On our last trip to Madrid, Spain we decided to get our accommodations right on Plaza Mayor. Literally. Like, with a Juliet balcony overlooking the beautiful historic square.
This is not unusual for us. We generally like to plant ourselves in the thick of the action. We love being able to step outside our Airbnb or hotel and immediately be immersed in a tableau of breathtaking architecture, a flow of people, the smells of nearby bistros and cafes, etc.
But staying in a tourist area can sometimes bite you in the butt. Case in point: In Madrid we booked our accommodations completely forgetting that the city was hosting the Champions League final! For those of you not familiar: The soccer match is a big deal.
The whole Centro neighbourhood was besieged – even more than usual – by tourists and noisy activity in preparation for the big game.
Plaza Mayor had literally become a construction zone where stages and interactive venues were being built for the upcoming festivities. Getting around the neighbourhood was an exercise in patience, alternative route mapping and crowd avoidance.
To be clear, we still had a fantastic time, but it got us thinking about the risks and rewards of staying in tourist areas. Is it worth it? Do the pros outweigh the cons?
So we sat out on our little balcony on the grand square and talked it out. Watch us break the whole thing down in a short video on our YouTube channel!
PRO: Close to all the attractions. Great for walking.
One reason we feel compelled to stay in central neighbourhoods when we travel is because we love to walk. And the convenience of being able to get up in the morning, grab an espresso at the local cafe and start our journey to see the sights without interruption is very attractive.
In neighbourhoods outside the tourist areas, you often have to make your way to the sights, meaning some of that morning energy is spent figuring out the local transit system or grabbing an Uber or cab. We find it can stutter your momentum and eat up valuable time. Not always, but sometimes.
In addition, when the midday sun is beating down and we need a break, it’s convenient to have our accommodation nearby to take a break.
And at the end of the day when we stumble out of that cool cocktail bar – yay Salmon Guru! – it’s a joy walking to our nearby hotel or Airbnb and enjoying the way the warm orange glow of lights illuminates the old city’s stunning architecture.
Oh boy. If you’re going to stay in a tourist area, you better be ready for crowds. Although early morning and late nights can offer a welcome relief from the constant surge of people, it can feel a bit much if you just want to enjoy a casual midday walk or a relaxed tinto de verano on a terrace. It can get to the point where you’re spending all your energy trying to avoid the crowds instead of enjoying the neighbourhood.
PRO: Late night access to food and drinks.
On one of our past trips, we found ourselves in a neighbourhood where everything closed in the early evening. A rather unfortunate situation for a couple of hungry people who had wandered back to their accommodations from the city centre late at night. In that instance, we had to make do with eating mini pretzels saved from our in-flight snacks – you know, the ones with exactly 3 pretzels in them.
After that, we vowed to stay in neighbourhoods where our probability of finding a place to eat or drink at any hour is much higher.
CON: Harder to find authentic food experience.
On the flip side, while it’s great to be in a neighbourhood with a lot of bars and restaurants, it’s a bummer when the fare is average at best, and everyone in the bar looks like they’re from your hometown. The fact is, many restaurants in tourist areas are made for tourists only. Shocker, right? It’s not very authentic.
As always, the trick here is to do your research well in advance – as opposed to when you’re getting hangry from wandering around desperate for food – so you know which places to visit, and which to avoid.
PRO: Great buzz!
Oh yes. There is nothing like the electricity of being in a new city and finding yourself in the middle of the action. You feel like you’ve been dropped into a movie scene with cool characters, constant movement and action, and great backdrops. Sitting on a plaza underneath a 600-year-old cathedral drinking the local specialty, while absorbing the cadence of the local language being spoken by those at the next table, is an addiction that we’ll never get over.
And that scene is a regular occurrence when staying in a neighbourhood like Madrid’s Centro.
CON: The buzz is noisy!
That buzz and electricity is fantastic, but your brain can only take so much, especially if you have travel fatigue and are operating on fumes. Like an adrenaline rush, it only lasts so long and then you feel overwhelmed and exhausted. At that point the buzz becomes annoying. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to find relief. You may find yourself not wanting to leave the oasis of your accommodation because you don’t have enough fight in you to walk through the crowds, compete for a table at the local cafe, and stand in line for the museum.
CON: It can be expensive.
Obviously, the closer you are to the sights and the action, the more expensive your accommodations are going to be. This is often why budget travellers tend to stay outside tourist areas so they can capitalize on reduced costs of accommodations and food.
If you do plan to stay in Madrid’s Centro neighbourhood like we did, here are some great options for hotels.
SUMMARY: Choose your own path.
All travellers have different approaches, different values. Determine what yours are and go with that. If you want to be connected to the vibe and the buzz and the feeling of action in the city, then stay in tourist areas and central neighbourhoods. But if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, save a little money, and/or have a little more peace and quiet in your vacation, then staying in the tourist areas may not be for you. If you choose what feels right for you, you'll have a great time no matter what!
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