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Why Go to Madrid

In many ways, Madrid is similar to many other international metropolises – it's Spain's largest city, has the largest population, is the capital and is the center for international business. But, before you jump to conclusions, hush … if you listen carefully, you can hear the gentle melodies of the Spanish guitar, the swish of a flamenco dancer's skirt, and the happy laughter from a midday meal infused with too many glasses of sangria. Yes, Madrid is for travelers interested in famous paintings and stunning architecture, but it's also, and maybe more so, for those looking for an unhurried good time.

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Madrid Travel Tips

Best Months to Visit

The best time to visit Madrid is in the fall (September to November) or spring (March to May), when balmy temps blow through the city, making it come alive. But if you don't mind drab weather and a rather listless Madrid, visit in the winter when hotels reduce their rates. Peak tourist season is summer – despite nearly unbearable heat – but many Madrileños close up shop this time of year and take vacations themselves.

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What You Need to Know

  • Catch some z's Take a midafternoon siesta like the locals do and refresh for a big night on the town.
  • Pickpocket prudence Watch your wallets at all times, but especially around El Rastro and on the metro coming from the airport.  
  • Botellón is illegal Although some Madrileños still botellón, or drink in the city squares or parks before going to bars or clubs, doing so is illegal. If you get caught with an open container, you can be smacked with a huge fine.

How to Save Money in Madrid

  • Walk Madrid is the largest city in Spain, but the biggest attractions, from Retiro Park to Mercado San Miguel, are centrally located.
  • But metro too Madrid's metro system is affordable and runs extensive routes, even making the 45-minute trip from the airport to the city center.
  • Gorge on the "Menú del Día" These Monday-to-Friday lunchtime menus offer you a taste of traditional Spanish cooking without the requisite high price.

Culture & Customs

Madrileños love to live life to the fullest. Much like the rest of Spain, they don't live to work, they work to live. Travelers visiting Madrid will find this evident quickly upon arrival. When the weather is right (and sometimes not), visitors will see hordes of Spaniards dining al fresco along the city's streets for hours on end, and laying out on a blanket with loved ones in Parque Retiro. At night, regardless of the season, the city truly comes alive when its citizens get off work and party all night. In Spain, dinner starts at 9 or 10 p.m., and clubs open at midnight, closing around 2 or 3 a.m. – and some even at 6 a.m. If you're unsure of where to start, try Sol. There are club and bar promoters stationed there throughout the night offering discounts on drinks and entrance fees. But don't feel tied down to one place. It's a Madrileño pastime to bar and club hop, unless you have paid a steep cover charge, of course.

Madrileños are an easygoing bunch, as evidenced by their unofficial motto, no pasa nada, which translates to "don't worry about it." However, they can be very proud people and tend to prefer not to speak English (even though most of them know it). Learning a few Spanish phrases will take you far, but if you're having trouble, it's best to approach the younger crowd for questions and directions, as the older Spaniards tend to know less English.

Service with a smile is few and far between in Spain, so don't expect anything else of your server aside from taking your order and handing you your food. Service moves slow in Spain, as many Spaniards dine for long periods of time. There are fewer grab-and-go places in comparison to the U.S.; Spaniards take their time eating and engage in sobremesa, literally "over the table," or after-dinner conversation, which can last for hours. Because of this, checks take much longer to arrive so don't be afraid to ask more than once to get your bill. It's important to note that words from Latin American Spanish differ in Castellano, or Spain's dialect of Spanish. Vocabulary such as baño, which means "bathroom" in Latin American Spanish, is servicio or aseos in Castellano. And instead of saying adios, or "goodbye," Spaniards tend to say hasta luego instead.

