Barcelona and Madrid are Spain’s largest cities. And as popular as they are with visitors, with little planning and a spirit of adventure, it is possible to experience Barcelona or Madrid like a local.
Therefore, I present you with some tips on how to avoid the tourist crowds and have an off-the-beaten-path experience in either city:
Visit a (true) local market
Just about every visitor to Spain knows of La Boqueria in Barcelona and of Mercado San Miguel in Madrid. While these two markets mainly attract tourists, Spain is a country full of traditional markets. Most Spaniards still shop at their local neighborhood market instead of at the supermarket. Madrid and Barcelona both have great neighborhood mercados (or mercats in Catalan). For a unique and purely Spanish experience, visit one of the markets in the neighborhoods off the tourist trail. While you can always find fresh produce, a variety of Spanish meats and cheeses, and amazingly delicious carbs at the bakery, most local markets also have food stalls with tapas as well as regional specialties.
The local neighborhood markets are a great place to eat and shop cheaply and very much like a local. Some of my favorite neighborhood markets include Mercado de Chamberí in Madrid and Mercat de San Antoni in Barcelona.
Eat (and drink) traditionally
Spain has an age-old culture of professional barmen and waiters. They are the types who wear a tie, memorize your order and then shout it to the kitchen, won’t mix you fancy cocktails, and most likely do not speak a lick of English. “Customer service” is non-existent at these types of places, but if you really want to eat like a local, drink very cheap beer, and experience a purely Spanish gastronomical tradition, these are the places to find it. The menu is usually limited to traditional tapas, and while there is usually at least one vegetarian item on the menu, they are not super vegetarian-friendly (neither is traditional Spain)
Both Madrid’s and Barcelona’s more residential neighborhoods are teeming with these types of bars. These are the kinds of places that are not typically found on Google maps, but the kinds of places that you will need to simply stumble upon. (However, Madrid No Frills has a really good online roundup of some of Madrid’s best).
Don’t let the noise, crowds, and seeming chaos scare you away. To really have an old school Spanish experience, you have to try at least one of these types of bars during your trip.
Go on a unique walking tour with a real local
Forget about the cheesy packaged day trips and walking tours that you can buy in “information booths” in the major tourist zones or on the third party tour websites before you go. If you want to do a walking tour where you will really see a different side of the city, I suggest a unique-themed walking tour with a true local. No, these tours won’t take you to Plaza Mayor (Madrid) or down Las Ramblas (Barcelona). But you will see parts of the cities that most visitors don’t.
If you find yourself in Madrid, some of my favorite walking tours are Drica’s customizable tapas tours (she can cater to special diets too!) and CooltoursSpain‘s street art tours. And in Barcelona, I recommend BCN Street Style Tours for street art and Barcelona Architecture Walks. These architecture tours in Barcelona are great as they take you beyond the usual Guadí buildings to explore Barcelona’s rich modernista architectural history. Make sure to book in advance!
Take an off-the-beaten-path day trip
Although Madrid and Barcelona are both large cities, both offer several opportunities for more serene day trips. Places like Toldeo (Madrid) and Montserrat (Barcelona) tend to be packed with tourists and day-trippers.
But just outside both cities, and easily linked by public transportation are some small towns of Spain worth checking out. One of my favorite Madrid day trips is to the small village of Chinchón, with its old circular Plaza Mayor and amazing hiking just above the town. It’s less than an hour away from Madrid by bus. And if you want to see a hotbed of Catalan independence, look no further than the town of Vic, about an hour outside of Barcelona and accessible by commuter train.
While neither of these towns attracts the big bus tour groups, they will both give you a glimpse into regional small-town life.
Want more tips?
Please reach out to me via the contact form on this page to schedule an introductory Spanish travel consultation with me. I can help you elevate your trip to Spain to the next level.
My name is Karen & travel is not only my passion but also my profession.