Madrid Winter Trips: Key Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Visit
According to Madrid’s 2019 tourism report, a mere 6.6% of surveyed travelers cited winter as the best time of year to visit Madrid. But if you choose to go against the grain and see Madrid in the low season, you’re in for a real treat. Madrid is a magical city year-round, and visiting Spain’s capital in the winter is one of the best ways to make the most of the city.
While some prefer to cozy up at home during the colder months of the year, I love taking advantage of winter travel. Destinations are usually much less crowded than they are in other seasons, and flights and accommodation tend to be cheaper—and the same holds true for Madrid. Spain’s winters are relatively temperate (at least compared to many other parts of the world!), the city lights up for the holidays, you’ll save money, and you’ll avoid the throngs of tourists that fill the city in peak season.
If you’re planning a Madrid winter trip, first, let me just say how thrilled I am for you. I lived there for two years and have visited a handful of other times, and I consider Madrid my favorite city in the world. As a formal local, here are my top tips for your next winter trip to Madrid.
Note: Winter 2020/2021, of course, may not be the best year to travel to Madrid. Check Spain and Madrid’s COVID-19 restrictions before considering a visit this year, but there are always future winters!
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How to Make the Most of a Madrid Winter Trip
Pack for the Weather
Though Madrid’s winters are significantly more manageable than many other cities’, it can still get pretty darn chilly there. January is typically the coldest month, with an average high of 50°F/10°C and an average low of 37°F/3°C. But if you’ve seen the photos of Madrid’s recent heavy snowfall, you know the city can experience some serious cold spells.
Prepare for your Madrid winter trip by packing in layers. A light jacket may be fine some days, but you’ll definitely want to bundle up as the sun sets or if the wind picks up. As a California native, I found myself donning a warm coat, gloves, scarf, and hat throughout most of winter. And since Madrid is a fabulously walkable city, be prepared to be outside.
Madrid’s climate is relatively dry, but it rains, on average, five or six days per month in the winter months, so be sure to pack an umbrella and waterproof shoes as well. Madrid’s winter weather is definitely bearable even for the worst weather wusses like me, though, and if 50°F/10°C sounds toasty compared to where you’re coming from, you’ll love Madrid that time of year!
Pick up a Metro Pass
I mentioned that Madrid is a fabulously walkable city, but it also has my favorite metro system in the world. It’s fast, clean, reliable, and easy to navigate. And if the weather gets particularly cold or rainy while you’re visiting Madrid—or if your feet are beginning to ache from all the sightseeing—the metro is a great way to stay warm and dry.
Load ten trips onto your metro card, which you can purchase at the airport or at any metro or train station, or choose from a one, two, three, four, five, or seven day unlimited tourist pass. Unless you’re planning on heading to any distant suburbs, a basic Zone A pass is probably all you’ll need.
Enjoy the Holiday Festivities
One of the biggest advantages of visiting Madrid in December or January is the holiday cheer that fills the city during the Christmas season. And Spain’s holiday period lasts until Three Kings’ Day on January 6th, so you have extra time to celebrate compared to countries who wrap things up on Christmas Day. Some Madrid holiday highlights include:
- Christmas lights: Wander around on foot checking out the twinkling lights around the city or hop on the Naviluz bus, which, for only €4, will take you past the best light installations Madrid has to offer.
- Christmas markets: Get your holiday shopping done, pick up some tasty treats, and soak up the atmosphere at one of Madrid’s Christmas markets. The most popular one is the one at Plaza Mayor, but you’ll find a few others around the city in December and January.
- Cortylandia: Spain’s biggest department store, El Corte Inglés, goes all out for Christmas. Head to the location near the Callao metro stop (not far from Puerta del Sol) for recurring, 15-minute animatronic and music shows on the store’s façade.
- Ice skating: Embrace the cold weather by paying a visit to one of Madrid’s outdoor ice skating rinks set up during the winter months.
- Three Kings’ Day parade: In Spain, the highlight of Christmas season is Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany. On the night before, January 5th, join festive Madrileños of all ages for the Cabalgata de Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day parade, and catch a glimpse of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar themselves.
And if you’re visiting later in the winter, keep an eye out for Carnival celebrations. While Madrid isn’t nearly the Carnival hotspot that other Spanish cities like Santa Cruz de Tenerife or Cádiz are, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Catch the Carnaval parade, the burial of the sardine, street performances, and more. Dates vary from year to year, but Carnival usually falls in February or early March.
Head Indoors When Madrid Winter is Too Much
Madrid’s picturesque streets, outdoor café terraces, and rooftop bars make it a city that, in my opinion, is best enjoyed outdoors. But if the weather is making outdoor activities uninviting, there’s plenty you can do inside to escape from the winter.
Museums abound in Madrid, and you could easily devote an entire week just to meandering around the city’s best. Madrid’s three main art museums, the Prado, the Reina Sofía, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are absolute musts for art aficionados and novices alike. But it doesn’t stop there. For more art, head to the CaixaForum, the Sorolla Museum, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, or the National Museum of Decorative Arts, to name just a few. Or if you’re feeling burnt out on art, there’s the Bullfighting Museum, the Museum of the Americas, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Naval Museum, plus plenty of others to keep you busy.
Aside from museums, you can also check out Madrid’s indoor monuments like the Palacio Real or the crypt of La Almudena cathedral. Other indoor winter activities I’d recommend include tapa hopping at one of the city’s markets, playing board games while sipping on coffee at Café Manuela, or just hanging out inside a cozy bar.
Eat Up: Madrid’s Best Winter Treats
You’ll find delectable food in Madrid year-round, both Spanish and international. If you’re taking a trip in the winter, though, be sure to enjoy some of the best seasonal food. Marzipan figurines and turrón (nougat) are both Christmas season specialties. Or if you’re there for Three Kings’ Day, grab a bite of a Roscón de Reyes cake, made specially or the occasion.
Cocido madrileño, a chickpea stew hailing from Madrid, makes for the perfect meal on cold winter days. And other steaming year-round favorites, like tortilla and churros with chocolate, are even tastier when they’re warming you up.
Go Shopping When Post-Christmas Rebajas Hit
After the Christmas lights are taken down and the kids go back to school, rebajas signs begin popping up on every shop window throughout Spain. Rebajas mean “sales,” and the best time of year to enjoy discounts in Madrid is winter rebajas, from January 7th through February. Be warned that stores will be overflowing with crowds, especially on weekends, but if you’re looking to replenish your wardrobe without breaking the bank, Madrid is a fabulous place to be in winter.
Seek Out Madrid’s Winter Snow
Madrid only gets a smattering of snow each winter—January 2021 not withstanding! If you’re looking to see some true snow, though, just head to the mountains nearby, particularly the Sierra de Guadarrama to the north. The Madrid region is no Swiss Alps, but you can find ski resorts within an hour of the city center, including Valdesquí and Puerto de Navacerrada.
For snowy vistas without the ski slopes, the quaint mountain towns of Cercedilla and Rascafría can’t be beat. Or, between those two, you’ll find Parque Natural de Peñalara, where years ago I took an amazing winter hike with unbelievable views.
Whether you’re looking to escape subzero temperatures, reduce travel costs, or enjoy Madrid when it’s lighted with cheer, winter really is a fantastic time to see Spain’s capital. With a bit of planning and willingness to improvise, your Madrid winter visit is one you won’t soon forget.