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It seems fitting to finally be writing and publishing this post just a few weeks after I got the same type of sinus infection I used to get before masks were introduced into our daily lives. I don’t know about you but that is very telling about their effectiveness in blocking pollen, harsh cold air and other irritants from getting inside your nose – especially when you’re dealing with air pollution on a daily basis. I had half a mind to write this post while I wasn’t feeling well back in mid-February but I’m glad I didn’t. I forgot how most illnesses can just wipe out your energy completely almost immediately.
Anyway, you were probably intrigued by the title of this post or were searching for how to stay healthy at some point during the year. The good news is you’re about to learn some lesser-known tips that I’ve picked up in my six and half years of living in Madrid, Spain. This is a post I’ve actually wanted to squeeze out for a long, long time but I never made the time to sit and jot down my tips until recently.
Now that normal life has fully resumed on so many levels, I thought it was about time I shared these tips with my readers. I want to help you stay as healthy as possible as you perhaps move from one big city to another, try out big-city life for the first time ever or move cross-continentally. I will sprinkle in some tips about the benefits other big cities around Europe are offering to their residents but I hope this list can be a versatile post for city dwellers worldwide.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
1. Exercise regularly – preferably early in the morning or close to sunset
The major benefit of exercising or taking a walk while most of the city is still asleep (unlike New York or London in this case) is that you won’t breathe in all the exhaust fumes and pollution caused by cars, trucks and vans.
Spanish and other Western/Southern European cities are not buzzing at 6 or 7 am because the workday tends to start and end a bit later than their Northern European counterparts. The underground subway networks will certainly be packed to the brim with commuters but above ground, cities like Madrid and Barcelona may still be quiet until about 8 or 9 am seeing as some offices don’t require employees to be in until 10 am, something that is practically unheard of in most major American metropolitan cities.
Despite the fact that Madrid has a population of approximately 6 million, the people who live here tend to be later risers because they go to bed far later than other Europeans. I found this to also be true for Lisbon, Portugal, with shops opening slightly earlier than their Spanish competitors but still not as early as places like New York or Chicago. For the tourist, this means that you can indulge in a bit of a late-morning snooze all the while not having to skip breakfast in the end. These later or shifted schedules mean that you can even find some typical Spanish cafeterias cooking and serving breakfast as late as 12:30 or 1 pm! For residents and locals, I like to think that these schedules serve as a reminder that there is time for everything in your day, even when it feels like there isn’t.
Whatever your own schedule may be, it really is possible to wake up and get a run or a long walk in before most of the city gets out of bed. Madrid is quite safe so you shouldn’t have a problem being out and about in either the early morning or later at night. This is true for many other major European cities. I’ve seen many a runner or a jogger out at those times fitting in a quick endorphin high when they can from 7-9 pm.
Just watch out when crossing paths with the late-night/early-morning crew – they will be extremely loud. While these types of groups will likely not bother you, some people I’ve known have had phones or bags stolen, so remain alert (at all times really). My best advice would be to just take the essentials such as your keys, watch, and phone (water if necessary) when exercising out in the open air. Leave things like your IDs and transportation cards safe at home.
2. Be consistent with spending time in green spaces (both in the city and in the outskirts or suburbs)
Speaking of exercise, this next tip slips in here nicely. psychological and physical benefits to spending time in urban green spaces, as seen through this study done in the city of Brisbane, Australia during the height of the pandemic.
Let me just say first off that, as beautiful as Parque de El Retiro is, there is more to Madrid than Retiro in terms of parks! And if you dare venture outside of the historic city center, your curiosity will be rewarded, especially if you head to the west-northwest of Madrid where you can find Parque del Oeste, Casa de Campo and my personal favorite, Dehesa de la Villa.
Parque de El Retiro is great and I have made many fond memories there through picnics with friends and special one-on-one time with my husband. However, if you’re new to Madrid, I encourage you to find a park that you can call your own or not have to fight the federal holiday crowds to enjoy it. There are actually 120 parks in the city, big and small, so my best advice is to find one you love for whatever reason you’re drawn to it and call it your own. But, please take care of it, recycle and don’t litter or leave any picnic items behind.
