Defiant, dynamic and dangerously good fun, Emma Weinbren picks out the very best of the Spanish capital, from the Buen Retiro to the Bernabeu, with plenty to savour in between.
If there’s one thing Madrid won’t tolerate, it’s being second best. Situated in the heart of the country, the city prides itself on being the pinnacle of Spanish culture, art and style. Madrid’s buzzing atmosphere, diverse cultural events and resplendent architecture – even the Post Office building is a work of art here – more than justify its status as Spain’s capital. Yet this beautiful, land-locked city is often shunned in favour of Barcelona’s coastal charms.
But Madrid isn’t the kind of city to take this lying down. In true Spanish defiance, Madrid has refused to pander to the mainstream tourist trail and instead celebrates its understated, authentic atmosphere. From its glorious Art Deco buildings, such as the Edificio Metropolis, to its picturesque cobbled streets, Madrid oozes an effortless style. There’s no need to boast about the capital’s world-class shopping, rich culture or relentlessly energetic nightlife, you’ll discover them when you get here. An easy-going and friendly city, Madrid casually invites visitors rather than demanding their attention. The Madrileños don’t feel the need to talk up their city: they prefer to sit back, enjoy the sun-soaked atmosphere and pity those who are missing out.
Best of the Beaten Track
The buzzing Gran Vía area is a Mecca for fun-loving residents and tourists alike. Madrid’s answer to Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and Broadway all rolled in to one, this is where you find the city’s main entertainment. Enjoy a grandiose musical at Plaza de Callao, treat yourself to a cocktail on the rooftop of the Círculo de Bellas Artes, or simply browse the shopping haven of Gran Vía and Puerta del Sol.
If all this leaves you thirsty for culture, then head to the Prado and Reina Sofía museums. Art-lovers flock to both in droves to ponder some of Europe’s most famous artwork. While the Prado showcases earlier artists such as El Greco and Goya, the Reina Sofía houses more contemporary work. Picasso’s Guernica is the museum’s top crowd-puller and visitors stop in their tracks to stare at this mind-boggling interpretation of the Spanish Civil War.
When your energy starts to flag, the Parque del Buen Retiro provides the perfect playground for a lazy afternoon in the sun. An oasis of greenery in Madrid’s hectic core, visitors come here to soak up the rays among the park’s balmy trees and landscape gardens. But the Retiro isn’t just a pretty face – cutting-edge artwork is always on display here and Madrid’s performers regularly grace the park’s picturesque paths. Although if it’s pure piece and quiet you’re after, the lake area is best avoided – a zealous drummer will usually spring to life here around lunchtime, with energetic sun-worshippers dancing to the beat.
Malasaña is the district of choice among the young and trendy Madrid crowd. The eclectic mix of cluttered cafés, offbeat bars and boutique shops is a haven for those seeking to escape the McDonald’s and Starbucks chains of the city centre. While the area may not be picture perfect – graffiti adorns many of Malasaña’s walls and shutters – its cobbled streets exude a quirky charm.
Calle Fuencarral is best for designer boutiques and independent outlets, while chic bars and cafés lie on the neighbouring side streets. If you’re in the mood for a more tranquil setting, the artistic Café Manuela invites passers-by to while away the afternoon – board games are even on hand for when the conversation runs dry.
Experience & Events
Nowhere knows how to throw a fiesta like Madrid, and every local holiday invites a hedonistic mix of celebratory events, processions and revelry. San Isidro is perhaps the best time to experience Madrid in full party mode, marking the annual homage to Madrid’s rural patron saint. Celebrations start on May 15th, as Madrileños don ceremonial dress and open air performances take place in every corner of the city. The Plaza Mayor is always particularly lively, often playing host to traditional dance and theatre productions.
The bustling El Rastro market is also a great way to experience a colourful slice of Madrid while picking up a thrifty deal. Traders have set up their stalls here every Sunday for nearly five centuries, attracting tourists and bargain hunters alike. Granted, it may take a while to find a gem among the maze of market stalls, but you’ll soon find haggling can get you everywhere.
