The capital of Spain since 1561, Madrid has much to offer for 24×7 millennials, couples, backpackers and families looking for a sophisticated, metropolitan atmosphere, juxtaposed with a traditional and old world charm.
Spain may be famous for the sun-kissed seaside locales such as Barcelona, San Sebastian, or the historical sites like Granada or the unspoilt Seville, and Madrid may be remembered only for her sights like the Prado museum, which is art aficionados’ favourite jaunt or the grand monumental government buildings that stand tall and proud even today, or its insanely infamous nightlife that seems to go on till the next afternoon or in some places, they do not stop. But Madrid is far more than these typical clichéd views.
Do not let these biased views create an unfavourable opinion about the city. Let us just say that this world class metropolis is still waiting to be discovered to its full potential and you will find it if you look in the right places.
Madrid is for anyone and everyone and it’s safe to say that starting from renowned paintings to breathtaking architecture, love of life and laughter to a fast paced high street lifestyle, Madrid captures it all.
Renowned the world over for gifted and prolific Spanish painters such as Picasso, Dalí and Miró, the celebrated paintings by these artists hang in the famed galleries such as the Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. So entrenched is the love of art in this country that for centennials Spanish royalty generously bestowed wealth and opulent gifts on exceptional Spanish artists such as Goya and Velázquez and even Flemish and Italian geniuses.
This is possibly why King Phillip II thought Madrid was more suited as a capital city for his empire, what with Madrid being located centrally in the Iberian Peninsula.
For a Madrileño, the typical dinner time would be 10 p.m. with this being a mere preamble to the drinks that only begin sometime at 12. The partying begins around 1 a.m. with most nightspots closing only at 6 a.m. If you’re a tourist though and uncertain about where to go and what to do, it’s best suggested to head to Costa del Sol. Not only will you wind up with a good deal but also get an opportunity to savour more of the nightlife. Most Spaniards enjoy the ritual of club hopping!
In Spain, do as the Spaniards. In other words, Madrileños get together and hold botellóns, which is another way of saying a get together of friends for the sake of drinking. A botellón saves money spent unnecessarily in bars leaves behind enough for the Spaniards to enjoy their night out club hopping. It is not uncommon to find a botellón in progress at a park or some other public place as the law permits public drinking. For Spaniards the legal age in any case is 18, so don’t be surprised to find a botellón full of young people. Again, if you’re uncertain about where to find a botellón, its best suggested to head out on a Friday or Saturday night to Templo Debod. Usually in progress in the summers, the botellón at Templo Debod can be found near the Palacio.
Spaniards are a lively bunch of people no doubt, but don’t expect your service at the restaurant to be fast and hurried. Most Madrileños prefer long sobremesa’s, which means an after dinner tête-à-tête and this can extend one too many hours at a stretch. This is perhaps why you’ll find that your bill takes time to reach your table, so don’t be wary of asking twice for it. It’s normal to add a 15 percent tip to the cheque at nightclubs and restaurants, however, if you’ve liked the service, feel free to give an additional 3 to 5 percent. A euro is usually fine for tipping doormen and maids at hotels.
Do remember that Madrileños and Spaniards may come across as a casual lot of unhurried people, however, they take pride in their country and their language and though some may know English, they may not like to use it ever so often.
It’s best to equip yourself with a few words and sentences in Spanish and ask for help, if you must, from a younger native. “No pasa nada” is their informal ethos of life, meaning “don’t worry about it”. That in itself indicates the way of living of a typical Madrileño.
When learning Spanish, do keep in mind that there is differentiation between Latin American Spanish words in Castellano (which you might identify more commonly as español). So while some words such as Baño mean ‘bathroom’ in Latin American Spanish, it means servicio in Castellano. Another example is that of adios, which means ‘goodbye’, the natives though will say hasta luego.
The best time to go sightseeing in Madrid being spring season in May (this is the time when Madrid honours its patron saint), though visiting between September through December is also considered pleasant.
In the summers, the temperature can go up to 35°C- 40°C in July and August. July and August months are best avoided as most natives prefer cooler climes and a lot of shops and bars remain closed. There are quite a few concerts and activities in these months and the airfares may also seem more attractive, nonetheless, you’re advised to avoid these months.
The Festival de Otoño (Autumn Festival) – a performing arts fest, from mid-May to early June, is an unusually bright and cheery time with many dance and flamenco performances, poetry readings, pop concerts, ballet, music and theatre conducted by celebrated global companies.
