I had always been curious about Madrid. After visiting Barcelona and loving it, I was eager to see how the rival city compared. And I was not let down. Madrid is as beautiful and seductive as Barcelona but in an entirely different, almost opposite way. They kind of complement each other and that didn’t come as a surprise.
Accommodation in the Spanish capital was a bit more expensive and hard to find than I had anticipated, but eventually I managed to find a nice little attic downtown not far from Plaza Mayor.
My place was on cava Baja in the heart of the colorful neighborhood of La Latina. This old street is crowded with bulky old doors and numerous tapas bars—the trademark of Spain. It took me some time to find number sixteen on the facades of the century old buildings.
La Latina used to be inside the walls of the Alcazar of Madrid (citadel that stood where the royal palace is now) when the Moors reigned the Iberian Peninsula. That was back in the 9th century when Madrid was still a small settlement on river Manzanares called Magerit. The biggest part of the walls is ruined today but the narrow cobblestone streets and the beautiful squares like plaza Paja have been saved and remain one of the most charming characteristic of La Latina.
As usual, I dropped my staff and went back on the street for my familiarization walk. I headed north, towards the center, crossed Cale Segovia and walked on Cale Cuchilleros to see Plaza Mayor (the most central and iconic spot in Madrid) for the first time. One the way, I passed by Botin, the oldest continuously working restaurant in the world and one of Hemingway’s favorites.
The name of Hemingway comes up pretty often around the city. Truth is he loved Spain and that Madrid was one of his favorite towns. He also loved bullfighting, so much that he wrote a book about it (Death in the Afternoon) but above all he loved Madrileños’ way of life.
Going up the stairs in the dark archway of Cuchilleros I could see the strong sunlight emitting from the other side. When I climbed the last step, I paused for a second to digest what I was looking at. Some places make a strong first impression, Plaza Mayor makes a Herculean one.
This huge rectangular square is surrounded by a massive building that makes it look like a stronghold’s yard. The center is occupied by the equestrian statue of Philip III and four huge lamp posts around it. Their wide circular bases serve as benches where locals sit to take a rest and enjoy a bit of sun.
The facade of the hefty medieval building is painted in a mahogany color except for the middle section of the north side which is decorated with magnificent painted frescoes. That is the Casa de la Panaderia—which used to be the city’s main bakery. Today it houses the Madrid Tourist Board.
On all sides, under the square’s galleries, are several shops, cafes and restaurants with their tables usually flooded with tourists. It’s a beautiful place but it is overcrowded day and night. The only time you can have it for yourself is early in the morning, near sunrise.
I bought a bocadillo de calamares from the nearby La Campana (just outside the southwest gate on Calle Botoneras) which is famous for it, and went back to the square to sit and enjoy it. Bocadillo de calamares is Madrid’s most famous street food. It is just fried calamari in a bun with a bit lemon. Simple and tasty.
I stayed for at least half an hour, watching the light fading on the plaza’s narrow balconies before resuming my walk. After crossing Calle Mayor, I followed the narrow passage that leads to San Gines Chocolateria. This place makes a local sweet delicacy known as churro. Churros are long pieces of fried dough which you dip into hot chocolate. It’s an amazing snack especially for chocolate lovers. San Gines being the most famous churreria in town, usually has long queues of people waiting outside to order. Not far away from there, is another churreria called Los Artesanos 1902 which is as good and usually with more quiet. I had the taste of calamari still fresh in my mouth, so I let it for another time.
At the end of San Gines passage (they all take the name from the homonymous church around the corner), I stopped by the San Gines book shop. A small partly outdoor bookstore dating back in 19th century. It specializes in old technical and collectible books. Madrid is a paradise for readers with an abundance of small bookstores like this. Too bad my Spanish are poorer than poor.
A bit further to the north is Grand Via—the city’s most famous and inarguably most beautiful street. This avenue got many names after its completion in 1929. It took so long to be constructed that people called it Gran Via (great road), with a big dose of irony. Later, when it became the commercial theatre road with the magnificent buildings that we see today, the name Gran Via was deemed to be justified and it was officially named that way in the early 80s.
Callao square is the heart of this great avenue. The beautiful Art Deco building of Callao cinema as well as Carrion building across the street with the nostalgic Schweppes neon sign are two of the city’s most iconic buildings. Gran Via has many magnificent buildings. Some of them are among the most beautiful in Europe and they house everything from theatres, cinemas and boutiques to tapas bars and hotels.
Across the Gran Via metro station is the skyscraper of Telefonica—another amazing structure. It was one of the earliest skyscrapers in Europe and Madrid’s highest building till 1952. Designed by the American Lewis S. Weeks it has obvious similarities to the I.T.T communications building on Broad street New York—another Weeks design. In the case of Telefonica though, the dominant neoclassicism is interrupted by Spanish Baroque ornaments above the main entrance as well as on the clock tower atop the building.