Side note: the “worst” times I’ve found to be in Retiro are New Year’s Day, San José (Father’s Day) or San Isidro and sometimes Día de la Hispanidad (October 12th). The weather is usually mild and sunny on those particular days which means the park, as gigantic as it is, will be packed to the gills. If you want to picnic there on a public holiday, you may not find it too crowded or annoying but you will if you just want to take a nice long walk there. Be prepared to run into slow walkers, strange, lonely people hanging out on benches (a really long story) and potential pickpockets. Speaking of pickpockets, a highly concentrated pool of people all hanging out and becoming distracted all in one place is a hot spot for them. Just stay alert and don’t let your mind wander among the clouds too much. Keep an eye on your belongings.
3. Replace your tennis shoes (sneakers/trainers) after about one year and wear insertable insoles
Good running or supportive walking shoes (think Asics and Sketchers respectively), won’t last as long as they’ll last you back home where you’ll likely be driving a lot more than you will be walking. I had to wear some of the running shoes that I had purchased in the US into the ground in order to be taught this lesson the hard way (read: persistent lower back pain)
Since I became a resident of Madrid, my rule of thumb is to always spend a bit more money on my feet and buy a supportive pair (or two) of walking or running shoes. Doing so will save you from developing chronic pain or conditions later in life. If you can’t purchase a new pair of shoes or orthopedic sandals, removable insoles can help bridge the gap between your current pair and your next pair.
(And yes, Birkenstocks are here and they have two main Spanish HQs and stores in Madrid and Málaga!)
If you find yourself going home (i.e. US/UK/Canada/Australia/New Zealand) for most of the summer each year or heading off to other European countries, keep an eye out for summer sales. I know quite a few people who go home to the US in particular and go shopping there a couple of times a year. The reason is that Spain doesn’t really offer clothes to fit their particular body type (this is especially true in smaller towns and provinces). This is starting to change as more sizes are being offered but even my husband, who is much taller than the average Spanish man his age, buys a lot of his clothes in the UK to bring back to Spain to wear. If you’re quite tall, a bit curvy, have bigger feet or have a long torso -like me-, this can be a good work around the clothing and shoe size challenges a non-Spanish or European person may encounter.
Or check out a favorite Northern Irish/UK chain of mine, Sports Direct. They have opened up stores all around Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Santander, Pamplona and a few different parts of Andalucía). It is known to have great wholesale pricing on running shoes, sportswear, and yes, even athleisure thanks to Gen Z (insert eye roll for a personal irritant of mine).
All that aside, the store generally has some fantastic deals. I don’t know if this even needs to be said but don’t buy a 100€ pair of Levi’s or a similarly priced pair of Converse in Spain because you’ll be paying for extra costs like international shipping and import taxes.
(Those types of prices can be found at the official stores or in El Corte Inglés but keep an eye out for their periodic sales during the year.)
Unless you know you won’t be going home to the US or UK for a while and you need a high-quality pair now. I’ve happily found that about £40 or 45€ (oftentimes less!) will get you set up with the latest pair of Adidas, Nike or Puma shoes for that year.
4. Cover your nose and mouth when crossing squares or stepping out into windy weather
Enormous, centrally-located squares are generously scattered throughout all major cities around Europe. This particular layout style was invented hundreds of years ago and many European historic districts are preserved and protected as best as they can be in today’s world. Two of only a few walkable downtowns inside major U.S. cities that come to mind are Boston and Washington, D.C. This is because they are some of the oldest American cities whose layouts are modeled after European city designs.
Squares are wonderful places to take in the local vibe and you can spend many an enjoyable time walking around in them, especially at night. However, you do have to keep in mind that these large, flat squares are the ideal place to encounter strong gusts of wind. All it takes is rounding a corner or opening a restaurant door out into the sprawling square to then catapult yourself into its windy grasp – should the weather be fitting for it.
A few months into my very first year in Madrid taught and right in the heart of scarf season (and then again during my first spring here), I learned the importance of covering my mouth and nose before I walked into a windy predicament. There’s nothing like getting hit in the face by a leaf or just a sharp blast of icy cold air to really make sure you’re awake, am I right? Well, I can’t say that it was just one incident that made me cover my mouth with a scarf or my jacket or coat sleeve but rather a short accumulation of small events that helped me get the picture.