Interior of Terminal 4, designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers
Madrid is well-connected by direct and indirect flights (almost 100 airlines) from all major airports in the world besides which there are many connecting flights from across Europe. In fact, on an average the flight time is usually a mere two hours to London, Paris and some Moroccan cities from Madrid.
The Barajas Airport in Madrid is considered to be one of Europe’s busiest airports and one can find a plethora of airlines plying from the Americas, Asia and Africa coming in directly to Madrid. There are also a number of domestic flights that connect Madrid with other cities in Spain and one can estimate the travel time to be within an hour to Lisbon from Madrid.
There are a good number of inter city public transport options from the airport terminals and one can pick from the bus service or the metro (Línea 8) with an average travel time of about 30 to 45 minutes to the city centre. Expect to pay around €5 (€1.50–€2 plus a €3 airport supplement).
Ensure that you carry change on the bus as you may not get tendered exact change for currency notes bigger than €20. There’s also the option of catching a bus to Avenida de América from where you can further take the subway. For €30, one can take a taxi to any place in Madrid from the airport on account of the flat charge structure introduced in 2014.
Madrid’s two main train stations Chamartín and Atocha are connected by the Metro line 1 (€1.50, travel time of 30-40 minutes) or the Cercanias lines C3 and C4 (€1.35, travel time of 15 minutes). Chamartín station usually has arrival/ departure of northbound and international trains and Atocha station has southbound and other trains connecting to Barcelona, Valencia.
Getting to Barcelona via the AVE line is easy and the journey time is only three hours, besides if you’ve purchased the ticket 2-3 weeks in advance, you may end up paying less than €50 each way. Nonstop trains are more expensive but discounts can also be sought on online bookings and sometimes you may get up to 60% discount on the official fare, but be prepared for a train change and some stipulations on cancellation terms. The official fare is an average of anything between €106 and €128.
While Chamartín is on the north side of Madrid, Atocha is on the south. To get to Chamartín, one can reach the Metro stop via lines 1 and 10.
The Atocha station, segregated into a dedicated area for Cercanias trains and another for long-distance trains, is interesting as one can find inside this old station a small area lined with shops, a tropical garden and a small fishpond with tiny turtles.
Méndez Álvaro is a huge interchange station and within this is located Madrid’s largest bus station, Estación Sur de Autobuses (meaning Bus Station South).
The Estación Sur de Auto buses ply’s medium to long distance buses with over forty bus companies, cafés and shops in action out here. A lot of the buses here ply southwards of Spain.
The massive bus station got a facelift and was upgraded as a more contemporary premises. Reopened in July of 1997, the busy bus station has a plethora of travel offices, money exchange, banks and cash dispensing machines.
The Avenida de América bus terminal ply’s buses for Barcelona and Bilbao and one can get to this terminal via the Metro.
A well-connected transportation, the Metro system is not too difficult to figure out as there are 12 color-coded routes for travel around Madrid. The Metro is quite well-organised, operates everyday between 6 a.m. – 1:30 a.m. Hygienic and easy to understand, the ticket fares are coded by a zone system and one can buy a ticket from all metro stations. The most inexpensive one-way ticket will be around €2 EUR though. If you intend to travel extensively via the Metro, buy the 10 ticket booklet costing around €12. To get an idea about the Metro’s zones, do remember that the city’s key ‘places to visit’ are in Zone A.
Hail down an available taxi if you so want to, just remember that the unoccupied ones will flash an illuminated green light that can be seen from afar. Ensure that your taximeter is turned on, as there have been instances of unsuspecting tourists being charged extra. Moreover, the official taxis are white and are instantly recognisable as they have the city’s emblem and a red diagonal stripe that spans the driver and front passenger side doors of the taxi.
The taximeter will commence from €2 and around a euro will be added on every kilometre hence.
Madrid has many appealing sights to feast on with most tourist attractions being such that they appeal to people from all walks of life, irrespective of age. One such example being the world renowned PradoMuseum (Museo Nacional del Prado), a museum on whose walls hang some of the world’s greatest artist’s works including Velazquez and Goya. Succinctly put, the Prado is a national treasure, a popular landmark and the foremost art institution that holds the place of pride to Madrileños, Spaniards and tourists visiting the city. The second popular jaunt for art aficionados is the Palacio Real (RoyalPalace).
If dropping till you shop is on your agenda, then too there are places such as the high street fashion shops in Salamanca or the El Rastro market that are worth a glance.
