What to do in Madrid?

I have heard of a few people who have visited Madrid and haven’t liked it as a city. WHAAAAAAAAT?! Why on earth not?! … Would be my first reaction to that. When I sit back and think about it, I realise that they must just have not gone to the right places. They must have read travel guides that tell them that they have to visit all the art galleries, and so have spent entire days on their feet staring at one painting after the other. They must have heard that the main square in a city is the place to be, so spent all of their time eating and drinking around the Plaza Mayor. They probably read about the Gran Vía and so wandered up and down its dirty, polluted, noisy, beggar-filled pavements.

Don’t do those things. I have the luxury of having lived here for over five months with a month yet to go and I can tell you that I LOVE this city. There is so much to do, and it is so easy to get out of the city to the countryside should you wish. I’ve had several groups of visitors by now, have done different things with all of them, and all of them have left having had a fantastic time.

So here is my little tourist travel guide to Madrid. By all means suggest new ideas if there’s something you think I need to check out! Most of these guides suggest what you should do for 48 hours in Madrid, with really specific things that will leave you exhausted and having not really gotten to the heart of Madrid! So I am not going to follow that format as there are so many varied things to do in Madrid depending on who you are and what you like to do.

Starting your day
Go for a wander
Eat!
Art galleries
Chilling out
Leaving Madrid
Things to skip

Morning:

Start your day with breakfast. There are hundreds of good cafes for breakfast in Spain, with fresh orange juice for €2.50 and a desayuno for less than €2 with cafe con lecheuna tostada con tomate – toasted bread, spread with pulped fresh tomato and with a sprinkling of olive oil and salt.

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If you are anywhere near Alonso Martinez / Plaza Santa Barbara, I would recommend Crustos for a delicious breakfast and a really nice atmosphere (plus free wifi and an incredible bakery with lots and lots of cakes) but there are many others so pick somewhere near where you’re staying. If you’re further north, BAM bakery is tiny but awesome (not for breakfast, but their chocolate truffles are to die for). This map from Madrid Confidential may help (its all in Spanish but you can google the names of the places to get their addresses).

Go for a wander:

Much of Madrid is about exploring, wandering from place to place, keeping your eyes turned up at the beautiful facades of the buildings above.

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Where you choose to wander will depend on where you’re staying, but a good one for me is the route down calle Serrano (filled with posh shops) to the Retiro park. Stop there for a drink in a cafe by the lake.

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Then, if you’re feeling up for it, wander past the book stalls on the Cuesta de Moyano or down the pedestrianised calle de las Huertas towards tourist central. Stop for lunch somewhere around Plaza Santa Ana – Lateral would be a good bet – then continue wandering through the Puerta de Sol and along to the Plaza Mayor.

The Puerta de Sol is the heart of Spain, literally, as it is kilometre zero of the Spanish road network. It’s been the main meeting place in Madrid for centuries, where the mentideros would stand and shout out the daily news (like the British towncriers). There are a number of statues, always surrounded by tourists taking selfies, such as the oso y madroño (the bear with the tree – the ancient heraldic symbol of Madrid). It was the site of heavy fighting during the dos de mayo uprising against Napoleonic rule of Spain (did you know Napolean conquered Spain? I didn’t!) in 1808,  was heavily bombed in the Spanish civil war, and more recently has been the site of anti-austerity protests. It’s now pretty filled with tourists, buskers, street performers and counterfeit-goods-sellers so I would recommend just walking through and having a good look around you.

puerta de solThen you arrive at the Plaza Mayor – a huge square, surrounded by three storeys of residential buildings, lined with numerous over-priced restaurants and filled with street performers and those men that pretend they’re statues. And a goat that shakes it’s head at the people that walk too close (not a real goat). If you’re thirsty by now, get a drink and watch the goings-on but DO NOT eat here. It will be overpriced and you’ll leave with a negative view of Madrid’s food scene.

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Phew! That’s a pretty long wander.

If you’re not such a big city person, you could get the metro down to Legazpi and begin by exploring the Matadero (see below for more info). From there, you can walk through the Arganzuela Park, by the side of the Manzanares river. It’s filled with flowers and the scent of lavender fills the air as you walk along the beautifully sculpted footpaths. There are numerous cafes to stop at for a drink, plus several architecturally famous footbridges across the river. Pick your favourite – from the modern Pasarela de Arganzuela to the ancient Puente de Toledo. 

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This is perhaps the best thing to do if you have children as there are lots of play areas and even an “urban beach” – oval shaped water areas that spurt up water either in jets, which the kids love to play with, or in water vapour that cools everyone down. There are sunbeds nearby for the parents too. Its 6km long, so the full walk will take you a while, but it’s easy to stop at various points and jump on a metro home.

