I always wanted to visit Spain, but I could never make up my mind between Madrid and Barcelona. I think that is why I always struggled to book tickets there! Now that I’ve cyber-met Matt from his really cool website, The Travel Blogs, I know where I’m heading: Madrid ayyyy!
But now I can see that’s not the only reason. Here are 9 other reasons why, spoken by the almost-local-now English boy that spends most of his days in this lovely European capital with his wife and their newborn baby:
Nine reasons you need to visit Madrid
Having lived in Madrid for nearly 18 months, I thought it was about time I shared some of my knowledge and tips of what to do in Madrid. Some of them are free, some of them not free and others require remortgaging your house, especially if you have a thing for baby eels. Anyway, without further ado, here are my 9 things to do in Madrid, in no particular order . . . apart from that first one.
Be the centre of attention in Sol
Ahhh, where better to start than the centre, not just of Madrid, but of Spain. A wide open space often crammed with people, Sol is where everything begins.
Shaped like a semicircle, Sol’s flat side is home to the City Hall with streets radiating like sunbeams from the circle surrounding it, each leading to another one of Madrid’s attractions. Outside the main door of the city hall, you can find a small plaque marking it as the geographical centre of the entire country. Many people like to stop and get a touristic picture of their feet, but I wouldn’t do that . . .
It is also in Sol where you’ll find El Oso y el Madroño, the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree, Madrid’s iconic symbol that you’ll see in many souvenir shops during your stay in Madrid. It’s odd, and I don’t know if something got lost in translation of that one, but I’m pretty sure that strawberries don’t grow on trees.
While you’re in Sol, be sure to keep an eye out for all the fun characters. You can meet Homer Simpson, Mickey and Minnie, and loads more with varying degrees of costume aptitude. Some look great, but others really should try harder. To be fair though, I often just look at them with respect for being able to stay in costume in the 40 degree Madrid summer. They will be wandering around offering the chance to get a photo with them and although you may want your photo taken with a sweat laden Mickey, just remember that they will expect some form of payment in return.
Relax in the White Triangle
I haven’t actually been into the Royal Palace or the Cathedral yet, so I can’t confidently recommend it, but plenty of people have and say it’s great, just check TripAdvisor. However, I can certainly recommend the surrounding area. Visiting the White Triangle (I have just made that name up and I think I’m going to make it stick) is a must.
The Royal Palace, Madrid Cathedral and the decadent Opera House act as the three corners to the triangle and each shines brighter than all the teeth in hollywood as the sun reflects off their white facades (See, makes sense now). The area within these must see sites in Madrid is beautiful. Made up of statues, fountains, street entertainers with a wonderful mix of workers, tourists and segways passing through, it is the perfect place to kick back, relax and people watch.
Cocktails and sunsets at Círculo de Bellas Artes Rooftop bar
Possibly my favourite spot in the city centre, the Círculo de Bellas Artes, is home to a rooftop bar with some of the most spectacular views over the iconic Cibeles fountain and Palace.
The building is a multi-purpose cultural building, home to theatre performances, cinema, art exhibitions and more, however, my favourite spot is on the roof. The entrance is a little tricky to find as it is hidden down a small side street, and they do charge a small fee to go to the roof bar, around 4 Euros. But all that does is make you feel less guilty about not buying anything while you’re up there. If you’re a little short on cash, I’d recommend going up to catch a sunset and just leaving quietly after. However, if you fancy treating yourself, head up about an hour before sunset, claim a good spot (possibly one of the beds) and enjoy a couple of cocktails with the best sunset views in the city.
Feel the history at Plaza Mayor
The Plaza Mayor dates back to the early 1600’s and in the centre stands a statue of the King who had the plaza created, Philip II. It is one of Madrid’s most popular spots and is home to many restaurants with outside tables basking in the sunshine. There are also many events here throughout the year including concerts and the yearly Christmas Market, so do have a quick look if something is happening before you visit, you may get lucky.
An interesting fact to ponder as you look around the plaza is that the statue was once known for its rather appalling smell and no one could figure out why. Well, that is until someone decided to blow it up and inside they found a mass of decomposing sparrows. It turned out that the small birds would enter through a small hole in the mouth and never be able to get back out again. Fortunately, when the statue was repaired, it was given a good clean and the hole patched up, probably much to the relief of anyone that enjoys the al fresco dining on offer.
See a slice of Egypt Templo de Debod
Now I’m a little confused about why one of Madrid’s main tourist attractions is an Egyptian Temple, but that’s not to say it’s not nice. It is actually an original Egyptian temple, relocated to Spain from the banks of the Nile. It’s original site in Egypt came under threat due to a dam building project, and in recognition of Spain’s help in saving other Egyptian Temples, the government donated this one and it was resurrected in 1972.