Walking a few meters past it, I saw something that put a smile on my face—the Museo Chicote. At this point let me tell you that Chicote is not a museum in the strict sense of the term. The art you can find in it, is mixology and the only collection that has ever been hosted was one made of bottles in the basement. In case you didn’t get it yet, it’s a bar. But not any bar. It is Madrid’s first cocktail bar and its history could actually fill a museum on its own.
I pushed the old revolving door and immediately saw that the place was practically unchanged since the day it was built. The Art Deco interior was inspired by Luis Gutierez Soto—the same man who designed Callao building a few blocks away. I sat on the bar and ordered a gin & tonic.
The space above the bar shelves was crowded with tens of black photo frames. Sinatra, Hemmingway, Loren, Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Salvador Dali were just a few of the people I recognized.
Definitely this place has seen better days but it’s still working. It survived Franco’s bombardments during the Spanish civil war which is no small feat considering that the nearby Telefonica building was a prime target and a reference point for the bomber pilots who used it to navigate their planes over Madrid.
It felt very nostalgic. I finished my gin and tonic and got out. Before calling a night I walked two blocks to the corner of Gran Via and Calle de Alcala and took some shots of Madrid’s icon—the spectacular Metropolis building and its beautiful angel.
Top Things to do in Madrid
One more colorful neighborhood in Madrid. Narrow cobbled streets with little shops one next to the other. Crowded mostly by locals, Malasana has been totally transformed into a hip neighborhood in recent time and is an excellent place for food and drinks.
The barrio (neighborhood) starts north of Gran Via, behind the theaters and goes all the way to Calle de Alberti Aguilera. It tends to have less tourists than La Latina and equally good nightlife. When the sun goes down along with the colorful shop grilles, small bars light up and keep the barrio live till the early hours.
Museums : The Golden Triangle of Art
The Golden Triangle of Art is the city’s three most prominent museums, located on Passeo del Prado. Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza are on the one side of this beautiful boulevard while the Prado museum is on the other essentially forming a triangle which alone makes a visit to Madrid worthwhile.
This old hospital building with the addition of an impressive new wing, hosts a great part of Spain’s modern and contemporary art. This is a museum where you can see Picasso, Dali and Miro under the same roof. Naturally the centerpiece is Picasso’s Guernica. This masterpiece, depicts the ruthless bombing of civilians in the Basque town Guernica by dictator Franco and his Nazi allies. Monumental in size, it alone occupies a hall and gathers massive crowds
The museum itself is an architectural piece of art with the beautiful internal yard of the old hospital and the magnificent square on the south entrance which is covered with a spectacular awning so high that it belittles the long queues forming beneath it.
Salvador Dali – Girl at the window
One of the biggest and finest art museums in the world. From the dramatic portraits of El Greko to the haunting Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, this temple of art will make you lose track of time and get lost in the world of old masters.
Prado’s extensive collection includes works of Goya, Velasquez, Greko, Rembrant, Rubens, Raphael and several others. The fact that the museum exhibits large numbers of works for many of the artists means that you can actually see how they evolved as painters in the course of years and that is exceptional. I was impressed by the volume of art work that was commissioned by the church. Painting was a dominant medium in the past and church knew how to take advantage of that.
Seeing the whole collection will take you the greatest part of a day but is definitely worth it. Just keep in mind that photos are not allowed and buy tickets (online) in advance to avoid the huge line. I recommend buying the ticket package that includes the museum’s guide book. It’s well worth the money.
A great museum that houses the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family—one of the biggest private collections in the word. It holds several important masterpieces from 12th icons to 20th century moderns.
It’s probably the ideal museum to go if you have time only for one of the golden triangle museums. It is a unique place where you can admire Caravaggio and Rubens under the same roof with Lichtenstein and Bacon.
As usual, it’s better to buy tickets in advance from the museum’s website.
The Royal Palace
One of the most impressive sights in Madrid, the Royal Palace was built in the place of the old wooden Alcazar of Madrid which was constructed by Emir Mohammed in the 9th century and burned to the ground in 1734. Its huge front yard (Plaza de la Armeria) is almost as big as the palace itself. An imposing building with classic lines made of white and grey stone.
It has more than 4000 rooms, an impressive collection of tapestries, frescoes, paintings and of course the mythical Royal Quartet—two violins, viola and a cello, all made by Antonius Stradivarius that are located in the Royal Chapel.
The tour will take you through the Grand staircase to some majestic rooms and halls like the porcelain room, the mirror room, the jaw dropping gala banqueting hall and of course the throne room. The royal armory is considered one of the best in the world and it could have been a museum on its own. The palace’s kitchen is once more open for the public two times a day with extra admission.
You can book tickets and get more info at the Royal Palace website.
Parque del Bueno Retiro
El Retiro as they casually call Madrid’s second biggest park and for me the most beautiful, is a magnificent eco-system in the city and for the locals, an inseparable piece of their lives. It’s the place where they go to run, skate, cycle, relax, sunbath or even enjoy a boat ride in the park’s magnificent lake under the imposing monument to Alfonso XII.
