Madrid, the capital of Spain and the country’s largest city, is one of my favourite European capitals. With its grand architecture, majestic palaces, stunning museums and broad tree-lined avenues, it ranks right up amongst Europe’s great capitals like Paris and Vienna, at least in my book. What distinguishes Madrid from the other European capitals is its unique flair. You’ll see and feel it the minute you start exploring its streets. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. I fell in love with Madrid the first time I visited the city in 1992. Recently, I had the opportunity to rediscover the reasons why I love this city. Without further ado, here are ten things to do in Madrid.
1. WALK – Despite being Spain’s largest city, Madrid is perfect for visitors, like me, who love to explore a place on foot. The city centre is very compact, with the major sights such as the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor and Prado Museum all within walking distance (10-20 minutes) of each other. Madrid’s compact composition is due to King Philip IV who built a fence around the city in 1625. The fence forced the city to grow inwards instead of outwards and it wasn’t torn down until 1868. This fence, even though it doesn’t exist anymore, defines Madrid’s current city centre.
There really is no better way to explore this fascinating city and its colourful neighbourhoods. To get a great overview of the city, head for City Hall. Housed in an impressive cathedral-like palace (Cibeles Palace), this building alone is worth a visit. Buy a ticket for the ‘mirador’ for amazing views of the city. After you’ve taken in the view, choose any of the neighbourhoods to explore: classy Retiro and Salamanca, bustling Centro, atmospheric La Latina or trendy Chueca. As you walk around, take note of the gorgeous mix of architectural styles, from neo-Classical to Renaissance and neo-Gothic. I especially love the wrought-iron balconies that can be found throughout the city.
2. Get your arty fix – Madrid is home to some of the most well-known museums in the world including El Prado (with its priceless collections of Velásquez and Goya), Thyssen (historic masterpieces by Italian, Dutch, German and Russian artists) and Reina Sofia (home of Guernica, arguably Picasso’s most famous painting). Madrid’s ‘Big Three’ are conveniently located within a stone’s throw of each other in an area called the Golden Triangle. If these three haven’t satisfied your arty appetite, head out to some of Madrid’s lesser-known museums like the Caixa Forum and La Casa Encendida.
3. EAT & drink like a Madrileño – Most visitors will quickly become acquainted with the city’s tapas tradition because you simply can’t miss the plethora of tapas bars serving all sorts of hams, cheeses, tortillas and seafood. Special mentions go to Mercado de San Miguel (see point 7 below) and the Museo del Jamón (which features a staggering variety of hams).
Aside from tapas, try the cochinillo (suckling pig), cocido (a rich stew), lamb (cordero) and steaks at historic restaurants such as El Sobrino de Botín (a 300-year-old restaurant that’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest in the world), La Bola Taberna or Casa Paco. For something sweet and savoury, head for Chocolateria San Gines for hot chocolate and churros (deep fried dough sticks) and porras (similar to churros but thicker).
For the wine lovers, you have to visit Lavinia in the Salamanca district (literally a department store of wines!) if only to feast your eyes on the epic collection of wines. Oh, and you have to try a shot of vermouth (vermut de grifo – vermouth from the tap) in one of Madrid’s historic taverns along Cava Baja street in the La Latina district such as Bodega Ricla or La Perejila.
4. Sign up for a Tapas tour in La Latina – If you’re only going to do one tour in Madrid, sign up for this tapas tour in Old Madrid! You can choose between evening tours on (most) weekdays or the Sunday afternoon tour. Andrés is a very knowledgeable guide who’ll not only show you many of Madrid’s hidden historic and architectural gems as he leads you through the cobbled streets of La Latina, but more importantly, he’ll take you to some of Madrid’s best-loved tapas joints only locals know about and combine each tapas dish with the perfect wine pairing (from his own wine collection). He’ll introduce you to vermouth on tap, the fluffiest tortilla patatas and a variety of local cheeses and hams. I had a big smile on my face all evening!
5. Go square-hopping – Madrid teems with squares, from the grandeur of Plaza Mayor and the hustle and bustle of Puerta del Sol (a focal point for street entertainment) to cosy neighbourhood squares. Grab a chair at any of the thousands of alfresco cafés, order a cerveza or vino and watch the world go by! Drinks are a tad more expensive when ordered out on a terrace (as opposed to at the bar) but the people-watching opportunities are more than worth the extra expense!
