Looking for some non touristy things to do in Madrid? A way to get off the tourist sprint from Must See to Must See? How about taking a step back and really seeing not just the sights, but the city and the Madrilenos living in the city? Give our list of 10 non touristy things to do in Madrid a try!
Recently I had the opportunity to help chaperone my teen daughter’s Spanish class trip to Spain. The teacher, 4 students and I explored Madrid and Barcelona (and accidentally Trim Ireland – you have to check out that story) while the kids practice their language skills and were surrounded by the Spanish culture. It was A LOT of fun. I’m not sure why more students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, but they missed out.
We saw the Sites (with the capital S) and thoroughly enjoyed it, learning a lot about Spanish history and culture. But there were a few times some or all of us just had to step away and take a bit of a break. It could get to be overload. SO… one day my daughter and I (after sleeping in!) explored Retiro park, slowly. And one night several of us did a midnight frozen yogurt run, walking the streets until 1am. (Uh, hi parents! I swear, it was safe.) Looking back, these moments were so valuable to step back from the schedule and really see the city and the people.
So, I give you our list of ideas for changing up your pace and finding some non-touristy things to do in Madrid.
#1 Non Touristy Thing to do in Madrid: Learn the Metro and Use It!
Nothing says I’m a tourist like taxi-ing everywhere, or constant use of the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. Now, I get it, I do the same thing and did so on this trip! It’s handy and quite frankly, we all have those ‘if I don’t get off my feet in 2 minutes I’m going to get super cranky on someone!’ moments. No judgment.
BUT, the people going to and from school and work? Or across town to visit a friend? They’re using public transportation. People watching on the Metro is fascinating. What do people wear in every day life? Do they engage with others or stay glued to their phones? What music are they listening to? So much to learn about the people – all while getting from point A to point B.
Plus, it’s a much cheaper way to get where you need to be!
#2 Non Touristy Things To Do in Madrid: Eat a Meal From a Market
This was a last minute decision on our part in Madrid, but one of my favorite non-touristy things to do in Madrid or any city. One of the students wasn’t feeling well, and we were all kinda exhausted one evening, so the teacher and I asked the kids if they just wanted us to put together something simple from one of the grocery stores we had seen down the street, and just eat at the hotel together. The idea was unanimously accepted, so Mrs. B- and I made a quick trip out and explored the market together.
Markets in other countries show you what foods that culture considers ‘must have’ and what they don’t. What does grocery store ‘ready to eat’ food mean here? What fresh foods are quick and easy and cheap? Fruits and vegetables will be different, easily purchased meats and cheeses will be different. Really, Mrs. B- and I had a little too much fun going through all the options and swapping things in and out of our basket before finally making our purchases.
And when we all got together in a room that night, it was fun to pick and choose who was eating what!
# 3 Non Touristy Thing: Visit a Bookstore
Or really any ordinary non-tourist store. Personally, I prefer bookstores, especially if they have an English language section where I can pick up a book about the area. Plus, locals who are learning or improving their English, and expats whose first language is English, often shop in these stores bookstores and can be a wealth of information.
Note: English language bookstores have the BEST regionally focused books. It’s a regular part of my routine to stop in any time I’m in a new area, browse the selection, and take one home.
#4 Non Touristy Thing: Talk with the Locals
It is SO EASY to get pulled into Site and Site, Tour after Tour… and not really get the chance to to talk to people actually FROM the city you are in. Hopefully, while you are visiting a market or a bookstore, or on the metro, you will get the chance. Go for it!
Especially as an English speaker, we are completely spoiled in this regard. A large percentage of people in Europe speak English, especially in large cities, and they are often (at least in my experience) eager to practice their English with you. In fact, even when I know how to have the simple conversation I’m trying to engage in in the language of the country, so often people just respond in English! (Yeah, I know, shows how excellent my Spanish and Italian are.)
Take advantage of the opportunities to learn more. Ask for restaurant recommendations. Ask where they like to take friends who are visiting the city. What is their favorite non touristy thing to do in Madrid? Often you will get your question answered and learn more about the person’s daily life.
Our experience doing this non touristy thing in Madrid:
When my girl and I were on the Metro after spending the day in the park, a woman approached us to ask if she was at the right metro platform. Oddly, we knew the answer since she was going where we were. We had a fascinating conversation about her life, born and raised in the States but lived in and raised her family in Madrid the past 30+ years, for our entire Metro ride. She told us about arriving in the city so long ago with her husband and her baby, only knowing how to say “leche caliente” or warm milk in Spanish. All she knew was enough language to feed her baby in a pinch. She was headed down into the heart of the city – somewhere she rarely goes anymore – to help a woman from her church who was newly arrived in Spain and had just gotten sick. I honestly wanted to ask her out for coffee afterward and keep talking. Still regret I hadn’t at least asked!
#5 Non Touristy Things To Do in Madrid: Hang Out In Parque del Retiro
Especially if you have time on a weekend, or after working hours if you only have a weekday, just spend some time in the park. Don’t take a tour of the park. Don’t speed walk it to get pictures of certain Points of Interest… hang out.
