Although perhaps with a lower international profile than Barcelona, with a steadily increasing number of foreign visitors each year, Madrid is slowly catching up to its Catalonian rival. And for a good reason; with a mixture of some of the best art galleries and museums in the world, Michelin-starred restaurants, hundreds of years old taverns (tabernas) and cafes, sprawling green areas, and a dense grid of barrios (neighbourhoods) each with a distinct flavour and style, but all within a walking distance of one another, it should be a centerpiece of any visit to Spain. The following are some of my must-sees (and do’s) during a short stay in Madrid:
1) Art tour along Paseo del Prado
Whether you are an art aficionado or not, this is a must-do during a stay in Spain’s capital. Within a span of roughly 1 kilometer, Paseo del Prado (between the Atocha station and Plaza Cibeles) offers three of the world’s best collections of art. At Reina Sofia, (closest to Atocha), you can find an impressive collection of contemporary classics, from Picasso, through Miro, to Dali. Picasso’s greatest masterpiece, Guernica, is found here and, this alone, merits a visit and places the museum on top of my list of Madrid’s art stops. Few hundred meters down from Reina in the direction of Cibeles and past the Botanical Gardens is the renown and sprawling Prado Museum. Home to some of Spanish greatest classics such as Goya, el Greco and Velazquez, and with one of the best collections of Flemish and Dutch art in the world (with masterpieces by Rubens and Rembrandt just to name a few), Prado is truly any art lover’s dream (click here for a summary of Prado’s highlights). And across from Prado on the other side of the Paseo, just past Madrid’s best known fountain, Fuente de Neptuno, is the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum. While, in comparison with Prado, the building may appear much more humble both in size and appearance, it more than makes up for it inside with a truly world-class collection of art. What makes Thyssen particularly appealing is the range of art styles displayed (everything from 13th to 20th century) and the number of masterpieces it has on offer (click here for a summary). When combined with the often very innovative nature of its temporary collections, Thyssen becomes my second-favourite art stop in Madrid.
It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to properly tour all three museums in one day; in fact, many spend an entire day in Prado alone. As a result, based on your art interests and preferences, the best strategy is to pick two of the three museums described above and concentrate on those, visiting one in the morning and the other in the evening.
It is also noteworthy that for those who appreciate less-conventional or “mainstream” art, Madrid offers a plethora of alternative options, chief among these are: the Tabacalera in Lavapies, Caixa on Paseo del Prado (just across from the Botanical Gardens; it can’t be missed due to its unique vertical garden), Palacio de Cristal in Retiro Park, Fundacion Telefonica on Gran Via and Palacio de Comunicaciones in Plaza Cibeles, opposite of and just past Thyssen. All of these places, most of them with free entry, feature rotating art expositions ranging from contemporary sculpture and photography, through architecture and painting to design and mixed-media pieces, incorporating both sound and image.
2) Walking tour: from Madrid de Austrias to Retiro
There’s no doubt that Madrid is one of Europe’s most walkable cities and I would recommend taking full advantage of it by exploring some of its most historic and landmark-rich neighbourhoods (barrios) on foot. I would begin in Madrid de Austrias, the city’s historic cradle with some of the most impressive architectural gems, including the Royal Palace, Opera, Cathedral de la Almudena and Plaza Mayor. This barrio is characterized, above all, by its labirynth of narrow alleyways (travesias) and small squares (plazas), among which Plaza de la Villa is one of the prettiest and merits a quick view, along with the emblematic market (mercado) de San Miguel on the west side of Plaza Mayor. It is without a doubt the most popular mercado among the tourists visiting Madrid and both the restoration work that has been done here as well as the quality of goods sold (everything from tapas and wine to fruit and cured meats) are indeed superb (however, for a more “authentic Madrileno” experience, I’d recommend, for instance, Mercado de San Fernando in Lavapies beloved by the local residents of the neighbourhood and rarely visited by tourists).
I would then continue in the south-east direction towards Barrio de Las Letras, with a quick stop at Sol’s La Mallorquina, arguably the city’s best sweets shop, in existence for over 120 years. Napolitanas and Palmeras, Madrid’s most traditional baked goods, are a must here, even for those on a diet (don’t worry, you will burn off the calories while walking). Barrio de Las Letras, as the name suggests, is known as the former home of some of Spain’s most important literary personalities, as evidenced by the plaques found along its main and most lively street, Calle Huertas, lined with countless restaurants, boutiques, cafes and bars. Some of the city’s best cafes are located here, particularly, the Brown Bear Bakery on Calle Leon 10 (see Best breakfast places in Madrid for my selection of some of the city’s best cafes).
Following Calle Huertas all the way south to Paseo del Prado will take you to barrio Jeronimos, one of Madrid’s most exclusive neighbourhoods with some of the cities most imposing buildings. Found here, among others, are the Palacio de Comunicaciones (old Post Office turned City Hall turned Art Gallery, mixing old and new design styles and architecture), the Stock Exchange, Cuartel General de la Armada, El Cason del Buen Retiro, Real Academia Espanola and Iglesia de San Jeronimo el Real (the last two located side-by-side). In this part of the city, while it may sound like a cliche, there’s a postcard moment at every corner. Located just behind it is the city’s version of Central or Hyde Park, the Retiro, where the Roman statue-lined alleyways and the Lago (artificial lake with row boats) are some of the highlights. This park is beloved not only by tourists but by Madrilenos as well and is a popular place for an afternoon picnic (for instance, a selection of cured meats and cheeses, artesan bread and local wine can be bought at any of the above mentioned Mercados and brought here to be enjoyed al fresco).