You can choose to go in through Puerta del Angel Caido at the end of Calle Claudio Moyano—the fabulous used bookstore street. The park is so big that one can practically spend the whole day there. You can stroll around the popular areas like the lake and Paseo de la Argentina, skate on Paseo Fernan Nunez or see an art exhibition at Crystal or Velasquez palaces. If you want to stay alone leave the main roads and wander on the mostly empty backtrails which in turn lead to small openings with stone benches around.
If your appetite is bigger for what the various cafes and street vendors have to offer then you can head to the Florida Retiro (Paseo Fernan Nunez) for a full lunch or a round of tapas.
Parque del Oeste
At first glance it’s like any of the numerous parks around the city with one big difference though. It hosts an Egyptian temple dedicated to Amun and Isis that was relocated from Aswan when the dam was constructed in order to be saved from the coming flood—the Temple of Debod.
The temple with its two gateways has been rebuilt between two small pools that mirrors its image and highlight the temple’s classic lines. Whenever you go, you will find groups of youngsters laying on the grass around and catching the sun—beautiful.
Casa de Campo
This huge park (Madrid’s biggest—1720 Hectares) used to be a hunting ground for the royal family who also had their hunting estate there. Not far from the Royal Palace, Casa de Campo is more like a small forest than an urban park.
In there you will find the city’s zoo, a huge amusement park and a big lake where people gather around and have picnics. It is so big that it would be impossible to see it in one day. Except for Metro and buses you can reach it by taking the cable car that starts from the Parque del Oeste.
The Flea Markets
The city’s biggest and most famous market is held every Sunday and public holiday. Starting from Plaza de Cascorro and going downhill on alle Ribera de Curtidores, it has everything from clothes to jamon and from faux bijoux to art and antiques. People gather there and the surrounding streets by the thousands. It’s a great experience to stroll the market and then sit somewhere for your Sunday coffee in one of the small cafes and tapas bars of the area.
Coins and Stamps market at Plaza Mayor
Every Sunday morning a scenic little market is set under Plaza Mayor’s galleries with several vendors selling old coins, stamps, medals and other trinkets. Philatelists are an interesting crowd. Even if you are not interested in the merchandise, the market presents a very good photographic opportunity.
Stadio Santiago Bernabeu
The home of the city’s queen—Real Madrid since 1947. This staggering football stadium (rises 45m above the pitch) is worthy of the most successful football team in Spain and Europe. If you want to watch a match it will set you back at least 90€ and that is if you find a ticket (book at least 2 weeks in advance).
Even for non-Real fans, the tour of the stadium is an impressive multimedia experience that will take you through the team’s museum, locker rooms and football field. I recommend it to everyone. You can buy tickets here.
Bullfighting has always been a controversial subject especially outside Spain because of its bloody nature. During a bullfight, 3 matadors (bullfighters) have to kill two bulls each, in a three-stage performance. After each kill, the spectators decide if it was done skillfully and cheer for him or, if they believe that the matador lacked the skill or courage, whistle or even throw things in the ring.
Las Ventas is Madrid’s bull ring and from middle March (usually) to October, it hosts an event at least once a weekend. At the end of spring, on the weekend prior to San Isidro day (15th of May) to be more precise. The feria of San Isidro takes place during which there is a bull fight on a daily basis for the next 30 days. Many times during the festival the 23.000 seat arena gets full.
I did watch an event at Las Ventas mainly because I believe that eventually bullfighting will extinct and I wanted to live the experience at least once. For sure it’s not for everyone. If you want to go but can’t deal with the blood, then I strongly suggest to sit higher above row 15.
The tentidos (sections) are divided to sunny and shady ones, the latter being more expensive of course. Usually most of the action takes place on the side of tentido 10 so it’s always better to get a ticket on that side.
You can buy tickets at Las Ventas’ website
Madrid is a top culinary destination. You can eat in reasonable prices and eat well. A famous way to eat in Madrid is tapas. And I say way because a tapa is not a specific food, it’s the way of serving it. Basically it’s small dish with a snack that they bring you with your drink. It can be anything from a bit of jamon (delicious local ham) or cheese to a small piece of tortilla espanola (omelete with potato) or fried squid. In tapas bars there are several dishes in the menu from which you can order. It’s a great way to try several staff in one time.
Paella is a must to try as one of the most famous Spanish dishes and you can find it pretty much everywhere. It is made with rice which is seasoned with saffron, and meat or seafood. Other local specialties are the Cocido—traditional stew made with chickpeas and several types of meat and Suckling pig, a roast pork served in taverns around Madrid.
Looking for places to eat in Madrid? Check our food guide.
Madrid is warm and hospitable like an old friend. It will never make you feel like an outsider and Madrilenos have a lot to do with it. The cost of life is very manageable for a European capital and the combinations of thing to do in the city are practically endless. I can attest that I never felt uneasy or unsafe at any point. The police are constantly present everywhere without being bothersome and except for the pickpocketing of a smashed tourist in Plaza del Sol late at night, I never saw anything else. It’s one of the cities that I will definitely visit again in the future