Madrid is the capital city of Spain and the third largest city in Europe. Often overshadowed by Barcelona, Madrid has a lot to see and do with delicious food, reasonable prices, interesting historical and cultural sites, beautiful parks, charming bars and so much more. For those travelling with a higher budget and energy, there is a thriving nightclub scene and some of the best designer shops in all of Europe. When planning your visit, know that Madrid is sweltering hot in the summer season and can be very cold in the winter. The busiest tourist season is during the summer season but Madrid welcomes visitors all year.
As budget travellers, ATB#1 and I booked a room in at THC Bergantin Hostel. Don't be put off by the word "hostel". This is not what I would call a hostel, it was much more like a 3-star hotel. It only has private rooms and there are no shared facilities. The location is fabulous, just a few steps from Puerta del Sol, close to walk to or get metro connections to all the landmarks of the city.
Getting Around Madrid
Madrid has an excellent public transportation system including buses and metro. It is a large city and even for enthusiastic walkers, you will need to have transportation. The Metro system is very easy to navigate and we found it to be the best way to move around within the city. If you plan on using public transportation, the Tourist Travel Pass or a book of 10 tickets (50% off until December 2022) may be your best choice, allowing unlimited rides. There are different price points depending on how many days and zones you wish to use it for. Zone A is probably enough if you are only exploring the city center, but if you have plans to go further the Zone T pass would be needed.
Our typical way to explore a new city is by doing a lot of walking, usually with a vague direction in mind. We make plans to visit certain landmarks and then generally wander around the area looking for other things that pique our interest.
Many of the smaller stores and restaurants close between 14:00 - 16:00. Plan your activities with this in mind.
Eating in Madrid
Dinner time tends to be later in the evening, with the busiest dinner services beginning around 20:00.
When travelling, we always look forward to trying some of the local delicacies. We loved the tapas culture of Spain. For those who are unfamiliar with tapas, these are small snacks often served free with drinks. Every city in Spain has their own unique interpretations.
Pork is the most popular meat; the cocido madrileno is a tasty pork stew. Seafood is also very popular. There were many small restaurants and kiosk offering pulpo (octopus) grilled in front of glass windows, andboocadillo de calamares (fried squid sandwich), and my favourite gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic).
Jamón Ibérico is a cured ham. Great joints of ham hang in butchers, bars and restaurants. It is often used for appetizers but is also often eaten as a hand snack from a paper cone.
Our favourite bar was the Parilla des Alhambra located steps from our lodgings. We would get our coffees and fresh orange juice in the morning, and would stop in most nights before returning to our room. By day two, we had established a rapport with the staff and were treated like their best customers on subsequent visits. One night, another party even got moved because they were at "our" table! This, of course, was totally unnecessary and slightly uncomfortable but the people that got moved weren't upset.
The tavernas deserve your visit. Not only is the food and atmosphere great but the mosaic and tile work inside is absolutely stunning
The Mercado de San Miguel market is a great place to find all the local delicacies. Opened in 1916, this was a local food market beforee rebranding itslf as a gourmet market. Located in the old quarter, it's a great place to wander around and sample all sorts of Spanish cuisine from pintxos (tapas), olives, oysters, paella and more.
San Miguel market is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike and gets over ten million visitors each year. It opens at 10:00 and I would recommend arriving as early as possible to avoid the worst of the crowds.
What to See in Madrid
Puerta del Sol
The Puerta del Sol is the center of Spain and was the closest plaza to our hostel. It was always crowded; most often with people heading somewhere else. The plaza is "kilometer zero" for all the radial roads of Spain. This is where the symbol of Madrid, the statue of El Oso y el Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree) is located.
As we crossed this plaza daily, we were often treated to street performances of various types. We enjoyed some beautiful guitar playing on several nights. One night a group of break-dancing tumblers put on an athletic and comical show that had the entire crowd enthralled
Plaza Major is in the area known as Hapsburg Madrid and is a huge space surrounding by many little shops, cafes, and the San Miguel Market. In the center is a bronze statue of King Philip III that is almost 400 years old.
We spent a wonderful evening moving around the plaza enjoying different tapas and this is where we found our absolute favourite selections.
Although there are many ways to get to the plaza, one of the most impressive entrances is from Calle de Cuchilleros where you will pass under the Arco de Cuchilleros, a huge arch with steep stairs leading into the square.
Catedral de la Almudena
The Almudena Cathedral is one of the largest in Europe which blends neo-gothic architecture with modern statues and pop art decor. It took more than a hundred years to build and was consecrated in 1993. We really enjoyed the stained glass.
The Cathedral also includes a museum (we didn't visit the museum) with effigies the Virgin Mary of la Almudena and San Isidro Labrador, the patron saints of Madrid. It also has an exhibition of the life of the Church.
The Cathedral is open daily from 10:00. It is free to visit the Cathedral although a €1 donation is suggested. To visit the museum, the entrance fee is €7. Remember that modest dress is required. Wear longer length shorts or skirts and bring a scarf to cover bare shoulders.