Orrrrrr you could start by the palace and walk north through the city, down the winding, narrow roads near the Plaza Mayor, quickly up past the Gran Vía (don’t linger!) and up the lively calle Fuencarral – a pedestrianised street filled with lovely shops, with squares filled with tapas bars off to either side and even a typical Madrid mercado – a place to buy your meat / fish / vegetables, or to sit at a bar and eat delicious tapas with a glass or two of wine.

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That’s a lot of exploring. I’d imagine you’re hungry after that. Depending on where you end up, Madrid has hundreds of delicious restaurants, bars and cafés. So that this post doesn’t turn into an entire book, click on the link to a post I wrote a few weeks ago about my favourite places to eat in Madrid.

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Art galleries:

Madrid’s most famous tourist attractions are, arguably, the art galleries, especially the Prado, which has some of the world’s finest collections of “old masters” European art. Another famous art gallery is the Thyssen-Bornemisza, which is one of the largest private collections of art in the world, including a selection of Renaissance Italian and Dutch paintings and Impressionist and post-Impressionist works. I haven’t been to the Thyssen-Bornemisza, but just visited the Prado. It is a pretty incredible collection of paintings, but as always with art galleries, I would recommend going for an hour or so and not trying to see everything in one visit. (James said I have the attention span of a gnat and went around making gnat buzzing noises in my ear for a while…)

IMG_8204Then there’s the Reina Sofia. This gallery is incredible. Firstly, it houses Picasso’s Guernica, on which I am going to write an entire blog as I think it deserves it. It is mainly dedicated to 20th century Spanish art – and it just so happens that this was a time of incredible Spanish artists such as Dalí, Joan Miro and of course Picasso. There are numerous other less well-known names, such as Angeles Santos, a female painter who was compared to Dalí and Picasso.

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And finally, the Matadero. Less an art gallery than an exhibition space, it was a former slaughterhouse that was renovated and converted into a beautiful space – stunning brickwork surrounding open squares, often filled with outdoor exhibitions, once a month with a street food market, and various other events such as a “cycling festival”.

IMG_6688Whether or not it’s worth a visit depends on what’s going on. I went to see an exhibition by the Guerilla Girls which was pretty interesting and I would DEFINITELY recommend visiting the second weekend of every month (except July and August) when the Mercado de Productores is on because the atmosphere is fantastic (and so is thefood).

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Chilling out:

Cities are tiring. Even if you’re just here for the weekend, I wouldn’t recommend spending your whole time rushing around trying to see everything. Pick your favourites – do the things you are most interested in. Then leave some time for relaxing! And there are plenty of places to relax in Madrid.

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Maybe you fancy a long, leisurely lunch on a shady terrace somewhere – how about Lateral or El Viajero in La Latina? (see my food in Madrid post for reviews of those places) Or pay the €4 to go up to the top of the Circulo de Bellas Artes for THE best views of the city, a place to lie down and chill with a glass of wine in your hand (wine is cheaper than coke …. welcome to Spain). Or take a towel to the Retiro Park and wander round until you find a shady, quiet spot. It is always really busy by the lake and the cafes but it is such a big park that it’s definitely possible to find a quiet corner.

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Or join the Madrid families in the Arganzuela park that you may have walked through earlier.

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Perhaps you want to get a proper tan while you’re here, but will need somewhere to cool off? Then I would recommend an afternoon spent at one of Madrid’s municipal open-air swimming pools. There’s a list of them all here. The one always spoken about is the pool in Casa de Campo as there are two swimming pools and one is 50m long – however, it is also the busiest, especially on weekends. I’ve been to the pool at Peñuelas which was fantastic. Lots of space for sunbathing, tables in the shade, a cool swimming pool, families playing and young people chilling out. Also lots of incredibly attractive people wandering around in skimpy swim suits which is never a bad thing 🙂

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Leave Madrid

If you’re here for long enough, why not get out of the city for a bit? If you’re an outdoorsy person, you could rent a car for the easy hour’s drive to Embalse de San Juan – a lake with a beach for swimming and numerous small restaurants (and delicious paella!).

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Or if you don’t fancy renting a car, jump on the 724 bus from Plaza Castilla for a 40 minute journey to Manzanares al Real. This pretty town is at the base of the Pedriza national park area, with the Manzanares river running through it. Take a hike up the side of the river, enjoy the views, and find a shady spot to paddle and rest.

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Finally, you can take a day trip from Madrid on the train, for example to the Escorial, or the town of Segovia (neither of which I have been to), or to Toledo – which I have been to! Toledo is great and there’s more info in my blog post here. It’s an easy 30 minute journey on the AVE from Atocha station and the town is really, really beautiful.

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Things to skip:

Feeling like you have to see ALL the art galleries

The palace – if you have a lot of time, go for it, but don’t feel you need to go and see it.

Gran Vía – see above, it’s dirty, polluted and too busy

Eating on the Plaza Mayor

Have a fantastic time in Madrid!

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