Some situations to watch out for when it gets windy and to keep the pollen and germs away:
- Exiting the steps leading out of or down to a Metro, Cercanías or Metro Ligero station
- Walking down long hallways inside transit stations
- Stepping off a bus and dealing with both the wind and the woosh of the automatic doors
- Walking straight into a square of any size from another street or turning the corner and walking into a flat part of the city
- Going up to a rooftop lookout point or bar or other attraction
Scarf season in Madrid comfortably lasts from late October/early November to mid-to-late April. After almost a decade of living in Spain, I’ve only managed to amass a scarf collection of just 25 scarves. It’s all a matter of opinion but I could definitely have more. One thing that is true is that they have served me well ever since I added them to my general wardrobe and look for the last 13 years, post-studying abroad in the South of Spain. Not just a fashion trend, using scarves -and face masks!- to cover both your nose and mouth can help you avoid breathing in bad smells, pollen, germs and other harmful bacteria in the air. And I don’t know about you but I’m going to keep wearing a mask while using public transportation for a while longer.
Haven’t we witnessed and become made aware of enough nasty behaviors in the past 2-3 years not to?
5. Pick up a copy of my latest book, “The Ultimate Guide to Madrid’s Transportation Networks.”
A shameless plug, if you’ll allow me…
From late 2020 to mid-2021, I wrote, designed and published a book on how to navigate Madrid’s Metro, bus, commuter rail and tram networks all around the region. While the Metro de Madrid is featured on the cover and you can’t deny that it is a prominent symbol of the city, it is not the focus of the e-book. There is so much more to the city’s extensive transportation network than the Metro, though it does hold a special place in my heart. After all, it was the very first underground subway system I had ever ridden in my life at the carefree age of 21.
Even if you do learn the different transportation networks and rely on them to get to work, you can always incorporate more walking and different exercise challenges into your daily routine. Opt to take the stairs or climb the escalator stairs instead of standing or taking an elevator. And if you reach the end of the day or just have some extra time on your hands, get off one stop early either on the bus or the Metro itself and walk the rest of the way home.
Once you get the hang of the transportation networks here, it will – even if it doesn’t feel like it right now – become easier to get settled into a routine and get on and off at the stations or stops while you’re on autopilot. Adding little disruptors like getting off at the stop before your usual one, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, biking instead of taking a bus or Metro train, etc. will help you stay mindful of your health and how your body is feeling.
Don’t push yourself to exhaustion when you’re feeling tired and don’t be afraid to use your Spanish to ask local riders where a stop is or which exit is better. My e-book can help you prepare for a trip or move to Madrid by reading up on the transportation culture, learning about the city’s neighborhoods and Metro lines and studying and learning some handy phrases and vocabulary in Spanish before you arrive.
There’s nothing quite like it in English on the Internet today and I’ve set it to a very affordable price with the promise of future updates sent directly to your inbox once they are finished. I also didn’t work with a designer nor did I work with a sponsor so there are no invisible extra costs or fancy fonts and photos I had to pay for the rights to.
Grab your copy of the Ultimate Guide to Madrid’s Transportation Networks before your next visit or move to Madrid.
6. Buy as much fresh food as possible to stay healthy during cold and flu season
A website I’ve found useful for checking which fruits and vegetables are in season is a Spanish-language site called Soy de Temporada (translation: I’m in season). Spanish culture and food are based on eating and cooking seasonally when the fruits and vegetables are at their peak. This has taken a few years to get used to but I see why they do it. The food will taste fresh, cooking with what is in season and is fresh will help reduce food waste and your gut will thank you for adding a varied diet into your life.
Healthy food in some ways is being oversold around Spain and some people are really hyperfocused on eating healthy versions of everything, all the time. I’m all for eating healthy and varying my diet but I also like to sprinkle in a few treats every so often. My motto is to eat everything in moderation but during certain times of the year, I do find myself craving larger portions of comfort food, especially around American holiday days. I remind myself that doing that occasionally is perfectly normal. This is thanks to growing up with and maintaining a healthy perspective on food for most of my life.
Food is fuel and too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. BUT (and here’s the kicker), there is no such thing as “bad food.” There is simply food that is a bit more unhealthy and food that is healthier. Find your balance -which will be different from mine- and stick to it.
