Madrid is the capital of Spain and a city known for its huge buildings, great monuments and world-renowned museums. Yet as soon as you step inside the hustle and bustle of Madrid you see that it is much, much more.
The city is a lively metropolis with throngs of pubs, cafes and nightclubs open late into the night. I also happened to be visiting Madrid when the World Cup was on, so a television displaying the soccer game could be found on every street corner- the Spanish and their soccer!
Apart from New York, it was the busiest city I have been to yet. The main street, Gran Via, was filled with swarms of people. You literally had to dodge people left, right and centre, and walk with a purpose to your destination. So if you’re looking for a relaxing destination, don’t visit Madrid. If you’re after a cultured, vibrant and lively destination, Madrid may just be the place for you.
1. Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2. Royal Palace of Madrid, 3. La Almudena Church, 4. El Retiro Park, 5. Plaza Mayor,
What to do:
- Churros: I spent the beginning of my Spanish holiday looking in café after café in Barcelona and Mallorca questioning why churros were so scarce, and I finally found my answer in Madrid, where they originate. Go to Chocolatería San Ginés for the best churros in Madrid.
- Museums: I went to two museums in Madrid, Museo del Prado and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. People also recommend the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, but like always, we didn’t have time to do everything.
- Museo del Prado was filled with hundreds of portraits, depictions of Jesus and the Last Supper, and paintings by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century. For me, this all became extremely repetitive and a little overwhelming trying to absorb it all at once. The museum costs 15€.
- Centro de Arte Reina Sofía was a fantastic museum filled with 20th century art. If you didn’t get to the Museu Picasso, Fundació Joan Miró or the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Barcelona or Figueres fear not as this museum has plenty of paintings by these artists, plus works by many other modern Spanish artists. It took me around 3 hours to walk through the museum, but you could easily spend 4-6 hours here if you read every description. It was 10€ entry, or it is free to the public Monday, Wednesday-Saturday 7:00pm-9:00pm.
- Palaces and churches: The Royal Palace of Madrid is not home to the Royal Family of Spain anymore, and is open to the public for a fee of 10€. I suggest going early if you want to go inside, as there was a huge line by midday so we couldn’t be bothered to wait to go inside. Across from the Palace is the La Almudena Church, which you can also go inside. Sandeman’s Walking Tour takes you by both of these if you just want to see them from the outside, like I did.
6. Buildings, 7. San Ginés, 8-9. Plaza del Sol,
- Viewpoints: I saw on Instagram that Círculo de Bellas Artes boasted a beautiful lookout over Madrid and went to check it out myself. Confirming it is a great lookout, with a trendy terrace bar complete with a restaurant and museum in the same building. It was 4€ entry to the terrace rooftop/lookout, 4€ to see the exhibit or 5€ for both. It opens at 11am, so if you’re just after great views get there then or you’ll be standing in a line waiting to get in as the bar gets very busy. I walked by later the same day, and there was a line around the corner! There is also a viewpoint from the La Almudena Church, which I did not go in.
- Architectural buildings: Madrid is home to many large, beautiful buildings with impressive architecture from all different eras with different styles. From Círculo de Bellas Artes I would suggest walking down to the Banco de España, which is 2 minutes away. Then continue on another 3 minutes to the Palacio de Cibeles. This was unfortunately being renovated, so it wasn’t as beautiful as it was originally but was still nice to see the intricate details on the building. Then walk another 3 minutes and you will come across the monument Puerta de Alcalá, just before you reach El Retiro Park. Visiting the park is a nice way to spend an afternoon- stroll through the park to the water with rowboats in front of the monument, or go on a picnic on the grass late into the afternoon.
- Walking tours: You knew it was coming, a free walking tour! We did the Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour, just because it was allotted in an earlier time slot and we wanted to get out and start the day. The guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but this tour had a 25 minute break in the middle of their 2.5 hour walk to sell you other tours, which was annoying as the information is online or they could do it at the end of the tour IF you wanted to go on a paid tour… In this city we actually did opt to go on a paid Sandeman’s tour. We went on the Inquisition tour, which was very interesting, filled with personal stories from the beginning to the end of the inquisition. One of my favourite stories was about a head nun who went crazy, after she’d been accidentally impregnated by one of the priests who would visit the nunnery often. Her pregnancy and birth was kept a secret, so she wasn’t able to go to the hospital, and the afterbirth was never taken out of her body, resulting in the poisoning of her mind. She eventually started screaming out that she could see the Devil- not the best thing to say in a church. This tour was 14€, but if you do the free tour you only pay 12€.
