There’s just something about Madrid.
It’s not just because it’s Europe’s third-largest city and the capital of Spain. Maybe it’s because it’s seriously OLD (founded around 800 AD!), but there is something really elemental and earthy about this city that I (Susan) found deeply grounding, as though I had come home. (Something tells me there might be some far-back Madrid ancestors in my family tree!) John, as well, was completely spellbound.
It is hard to put into words just how much we loved Madrid. As first-time visitors, we were completely enchanted with its rich history, kind and easygoing people, and colorful culture.
(NOTE: most of the photos in this post are in galleries. To view the pictures and captions one by one in a slide show, just click on the first one in the gallery.)
Here is our guide for first-time visitors to Madrid:
1. Stay in, or near, the La Latina barrio
We loved our Airbnb, a nicely renovated apartment in a historic building less than a block away from the Tirso de Molina Metro station. It’s right on the edge of Barrio de La Latina, one of Madrid’s oldest and most colorful neighborhoods and ground zero for some of the city’s most important historic sites – not to mention about a jillion quant and quirky shops, cantinas, and tapas restaurants.
2. Hop on and hop off.
Just as we did in Paris, we spent our first morning in Madrid riding the hop-on, hop-off bus to get an overview of the city and pinpoint the sites we’d want to return to later.
Here are some of the sights we saw from the bus:
3. Walk, walk, walk.
Madrid is one of the most walkable cities we’ve ever visited. The best way to get a sense for the place is to just get out and hoof it, and we did – logging at least six miles every day we were there.
And just as we usually do when we encounter a new city, we took a free walking tour. There are several operations that meet up in the Plaza Mayor in the morning, and we were very happy with our choice, Sandeman.
4. Use public transportation
We found Madrid’s Metro system to be incredibly convenient and easy to navigate. We took the Metro for both of our trips from Barajas Airport to the city center, for about 5 euros apiece. For our final trip back to the airport, we took our landlady’s advice and caught the Airport Express bus from historic and beautiful Atocha Station – a much faster option that allowed us to see a little of the countryside and also only cost about 5 euros. Both options are MUCH less expensive than taxis.
5. Visit the Prado Museum and Parque El Retiro.
You could easily spend a month just digging into Madrid’s fantastic art museums. However, if you have time for only one, like we did, make sure it’s the renowned Prado – celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. It’s a treasure trove of works by some of the world’s most beloved and renowned artists – Bosch, El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Goya.
Adjacent to the Prado is Parque El Retiro, originally created in the 1500s as a retreat for the Spanish Royal Family. Today it’s a huge and glorious public park, filled with wonders and much-beloved by the locals. One of the things we enjoyed the most about our stroll through El Retiro was seeing so many folks out enjoying the beautiful day, in various ways.
Just as we were walking out of the park, we encountered this delightful clarinet quartet:
6. Tour the Palacio Real.
(That’s PalATHio Real, in that lispy Spain accent that seemed so different to our Latin American ears!)
The Palace has been the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family since its original construction, although it’s now only used for state occasions. As the largest functioning royal palace in Europe, it easily rivals the Palace of Versailles in ostentation – with priceless artwork and decadent, over-the-top decor. The Palace absolutely blew our socks off!
7. Ride the Teleférico.
Walking north from the Palacio Real, you’ll encounter Cuartel de la Montaña Park, a lovely place for a stroll in the late afternoon. And just beyond that, you’ll find the city-side station for the Madrid Teleférico, a small cable car system that takes you up to the sky and over the Rio Madrid to a beautifully landscaped knoll in the middle of the Casa de Campo. With an expansive view of the city washed in golden late-afternoon light, it’s a nice way to cap off a busy day of sightseeing.
8. Soak up the history in the Plaza Mayor.
We stayed only three blocks from the Plaza Mayor, and we came to think of it as the historic heart and soul of the city. This large, open plaza is enclosed on all four sides by buildings dating back to the 1600s, but the location goes even further back as the site of Madrid’s original public market. Over the years, Plaza Mayor has played host to everything from crowning ceremonies for the Hapsburg kings to bullfights, public executions, and trials for hapless victims of the Spanish Inquisition.
9. See a flamenco show.
Visiting Madrid without seeing a flamenco show would be like . . .going to San Francisco and skipping the Golden Gate Bridge, or visiting Paris and taking a pass on the Eiffel Tower. There are plenty of clubs to choose from, and they all serve food and drink. On the advice of our tour guide, we went to the evening show at Flamenco Las Carboneras, regarded as one of the best in Madrid.
10. Churros and chocolate.
Unlike the beverage we Americanos call hot chocolate, the Spanish version is thick enough to eat with a spoon, almost like a pudding or custard. And it’s as intense and decadent as you might imagine. The churros are different, too – unlike the cinnamon-sugary treats we’re used to in the U.S. or Mexico, these are savory and crisp, the perfect foil for the rich, dark chocolate. Seriously, can there be anything better?
Spaniards take their chocolate and churros seriously, and there are about a million churrerías dotting Madrid. That makes it easy to indulge every day! OK, twist our arms.
11. Tapas galore.
So here’s the thing about tapas. We’ve had plenty of them in mediocre Spanish restaurants in the U.S., but nothing prepared us for the sheer tapa amazingness we encountered. The term originally described a small snack delivered for free with your glass of beer or wine, and that’s still true today. And while a tapa is still by definition a small plate, sold individually, the variety and artistry of Spanish tapas is mind-blowing. In Spain, tapas aren’t just a national obsession, they’re an art form.
Our favorite place to indulge in tapas (along with a glass or three of a bone-dry cava, rosé or sherry) was the Mercado San Miguel. This monument to gastronomic delights has been operating as a food market for over a century, offering a staggering array of tapas, desserts, and wines from many different vendors.
Other fave restaurants:
- Txapela. We stumbled on this tapas bar on our first night in Madrid – starving after our redeye flight from Medellin. The tapas here are tasty as heck and displayed behind glass at a large, circular bar, and you just tell the bartender which ones you’d like to try. It’s the Spanish version of one of those Japanese places where the sushi floats by in little boats and you just grab what you want. Well, sort of.
- Juana La Loca. This sleek and stylish joint is almost always jam-packed, especially in the mid afternoon when the locals tend to venture out for lunch. (As everyone visitor to Spain learns quickly enough, lunch is the most important meal and always enjoyed around 3 p.m.) Try to get there when they open at 1:00 and you MIGHT score a spot at the bar. They have a creative, modern, and thoroughly scrumptious take on pintxos (similar to tapas).
- Parilla El Gaucho. Excellent Argentine-style steaks and by far the best bargain meal of our trip. Sit at the bar and partake of the set menu for about 15 euros.
Lose your luggage? No hay problema!
We had a bit of a luggage challenge on this trip. Long story short, our bags decided to stay behind in Medellin, and we got to Madrid with just a bit more than the clothes on our backs. (Yeah, we know – lots of lessons learned here!) We had one night before flying to Paris and Versailles for a week, returning afterward for our week’s stay in Madrid. That first night, we happened on Primark, a huge department store on Madrid’s famous Gran Via. If you’re from the U.K. or other places in Europe, you’re probably familiar with Primark – but it was all new to us! It was exactly what we needed to buy a few basic but stylish pieces of clothing at very reasonable prices.
Have you been to Madrid? What are some of your best memories?
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