If you’re staying for just a few nights in Madrid—especially if this is your first visit—then there’s simply no point trying to cram in everything. Yet that does not mean you can’t make great use of a short visit. The following suggested itineraries in Madrid are highlights from my own recent weekend in the Spanish capital.
Day 1: Prado Museum, Palacio Real, Puerta del Sol
You should dedicate at least one morning or afternoon (or even both!) to El Museo del Prado, Spain’s most magnificent art museum, and certainly one of the finest museums in the world. The Prado is best known for its awesome collection of works by the great three Spanish artists Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco, and you cannot but come away with a profound appreciation for Spanish art history. Yet you’d miss out if you ignored the rich collection of other European art, especially the Flemish and Italian art collections on the ground floor. By all means get the audio guide—it costs about three euros from the entrance in the main building, the Palacio de Villanueva, and it provides useful information on the great works you’ll see.
If you’re interested in more contemporary Spanish art, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is a must. Works from the cubism era, Picasso, Joan Miró and Dalí are all on display, as are displays from the 1980s by artists such as Eduardo Arroyo and Pablo Palazuelo. An added bonus the museum’s awesome glass elevator has fantastic views of the plaza below.
Can’t get enough art? Then go just opposite the Prado Museum on the Paseo del Prado (appropriately dubbed the ‘Paseo del Arte’ given the top museums that reside along the boulevard) to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. It houses a comprehensive display of works from all eras, starting with medieval religious art right all the way through to Dalí, Lichtenstein, and pop art. Again, I found the audio guides to be a great help.
The grand Palacio Real (Madrid’s Royal Palace) is another highlight on any first visit. Just a ten to fifteen minute stroll from the Plaza Mayor, the Palacio Real is a splendidly preserved building that, together with the adjacent Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, makes up the dominant landmark that adorns Calle de Bailén at the western side of the city centre. Dozens of rooms are open for visiting, each seemingly crammed with priceless paintings, tapestries, statues and chandeliers that simply ooze imperial power. Lush gardens surround the complex on all sides: the French-style Jardine de Sabatini to the north, Campo del Moro to the west, Parque del Emir Mohammed I to the south, and Plaza de Oriente, complete with statues and fountains, to the east. This beautiful square is also worth a stop for a rest and some people watching, or even a drink from the pricey Café de Oriente.
Sightseeing Tip: If pushed for time, it is well worth taking in a quick tour of the city to get a feel for just what Madrid has to offer. The Madrid Vision hop-on hop-off bus is recommended, its orange double-decker buses featuring prominently on the busy streets. For fifteen euros you can just sit back and relax whilst receiving a pretty comprehensive introduction to all the main sights. Expect a tour to take around one and half hours, although of course you are able to hop on or off at the stop of your choice.
After Dark: For those who like to party, which includes me, then the place to head to for the night is Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate). This used to be Madrid’s easternmost city gate, but is now the centre of the whole city. Thriving with street vendors, locals and tourists on the move, this square and its surroundings in Huertas and Atocha are possibly the liveliest area of town, with the narrow streets packed with bars and restaurants in the streets on the south side forming the hub of Madrid’s nightlife. It’s true there are tourist havens around here—in particular the numerous Irish bars—but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find hip places that aren’t full of English-speakers. Far from it. For tapas and a chilled out vibe, La Taverna has a great atmosphere with friendly service making it still seem relaxing at three or four a.m., while for a louder venue the Mona Lisa is definitely a hit with the Spanish crowd. With Latin clubs such as El Son continuing the vibe through to dawn, Madrid’s nightlife surely surpasses that of most capital cities.
Day 2: Parque del Buen Retiro, Calle de Fuencarral, Bullfighting at Las Ventas
What you do on your second day may well depend on how late you were out the night before. And you could do a lot worse than to visit the park of El Retiro. Strolling through its rich green expanses, observing Madrileño families and friends doing just the same, it’s difficult to imagine that this park was once the preserve of royals and their entourage. Thankfully times have changed, and a Sunday walk in the park is as much a part of the Madrid experience as tapas and late nights. Particularly under the fierce summer heat, lounging a while in the shade of the trees can provide a welcome respite from the fierce glare. Street performers do their stuff along the boulevards that surround the small lake, and you can also hire a rowing boat at the northern end at a cost of about four euros for a forty-five minute stint on the water.
Calle de Fuencarral is also of interest, if not the first place that springs to mind on the typical tourist’s list. Just a ten minute walk from the Puerta del Sol, not only are there some decent cheap hotels to stay around here, but there are also a mass of shoe and alternative fashion shops lining the roadside. The Museo Municipal is located on the street, and offers a fairly interesting, if not comprehensive, history of the Madrid’s transformation into a modern capital city. There are also a couple of decent budget places to dine like La Comacha which serves excellent paella and tapas, whilst Colby is a pretty cool restaurant, where filling pasta, pizza and meat dishes can be purchased for eight to ten euros. Add to this the hustle and bustle of the crowds on a weekend night, and it is clear this quirky neighbourhood can provide plenty of fun.
On Sunday evenings, from seven p.m., bullfighting takes place at the grand Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas. Tickets go on sale at the box office outside the plaza from ten a.m. until two p.m., and from five p.m. till eight p.m. Don’t be confused by signs on the side of the exterior indicating no tickets available unless you attend during the Fiesta de San Isidro (in May) or happen to be in town when a popular bullfight is on, then you’ll have no problem finding tickets.
Although certainly not for everyone, there is no doubting this is a very Spanish sport, and personally I found it fascinating to observe the spectacle of aficionados turning out in their thousands to watch the spectacle. You’ll find a whole cross-section of Spanish society here from children and their parents, to old men sporting hats and cigars, plus the wealthy enthusiasts observing proceedings from the comfort of the shade in the front row. Whilst it can be difficult not to think it somewhat macabre that so many thousands spend their Sunday evenings watching the matadors do their stuff on the sandy ring, few events are more closely identified with Spanish society.
By Anthony Lye
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