- Shopping: Most of the shops were located on Gran Via or surrounding streets. The street hosted the major Spanish labels such as Mango, Bershka, and Zara, along with brands like Nike and Adidas, and they didn’t host unique boutique stores like Barcelona.
10. Congress of Deputies, 11. Buildings, 12. The cutest streets signs, 13. Museu Jamon,
- Airport: We got the bus from the airport to a main bus station in Madrid, right out the front of Palacio de Cibeles. The bus made many different stops around the town.
- Museo del Prado: This museum is free every night from 6-8pm, so if you have nothing else to do, it is worth a look as it is free and you can leave as soon as you like if it doesn’t interest you at all. Go about half an hour early to wait in line, as the line gets extremely long.
- Pickpockets: There are 3.2 million people living in this city PLUS tourists, so be aware of pick pockets! My parents and I were wheeling our suitcases to our AirBnB and my mum felt someone unzip her bag, and she turned around just in time before the lady could steal anything!
- Gran Via: The shopping district- I strongly suggest avoiding this area on the weekend especially Saturday unless it is of dire importance because it was a frightening, anxiety inducing nightmare walking through here to our AirBnB.
- Walking distance: Despite the size of the large city, all the main tourist sites are in walking distance of each other, especially if you’re staying in the old city.
- Cheap eats: Places like Museu Jamon offer cheap, tasty Spanish tapas and boccadillos that make a great lunch stop.
- Limon beer: This was very cheap and just tasted like a refreshing lemon drink, which is perfect on a hot summers day.
- Street signs: The street signs in Madrid were the cutest street sings I’ve ever seen! Every street has a different drawing relating to the specific street or area it is in. Make sure you take note of them, as it was one my favourite, under-the-radar aspects of Madrid.
14. Banco de España, 15. Sculpture at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,
If I learnt anything during my time in Madrid, it was not to pick accommodation near Plaza del Sol if you want a peaceful nights sleep. The street I stayed on was Calle Espoz y Mina, which I personally found too loud as I am a very light sleeper, so I wouldn’t stay there again. The actual place was nice enough for a few nights stay, with everything you could need in the actual apartment. I was told Plaza Mayor was very peaceful after 8-9pm at night, which is a central location and main square in the city.
16. Banco de España, 17. Palacio de Cibeles,
Day trip to Toledo:
We went on a day trip to Toledo through a company called Toledo Top Tours. It included bus transport, pick up and drop off from 5 different spots, an hour tour guide and four free hours in the city before departure for 25€. You could also pay an extra 10€ for a buffet lunch.
I thought the tour made the day easy. As we don’t speak Spanish, we didn’t have to navigate the public transport system with buses and trains to get to Toledo and the buffet lunch was quite tasty and you got a lot of food.
The main disappointment was the tour guide, who rushed through the city tour to quickly explain a few things without any emotion or passion. Four hours gave you a lot of time to explore the city, as it is quite small, and enough time to go inside a few of the museums (not all). Something you might like to keep in mind when booking the tour is that on Sunday’s the museums were free!
We went into the Sephardic Synagogue turned museum, El Greco museum and went up the Alcazar Army Museum that also provided a scenic view overlooking the houses of Toledo.
When you get back on the bus to go home, the bus takes you to the “post card” look out of Toledo, which is beautiful with castles and churches in the skyline.
If I were to recommend places to see in Spain, this would be at the bottom of my list. I don’t regret going, and I didn’t have a terrible time, I just enjoyed other Spanish cities a lot more. It was a little dull, with nothing spectacular about the city; especially since Toledo gets a lot of hype from tour companies and other websites online, and I just don’t think it deserves the hype in my opinion.