3) Cultural evening at Teatro Real and fine dining at Platea or Plaza Oriente
Established in 1850 after 32 years of planning and construction, Teatro Real facing Plaza Isabel II (known among locals as Plaza Opera) is Madrid’s renowned opera house and one of Europe’s most important cultural institutions. It belongs to the world’s elite not only due to its rich variety of year-round productions (involving leading figures of dance, international singing, musical and stage direction) but also for its architecture and design, particularly inside (for this reason, tours of the theater are offered and include the auditorium, stage, workshops and rehearsal rooms). To see what’s currently on offer, visit the Theater’s official programming site.
After a cultural evening at Teatro Real, I’d recommend heading towards Plaza Oriente, located directly behind the Theater to dine in one of the several restaurants facing the Plaza which are also institutions within the city’s gastronomic landscape. Chief among them is the Cafe de Oriente which offers some of Madrid’s most traditional dishes in a truly royal setting. If you prefer a more contemporary approach to your cuisine, your best pick would be Platea in the city’s most posh neighbourhood, Salamanca. Located in a former fully remodeled and recently reopened cinema, it is the city’s chief gourmet food hall. Today it is home to no less than 6 (yes, that’s six) Michelin-starred chefs offering a wide range of international cousine (from Peruvian, through Mexican, to Asian) as well as modern spin on more traditional Spanish dishes. It is a must-stop on any true foodie’s Madrid itinerary.
4) Enjoy the views from rooftop patios and mix with the locals at neighbourhood Tabernas
There are no better views of Madrid than from the city’s rooftop patios. While most of the hotels located in the city centre feature a rooftop patio, however, the quality of the view really depends on the location and, of course, the height of the building. After having visited nearly all of the rooftop patios in Madrid, my top 3 selection includes: Circulo de Bellas Artes, one of Madrid’s landmark buildings with 4 floors of art exhibitions and a theater along with a Cafe of the same name considered one of the city’s finest (entrance to the building via Calle de Marques de Casa Riera); Hotel Oscar (Plaza de Vazquez de Mella) and Gymage Lounge Resort (Plaza de la Luna). All centrally located along (or minutes from) Gran Via, the city’s main artery, these patios offer not only breathtaking views of the city center’s sea of red-tiled rooftops, but also comfortable sofas, reclining chairs, and in the case of Circulo de Bellas Artes (arguably the best patio pick in Madrid), comfortable beds that one can use to either enjoy a brief siesta nap, or perhaps to star-gaze at night.
There’s also no better way to get to know Madrilenos (local residents of the city), than to mingle with them at their beloved tabernas (taverns or local beer halls) that fill up to the brink during the siesta hours (14.00-16.00) and in the evenings (especially after 21.00). Some of the city’s most emblematic tabernas, in existence for well over 100 years (in some cases close to 150 years), are located along Calle and Plaza de Jesus, jammed between Plaza de las Cortes and Calle Huertas. Taberna de la Dolores, Cerveceria Cervantes, Cervezas la Fabrica and La Anchoita are just some of the options that won’t disappoint, not only for their good selection of beers and wines, but also for their pinchos and tapas of all varieties.
However, for real foodies and especially pincho lovers, I’d recommend La Espronceda located at Calle de Santa Isabel 17 (some 400 meters from metro Anton Martin) where this Basque contribution to Spanish cusine takes on particularly creative form. Indeed, this local taberna offers (according to many, including myself) one of the best and most unique selection of pinchos in Spain, particularly outside of the Basque Country.
5) a day trip to UNESCO world-heritage towns of Toledo and Segovia
For any visitor to Madrid, both Segovia and Toledo should be considered a “must do”.
As a former capital of Spain and home to the country’s three main religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), within its old city walls, Toledo boasts a number of important religious landmarks (its Cathedral, the old synagogue, etc.) and a labyrinth of narrow streets with a typically Manchego flavour (I’d recommend entering the old city through the main Puerta de Bisagra). Moreover, home to one of Spain’s most iconic painters, El Greco, for art lovers the city’s El Greco Museum, displaying some of the painter’s greatest masterpieces, is also a must stop.
Segovia, on the other hand, is a typically Castilian town with an alcazar (palace/royal residence) that seems to be taken directly out of a fairy-tale. Both the palace as well as the early 2nd century and nearly 1 km long aqueduct, the most important Roman civil engineering work in Spain, are the city’s main tourist draws and are well worth the one hour (from Madrid) trip by train or bus. The city’s old walls as well as some of its emblematic restaurants (such as Restaurante Jose Maria or Meson de Candido) serving the region’s traditional suckling pig (cochinillo) dish are an additional bonus and make Segovia one of the most popular day-trip destinations not only for tourists, but also for Spaniards. I would recommend taking the less beaten path just outside the city’s old walls, leading through the hills around the town’s historic centre and through the old Roman bridges over Rio Eresma, which offer some of the most spectacular views of the old town and particularly the Alcazar (see my previous blog entry titled Rediscovering Segovia describing this route in more detail).
Many of those who visit Toledo and Segovia agree that one of the best ways to admire these towns and surrounding areas is from the air. Globos Boreal is one of the best established and reputable Spanish hot air baloon companies, offering their services in various languages. This is a once-in-a-lifetime type of an experience and I’d strongly encourage visitors to Spain to take advantage of this option.
For additional information regarding this trip, or any other tours and services offered by Experience Spain, please don’t hesitate to Contact Us directly. We are always pleased to answer any queries and help you customize your Spanish holidays according to your needs and desires.
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