At restaurants and bars, a service tip is usually added to the bill, so you don't have to tip extra. But if you received exceptional service and want to leave a few more euros, leave your tip in cash rather than credit cards, as the servers don't usually get them when they're given on cards. And in hotels, doormen and maids should be tipped about a euro for their services. Madrid's official currency is the euro (EUR). Since the euro to U.S. dollar exchange rate fluctuates often, be sure to check what the current exchange rate is before you go. Major credit cards are accepted at most restaurants and shops.

What to Eat

Traditionally Madrid's cuisine is fairly rustic. Meat, bread and cheese heavy, Madrid's food is best tasted in tapas – which are small plates or samples of Spanish dishes that come free when ordered with a drink at a bar. Note that Madrileños eat a late, large lunch, nosh on some tapas around 8 p.m., and then enjoy a later, lighter dinner meal. The incredibly popular Mercado San Miguel offers ready-to-go tapas, as well as coffee, cocktails, dessert and produce stalls. The market even has a sushi counter. However, if your heart is set on having traditional complimentary tapas with a drink, head to El Tigre. Located near Chueca, El Tigre serves large drinks with equally large plates filled with tapas piled high on top of each other. El Tigre is messy, small and incredibly loud, but quintessentially Madrid, serving as a stop for many Madrileños on the way to the club. For an overview of some of the city's best tapas, consider tagging along on a tapas tour. The Madrid Tapas Night Walking Tour is especially popular with past travelers. 

Spanish specialties include tortilla española (potato omelette), paella (rice with fish), croquetas (fried breadcrumb rolls typically filled with mashed potatoes, cheese and meat), gazpacho (cold soup) and patatas bravas (sautéed potatoes typically served with a spicy aioli). But the country's most beloved dish is a simple plate of jamón Iberico, or Iberian ham. Visitors should not leave Spain without sampling the jamón Iberico, as it is considered by food experts to be some of the best ham in the world. It also isn't widely available in the U.S. Jamón is everywhere in Madrid. You will not only see it on many restaurant menus and tapas plates, but hanging in its original form in shop windows as you stroll the streets. It is just as much of a staple in Spanish culture as flamenco and bullfighting, only much more delicious.

If you grow tired of the heavy Madrid fare, the city also offers a number of international establishments serving up Indian, Asian and Latin American cuisine. For a sampling of global cuisine, especially Indian food, head to Lavapies, one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. For cheap, and truly delectable Chinese food, venture underground Plaza de España to the Cafeteria and sample the tallarines fritos (or fried noodles). As for drinks, order a jarra (pitcher) of sangria, a glass of tinto de verano (summer wine), wine from the Rioja region and Mahou beer.

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Safety

Madrid is a pretty safe place, but it does see its fair share of pickpocketing. Be especially mindful of your wallets and purses when taking out money at ATMs, when using public transportation to or from the airport and when touring Madrid's top attractions like Sol , Plaza Mayor and El Rastro market. Spain has also been the target of terrorist attacks.According to the U.S. Department of State, terrorist groups continue to plot attacks, so increased vigilance is required. Travelers should stay aware of their surroundings, consider enrolling in the  Smart Traveler Enrollment Program  to receive security messages and follow local media to stay informed.  

Getting Around Madrid

The best way to get around Madrid is by metro. A handful of metro lines extend as far north as the Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) as well as into the city's southern suburbs. Buses are an option, too, as are metered taxis, which can be hailed on the street or found in ranks throughout the city. Renting a car is another alternative, but you should note that it's nearly always rush hour in Madrid. 

To get from the airport into Madrid, you can take the metro (line No. 8) for 4.50 to 5 euros (around $5.25 to $6). Taxis charge a flat fare of 30 euros (approximately $35). There are also several car rental companies located at the airport.

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Entry & Exit Requirements

A valid passport is required for United States citizens traveling outside the mainland by air or sea, as well as for U.S. citizens trying to re-enter the country. Your passport must be valid for at least three months after your visit. You won't need a visa unless you plan on staying longer than 90 days. Visit the U.S. State Department's website for the latest information on foreign exit and entry requirements.

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