The food and delicacies are not to be missed and one can sample some of the fare at the many open-air cafés on Plaza Mayor or if you’re in the mood for some authentic specialties, try some at a tapas bar, El Tigre near Chueca being one such good place to go.
a) The Prado Museum
King Ferdinand VII’s wife ‘Isabella of Braganza’. Featuring works by the nations most illustrious artists such as Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco including the world famous art works, Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” Goya’s “The Third of May 1808 and ” El Greco’s “Adoration of the Shepherds.”
Additionally, the museum also features over 8,600 paintings and 700 sculptures, featuring Spanish, Italian and Flemish art. One will also find Flemish, Dutch, German, French, and Italian masterpiece works from the time of reign of the Spanish Empire. One of the reasons the Prado has amassed such great works is because of the anticlerical laws of 1836 that made it mandatory for monasteries, convents and churches to part with their artworks and give them up for display in the public domain.
For obvious reasons, the museum features on every tourists list and it’s easy to spot the Prado on account of the long lines outside. Open from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Sundays and holidays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., its better to reach early and make the most of time. Admission fees are €14 EUR for adults but students aged 18 to 25 and those below 18 yrs are not charged fees. The museum offers free of charge entry during the last two evening hours, though its best to at least spare a half day for enjoying the museum thoroughly.
Located adjacent to the RetiroPark, the Prado museum can be reached via the Atocha or the Banco de España metro stops.
b) Centro De Arte Reina Sofía (Queen Sofía Art Center)
Needless to say, the museum’s highlight is Picasso’s Guernica, which is located on the second floor, in Room 206. One can view the massive black-and-white painting in full view without any barriers in between. Regarded as the one of the country’s precious treasures, the work was specially commissioned to Picasso, who was living in Paris, by the Republican government for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair.
The painting depicts the horror of the carpet bombing done at the behest of the Nationalists by Italian and German forces on the town of Guernica, which was under the control of rebels. Though the painting did not create much awe at the time of unveiling, it later became a potent symbol of the horrors of war on innocent lives.
The sculptures by Basque sculptors Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003) and Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002) are noteworthy and so is Pablo Gargallo’s work (1881–1934) worth visiting, especially the bronze bust of Picasso.
c )Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
Featuring the progress of Western humanism, the Thyssen, opened in 1992, is a sprawling gallery with naturally lit viewing rooms, set within the late-18th-century Villahermosa Palace. With a collection of over 1,000 paintings, the museum has on its walls canvasses of significant changes in Western art starting from 13th-century Italian Gothic through 20th-century American pop art. Initially a collection of Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his father, the works of art were amassed from the 1920s through 1980s, the entirety of which he bequeathed to Spain in 1993 upon the advice of his wife. After a further restoration of the museum in 2004, there was an increment in the collection as the baroness’s personal collection was also added to it.
The museum is to the west of RetiroPark and you can get off at the Banco De España metro stop. Admission fees are between €7 to €17 depending upon the age of the visitor and the collection he would like to see.
A visual treat, the building appears to soar on an undulating public plaza that was recently built. To the northern side is a longish perpendicular garden designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc that together with a geometric rust-colored roof creates an overall complementary beauty that’s unique. Owned by La Caixa- one of Spain’s wealthiest foundations, Caixaforum has massive indoor galleries featuring a mix of La Caixa’s collection, ancient and modern art. If you want to grab a bite, head to the restaurant on the fourth floor, you’ll get to see some good vistas.
Your trip to visit this royal palace will be one grand, eye-opening one. A palace of gigantic proportions has set within 2,800 rooms, and one will be privy to the luxurious and magnificent residence of the kings of Spain from the mid-1700s to 1900s. Though it is regarded as the official abode of the royalty, the present royal family does not reside here, with the current king and queen choosing to reside instead in the more austere ZarzuelaPalace located on the periphery of Madrid. In fact after Alfonso XIII was unseated after a Republican electoral victory, no sovereign has resided in the palace since 1931 and today serves use for official purposes only.
The palace is resplendent and the two-hour guided tour in English will take you around the many dazzling sights within. You will be privy to the enormous banquet hall which is the palace’s largest room seating over 140 people for state dinners and the throne room- Salón del Trono which has the royal seats of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía. Aside from this you will get to tour King Carlos III’s personal apartments- Salón de Gasparini and these are especially beautiful as it is adorned with a 2-ton crystal chandelier throwing light on the striking swirling inlaid floors and fancy stucco walls with ornate ceiling décor.