6. Be awed inside Madrid’s palaces and monasteries – If it’s your first time in Madrid, I highly recommend a visit to the splendorous Royal Palace (Palacio Real). Designed in a late-baroque style by Italian architects, the 18th-century Royal Palace, with its impressive halls and ornate Throne Room, is a must-see. Then cross the square to the cavernous La Almudena Cathedral for another jaw-dropping moment. If you’re in Madrid on the first Wednesday of the month, stick around for the changing of the Royal Guard at noon (featuring hundreds of guards and more than a hundred horses).
In the vicinity of the Royal Palace, you’ll find the Monasterio de La Encarnación, most famous for its religious relics and a strange phenomenon which occurs every July 27th. A short walk away, another grand monastery awaits: the Monasterio Descalzas Reales. In its heyday, the monastery was one of Europe’s wealthiest. It literally means the ‘Monastery of Barefoot Royals’ and houses a stunning collection of tapestries and bejeweled religious ornaments.
7. Indulge yourself in Madrid’s markets – Madrid’s markets offer something for everyone, from the El Rastro flea market to the posh Mercado de la Paz (in the fashionable Salamanca district – top-notch charcuterie and wines). My favourite is the Mercado de San Miguel. Not really a market in the strict sense of the word, it’s more like one big deli and tapas fantasy! The vibe here is infectious and both locals and visitors are drawn by the delicious tapas and ditto wines. You could easily spend hours in Mercado de San Miguel hopping from one tapas counter to the next, glass of vino in hand.
Another market worth a visit is Mercado de San Antón in the Chueca district. Located in a modern, rather unassuming building, the Mercado de San Antón also has a great variety of tapas. After you’ve had your tapas fix, grab a cocktail (or two) and mingle with the locals at the rooftop bar.
8. Go wild with the locals! – There are hundreds, if not thousands of local bars and cafés scattered throughout Madrid and most of them have large television screens that show the news or sports programmes. Seek out an old tavern, bodega or cerveceria on a match day (football – or soccer – that is) especially when the local teams (Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid) play. If you’re looking to completely immerse yourself in Spain’s passion for food, drink and football, you can’t miss this experience. Two places Andrés (see point 4 above) recommends for an authentic atmosphere are Fatigas del Querer and El Ñeru.
You can also choose to go to one of the football matches (Real Madrid’s massive El Bernabéu stadium is an attraction in itself) and feel the ground tremble beneath you but if you’re not too interested in the sport, dropping by for a drink on match day is the next best thing.
9. Take a breather in Retiro Park & Botanical Gardens – If you’re looking for a respite from the busy streets, head for the Jardín de Botánico and the adjacent Retiro Park. Hectares upon hectares of lush greenery in tranquil settings await you. Retiro Park used to belong to the Spanish royal family before it became a public park in the late-19th century. With its monumental buildings and palaces (including the gorgeous Crystal Palace), serene lakes, impressive galleries and statues, Retiro is a favourite spot for both locals and visitors. Don’t miss seeing the Statue of the Fallen Angel (Estatua del Angel Caído), reputedly the only public statue representing the Devil anywhere in the world.
10. Stay local – To be honest, I’m a hotel person; i.e. when I’m in a foreign city, I prefer the comforts, services and facilities of a hotel. Lately, I’ve had to revise my preference after discovering the joys of vacation rentals. Somehow, staying in a local’s apartment makes me feel much more at home in a strange city. Most often, these apartments come equipped with a kitchen, allowing me to browse around the markets for fresh produce and cooking it in my own kitchen. Having a vacation rental also facilitates easy contact with locals; you start by meeting the landlord! Quite a few of the points listed above were recommendations to me by the apartment owner in Madrid – and after experiencing them, I’ve now passed them on to you! Furthermore, if you’re travelling in a group, it makes more sense (and it’s cheaper per head) to consider an apartment.
HouseTrip has a fabulous collection of vacation rentals in Madrid, ranging from small studios to large palatial apartments, in some of the city’s best locations. I stayed in a lovely, clean studio near the Opera/Royal Palace (a fantastic location) and visited two other HouseTrip apartments. Click on the images below for booking details.
They were all pretty amazing, especially the huge apartment in a historic palace a stone’s throw from the Opera. The owners told me about the many Opera singers and musicians who had stayed in the apartment and we had a good laugh about some of the quirkier moments.
Note: this post was brought to you in partnership with HouseTrip. As always, all opinions expressed above are mine, and mine only.