Of course, no football fan comes to Madrid without paying a visit to Real Madrid’s legendary stadium. Football is a sacred sport here, but take care if you expect every local bar to be backing Real Madrid all the way. There’s a bitter rivalry between Madrid’s flagship team and the underdog Atlético club, said to be supported by the ‘real Madrileños’. Proudly displaying a ‘los blancos’ shirt can attract more abuse than you may expect.
If, on the other hand, you actively enjoy resolving tricky situations then how about upping the ante and travelling back in time to the 1930s to solve a grand art theft, or heading back to the Cold War to avert a false alarm that could trigger a nuclear war? We already reported on the Escape Rooms trend that started in Budapest, but here in the Spanish capital you can also test your grey matter at the likes of EXIT Madrid.
If slow travel is your thing, sign up for Spanish classes with Expanish Madrid and learn the lingo, in between exploring the city and its culture.
The Hotel de las Letras is one of Madrid’s most stylish haunts, designed around the unusual combination of luxury and literacy. While guests are treated to five-star surroundings, including a sleek rooftop bar overlooking Gran Vía, there’s also a relaxing library for when the jet-set lifestyle becomes too much. Despite the cheesy ‘Room mate’ gimmick – each hotel in the chain is named after an attractive slumber partner – the Mario hotel is perfect for reasonably-priced rooms in the central district. With a rooftop bar, modern decor and complimentary fruit at reception, you’ll still feel like you’re in the lap of luxury. And if you’re on a budget, Cat’s Hostel offers cheap and cheerful accommodation, with the best value bar in the city. Naturally the web-o-sphere dishes up some attractive apartment options too offering affordable digs in various central and hip districts.
Eating ham is practically a religion here in Madrid, with many tapas bars choosing to devote themselves to various types of jamón iberico. For a taste of authentic tapas without splashing the cash, head down to El Tigre, a sidrería (cider bar) where every drink is served with a selection of the day’s dishes. This is best visited during the week though – weekends can see crowds rushing in for the prospect of free chorizo and patatas bravas.
Meanwhile, Casa Lucio delivers top class Castillian food, serving traditional dishes such as cocido (Madrid-style stew).
And fear not if you’re vegetarian – Malasaña’s restaurants offer plenty of delicious alternatives to ham. Check out the extravagant Isla del Tesoro (‘Treasure Island’) for the best meat-free cuisine Madrid has to offer.
Madrid’s nightlife is famously energetic and continues well into the morning, when revellers hungrily grab a breakfast remedy of chocolate and churros. The central district of Sol is a hub of nocturnal activity, with many frequenting lively, no-frills hotspots such as El Sol.
Getting There & Around
Easyjet and Ryanair fly to Madrid from a number of UK airports and other major cities around Europe, with traditional carriers such as BA, Iberia, Air Europa, Vueling and Spanair also operating routes. For getting from the airport into town check out Book Taxi Madrid to reserve a ride easily in advance online. Trenhotel also run overnight trains from Lisbon and Paris; whilst fast, if not cheap, trains will also get you to and from Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla within Spain.
The Time Out website is packed full of ways to enjoy the city, from the most authentic flamenco bars to the best way to spot a local bargain. What Madrid gives travellers a useful area by area guide to the city, while About Madrid has a number of practical tips and links.
Guidebooks-wise, Lonely Planet and Eyewitness guides give a great picture of the city, while Frommer’s Madrid Day by Day has plenty of ideas in a handy, pocket-sized format.
Depending on your nationality, a story about a Spanish mercenary out to kill two Englishmen in Madrid may or may not be comfortable reading – however the swashbuckling adventures of Captain Alatriste by Pérez-Reverte is the kind of romp Alexandre Dumas would be proud to pen.
Another hugely enjoyable epic is the Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a bizarre series of stories within stories set in Spain by the eccentric Polish Count Potocki.
For films set in Madrid, look no further than Abre Los Ojos, the original Spanish (and needless to say infinitely better) version of Vanilla Sky.
Naturally, a fair share of Almodovar‘s movies are also set in the capital, such as Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, which was nominated for best foreign film.
There’s a great list of Madrid-based films on this blog.
Soundtrack to the City
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This article was first published in 2010, and updated on 18th February 2022.