The Temple itself is nice, on a calm day at sunset, it becomes a very instagramable spot, but better than the temple itself is the surrounding park. A wonderful place to sit, take a break, and enjoy some spectacular views looking back to Madrid’s Royal Palace and Cathedral.
Eat in what is officially the oldest restaurant in the world
That’s right, according to the Guinness Book of Records Madrid is home to the oldest continuous restaurant in the world, The Sabrino de Botin. The team there have been looking after patrons as a business since 1725, albeit with a couple of management changes, unless the boss is now nearly 300 years old, which would probably be considered an even cooler record to have.
Sorry, I digress. Now, as you’d expect, this is a pretty popular spot and if you want to eat you have to book far in advance and I hope the popularity has to do with the quality of food as it’s not cheap. I remember seeing a plate of baby eels for over 100 Euros (yes you read that right, baby eels), however, the menu on their website has had the prices removed, so I’d say yeah, do some saving before you visit.
If you do go to the Sabrino de Botin and find out it is a little out of your price range, don’t worry, it is still a great area for food. The road it is in has a number of other cellar restaurants each with their own underground dining area and specialising in a different dish. If you don’t fancy any of them, there is also the fabulous Mercado de San Miguel. It is a regenerated market that now offers fashionable tapas, food and drink as well as a fruit and veg stall where the owner will attack you if you dare touch any of his produce . . . well . . . give you a hefty slap on the hand. In my defence, I just wanted to check how ripe his mangos were, in his defense there were plenty of signs in multiple languages that say “Don’t touch the produce”.
Get your culture kick in Museo Nacional Del Prado and Retiro Park
To be honest, there’s not much I can tell you about the world famous Museo Nacional Del Prado (https://www.museodelprado.es/en) that you wouldn’t be better off Googling elsewhere. I’m not going to pretend I know what I’m talking about, it’s an art gallery, according to many one of the best in the entire world, but fundamentally I’m a bit of a philistine and don’t really care for looking at old paintings. However, if that’s your thing, great, Madrid is the place for you. However, one thing I can promise you is loooong queues, so book your tickets in advance.
Now, if you are a fellow philistine and you are looking for something to do while your more cultured friends check out Goya and whoever else, then luckily right behind El Prado is Retiro Park, one of Europe’s largest urban parks. It is divided into many bite size chunks including a gorgeous boating lake, rose garden, exhibition hall and much more. If you are looking for a relaxing afternoon, this is the place to be.
Do a day trip
Don’t take this the wrong way, but one of my favourite things to do in Madrid is leave it, and fortunately there are plenty of great options when it comes to taking a day trip. The public transport system offers great value and very quick trains, making surrounding towns and cities easily reachable in a day. Some suggestions could be the beautiful walled town of Avila or the historical capital of Spain, Toledo, but my personal favorite is Segovia.
Segovia is home to one of the largest surviving Roman Aqueducts in the world as well as an impenetrable castle and stunning cathedral. It takes about 45 minutes to get to by train and if you want to avoid the “sweaty armpit fest” of a bus ride once you arrive, check out taking a day trip to Segovia , including how to get there, what to do and a few extra juicy tips.
Hang with the locals at Madrid Rio Park
Now my little insiders tip. If you are looking for non-touristy things to do in Madrid, then you should definitely check out the Rio Manzanares. Many people come and leave Madrid without ever even realizing there is a river. Located the far side of the Royal Palace, Madrid Rio is an extensive park with walking trails, play areas and most importantly . . . bars.
So what makes Madrid special?
Whether reading this makes you more inclined to visit or less, here is the wrap. Madrid is often overshadowed by its grumpy cousin Barcelona in the travel and tourism market. While yes, if you’re looking for pretty and iconic, Barcelona has more. However, what makes Madrid so amazing is the people and the atmosphere.
Having spent a lot of time in both cities I would say the people of Madrid are far more welcoming, the nightlife is much more fun, the street side dining and just the liveliness of the city beats Barcelona hands down. All of my friends that have visited have fell in love with the city and most have their return trips booked already. So while I’m not going down the easy route of turning this into a Barcelona vs Madrid post, what I am telling you is that once you have visited both, you will prefer Madrid!
Matt owns and runs The Travel Blogs, a site which collates and shares blogs from hundreds of travel bloggers around the world and pins them on an interactive world map. It is also home to his own blog where he writes about travel past, present and futures as well as occasional fun travel related news stories when they grab his attention and he feels they need yet another opinion.