It’s also a good idea to stock up on the following fruits, vegetables and herbs when they’re in season:
- Fresh ginger
- Parsley (free from most fruit shops if you ask)
- Ground cinnamon and sticks
- Mandarin and table *juicing) oranges
- Spinach and other leafy greens
- Nuts (both for protein and unsaturated fats)
- Canned or frozen fish (OMEGA 3s)
**If you find you are frequently getting sick and can’t pinpoint the reason why, consult your pharmacist or doctor. Self-medicating through food when you have a more serious condition is not something I endorse.**
Something I just discovered while writing this post actually coincided with the Spring forward time change in Spain (the last Sunday in March). Plan to increase your intake of magnesium through either supplements or food (such as nuts and grains) to help combat when the biannual time changes occur. I’m usually in a bit of a fog during those first few days and I struggle to wake up early (if we’re talking about springtime) but since adding more magnesium to my diet, I don’t feel this way at all. I love it when the days begin to get brighter but I don’t particularly like exchanging an hour of my sleep for it. I’m sure you can relate even if it means your friends and family back home will temporarily be one hour closer to you.
7. Use sunscreen every day regardless if it’s cloudy or sunny
One summer back in my early days in Spain, an American friend with a Spanish mother and grandmother from Galicia told me that Spanish women are especially susceptible to two main killers. If it’s not the sun, it’ll be the excessive smoking that will get most of las españolas. (And let’s be real, there are also plenty of leathery-looking Spanish men who frequent the beach)
I felt this to also be true when I went to college and lived in Jacksonville, Florida for a few years before I moved to Spain. Locals there didn’t tend to use as much sunscreen as Europeans do – which may be changing – but I think it may be due to a lack of access to information and skin cancer scanning.
I’m finishing this post in early April and I can almost say for certain that it is going to be a very hot summer this year. The sun’s usual gentle rays are already burning into my neck and scalp and while I’m happy it feels more like spring and less like winter, this is not a good sign.
That’s why if you’re lighter-skinned like me (or darker) it’s crucial to apply sunscreen not only in the spring and summer but also year-round. My Irish husband is very pale skinned and he often finds himself getting red quickly whether it’s February or October in Spain if he doesn’t reapply his sunscreen every couple of hours, that is.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, the Spanish sun can turn you leathery quickly. You don’t have to wait until you’re older to find out. In fact, it may be too late for you if you wait that long to get serious about taking care of your skin and protecting it from harmful UV rays. They are not as strong come late October to mid-March in Spain but goodness, things can start to heat up even in late March.
Trust me and apply 30 SPF minimum. Some high-quality brands are ISDIN and Caudalie but a lot of Spaniards swear by Nivea when it comes to sunscreen and regular body and hand lotions. Buy a sun hat, break out your beige and white linen wear, and keep a level head on your shoulders. There will be time to jump into the ocean or show off your new bikini. Just cover up after you’ve been in the sun for a while and avoid the hours between 1-7 pm if you’re in Spain.
Pro-tip: if you can buy sunscreen from cloudier European countries or your home country (US/Canada), you’ll probably save a few euros (or more) buying it outside of Spain. There’s no extra tax but some people joke that there is a sun tax. I personally am almost certain that one of the side effects of that is that sunscreen products cost a lot more here compared to any other country I’ve visited so far.
Oh, and avoid taking a trip up to Las Islas Cíes if you’re very pale-skinned or sensitive to the sun. Find out how I, unfortunately, learned the hard way a few years back.
8. Filter your bath and drinking water
I have been told by many a Spanish person (friends, coworkers, strangers) that the water from their city is the best water that you’ll find in the country. Sevilla, Granada, Madrid and Coruña are a few of the top cities that they’ve mentioned. Some madrileños swear that the water in the Comunidad de Madrid is the best water you’ll ever taste. After living in both the US (where my parents had a water softening system in our house) and in three other Spanish cities, I must confess that I agree with the Madrid locals. The water supply here is siphoned from natural springs in the Sierra de Guadarrama and goes through a stringent filtration process. If you’re interested in learning about Madrid’s interesting history of how clean drinking water got diverted into the city, I recommend a visit to the Los Caños de Peral museum. It is located inside the Opera Metro station (Lines 2 and 5) and is only open on the weekend with a guided tour.
I’ve been using a shower filtering system from Hello Klean.
