- Go tapas hopping
- Visit the Royal Palace
- Have a tinto de verano at a terraza
- See a flamenco show
Madrid, Madrid, capital of Spain and the heart of Spanish pride. Madrid is a relatively new city in comparison to the rest of Spain. It has only been the capital of Spain for almost 500 years. But now it is the center of Spain in more ways than one. Madrileños are proud of their Spanish heritage and proud of their country.
A brief history
Although the site of Madrid has been occupied since prehistoric times, the first historical data that concerns the city dates from the middle of the ninth century, when Mohammad I ordered the construction of a small palace (site occupied now by the Palacio Real). Around this palace there was built a small citadel (al-Mudaina). The palace was built overlooking the River Manzanares, which the Muslims called Mayrit meaning source of water (which in turn became Magerit, and then eventually Madrid).
What to do
What to see
You can easily see Madrid’s top sites in a day or so if you’re ready to take it all in. Main sites include the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Santa Ana, Puerta del Sol, Gran Via, Puerta de Alcala, Retiro Park, The Castellana and The Prado Museum.
My recommendation would be to start at the Palace when it opens (the lines get quite long during the day, and if you wait, then you will be stuck in that line all the way through the palace, not just at the entrance). After that, take in the view of the Almudena Cathedral across the way….if you feel incredibly compelled to pay to go in, do so at your own risk – I personally don’t find the inside very impressive and think the entrance fee is not worth it. If you don’t have a packed day planned, you may want to head down the road, past the Almudena, over the bridge, down to the church San Francisco El Grande – my favorite church in Madrid. Unimpressive from the outside, but stunning on the inside. It’s worth a quick stop.
After these stops you can head east toward Plaza Mayor on Calle Mayor. You will eventually see one of the pathways to the Plaza heading off diagonally on your right. There you can enter and see the grand plaza – during the summer it will be filled with terrazas, during the holidays with little kiosks full of nativity figurines.
After Plaza Mayor, you can head to Puerta del Sol – the Times Square of Madrid. This is truly the heart of Madrid, and is in fact from where all distances are measured in Spain – if you are on a freeway and see a kilometer marking, it is from a little spot in Puetra del Sol. If you look carefully on the ground in front of the big clock, you will indeed see the little marking in the ground identifying it as the center. Note that this is not the exact geographic center of Spain, which is actually some 20 or so kilometers south of Madrid. Puerta del Sol is also where the big New Year’s Eve celebration takes place. This entails the chiming of the clock 12 times at midnight, for each chime everyone consumes one whole grape. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. While in Puerta del Sol, also be sure to stop by the famous Mallorquina bakery while you’re in Puerta del Sol to pick up a treat.
After Puerta del Sol, you can head out to Calle de Alcala and then Gran Via – it is there that you can stroll up and down Gran Via (to the left you will eventually reach Plaza de España, which is worth it to see if you have a couple of days, but not necessarily if you are in a rush). If you head right, you will end up at the beautiful junction of Gran Via and Calle de Alcala, where you will see the expansive view of the two traffic filled streets splitting off into separate parts of the bustling city. If you continue on, away from that junction, you will see Plaza de Cibeles, my favorite Plaza with its beautiful fountain and grand picturesque buildings in the background, and the Paseo de la Castellana on either side (a walking path in the street that stretches a long length of the city – it’s full of flowers, terrazas and lush green trees).
Continuing in the same direction you were going, you will encounter the Puerta de Alcala, with Retiro Park just behind it – it’s definitely worth it to enter, take a little stroll, and even rent a boat on the little lake and enjoy the sun.
After this, you can either head to the Prado Museum to take in some of the religious art pieces as well as art of the many Kings and Queens. Or, if you prefer more modern art, you can head to the Thyssen Museum, which is also nearby, or even head farther down the Castellana to see the Reina Sofia Museum (which is near the Atocha train station). If you’re not into art, an alternate stop is a walk down Calle de Serrano, the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, with all the finest shops.
If you have time, go visit Chueca and Malasaña – two of the very charming and older neighborhoods of the city. They are very trendy areas with lots of hip boutiques and yummy little restaurants. These areas are around one of the very popular shopping streets named Fuencarral.
