Madrid is packed with amazing art museums, world-renowned wine, century-old markets and perfectly manicured parks. It is also packed with tourists: millions of them in an average year, to be exact. And that means a day of sight seeing in Madrid often means long lines, crowded bars and packed plazas.
But never fear—it is possible to explore off the beaten path in Madrid. In fact, this is where some of the city’s greatest treasures and other hidden gems lie!
Without a doubt, many of Madrid’s main attractions are absolutely worth battling the masses. But think beyond El Prado museum and the famous churros at San Ginés. You’ll discover a plethora of places packed with culture, beauty and, of course, spectacular Madrid food—you just need to know where to look.
So ditch the guidebook, toss the tourist map, and follow these tips and tricks to explore Madrid off the beaten path!
1. Explore the Tapestry Museum Instead of El Prado
Madrid’s premier art museum is, of course, a must-see sight in the city. But at the Royal Tapestry Factory, art literally comes to life!
This is the perfect way to get off the beaten path in Madrid for art aficionados. You can tour the working factory and watch expert weavers at work creating spectacular tapestries. Learn about the factory’s nearly 300-year history and gaze upon fantastically preserved tapestries created by masters like Juan Gris.
English-language guided tours are available and can be scheduled in advance by contacting the museum.
2. Eat at the San Fernando Market instead of San Miguel
The Mercado de San Fernando, in the thriving immigrant neighborhood of Lavapiés, is the locals-only version of the tourist-heavy Mercado de San Miguel. This smaller, more intimate market comes complete with a local soundtrack of kids playing, adults chatting, glasses clinking, and butchers chopping.
Start by grabbing a craft beer from La Buena Pinta or a local wine from La Siempre Llena while snacking on tasty tapas from one of the many cafés and restaurants throughout the market. From Mexican to Portuguese to Peruvian, it’s all here at this non-touristy Madrid market off the beaten path.
3. Relax in Parque del Capricho Instead of Retiro
As if the name wasn’t enticing enough (capricho means “whim” or “craving”), the bright flowerbeds, bubbling fountains and kids’ playground complete with a moat and cannons will undoubtedly make the trek to Parque del Capricho well worth the metro ride.
The park has charmed madrileños since the 18th century. It was created in 1784 as an artistic reprieve from city life for one of Madrid’s most powerful families, the Duke of Osuna. Today, however, locals and visitors alike from all walks of life can enjoy its splendor.
Hop on the green metro (Line 5) to the El Capricho station and you’ll be strolling through this secluded oasis in no time. It’s the most relaxing way to get off the beaten path in Madrid!
4. Shop at Mercado de Motores Instead of El Rastro
You can even shop your way off the beaten path in Madrid!
If the sprawling neighborhood-wide El Rastro flea market seems a tad overwhelming, the smaller, mostly indoor Mercado de Motores is the ideal place to pick up unique items in Madrid. Located in the Railway Museum, the Mercado de Motores packs stalls of antiques, recycled-object crafts, second-hand clothes and more between old locomotives and metro cars. There are even food trucks, live performances, activities for kids, and so much more!
5. Try Spanish Hot Chocolate at El Riojano Instead of San Ginés
Everyone loves a serving of piping hot chocolate con churros. After all, who can resist crispy fried dough dipped in chocolate? Few, however, know about another true Madrid classic, the soletilla—the most delicious way to get off the beaten path in Madrid
This light sponge cake is the specialty of the house at one of Madrid’s oldest pastry shops, El Riojano. It was once brought as a gift to pregnant women because it was nice and light (and therefore recommended at the time). Order one of these and a cup of El Riojano’s famous hot chocolate and you’ll see that there’s a whole world of chocolate-dunking sweet treats beyond churros!
6. Dine at a Local Madrid Restaurant Instead of Tourist-Centered Spots
Finding fantastic, authentic food within an easy walking distance of Madrid’s main plaza, Puerta del Sol, can be a challenge. Streets packed with restaurants catering primarily to tourists surround the square—so to find food that’s actually worth your time, you’ll have to head a bit further afield.
Some excellent restaurants near Sol that locals can vouch for are:
- El Zagal (7-minute walk) for simple home cooking, including fantastic homemade croquetas
- Taberna La Bola (10-minute walk) for Madrid’s best cocido madrileño in a beautiful 19th-century dining room
- La Sanabresa (11-minute walk), a classic casa de comidas packed with locals
7. See the Views from the Círculo de Bellas Artes Rooftop Instead of a Hotel Terrace
Looking for a spectacular view of the Spain’s capital city? Don’t follow your travel guide book’s advice and pay and arm and a leg to get to the top of a hotel terrace!
Instead, head to the Círculo de Bellas Artes building, where a mere €5 gets you access to the impressive Azotea rooftop, which overlooks some of the most spectacular buildings in the city. Lounge on outdoor sofas while sipping a handcrafted cocktail and gazing out over the twinkling city lights. We highly recommend timing your visit to watch the sunset!
8. Cool Down with Tinto de Verano Instead of Sangria
Here’s Spain’s worst kept secret: sangria really isn’t very Spanish.
Yes, it was technically invented here, but you won’t find it flowing freely from behind every bar in town. In fact, much of Madrid’s sangria is usually found in restaurants and bars that cater to tourists (although there are exceptions to this rule!).
Instead, most madrileños opt for tinto de verano, a simple cocktail red wine mixed with lemon soda. It quenches your thirst while lounging on the sunny terraces of summertime Spain. Getting off the beaten path in Madrid has never been more refreshing.
9. Eat Cocido Madrileño Instead of Paella
When in Madrid, eat as the madrileños eat. That means ditching cast-iron pans of paella for the multi-course feast that is cocido madrileño.
Paella (which is actually from Valencia, a city about 220 miles east of Madrid) may have the international fame. But cocido—a stew of pork, beef, chicken, chorizo, vegetables and garbanzos—is definitely the hometown favorite. During the winter months, restaurants across the city brew up big pots of cocido to warm the bellies of Spaniards and visitors alike.
10. Take a Day Trip to Alcalá de Henares Instead of Toledo
If Don Quixote is more your style than Don Juan, then swap the swords of Toledo for the birthplace of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.
In the cozy town of Alcalá de Henares, located an easy 30-minute train ride from Madrid, you’ll find a gorgeous university, a beautifully manicured plaza featuring a statue of Cervantes, tours of the house where the famous author was born, and an array of delicious pastries perfected over the centuries by Alcalá’s traditional bakers.
Madrid Off the Beaten Path FAQs
As far as sights go, there aren’t really any worth avoiding in general—Madrid’s most famous monuments, museums, and plazas are famous for good reason! But when it comes to things to avoid in Madrid, we’d definitely recommend skipping restaurants that cater to tourists. They’re often easily identifiable thanks to large photos of the food outside (especially if paella is featured), menus in multiple languages, and waiters standing out front beckoning for visitors to come in.
Some of the most enjoyable ways to experience Madrid like a local are to visit one of its parks (especially a lesser-known one), enjoy a meal or drinks on a terrace with friends, and trying specifically madrileño foods like the locally famous calamari sandwich.
Update Notice: This post was originally published on April 22, 2014 and was updated with new text and photos on April 8, 2021.