You wouldn’t know it from my smile in the photo above but there was one point in my life where the transportation networks in Madrid confused the socks off me. The year was 2010 and I had just landed in Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport, sleepy-eyed and hearing the rapid-fire Castillian madrileño Spanish for the first time in real life. Prior to my first international Transatlantic flight, I had studied a map of the Metro de Madrid that was featured inside my Spain & Portugal paperback guidebook, convinced I was ready to tackle my first ever subway system…during my first couple of hours in Spain and inside a body that felt like it was 3-4 am EST. All that studying of the map I had done pretty much went out the window as I followed the signs to the Metro station from Terminal T4. The one thing I had wanted to do, though it wouldn’t have helped me in the slightest, was to call my mom because I didn’t have a clue as to what to do. And once I had made it over to the station, I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket to ride the Metro nor did I know that a faster, more convenient network to travel on was called the Cercanías Madrid.
Fast forward a few years and the next time I landed in Madrid, I was finally able to take advantage of that direct Cercanías connection from T4 and got off at Estación de Chamartín. That time I thought I could buy a train ticket from Madrid – La Coruña at the station (instead of online) and still grab a seat the day it leaves. (I live and learn the hard way it seems.)
Nowadays, and after a dozen visits of various lengths and almost five years as a resident in Madrid capital, I am a self-taught expert of all the transportation networks. I have ridden all 13 lines of the Metro, lots of bus lines (there are just over 200!), all lines of the Metro Ligero, the extended part of Line 9 operated by the TFM, and have at least traveled a short distance on almost all of the Cercanías Madrid commuter lines. You may not be as big of a fan of public transportation as I am, but I do hope this post will encourage you to be bolder and brave enough to give any of Madrid’s transportation networks a try while you’re visiting or attempting to learn the ropes of the city.
Enough about the idea and memories of traveling on Madrid’s networks. I’ve had transportation and logistics on the brain for months now but let’s get down to what I love about these unique yet efficient networks. My hope is that throughout this post, you’ll find or be reminded of some of the things you too may love about public transportation in Madrid.
¡Viajeros al tren! Próxima parada…
1. The hustle and bustle of the stations and the trains whizzing by each other inside the tunnels
As an introvert by nature, humongous crowds do have a tendency to drain me. And I definitely haven’t gotten fully used to seeing walls and walls of passengers coming out of the Cercanías station inside Nuevos Ministerios (Line 6, 8, 10) and connecting to the adjacent metro station on a busy weekday morning. However, contrary to those stressful situations, I love the energy and vibe Metro stations give off. Just by glancing at someone, you may learn a few things about their personality and likes but you can’t really predict where they’ll go, which train they’ll hop on, or whether they’re really lost or not (although sometimes that can be obvious). Each passenger inside a Metro station or on a train is on a unique journey, lost in a world all their own. Though you shouldn’t take your guard down completely, it’s a great place to people watch. You never know who (or what) you’ll see!
Sometimes, and during busy rush hours, the train on one side of the platform stays parked for a bit longer so that the incoming train can enter the station. But many times, and this is where things get magical, they shoot past each other like two rockets blasting off into the infinite, night sky, crossing paths for a mere split second. Blink or look away and you will surely miss it. Witness it and you will behold a modern-day optical illusion.
2. Station names, designs, entrances, and color schemes
To be quite honest, I could write a book on just the Metro and its curious history, station designs, and the unique art inside dozens of stations. (Keep reading to find out more about the book I did write, though!) There are so many things I love about the Metro and while it isn’t the only transportation network Madrid has to offer, it is the city’s pride and joy and it is beloved (and also loathed) by many. I, for one, loved learning the different lines and colors for each and discovering the layout and style of each new one where I got off or on. I’ve lived on or near eight different Metro lines but I’ve spent the most time as a resident in the Tetuán District, in Northern Madrid. It’s a diverse, no-frills type of district with not as pretty of an exterior as the central neighborhoods but it does boast quite a few tasty restaurants and hidden architectural gems.
Here are a few of my favorite stations and quirks:
If this isn’t enough station and history talk for you, I was recently featured on the When in Spain podcast with Paul Burge, an English ex-pat who has a similar love for all things Spain. Check out the featured episode below and give him a follow!
3. It can connect the dots between the monuments, streets, and points of interest for riders
My first official visit to Madrid (after the airport misadventures) was in February 2010, a rather gray yet still a bright spot in my study abroad experience at the time. I did a lot of sightseeing and wandering on my own for the four and a half days I was here but I did visit a high school friend who was doing her study abroad semester. We both had only been in Spain for about a month so she was still learning the ins and outs of Madrid and its transportation networks. In fact, she hadn’t done as much walking above ground as she would’ve liked due to living a ways out from the city center (where all the main attractions are located). Since she got to play tour guide with me, I remember her saying how useful it was because she was starting to connect the street names, bus stops, and Metro stations underground with what was above ground.
