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.