Running of the bulls
If you happen to be in Madrid during the end of August, beginning of September, you might be able to go see the running of bulls in San Sebastian de los Reyes (where I happen to live), which is the second largest running of the bulls behind Pamplona. During fiesta week in San Sebastian de los Reyes, the running of the bulls takes place every morning of the week at 8am sharp. Take the #10 metro line north to the Los Reyes Catolicos stop and you will exit right where it happens. Then you can just climb up on one of the fences to watch the run (it happens quickly!). Afterward, head instead the plaza de toros (it costs a couple euros) to watch crazy teenagers tease an angry teenage bull (it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). This is as cultural of an experience as it gets. You can visit the city’s website here to see if the fiestas are happening while you’re in town. You can also read more about my visits to watch the runs here.
Lastly, if you still have some time, be sure to go see a Flamenco show. The one at the Corral de la Moreria is fantastic – just be sure to buy tickets in advance. Also, to avoid paying an arm and a leg, go for just the show (drinks and tapas), as opposed to making reservations for dinner.
What to eat
In pretty much any place, you can’t go too wrong with the following:
- Tortilla patata/tortilla Espanola
- Jamon Iberico (Serrano isn’t as good – if you’re willing to spend a couple extra bucks, eh hemm…euros, go with the Iberico)
- Pulpo a la Gallega (boiled octupus with olive oil, paprika and potatoe)
- Tinto de verano (beverage – a mix of red wine and a flavored sparkling water or a lemon drink – if you want the healthier/lighter version, ask for a “tinto de verano con casera”).
- Pimientos rellenos
Where to eat
Sometimes finding good food is about finding a good restaurant. Below are some of my faves in Madrid.
Maceiras (located at Huertas 66) is a great spot for a reasonably priced dinner in a cool spot. It’s right down town and the food is based on the Galician cuisine (the northwestern province in Spain). Be sure to try:
- Berberechos (like really small clams – delicious with a little lemon)
- Chorizo (it’s to die for!)
- Pulpo a la Gallega (this is the place to try it!)
- Pimientos de padron (little peppers – the majority are not spicy, but about one or two per plate will be)
- Tarta de Santiago (a simple and light almond cake from Galicia)
Another great restaurant for a mid-priced dinner is Tabernos (located at Santiago 9). Expect fusion Spanish food, an extensive wine list and a charming setting.
If you’re looking to make a few stops for tapas, the following places are great places to go:
- La Casa del Abuelo: try the sweet wine and all the kinds of shrimp (if you don’t like shrimp, this isn’t your place!)
- Lateral: There are several Lateral restaurants, but the most centrally located is in Plaza de Santa Ana – try the pan con tomate (bread with tomato), gazpacho, and any of the tostas (toast)
- El Viajero (Plaza de la Cebada 11): This is a bit of a walk from the area above, but worth it. Head to the terraza on the top floor where you can enjoy drinks and a view of San Francisco El Grande church. There are also lots of other good tapa bars in this area – the barrio of La Latina.
- Juana La Loca (Plaza Puerta de Moros, 4): Near El Viajero, be sure to grab a pincho de tortilla – it’s to die for!
- La taberna de los Huevos de Lucio (C/ Cava Baja, 30): Also nearby in La Latina, you’ll find Casa de Lucio – a classic Madrid favorite. For tapas hopping, however, be sure to stop by its neighbor Taberna de Lucio for some of their famous huevos rotos (french fries with a fried egg).
Top restaurants (pricey)
If you’re looking for a fancier meal, try one of the following:
- Casino de Madrid (beautiful rooftop terrace and Ferran Adria — one of the best chefs in the world — is a consultant)
- Sergi Arola (Sergi was an apprentice of Ferran)
Cities to visit near Madrid
Ávila (Castilla y León)
Patones de Arriba (Madrid)
Salamanca (Castilla y León)
Segovia (Castilla y León)
Cuenca (Castilla La Mancha)
Toledo (Castilla La Mancha)
Experiences from my blog