This post is one that I’ve wanted to write for months now and I finally got the chance this past week.
In June, my aunt, cousin, and I went to Madrid for a 4-day side trip while we were on vacation in Scotland. Overall, it was an awesome experience, but I can’t say that I was completely prepared for everything that came our way.
So, I figured, “What the heck? Why not give people a little heads up?”
And this post was born.
#1: Don’t listen to anyone who says that you can get by without knowing any Spanish
“Habla usted inglés?” (Do you speak English?)
As the novice translator of my group, this was always the first question I asked when we went to a restaurant or shop during our journey in Madrid. Most of the time, the person’s response would be “un poco,” which means “a little,” but more and more, I realized that they all really meant “muy poco” which would be “very little.”
Before the trip, I had done my research to see if I needed to brush up on my Spanish, but I never got a clear answer online.
So, I’m here to set the record straight! YES! Definitely learn some common words and phrases in Spanish before coming to Madrid. The more the better!
We were in the “touristy” areas the whole time and none of that made a difference. People still really only spoke Spanish, the menus were in Spanish, and even places like museums would have everything in Spanish (Museo Nacional de Antropología is an example).
For me though, I didn’t expect it to feel so wonderful to have the opportunity to speak the language outside of a classroom setting. Especially after taking 5+ years of Spanish between middle school and college and never feeling like it amounted to anything.
I’m still pretty surprised that I didn’t do half-bad as our translator.
#2: Go on a tour shortly after you first arrive in Madrid
Usually I’m not one for tours and tour groups for the simple fact that…I don’t want to look like a tourist. But, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the 3-hour walking tour we did through MadRide. Our guide, Stéphane, was awesome! And the tour was free, though everyone in our tour group gave him a well deserved tip at the end of the tour.
We learned a lot of interesting history and facts, met new people in our tour group who were from different countries, and got some pointers about other attractions in the city.
If nothing else, I think it’s best to go on a tour as soon as you arrive in Madrid just to get a sense of your surroundings.
I wasn’t only the novice translator in my group; I was also the navigator, reluctantly walking around with my nose in a map the whole time. And, let me tell ya, navigating through this city’s web of streets isn’t easy.
I figured it out eventually since I’m a visual learner and could remember a lot by the landmarks. But, if we would have started out with the tour, I would have gotten a feel for the city at the beginning of the trip and might have even been able to confidently fold up my map at some point.
#3: “Agua del grifo” is a must know!
Or maybe that’s just me.
Fresh off the plane, wearing our heavy backpacks, we made our way to our first restaurant in Madrid, tucked within an alleyway near Puerta del Sol. The sun beat relentlessly overhead and we were ready for a nice meal and a rest.
As soon as we were greeted by our waiter and asked about drinks, I asked for “agua, por favor.” What he came back with was a blue, glass bottle of Solan de Cabras mineral water and we all knew that we’d be charged a nice little fee for it.
We let it go though. No big deal.
Soon after, I learned how to ask for tap water (agua del grifo) and, everything was fine.
Or so I thought.
Rule #1: Be aggressive for your tap water! For some reason, when we would ask for tap water at a restaurant, the waiter/waitress would seem to get a bit annoyed and/or take their sweet time bringing it over to our table.
In fact, at one restaurant, the waiter outright ignored my request after asking him multiple times, but kept the wine flowing (which usually isn’t a bad thing, but in 90+ degree weather, we really wanted our water).
Rule #2: Don’t EVER try to take any of those fancy mineral water bottles with you after you’re done with them.
You might think, “oh I bought it, so I can obviously take it.” But, for us, that resulted in an old, Spanish women flipping out as we left the restaurant. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but there was a lot of me saying, “lo siento” (I’m sorry) as I handed over the bottle in confusion.
Those blue bottles were all over the place in Madrid, so I’m guessing they get recycled or something.
Wow, did I really just write a whole section about tap water.
#4: Be mindful of La Siestas
Back in the day, a siesta was apparently a 15-30 minute nap during the work day.
Fast-forward to the present and it’s a hefty three hour long break evident by the empty streets, closed businesses, and tourist wandering around aimlessly in confusion.
Luckily, we already knew about the siestas before we arrived, but it was still hard to, as Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work.”
But, just remember:
2PM-5PM shops and businesses are usually closed
4PM-8PM/9PM bars and restaurants are usually closed
#5: Don’t be afraid to use Airbnb
For many, the concept of staying in a stranger’s home is rather daunting and uncomfortable, especially abroad. And usually I would be among those many.
But, I honestly think that more people should give Airbnb a try. I’ve only had two experiences with them so far, but they were both great!
I think the key is to just be smart when making the decision to stay in someone’s home. These are kind of obvious, but look for:
- A suitable amount of reviews on the listing
- Mostly good reviews
- Decent photos that show the rooms in their entirety (I’ve seen listings with one, lonely, blurry photo)
- Choose a listing where you can rent the whole home/apartment for yourself (I personally prefer to do this! The host might not be crazy, but their other guests could be)
With all that being said, the apartment we stayed at in Madrid was everything we needed for our short trip. It was affordable, safe, in walking distance of many of the different plazas and markets, and a very lovely, clean space with all the necessary amenities.
It had three beds too, so I didn’t have to share with anyone for once (the traveling in threes blues).
The person who greeted us was extremely friendly as well and, even with the language barrier, drew us a map of cool places to check out during our visit.