14 non-touristy things to do in Madrid, Spain
By Helen Wright
Spain’s biggest city is often overlooked in favour of the sunny beaches along the coast or the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona. But, Spain’s charming capital has a laid-back vibe, an excellent cultural scene and is often said to be one of the friendliest destinations in the country. Unsurprisingly, it’s often the non-touristy things to do in Madrid that give the city its unique personality and there’s plenty of hidden gems in Madrid that you should definitely add to your list before you go.
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Compiled by Andrew Gonsalves
1. Go for a swim in Madrid
Being bang in the centre of Spain, Madrid doesn’t have a beach, but the Spanish love to cool off in the water so you will find lido-style public pools in every district of the city. The outdoor municipal pools in Madrid are usually open from early May until September and are very budget-friendly, some as little as €5 to enter per adult.
The pool to see and be seen is Casa de Campo, which is actually a collection of epic swimming spaces, both indoor and out. The huge outdoor pool sits on the edge of a gorgeous park and there is even a separate kids pool. It’s very popular at weekends with families and groups so get there at 8am to find a sweet spot on the grass and stay all day. If you don’t have a whole day to spare, there is a great cafe next to the lake so you can just go for lunch and enjoy the view.
As a backup, the huge pools at Vincente del Bosque in Parque Norte are perfect for an urban dip and a much-needed summer cool down.
2. For non-touristy things to do in Madrid, find a park that isn’t El Retiro
The UNESCO World Heritage Site El Retiro Park, is one of the city’s most beautiful landmarks. But, for those looking for non-touristy things to do in Madrid, there is a choice of beautiful parks dotted all over and they are relatively tourist-free. Of course, there is the aforementioned Casa de Campo, but how about Parque del Oeste? One of the real hidden gems in Madrid, this park has plenty of shade, lots of scenic pathways and beautiful gardens, including a fragrant rose garden. Campo del Moro has grandeur Henry James vibes. The gardens have only recently been opened to the public, so go now before word gets out.
3. Hidden gems in Madrid? Head to Las Delicias
Take the train only 15 minutes south of the city and find one of the greatest hidden gems in Madrid, Las Delicias. This cool, residential area, is reminiscent of some of London’s more authentic zones, like Islington or Clapham, so is top of the list if you’re on the hunt for non-touristy things to do in Madrid.
Madrid life is in full swing here with coffee shops, couples browsing the unique shops and boutiques, families out for a stroll and buzzing wine bars open from late afternoon until the early hours. Time your visit to coincide with the monthly Mercado de Motores, one of Madrid’s coolest things to do. This makers market, held in the Madrid Railway Museum features local vendors, creators, artists and small businesses and is the best place to shop in Madrid for souvenirs, beautiful keepsakes, unique homewares and gifts, clothes and jewellery. Plus, you can grab a great, budget lunch from one of the eclectic food trucks outside.
4. Sip Vermouth with the locals non-touristy things to do in madrid
Another slick Spanish city, famous for its Vermouth is Barcelona, but in Madrid, this traditional tipple is a city staple. Have it chilled and neat over ice, or pair it with soda water and a slice or orange for a softer alternative. Virtually everywhere in Madrid serves Vermouth, often as a pre-dinner aperitif.
Casa Camacho is a popular spot, but for a hidden gem in Madrid, head first to Malasaña – another cool area of Madrid. At Bodega de la Ardosa, you’ll sit at aged barrels that were once used to store Vermouth and it’s one of my favourite hidden gems in Madrid because the Vermouth is made in-house and the vintage bar is always loud and lively, packed with locals and the odd ‘in the know’ tourist.
TOP TIP: They are also known for their Spanish tortilla, so go for lunch and stay as long as you like.
5. Hire a car and head to countryside for the best non-touristy things to do in Madrid
As well as being the capital of Spain, Madrid is also the largest city in Spain and the 3rd largest in Europe. For a very non-touristy thing to do in Madrid, rent a car and follow the locals out to the suburbs where you will find a host of beautiful, cultural and interesting spots that are definitely off the beaten track and largely untrodden by international visitors.
Take Rascafría for example. Sat up in the mountains, Rascafría really is on of the hidden gems in Madrid. It’s around a 75 minute drive but you will be rewarded with hiking trails, spectacular views before reaching a stunning waterfall and pond perfect for a dip and a Timotei commercial. Follow a train of oak trees across the ‘bridge of forgiveness’ and the stream of the Aguilón and reach The Purgatory Waterfall, is a spectacular dipping hole that is Instagram-tastic and perfect for spending the day and relaxing without the crowds.
6. Non-touristy things to do in Madrid: Take the train to Toledo
Another off-the-beaten-track day trip from Madrid is Toledo, which has a rich history and a dramatic Game of Thrones-esk skyline. It’s definitely one of the best non-touristy things to in Madrid, as most first timers wouldn’t consider leaving the city, but it’s worth tagging an extra day on to your trip to see Toledo. If you don’t want to rent a car, the high-speed AVE train can whisk you to Toledo in half hour for only E13. When you arrive, you can’t miss the Catedral Primada de Toledo, an impressive gothic cathedral that took 200 years to build. Work up an appetite climbing The Alcázar, a former military base and highest point of the city, before feasting on Toledo’s surprisingly eclectic cuisine. Food here has its roots in Jewish, Muslim and Christian customs and it’s also the place to try Spain’s gluttonous medieval offering – the succulent suckling pig.
