Madrid, the bustling capital of Spain, is chocked full of world-famous art museums, characteristic tapas bars and cultural spots. Often overlooked by travelers, Madrid doesn’t need to be just an entry point – it can be a destination for anyone looking to learn more about Spanish culture and history. Many of Madrid’s public squares are the core of activities – head to Plaza Mayor on a weekend to catch street performances, or Puerto del Sol to hang out with the local youths. Whether you are here for just a few days to soak up the Spanish vibes or a month-long stay to pick up the language, Madrid is definitely a rewarding destination for travelers. For those are short of time, here are some ideas to make the most out of your stay in Madrid
Arriving in Madrid, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by the complicated metro system and hectic crowd. Take your time to navigate the metro and ask locals if you have problems locating your hostel – most are extremely friendly when approached. Hostels in Madrid’s historic center would be ideal in location. This area extends from the main square of Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor. These areas are with walking distance from the city center and are accessible to attractions by metro.
Puerta del Sol
Madrid’s historic center is relatively big but still rather compact and easy to walk around. Start at Puerta del Sol, the center of Spain literally – this is the point from which all of Spain’s major roads originate. Puerta del Sol is one of Madrid’s main public squares, a popular hangout among both tourists and locals. It has some of the more commercial elements common to tourist traps, as well as street performances and a younger local scene. But if you brave the common hoards long enough to veer off a random side street, you’re sure to find yourself on a quaint road littered with garden balconies and picturesque laundry lines hanging above your head. Puerta del Sol also has some of the cheaper accommodation central to the city and has some relatively nice hostels for the backpacker scene.
Weave through the bustling street, Calle Mayor, past souvenir shops, boutiques and tapas bars to get to another public square, Plaza Mayor. The cultural scene here is explosive, as jugglers and street artists fight for attention from the hordes of tourists. There’s always something happening here, be it the Christmas fair or a local festival (the square is the staging ground for Madrid’s San Isidro Festival). Plaza Mayor is the most crowded on Sundays – as street performers from the nearby Rastro flea market stream here. You’ll also find some authentic chocolateria (traditional stores that sell thick, liquid chocolate) here.
Madrid’s main artery is the Gran Via, a wide boulevard with bright, glitzy shops and restaurants spilling out onto the driveway. The city’s hippest stores are all found here – restaurants ranging from fast food diners to chic fine dining outlets are all spread out along the long boulevard. You’ll also find plenty of hostels along Gran Via – with rooms overlooking the busy boulevard. End your day here with a sumptuous traditional Spanish dinner or light tapas and drinks after.
Teatro Real – Opera House
Catch the metro to Opera station or simply walk from Plaza Mayor. Art-lovers can catch a ballet or opera at the historical Teatro Real. Famous ballet troupes, such as Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet, often performed here when traveling through Spain. Although the theater has been remodeled in the 90’s (in order to enable operas to be performed once again rather than just orchestras), the building still maintains its original architecture. Elegant and antique, the house gives tours to those interested in the history of the structure itself, rather than just the performances.
Madrid’s Palacio Real is the official residence of the King and Queen of Spain but part of it is kept open to the public. The courtyard displays fantastic views of the city and countryside through ancient aquaducts that line the cliff. The majestic building enables a walk through the old medicine cabinet with massive shelves lined with ancient herbs, concoctions and containers, as well as entry to numerous main parts of the palace including the throne room, dining room and ballroom, all of which are absolutely breathtaking.
Each salon is different and usually has some kind of magnificent fresco either on the wall or ceiling, in addition to velvet and gold adornments at immense heights above your head. The palace is white on the outside and surrounded by beautiful gardens, kept perfect throughout the year. This site is definitely worth stopping by and a self-guided tour around the grounds is highly recommended.
Museo del Prado and Reina Sofia Art Museums
Although Barcelona is better known for its art collections and modern galleries, Madrid boasts two museums that would put Barcelona art history to shame. Head out to the Museo del Prado art museum first: the phenomenal edifice contains some of Europe’s highest regarded works from well-known names such as Francisco Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Botticelli, to name a few. This site even has the famous “Garden of Earthly Delights” painting by Heironymous Bosch, which you could literally examine for hours, and you very well might.
Another site worth visiting is El Reina Sofia art museum. This site is a tribute to Spain’s greatest artists, although it does house a few foreign names. Some of the better-known works shown here include Picasso’s “Guernica” and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”, which if seen in person, puts all those mass-distributed dorm posters to shame. The museum itself is also quite stunning including a glass elevator for an entrance and modern architecture that plays with the elements of natural lighting.
Bullfighting – Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas
Animal sympathetics beware, the bullfighting arena or the Plaza de Toros, in Madrid still practices the same classic conflicts of matador vs. beast in this tragically beautiful Moorish arena. If you’re up for it, shows take place every day from March to December at 6 or 7 pm, although the peak of the season is in May or June during the San Isidro Festival. The arena has a seating capacity of 25,000 people, and is usually full to sold out. For the actual “Running of the Bulls” festival, you’ll have to make a trip to Pamplona, but the best actual fights take place right here in Madrid. The Bull fight museum in the arena is also worth a visit. To get there, catch the metro to Las Ventas station.
Real Madrid Stadium
The Madrid Soccer Stadium is one of the must-see sites on the list of truly understanding Spanish national culture. European football is a staple of Spanish life and in the right season, will dominate the entire city of Madrid. Tours are given of the arena when games aren’t being played and tickets are available to the public when games are. In May 2010, the stadium will host the Champions League final, which will crown the champions of European club football. The area around the stadium is home to numerous football bars for those looking for a truly local experience or simply those unable to get a ticket. The area is definitely worth a visit just to see the structure itself which towers over the square that houses it. The stadium is located right outside the Santiago Bernabeu station.
No Madrid trip would be complete without a night out enjoying some tapas, drinks and of course, music. You’ll find no lack of these types of places in the streets of Madrid. Surprisingly, however, many of the restaurants that claim to have Flamenco music don’t always also have the dancing! But one place you can be sure to have delicious food, excellent wine, and most importantly, a phenomenal show is Torres Bermejas in the Gran Via neighborhood. This flamenco bar has a fixed price meal and show. Alternatively, you can just pay for the show and receive a complimentary drink, but the food is definitely worth the price.
The venue is located in a small basement in which the walls and ceiling have every inch tiled with beautiful Moorish mosaic designs. The small tables and chairs surround a tiny wooden stage that comes to life when the dancers appear. The performers are passionate, romantic and super sweaty, constantly gyrating while your eye level is strategically placed to see the rapidity at which their feet ricochet off the stage. The music is moving and the performers are completely captivating, so make sure to remind yourself to eat before your food gets cold.