Madrid is a lively capital city constantly buzzing with excitement. Before COVID inflicted its long pause on international travel, this well-connected international hub welcomed more than 6 million visitors a year.

When I first moved to Madrid, I had a staggeringly long list of the “must-see” places in the city. The Prado Museum has breathtaking fine art (my favorite pieces are in the basement, where the more unusual pieces like Goya’s shocking Dark Paintings reside), and the green, tree-covered lawns of Retiro Park are a fine place for a picnic.

However, the Madrid institutions on most “Top Ten” lists are overflowing with visitors and suffer from long lines, sold-out tickets, pushy buskers, and the inflated prices that tourists are expected to pay.

Madrid's Prado Museum
Madrid’s Prado Museum

This is why, for example, I always tell visiting friends to forgo the overpriced Mercado de San Miguel in favor of a local food market, like Mercado de Vallehermoso in the Chamberi neighborhood.

The more than 3 million inhabitants of the Madrid metropolitan area don’t spend much time in the city’s famous, tourist-filled buildings. Whether you have just settled in or have lived here all your life, part of the fun of living in a famous city is finding the many unusual, off-the-beaten-path places to spend your time.

After spending more than 4 years in the city, here are my top 5 things to do in Madrid that you won’t find in every travel guide.

Have a Religious Experience at Iglesia Patolica

The ornate decoration above the burgundy wooden doors of this church, located in the Lavapies neighborhood, may give passerby more questions than answers. It displays an astronaut, a smiling 1950s nuclear family, a large, classic yellow rubber duck, and a scroll inscribed with Latin reading, “Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”

Have you guessed what this place is yet? Why, it’s the Iglesia Patolica, or the Duck Church, of course. Just one letter was changed in the name of Spain’s most popular religious organization, La Iglesia Catolica (the Catholic Church), for this newly founded faith.

This quirky church is devoted to spreading the word about the most fun religion in the country. The founder Leo Bassi is a lifelong clown turned unexpected priest. The building’s interior is an eclectic assortment of odds and ends, looking more like the hippest bar in town than a place of worship.

Leo runs a “duck mass” every Sunday at 1pm, which has to be seen to be believed. The church is also open for visitors every Friday and Saturday from 6-9 pm. A donation of 2 euros lets you look around and snap some photos.

Become Part of a Movement at La Tabacalera

The next place on the list is another beloved Lavapies locale, La Tabacalera. The Lavapies neighborhood is full of color, diversity, and art, which is exemplified in this urban contemporary museum and event space.

The location was once a tobacco factory, which fed the city’s nicotine habit for almost 200 years. When it finally closed down in 1999, the neighborhood eventually claimed the space as their own. Now, rotating art exhibits are available to view here with free admission. Graffiti, murals, and more line the gate, walls, and basement.

  • street-art-Lavapies neighborhood in Madrid
  • madrid-Lavapies neighborhood

Paintings, sculptures, and projectors playing art pieces occupy the halls, the closets, and even the original bathroom, still outfitted with nonfunctional sinks and toilet stalls.

Sometimes musicians play in the main hall or a drum circle starts. Stop by and see what’s happening!

Raise a Glass at El Cerro del Tío Pío

Madrid is full of parks that are worth visiting, but if you want to enjoy a sunset surrounded by locals, then head to El Cerro del Tío Pío.

However, if you ask any residents for directions, don’t use the official name if you want an answer. Locals have given this park its own cheeky moniker that quickly became the de-facto one: Las Siete Tetas. The nickname relates to the female chest, and references the 7 little hill peaks of the park.

madrid-tio-pio-hill

People come here to picnic, open a bottle of wine, and enjoy the views. From the hilltops, you can see Madrid’s skyscrapers, red-roofed buildings, and snow-capped mountains.

El Cerro del Tío Pío is located in the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas, so getting there involves about a 40-minute metro ride from the city center. Still, it’s worth it to see a wholly non-touristy part of Madrid.

Bike by the Manzanares River

Although it doesn’t end up on postcards, Madrid is home to the peaceful, trickling Manzanares River. One of my favorite activities during the prolonged autumn “sweater-weather” months of Madrid is to rent a bike and go along the riverside bike route.

There are plenty of electronic bike stands (called “BiciMAD”) throughout Madrid, and making an account is easy and inexpensive. Families and active locals rollerblade, bike, stroll, and relax at the many outdoor cafes and playgrounds along the river.

Manzanares River Madrid

Explore Parque del Capricho

Since it’s a metro-ride away from the city center, Parque del Capricho is overlooked by most tourists. This is a mistake, since it might be the prettiest park in town. With a hedge maze, a calm lake that is home to black swans, a temple dedicated to Bacchus, and a civil war bunker, there is something for everyone to explore here.

Built and added to over 80 years, this 18th century landscaped park features Italian, French, and English influences. Picnics aren’t allowed, so eat before you visit.

The center of Madrid can easily overwhelm you with the sheer amount of people taking photos and waiting in line, but this big city has more to offer than the tourist spots. To really experience Madrid, go to the 5 places I’ve listed – or better yet, take the time to explore and find your own quirky locales.