I saw an ad for Hello Klean one day back during the spring of 2020 lockdown and decided to try them out in hopes of getting some bad dandruff under control. It turned out that with a combination of the filter and washing my hair more frequently (which can be difficult for my particular hair type: very thick and susceptible to tangles and knots) I could maintain it.
It filters out heavy metals and calcium deposits from the pipes and keeps them off your skin and out of your body. It comes in a white, recyclable cylinder that can be attached to an extra washer or attachment if your tub faucet doesn’t meet the standard measurements. Ours actually did fit which surprised us because sometimes the Spanish size of something falls outside the norm. Whenever you’ve hit 3 months or 12,000L -whichever comes first-, it will be time to replace it.
You can either do a monthly subscription or purchase a pack of them for a special price. Or look out for some of their sales throughout the year. I’ve done all three of the things I just listed but found the second option to work best for our needs. This was primarily because I was getting busier and wasn’t always able to be at home to intercept the package. Also, the product ships from Germany so be sure to keep that in mind and discontinue filter use after 6 months (as per their recommendation).
At any rate, I’ve seen a difference in the softness and overall health of my skin but I still have to supplement with body lotion and face moisturizer a few times a week).
If you live in a shared apartment and are not with a romantic partner and you want to filter your drinking water, you do have some options. You could buy a Brita water pitcher with a filtration system inside it to use for yourself. There are even water filter attachments that you can latch onto your kitchen sink’s faucet if that is something your roommates are okay with.
Due to how much plastic waste exists in the world today, I can’t recommend buying large jugs of water to drink from regularly. As a budding zero-waste enthusiast, I just feel it’s extremely wasteful and the bottle will most likely just end up in a landfill.
9. Take short showers and apply lotion regularly
While I agree that the drinking water is top-notch here, I feel that it’s still a good idea to filter your bath and shower water. This reason comes down to climate and how some irritants can still get on your skin and make it itch or even worse, flake. Due to Madrid’s extremely arid climate, your skin will dry out faster and if you’re interacting with water a lot during the day, you’ll need to apply lotion at least twice daily to prevent developing conditions like dermatitis and possibly eczema. From friends’ personal experience, the region of Murcia may even be drier, which means you’ll need to hydrate both your skin and body even more!
In the past few years, I’ve been made more aware (due to advertising and marketing in both Spain and the UK) of how important it is to know where ingredients come from and how products are made. Lately, I’ve been focusing on the “reuse” part of the cycle and have discovered some amazing brands as a result.
Some of my go-to beauty product faves are:
Upcircle Beauty‘s face serum and lotion. I bought a collection of theirs from a different website to stock up for this year and so far I’ve used the eye cream and the face moisturizer from it. Disclaimer: If you use my link and have never made a purchase from Upcircle and you use my link, you’ll get 10€ off a minimum 15€ order and I’ll get 10€ to spend. It’s really a win-win for both of us and I thank you in advance for using my link.
I may write some reviews on their products because I have been incredibly satisfied with them. They smell great, the ingredients originate from repurposed food, drinks (coffee) and flowers and they have a refill program that I’m itching to try once I run out of my first few products. My skin started to clear up and look healthier (ie: not as many acne breakouts and fewer oily build-ups) in my late 20s and early 30s. After a few weeks of using Upcircle’s coffee extract face serum, I was shocked yet very pleased to see that the irregularities in my skin tone finally started to even out for the first time in my life. I was so thrilled and still am!
Last fall, I saw a discount code for Wild Refill deodorant from Kacie Rose, a popular American blogger/personality in Italy and hopped on the bandwagon. It was a bit of an impulse buy but being a Midwestern American woman, I sometimes run into this unquenchable thirst and desire for a good deal. I’m pretty pleased with it and the thing I cannot argue with is that their scents smell incredible. My only dislikes so far are that the deodorant actually does stick to the sides of the case and that it doesn’t seem to hold up in really hot weather.
(Think 80s and 90s or higher on a hot summer day if you live in places like Madrid, Paris or Rome to name a few.)
Pro-tip: Using someone else’s referral link instead of a discount code actually provides bigger savings so I invite you to check mine out above. I am happy to provide it and promote a product that is environmentally friendly at the same time. I haven’t fully switched over to it so I’m still on the fence about that but I absolutely love the array of colorful high-quality metal cases Wild offers.