The palace features on every tourists list, so make sure you reach early and make the most of your time. The admission fees are €10 EUR with the visiting hours being dependent on the season. A walk around the palace gardens is a good idea if a guided palace tour doe’snt appeal to you. The Sabatini Gardens and the discreet, away from the crowd Campo del Moro Gardens behind the palace are really worth a visit.
To get to the palace, you can get off at the Plaza de España or Ópera metro stations and to reach Campo del Moro Gardens, use the Príncipe Pío metro stop.
Neighbouring Paseo del Prado (yes, the same road that has the famous The Prado and the Thyssen museums), situated right near the Calle de Alcalá (leading to Sol) is the famous, Plaza de Cibeles. Regarded as one the most popular plaza tourist attraction in Madrid, this plaza is a sight for sore eyes.
Adorned with a beautiful fountain with the Roman goddess Cybele, the Plaza de Cibeles offers many beautiful sights to feast your eyes on. Incidentally goddess Cybele symbolizes Earth, agriculture and fertility and is a familiar symbol that’s been taken up unofficially by Madrid’s fútbol (soccer) team- Real Madrid. In fact, when the local or national team wins a title, Madrid celebrates with a parade ending at Cibeles. A player then ties the team’s flag to goddess Cybele.
The plaza comprises of the main building – the Palace of Communications, which initially was a post office. Today, however, it is the city mayor’s office. The observation deck (admission at only €2) is a good place to go check out scenic views of Madrid besides which visitors are permitted to see some areas of the Palace. However, if you want to take back some memorable pictures back home, visit the Palace at night when the beauty of the building and fountain comes alive and brings forth the stunning architecture.
To get to the palace, you can get off at the Plaza de Cibeles from the Banco de España metro station.
Formerly the private playground of royalty, the park is a fun-filled place to go, what with the Puppet Theatre showcasing entertaining free humorous shows on Saturday at 1 and on Sunday at 1, 6, and 7, which everyone can enjoy. Street musicians, jugglers, clowns, gypsy fortune-tellers and sidewalk painters make the park a recreational spot that people from all walks of life can enjoy. One will also find many natives jogging, rollerblading, bicycling, or just taking a casual walk.
To get to the park, you can get off at the Retiro, Atocha or Ibiza metro stations.
However that’s not all, the market has a lively vibe that’s fun and electric and buzzing all day through, though there are some who feel that there should have been better seating optionsand that the stuff available at the market is on the pricier side oriented towards the tourists. So even if you don’t buy or eat something from here do check the market out simply for its entertaining environment. Mercado San Miguel market can be found to the west of the Puerta del Sol, the symbolic centre of Madrid.
This means that you can expect to find here Madrid’s most happening bars, nightclubs, café’s and what not! Walk into Sol on New Years and you might be tempted to mistake yourself for having landed up at Times Square.
To get to Puerta del Sol, jump off at the Sol metro stop.
If you do think of visiting the gourmet restaurants here, be warned that they might be on the pricier side. The square is to the west of Puerta del Sol, which means you can reach via the metro off of the Sol or Opera stops.
Walk down a bit more and you’ll come to the Hotel de las Letras. Needless to say, you’ll want to take a look inside. Further down, check out the window display at the Loewe shop or savour a drink in the legendary Museo Chicote and enjoy taking a look at the photos of celebrities who have passed through the swinging doors. Incidentally Museo Chicote isn’t a museum at all!
Not to be missed, many Madrileños find this place to be a good joint for meeting up when the clubbing is done with and people are heading back home. The décor is authentic and classic celeb pictures are hung up on the wall, however, you might miss all of that in the anticipation of your mug of warm dipping chocolate and churros or porras. Porras are similar to churros, just a bit bigger. A busy place for good reason, the churros and porras recipe by San Ginés is the same since 1894. What’s more, even the dipping chocolate is made right there and then and one can add a liqueur of their choice, just for an additional kick.
The mammoth San Lorenzo del Escorial Monastery, which is not too far-just perhaps 45 kilometres from downtown, is also good but then if you’re looking for some greenery, head to the gardens of Aranjuez- a UNESCO World Heritage Site, situated next to a royal palace. If traditional food is on your mind, visit Chinchón and take in the sights of the old town square.
Enjoy the winter snow…
Snow and skiing is fun and you can head to Valdesquí, one of the most famous resorts with 27 tracks (3 red, 15 blue, 9 green), 15 ski lifts and 9 snow-making machines. Besides, there are a couple of cafés and rest areas as well.