Palacio Real de Madrid
The beautiful Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. It is one of the largest palaces in Europe. It served as the family home for Spanish Royalty from Charles III to Alfonso XIII. It is still the official royal residence but now it is only used for state ceremonies.
The exterior of the Palace includes statues of all the Spanish kings from across the Spanish empire, including the Mexican king, Montezuma.
Look for the lion above the entrance. The lion is the official symbol of the Spanish monarchy.
There are over 3,400 rooms, with sections opened to the public at different times. There is a changing of the guard ceremony that happens on Wednesdays and Sundays. The main staircase features a large statue of Carlos III, immediately recognized by his rather significant nose.
Once inside, we were forbidden from taking photographs, so you'll have to visit for yourself. Many of the rooms are adorned with allegorical frescoes. When you do get there, make sure to look at Giaquinto's stunning fresco on the ceiling. One of the highlights is the Palace Kitchen, which can be toured as part of the entrance ticket or separately.
Another highlight is the Royal Armoury which includes weaponry and armour throughout the ages. I really enjoyed seeing the horse armour.
The Palace opens daily, except holidays, at 10:00. A full ticket including all areas of the Palace cost €16 in high season and €10 in low season. Tickets can be bought at the Palace or online. Tours, audio guides, and a (free) visitor's app are available for those wishing to learn more about the Palace and its amazing art work.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
The Reina Sofia Museum is dedicated to Spain's modern artists, with an extensive permanent collection of works by Picasso and Dalí. Picasso's Guernica, considered to be one of Picasso's greatest works is found here. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions that are constantly changing. Again, photos are not allowed inside.
The museum is closed on Tuesday. On other days it opens at 10:00 and closes at 21:00, except on Sunday when it closes at 14:30. Tickets can be purchased on-site for €12.
Museo del Prado
The Prado Museum is the foremost national Spanish art museum. It includes a collection of classical art by Spanish masters like Goya, Sorolla and Velasquez as well as artists from other countries, mainly Italy and Belgium.
We spent an amazing day strolling through the galleries and salons and weren't able to see everything we wanted. The museum includes over 8,600 paintings and 700 sculptures. Many of the artworks were pieces I had read about and I was thrilled to see in person. No photos allowed, of course. You will just have to go see all the masterworks for yourself. If you have the time, you might want to spread your visit over two days.
The museum opens at 10:00 every day except Christmas, New Year's Day and the Spanish Labour Day on May 01. It closes at 20;00 (19:00 on Sundays and other holidays). Tickets can be purchased on-site or online. Depending upon which ticket you choose, admission will cost between €15 - €24.
Real Jardín Botaníco
Located next to the Prado museum at Murillo Square, the Royal Botanical Gardens is an 8-hectare garden. The garden ws founded in 1755 by King Ferdinand VI in a different location and relocated by Carlos III to its current location with a mission to exhibit plants, as well as to teach and promote botany. The garden includes three terraces and two greenhouses with approximately 90,000 plants and 1,500 trees.
Opening hours change throughout the year but opens daily (except Christmas and New Year's Day) at 10:00 with longer hours in the summer months. A full ticket that includes entry to the Pavilion Garden and the exhibitions is €6, for the garden only the fee is €4.
Parque del Buen Retiro
This beautiful park, known by locals as El Retiro, is one of the largest public parks in the city, and along with Paseo del Prado is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An easy walk from the Prado Museum this is a lovely oasis with lots of paths, fountains, and sculptures. It belonged to the Spanish Royal Family until the late 1800s.
El Retiro is well-known for the Rosaleda (rose garden), Palacio de Cristal (Glass Palace), and the Paseo de las Estatuas (Path of Statues) with a monument to Alfonso XII. The Glass Palace was built in the late 1800s by Ricardo Velásquez Bosco for the Exposition of the Phillipines. It is shaped like a Greek cross, is constructed almost entirely of glass set on an iron frame. It was built as a greenhouse but today it is used for art exhibitions.El Retiro is well-known for the Rosaleda (rose garden), Palacio de Cristal (Glass Palace), and the Paseo de las Estatuas (Path of Statues) with a monument to Alfonso XII. The Glass Palace was built in the late 1800s by Ricardo Velásquez Bosco for the Exposition of the Phillipines. It is shaped like a Greek cross, is constructed almost entirely of glass set on an iron frame. It was built as a greenhouse but today it is used for art exhibitions.
The park opens at 07:00 and closes at 22:00 in the winter and midnight in the summer. It costs nothing to visit.
Where to Shop
For those who enjoy shopping, the best shopping districts in Madrid are found along the Golden Mile and Gran Via.
Gran Via is the most popular and busiest street in Madrid with mid-range stores. For those looking for more exclusive shops, those can be found along the Golden Mile. These ones are definitely not for the budget traveller as it includes the designer brands like Chanel, Guccci, Tiffany, and Louis Vuitton.
We found Madrid to be friendlier and more budget-friendly than Barcelona. It was easy to get around and we found plenty of things to do. We enjoyed some of our best meals in Spain here. This were many places that we just didn't have time to explore and it is very likely that we will plan a return trip.
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