

Zach Honig:
Are you paired with a stranger at the Room Mate Hotel?

Lori Zaino:
No, they don’t come with a room. I guess you, you can bring your own, you know, or not.

Zach Honig:
Well, I am very excited for my trip. Thank you so much for joining us here in New York, Lori. How can people follow on with your adventures on social media?

Lori Zaino:
I’m on Instagram at Lori_ Zaino.

Zach Honig:
All right. Well, safe travels. Thanks so much for joining us.

Lori Zaino:
Thank you. Adios!

Zach Honig:
That’s it for this episode of Miles Away. Thanks again to Lori Zaino.

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