Ever since that cold winter’s visit, I’ve used what I learned that day whenever I go to new cities and back when I officially moved to Madrid in late 2016. And riding the bus (one of the Circular routes) in the AC during the fiery inferno that is this city in the summer (and country but here are some tips in order to deal) is a great way to stay cool and see some of the sights from the windows.
4. Some of the bus routes travel directly on highways or encounter very little traffic in the mornings/late nights on the weekends
If you’ve ever taken a taxi in Madrid (and been in a hurry), you will know that the traffic here is insane. And when everyone is fleeing the city for the weekend for the beach or the mountains, geez, do the highways get clogged up like a drain. But instead of finding hair in that drain, it’s full of cars. However, there is this sweet spot that only occurs during the early morning hours (8-10 am) and late evening hours (past 10:30/11 pm) on the weekends. There’s hardly any traffic, especially on Sundays, when a lot of places close – yes, even in a big city! – and most everyone stayed out late eating or partying. So if you’ve got a train, plane, or bus to catch on a Sunday morning (or evening), chances are you’ll arrive early.
5. Double-decker trains! Need I say more?
Besides accidentally riding a double-decker commuter train on the outskirts of Chicago, I had never really even seen a double-decker Cercanías train in Madrid until years after I had been acquainted with the city. It wasn’t until some time in 2018 that I even got to ride one. It just added to the exciting season I was approaching at the time (getting engaged to my Northern Irish boyfriend) and it became a personal goal for both of us to get on as many double-decker trains as we could. These days, we take any train we can get but we do prefer those ones over any others. So if you’re only here for a short visit, take that double-decker train the next time you see one arriving at one of the Cercanías platforms! No exceptions.
6. The ability to skip lots of Metro and bus stops and get to your destination faster
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last five years, it’s that you will want to make your commute as short as you possibly can, though there are always exceptions. But if you can avoid traveling over 10 stops (or more with connections), I would say go for it and hop on a Cercanías train to help get you there faster. You might be more inclined to explore if you’re a tourist which is perfectly fine but if you’re running against the clock, cut out long, lengthy rides on the Metro or bus. And don’t really do what I did: move to Carabanchel into an open room in a friend’s apartment (who later turned out to be a complete terror to live with) even though you were going to be working 24 stops north of there near the Canillejas station (Line 5).
Maybe one day I’ll tell that story in full…
7. Electrically powered and good for the environment
Through their nearly 3,000 electric bikes, BiciMAD provides a safe, practical, and environmentally friendly way to travel around the city. And with 208 bike stations located within Zone A to park your bike securely in, you’ll be surprised just how quickly and efficiently you can get around the city on two wheels. Its name has a double meaning and the word MAD means both the airport code for Madrid and the British English term for “crazy” or “mad” for bicycles. The company has also added a pay-per-minute scheme called BiciMAD Go (bikes will be labeled as such and around 454 are available) in order to offer riders a way to ride around town with fewer strings attached. I know a few people who live right in the city center who just walk and bike everywhere they go so if that’s what you’re into – sign up and start cycling around!
8. The sensation you’re flying down the city’s huge boulevards and avenues and get lots of good exercise at the same time
While it’s been a few years since I last rode any of the BiciMAD bicycles around town, I did enjoy the experience. A couple of times I went from my neighborhood of Hispanoamérica – Prosperidad all the way down to near Estación Puerta de Atocha. If you look that up on the map, that’s quite a distance! I must say that riding down the heavily sloped Calle Serrano (Madrid’s ritziest shopping street) even on a Sunday afternoon scared the life out of me! And not to mention making a turn and looping around Puerta de Alcalá at the very end of the street…
All this is to say that as long as you pace yourself, follow traffic rules and be respectful of those on the road (and vice versa!), you will love cycling around the city. It could even help you add exercise to your commute without having to look for room in your schedule elsewhere.
Last but definitely not least, this post was written as a way to promote the release of my new e-book titled, The Ultimate Guide to Madrid’s Transportation Networks. Whether you are a tourist or visitor, a study abroad or Master’s student, an intern, or starting a brand new job, this guide is filled to the brim with helpful information. It’s not specific for one type of person but for many different types of people and covers all aspects of living in and enjoying the city of Madrid to its fullest. And if real-life travel isn’t an option for you right now, you can always purchase this guide to help you plan your future visit or move, putting you ahead of the crowd when it comes time for Madrid to welcome international travel once again.
As one reader put it, “Sarah’s guide took out all of the stress of buying a tourist pass once I arrived in Madrid! I knew exactly what to do and what to expect at the machine. It was that simple!”
Disclaimer: This guide is in no way sponsored by or in collaboration with the Metro de Madrid, Metro Ligero, EMT Madrid, or Cercanías Madrid.