Madrid, Spain: Getting there, getting around, and where to stay

In The spectacular city case for Madrid, Spain, Part 1: Plazas, restaurants, and the best spots to visit, I made the case that "Madrid is the most spectacular western city that most readers of this blog have never been to" (fate and history conspired a few months later at the spectacular light show to celebrate Plaza Mayor's 400th anniversary). At over three million people, though, we're talking about a big city here: largest in Spain, third largest in the European Union, and larger than every city in the United States other than New York and Los Angeles. So here in our Part 2 on this great city, we're going talk the logistics of how to get there, how to get around, and where to stay.

Bottom line up front

If you take nothing else away from our logistics recommendations below, it should be:

  • Madrid's airport is enormous yet beautiful and very efficient. Its dominant airline, Iberia, is a OneWorld partner so it, British Airways, and American Airlines are where you should start your "getting to Madrid" search.
  • Spain's train system is excellent, and particularly robust in Madrid with three overlapping services available depending on how far you need to go.
  • The city center, Centro, is excellent walking territory. Don't miss all you'll discover on foot.
  • When looking for lodging, concentrate on the area between the avenues Gran Vía in the north and Calle de Atocha in the south, with a particular interest in what you can find along the street called Calle de las Huertas.

By plane through Madrid-Barajas International Airport

If arriving by airplane, you'll land at the sprawling Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD), though everyone drops the "Adolfo Suárez" bit when referring to it. Many international flights pass through Terminal 4, one of the world's largest terminals in terms of area, and certainly one of the most beautiful with its sweeping wood-lined domes, big open spaces, and liberal use of glass. The airport is a joy to visit and move through; we spent about 27 seconds passing through customs with our U.S. passports when arriving on either Iberia or American Airlines. If anything, you may be surprised by how easy it is... though you'll do a lot of walking. A huge number of MAD's 50+ million per year passengers travel on One World alliance airlines Iberia (whose major hub is here) or their sister airline British Airways with alliance partner American Airlines picking up traffic from Dallas, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia. Sky Team partner Air Europa is also hubbed here, and Ryan Air has been expanding aggressively.  Simply on scale, though, the OneWorld airlines Iberia, British Airways, and American are nonetheless the first to try when planning your trip.

The train is excellent

The Spanish train system is excellent, and Madrid itself is served by a three-tier interwoven rail network:

  • The Renfe rail network delivers passengers between cities, including the high speed Ave train line between some cities.
  • Cercanías is the commuter rail service that connects points within and surrounding Madrid.
  • Madrid Metro is one of the world's largest subway systems, interconnecting with Cercanías to deliver passengers to points throughout the city.

The airport is accessible via Metro Line 8 (linea 8), colored pink on the map, and via Cercanías to Madrid's large central train station called Atocha. Choose the option that most readily delivers you to your destination. If staying in and around the historic center of the city, I recommend taking Cercanías to Atocha and then either walking or taking Line 1 to your destination. The drawback of Line 8 in that situation is that it will most likely require two station changes to connect you to the historic center via three separate lines.

Atocha sits on Line 1 (colored light blue), one of the primary lines serving the areas I discussed in my previous post. You'll likely use Line 1 quite often when you're not walking. It, in conjunction with Line 2 (colored red) that it meets at the Puerta del Sol station, will likely be your go-to metro lines. Again referring back to my previous post, best to use Cercanías to get to El Escorial and Renfe to get to Toledo (Atocha and Toledo maintain a near hourly train service, so it's very easy).

Worth noting that Cercanías is a commuter train that requires no security pass through, while Renfe gates sit behind a security checkpoint. While not nearly as rigorous as what you find at an airport, you still need to budget enough time to pass through the line and make it to your door. Tickets to both (as well as Metro) can be purchased from kiosks at the station, though not from the same kiosk.

Better to walk

All of this said, though, Madrid is a great walking city. Great as the Metro is, I find that I rarely use it, generally managing to get about 20,000 steps per day when I'm out and about. There's a lot you'll discover and enjoy if you get out and walk. Full color maps aren't in keeping with Wine:Thirty Flight's design motif, but in this case the map below is helpful. Centro, the historic center, is bounded more or less by Palacio Real to the west, Parque Retiro to the east, Calle Gran Vía to the north, and the Embajadores area to the south. Most of your walking around is going to happen in that middle third portion of the map as displayed below. Mentioned earlier, Metro lines 1 and 2 are there to assist if your feet get tired. Metro stations are indicated by the red and blue diamond shapes. Note that Atocha is the station just between Real Jardin Botánico and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Puerta del Sol, truly the center of the city, is flagged with the red pin.


More than a pillow

I've stayed in Madrid hotels, hostels, and Airbnb over the years. All have merit. I really recommend concentrating your hotel search in the area between the streets Calle de Atocha (the long avenue that connects Atocha to Plaza Mayor, more or less) and Gran Vía. To get even more specific, look to stay along Calle de las Huertas. Myriad lodging abounds in this stretch, but we've grown quite fond of a specific apartment whose door open right onto Huertas.

Members of city clubs such as the Princeton Club of New York (our home club) should give serious consideration to using the reciprocal relationship with Casino de Madrid. What a beautiful, elegant club this is, situated right on Calle de Alcalá (so much more of a city vibe than what you'd get in an Airbnb on Huertas). Casino de Madrid actually doesn't offer lodging directly in the club, but rather through an agreement with the Hotel Regina next door. This is a gorgeous newly renovated hotel, quite literally one of best (for my taste) hotel rooms in which I've ever stayed. Because Regina is a hotel, club membership is by no means required, but will probably net you a better rate.