My main tip is to be mindful of what you put both inside your body and on it. You’ve only got one so take care of it and love it. And don’t let your skin get so dry you can feel the moisture being sucked out of it – a real side effect I’ve experienced while visiting humid places and then coming back to Madrid.
I kid you not.
10. Join a local club or hobby group
Something I need to get back to doing is being more social and hanging out in small to medium-sized groups. Now that I’m approaching my mid-thirties, I’m really over
Facebook Groups, Girl Gone International and Meet-Up groups are good ways to meet people and maybe even practice something you love such as running, rollerblading, painting, music, rock climbing, photography, sports, languages, writing, wine tasting, cooking …you name it! And if you can’t find a group you like, create one! You’ll be surprised to find who likes the same things or has the same hobbies as you but you won’t know until you ask. Maybe someone out there is just waiting for a (insert hobby) lover’s group to be created and they will thank you for doing that one day.
If we’ve learned anything from the lockdowns and restrictions over the last few years, it’s that in-person interactions can’t be replaced. As an introvert, I still need more time to readjust to being social again and it will take some time (I know it’s 2023 but don’t rush me, haha). You just can’t replicate time spent with people face-to-face. So I hope I can add more of that to my life in the big city and beyond.
11. Take advantage of city bike-sharing systems and bike lanes
My main point here is really just to remind you to be active!
Walk, run, cycle, swim -whatever you do, keep your body moving when you’re not working or resting/having fun. If you are moving throughout the day, your mind will tend to be clearer and you can also work through the many emotional highs and lows you’ll feel throughout the day.
Oh, and the city of Madrid is finally adding a more uniform system of bike lanes and traffic lights for cyclists! I really just wanted to announce that in this section. Be on the lookout for these bright blue lanes and give BiciMAD a try in 2023. It will be free from early March to July 31st, 2023 and the company has made some updates to its fleet.
12. Plan a trip outside of the city every 1-3 months
It really is a good idea to get out of your metropolitan city, even if the air quality is ok. If you’re not sure how good (or bad) your city’s air quality is, check out the European Air Quality Index and get the most updated information.
In most cities, you will find that you often don’t need a car to get to the outskirts or a nearby town. Check out this analysis and list of European countries that are offering free or discounted public transportation cards and passes to see if you can benefit from them. The city of Paris is even testing out the idea of eventually making their public transit free by 2026.
If you’re based in Madrid, I have personally designed a short list of day trip ideas for you. My typical rules of thumb for 1-day trips are to not exceed 3 hours of travel one way and to either pack snacks or plan to spend money at a restaurant in town to enjoy the local cuisine.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
The town’s monastery was built and designed for Felipe II, a Spanish king known as Philip the Prudent. It’s also the burial site of many famous Spanish kings and queens that lay to rest below the monastery in the crypt.
I’ve been here a few times since the town is a personal favorite of mine and I’ve officially visited in all seasons. If you do plan on visiting the crypt, bring a sweater in the summer or a very heavy coat if you’ll be going in the winter. In the spring and fall, I’d recommend checking the local weather first before you get dressed.
The spring can bring high winds and the fall (or autumn) can result in very heavy, rainy days.
It’s a great location for a hearty meal out in the sun (or inside getting warm by the fire) but be sure to make a reservation beforehand. If you’re more into hiking and want to check out El Escorial’s trails, plenty of people hike or cycle the surrounding areas, especially during Holy Week (March or April).
Another royal town, Aranjuez boasts a beautiful palace that’s a short walk from the local train station. The layout of the town reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen of Versailles (Paris). It’s very spread out and actually, El País did a story about how Washington D.C. was modeled after the other Aranjuez, with 12 avenues that stem out from a roundabout. I’ve been here in both spring and summer and I’d have to say I recommend visiting it in the early spring or the late “second” summer. We went during the summer of 2020 (what a year) and with each step, in those wide open spaces (anywhere that was uncovered and exposed to the harsh, burning sun), we felt like we were melting.