This would be a great place to bring that meal you put together at the market. Find a spot in the grass somewhere and enjoy your picnic. The park is filled with locals going for their run, or walking their dogs, throwing a frisbee, or having a picnic of their own. Join in and pretend you’re a local for a while.
#6 Non Touristy Things To Do in Madrid: Attend a Neighborhood Event
While we were in Madrid we were just down the street from El Campo de Cebada. Our guide took us past one day and mentioned that this graffitti covered space was used for neighborhood events such as concerts. We kept an eye out, but didn’t see anything for several days.
As my girl and I got off the metro where we had that great talk with the one woman, there was music eminating from the area. We went over and slid ourselves into the crowd. I couldn’t understand a word of what was being sung, but I liked the music and it was a totally unique experience.
Since then I found that there is a Facebook page for El Campo de Cebada, so have a look and see if anything is going on during your visit!
#7 Madrid Non Touristy Things To Do: Eat Your Favorite Chain Restaurant Food from Home
Ok, this one is a little different. Normally, I would NOT be an advocate of eating some big chain restaurant food from back home when visiting a new country/culture. BUT. Shhh… don’t tell her… but I’ve learned something from my teen daughter.
You see, she loves McDonald’s. YES! I KNOW! Really? McDonald’s?? Ugh. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE their fries, and the cheeseburgers aren’t too bad either. But it’s McDonald’s and we all know it not good for you! It’s my running joke that McDonald’s is the US’s gift to world – and I don’t say it in a complimentary way. Why would I eat there when traveling to places with such interesting foods?? But she loves it. (Or she loves torturing me with her love of it… I’m guessing both.)
So, at some point when traveling – I don’t even know what trip started this and when, I’m thinking probably Hawaii – she asked to go to McDonald’s, and we did. What we found was that while a good portion of the menu was the same, there were unique additions and some things missing. It sparked discussion of why some other ingredient would make such a prominent appearance on the menu, why would some things be missing, etc. (It WAS Hawaii – and it was SPAM on the menu. I just… don’t get it… yeah.)
I’m not sure if it technically counts as one of the non touristy things to do in Madrid, but I have to say, McD’s is almost always filled with locals, so maybe. Now, it’s kind of my girl’s thing to go to McDonald’s once in each country we visit. We see how the menu is altered, and also often the distinct difference in taste. It’s wound up being kind of interesting.
In Madrid, there’s no Mayo for your burgers. She was appalled! But the burgers tasted meatier (??) and the bread was more fresh. Plus, the fries were completely different – they really tasted like potatoes. Sort of like steak fries. And there were also curly fries on the menu. It makes her happy, I go with it. Choose your favorite chain from back home and give it a shot!
#8 Non Touristy Thing: Do a Fro-Yo Run at Midnight
Ok, here’s the part where I fess up to parents and tell them that while we were in Madrid, my girl really wanted Frozen Yogurt, and it was already past 11pm. SO, I took her. And two other girls wanted to come, too. And that’s how we wound up wandering around the Plaza Mayor/Puerta del Sol area looking for Fro-Yo at midnight. (I’m so getting kicked out of the responsible parent’s club.)
Here’s the thing though: In Spanish culture, being out at midnight isn’t the big deal it is in the US. People were out, walking around, talking in the streets. We had also already been informed by our guide that Madrid is actually a really safe city. The biggest risk is pick-pockets – common for any big tourist city – but there wasn’t a problem with anything more severe than that.
So don’t get sucked into the Site-Site-Tour-Tour-Crash in your bed so you can get up early and do it all over again cycle. That can easily happen when you are trying to ‘Get The Most’ out of a city you have limited time in, I know. But in Spain, the culture’s hours of activity are different. Go with it a little and see what’s happening out there!
#9 Thing To Do: Take Your Time in a Cafe (or anywhere else)
I remember the first time I sat in a cafe in Europe for a meal, and about went insane because of how ssssllllllooooooowwwwww it seemed to go. We Americans, we’re just constantly in a rush, always on to the next thing. Our servers are ready to take our order within minutes of being seated and constantly check back to see if we need something else, before dropping our check on the table when they assume we’re close to finished, so we can pay and sprint out the door as soon as we’re ready.
It’s not so in a Spanish (or really European) culture, so just relax. Watch the people going by. Savor the food. Talk to everyone with you. That’s what the meal is supposed to be for! Everyone will get what they need eventually.
#10 Non Touristy Thing To Do in Madrid: Get Off the Touristy Path
This goes for any city you visit, really. There is always a certain path the tourists tend to take. The main roads that go from Site A to Site B that are packed with tourists and tourist-catering shops. We all will walk some or even most of them, and that’s fine. They became these main tourist ways for a reason, they usually are most direct way to get where you need to go.
At least once or twice during your trip, purposely go off these beaten paths. You will be amazed how quickly the mob drops off. It’s an exponential decrease in the number of people and the touristy quotient of the area with every street you stray from the path. There are some cities I’d be more cautious about it, but as we discussed Madrid’s relative safety earlier, cut off a few streets and explore a little.
Well, that’s my tip list for beefing up your Non-Touristy Things To Do in Madrid, I hope it helps you out. And if you have any great non-touristy tips, I’d love to hear them!
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