7. Rock the rooftops in Madrid
Back in the city, life comes alive at night with locals living up to the Spanish reputation of eating late and staying out until the early hours. The best way to do that is on one of Madrid’s rocking rooftops. You are spoilt for choice with fun bars with a view over the city but some are more popular and well known than others. Azotea del Círculo (sometimes called Tartan Roof Bar) has incredible views and serves reasonably priced tapa with your sangria or Cava. If you have a dinner reservation, the rooftop for free to enter for before or after drinks. If you’re there just for a drink and the view, the entry fee is €5 per person.
For something lesser known and less flashy, did you know there is a rooftop bar and café above the Hat Hostel? This is one of my favourite hidden gems in Madrid, even if it’s more widely known now (thanks to Instagram). This rooftop has seats indoor and out (so ideal for the winter months too) and drinks and food are not wildly overpriced like many other rooftop bars in Madrid.
At weekends, you’ll find the locals at El Viajero, a chilled-out roof bar and definitely on of the non-touristy things to do in Madrid (as far as a rooftop bar can be, of course). Take in views of the Old Town in this casual space that reminded me more of north London than Spain. It’s very cool, but there is usually a wait so be patient – and once you’re in, stay until the sun comes up.
8. Check out the croquettes
Croquetas are a Spanish staple. Often served alongside a range of tapas, these crispy, creamy bite-sized delights deserve to be celebrated in their own right and there is no better place to do that than at Casa Macareno. Local, Andrew Gonsalves, even declared the Jamón and truffle croquetas here the ‘best in Spain’ and who are we to argue? See for yourself at this classic taberna in the Malasaña district, which serves more than croquettes (the broken eggs and Embers are great) in a delightfully old-school Spanish setting.
9. Party in Malasaña
Malasaña is where you’ll find Madrid’s liveliest and most exciting nightlife. See the real ‘city that never sleeps’ come alive after dark in a choice of bohemian wine caves, banging bars, clubs and live music venues. There is no shortage of booze and it goes down easily in the great company of its young, hip locals, but after-hours, it’s Chocolatería San Ginés that becomes the most popular joint in town.
This is the place to come for churros dipped in silky hot chocolate, the best dessert in town. Find this charismatic café just off the main street, Puerta del Sol, and not much has changed since it first opened in 1894. A Madrid institutuion, Chocolatería San Ginés is open during the day but best way to enjoy it is after-dark.
10. Explore the Liria Palace
The Royal Palace is one of the most popular attractions and landmarks in Spain, but if you are looking for non-touristy things to do in Madrid, head to The Lira Palace instead. Built in the 1700s, the Liria Palace is one of the most important private homes in Madrid and the current residence of the 19th Duke of Alba. It’s truly a fascinating place that optimises grandeur kitsch, and has one of the largest private art collections in the world, curated over 500 years.
11. Go underground at Anden 0
From lavish history to a real life look into the past, book a visit to Anden 0 (Platform 0), an underground museum inside an abandoned Metro station. Certainly, one of the most unusual things to do in Madrid, this is a fantastic hidden gem in Madrid and it is free to enter. This very cool exhibition project is a time capsule into 60s Spain, with classic posters and furniture and artwork unchanged for six decades. Open Friday-Sunday, entry is free, but you do have to book a slot and it does get full at busy times.
Another quirky and fun way to spend the afternoon is at the Museum of Illusions. Mind bending exhibits which get you questioning your own sanity and make for some great pictures too.
12. Sunset at Siete Tetas Park
One of the best hidden gems in Madrid is the view from Siete Tetas Park. The park sits atop a hill in the Vallecas neighbourhood, which is primarily residential and is a hot spot for locals heading up for park games, picnics and BBQs with a fantastic lookout over the city. Heading here to watch the sunset is not only a brilliant and non-touristy thing to do in Madrid, this is also the best place to see the sunset in the whole city.
13. One of the best non-touristy things to do in Madrid: Hop to the frog’s market
Mercado de la Rana (the market of the frogs) in Barrio de las Letras is an open-air, locals market held on the first Saturday of every month. This is one of best hidden gems in Madrid because even many Madrid residents haven’t heard of it. This market is Madrid’s answer to Camden town (if a bit more chilled out) and well worth a potter if you happen to be visiting at the right time. There is no set area for the market and it has more of a festival vibe with streets closed off and local shops and homes spilling out into the street with arts, crafts, food, music and street performers. Start at Cervantes, the main thoroughfare, and wander in the sunshine.
14. Follow the the street art in Madrid
One thing I have noticed in cities around the world is that if you follow the street art, you’ll often find affordable food, cool neighbourhoods, unique shops and young, interesting areas. Going off the beaten track in Madrid is no exception with the colourful art taking you to some of the best hidden gems in Madrid.
Lavapies is my favourite area, with similarities to London’s Shoreditch. In fact, the neighbouring areas of Lavapies and Embajadores both have a great display of graffiti art, but Lavapies is my favourite for its multicultural community, great bars and instagrammable spots, making it one of the coolest areas in Madrid. Wander along the Fábrica de Tabacos striking art wall and then explore the streets that wind off of the main strip to see what this neighbourhood is all about. Stop for a drink and some tapa along the way or have lunch at Mercado de Antón Martín which has a great range of international vendors (if you’re bored of the classic Spanish food offerings).
Whatever you decide to do in Madrid, you are sure to receive a warm welcome from one of the most underrated cities in Spain.
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