Suckling pig (cochinillo), castles, fairytales…
These are some of the words you’ll hear people use when talking about the famous, Walt Disney-castle-inspired town of Segovia. But, there is a lot more to the small town than those three things. One thing I’ve heard it excels at is sunsets but I’ve actually only ever visited during early fall to late winter! The nights are cooler up in Castilla y León in the summer but I’ve still not made it up there at that time of year. The local cuisine shines during the winter so that’s when I’ve prioritized going up there. My memories of almost being swept away by its cold, galeforce winds and gazing out at its snowy mountains are all I have to keep me warm. And some cochifrito – a lighter, less menacing-looking alternative to the photos of the famous suckling pig without indigestion!
(Locals will warn you not to eat it in the spring or summer and please, trust their advice. Digesting it in the scorching sun or blazing heat won’t be pretty.)
This Toledo needs no introduction because you will see (or have already seen) tons of videos, blog posts and guided tours connected to it. It is famous for its swords, tiny, cobblestone streets, Cathedral and Alcázar and some great cuisine. You can actually get a better view of the castle and the town’s skyline by climbing the tower of the local Jesuit church, which I mention in my Toledo day trip post. See the sights, visit some museums, and contemplate buying a sword if you want to have something impressive to hang up in your home and battle the hills. Wear a good pair of walking shoes to help with all the steps you’ll cover and also consider an overnight stay. Toledo is gorgeous during the day -but not so much under the scorching sun- but it is illustrious at night. In my opinion, I don’t think you can get the full experience unless you see it both during the day and at night. It’s magical.
Ávila is a place I have not been back to since February 2020. We coined it, “the last normal day trip we took” before things in 2020 went crazy. Or rather very dull and quiet if you looked outside during our 90-day lockdown in Madrid. Anyway, most famous for its walls that still stand today, Ávila reminded me quite a bit of Lugo, a city in northwestern Spain. A very walkable town with great views all around, I recommend it for a day trip when you want to go southwest of Madrid. Like many of these towns, they specialize in locally grown beef (carne de Ávila) and suckling lamb (cordero lechal), which, while pricey, can come as sort of a specially priced meal for two people. Don’t be too afraid of the collections of food pictures outside some of the restaurants in the center. In some cases, they don’t scream tourist trap but rather serve as a representation of the restaurant’s star dish. I found this also to be true during a recent visit to Logroño (La Rioja).
Just this past Holy Week 2023 (Semana Santa), my husband and I hopped on a very crowded bus with standing-room only and headed down to the famed town of Chinchón. It is best known for its iconic and enormous Plaza Mayor, excellent local cuisines and even bread! On the way back, we were standing behind a couple who had a large, rounded spikey loaf of white bread peeking out of the girl’s bag from a local bakery. I think the only thing I would have done differently about that trip -something we had put off for a couple of years now- would be to have gone at a less busy time. I think if we could go back, I would suggest spending the night there, seeing the Plaza Mayor at night and going to their wine museum or a nearby winery and dining at a local restaurant. If you want a break from the big city and to try a locally hearty meal (think meat and potatoes), Chinchón would be the place for you.
Manzanares El Real
As I explained to a Spanish student recently, I am absolutely certain that my love and curiosity of castles stems from how we just don’t have these beautiful, mostly medieval structures in the United States. There are so many different styles and layouts and each country on this continent has its own type of fortress.
So when a few years had gone by after a plan to visit the Castillo de Manzanares El Real went awry, I convinced my husband to go on a day trip there back in spring 2022. Or it was more like he convinced me to travel there with him for the day to watch a football match in the distant shadow of the castle. And he dangled a visit to said castle and lunch in front of me to seal the deal. I couldn’t resist and I was very happy to have the chance to erase the bad memories from my only other trip to Manzanares El Real.
Located northwest of Madrid’s city limits, the best way to get here is by taking a bus or car. With the castle being its main attraction, I advise you to skip going here if your ideal day trip date will fall on a public holiday (festivo) because the castle closes a few times a year. I made this mistake by going on May 2nd (Día de Comunidad de Madrid) but it was actually open on May 1st (Día del Trabajador).
There are also hiking paths, La Pedriza (a famous local mountain and nature reserve), the Parque Nacional de Guadarrama in this area. So, if you’re a nature lover or hiking enthusiast, this suggestion and the following town will really appeal to you.
Rascafría – Sierra de Guadarrama
Just north of Manzanares El Real is Rascafría, where the Río Manzanares also flows through. While it is accessible by bus, taking a car or a coach bus (not a green intercity bus) is much more recommended. Some locals prefer to head up there on a hot summer’s day but lots of groups of all sizes flock there for annual fall mushroom picking in search of the elusive boletus mushrooms. I’d like to go up there and cool off in one of the springs or nearby lakes but that will have to wait. Something that really piqued my interest about a year and a half ago was wild mushroom picking. I have loved mushrooms for a long time but I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a bender ever since this experience.
(More on my Logroño mushroom and shrimp pintxo experience soon.)
Anyway, if you love hiking or want to get into it, this area is a good place to start. And there are also plenty of rustic restaurants and shops that sell or serve local products, which is a great way to support a smaller local community. And try some of their specialty, in-season dishes, too!
With many places, call ahead to the place where you’d like to eat and book a table in advance. Trust me. Nice sunny weekends mean the restaurants will be packed and you may have to go to the next town to find a place to eat if it gets bad!
12. Support small businesses over big chains
If I learned anything from the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s to support the businesses and venues I love. Living in la capital for a few years now, I’ve also been privy to seeing the city evolve over the years and focus on supporting the city’s small businesses – primarily promoting shopping in your neighborhood. The Confederación de Comercio Especializado de la Comunidad de Madrid has run recent campaigns encouraging neighbors to compra y elige tu barrio (translation: shop in and choose your neighborhood, essentially).
I have a whole list of small businesses that I support in Madrid over the course of a regular year. Some have closed so I’ve recently had to update that post but I want to conclude this post with mentions of a few places I didn’t include there.
Syra Coffee. Located in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla, this small to-go coffee shop is booming. They have an app where you can participate in their rewards and referral program. Even if you’re simply planning a visit, their app is small enough to download and tuck away for just the right time.
After you download their app, use my code SY_25662 to get 300 beans (points) that you can spend on a hot drink, cookies or some of their baked goods. I get 200 beans for signing you up and the points don’t seem to expire.
Sounds like a win-win, right? As you purchase coffee and drinks (or order their coffee beans!), you will accumulate points and you can even save a few points or cents on hot beverages by bringing your own reusable cup to the store (see above).
Too Good to Go. This is another app that is completely free to download (no referral bonuses either) and it’s available in lots of European countries so it’s not Spain-centric. You enjoy saving surprise, sweet and savory packs by only paying about 1/3 of the retail price of the food or meal you’re saving. From full meals to cinnamon rolls and hotel buffets to bags of baguettes (oops!), we’ve really enjoyed using this app and combating food waste in the last year. Soooo much food goes gets thrown away each and every day but you can help prevent that and try new restaurants and cafés in the process.
La Esquina del Granel. This is my favorite bulk store in all of Madrid. I might be pretty biased since I live in the same neighborhood as this shop but the two guys who run it are experts. And they hate plastic and food waste so what’s not to love? They specialize in spices, loose-leaf tea and coffee, wide varieties of local beans, and different kinds of rice and have recently added vegan meats and cheeses. I get almost all my baking ingredients there exclusively
Jabón al Granel. Another store (Fill in Good) I found out about when I returned to Madrid after my wedding in 2019, unfortunately, could not weather the harsh lockdown and had to close. That forced me to look for an alternative and I came across this bulk soap, laundry detergent, beauty and cleaning product shop that has 3 locations in Madrid. Run by both Spanish and Venezuelan women, they are very friendly and their products are handmade and smell great. I love their hand and dish soaps as well as their pink delicate laundry detergent. You can even get a loyalty card that they will stamp and keep safe in the shop for you.
El Mercado de Maravillas. Well, any local neighborhood market or gallery (galeria de alimentación) is good to support. However, with dozens of stalls and a few restaurants and bars thrown in for good measure, this market located north of Chamberí in the Cuatro Caminos barrios, is not to be missed. It’s Spain at its finest with local butchers, fishmongers, bakers, shopkeepers and more selling locally or nationally grown or harvested products. Like at many local markets around Spain, you can place special orders, ask shopkeepers for tips and recipes and even make a local friend or two in the process. I don’t go here as often as I would like to but I do visit a local micro-market that is popular in Tetuán to get some fresh ingredients from time to time.
And there you have it! My master list of tips and tricks on how to stay healthy when living in a big city. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on big cities and what the pros and cons are of living in other places, whether in Spain or farther away! Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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