If you are looking for a holiday that is inexpensive, full of culture and architecture, fiestas and 24 hour fun, Madrid is just the place. Unique to Madrid is its blend of art, architecture and cosmopolitan life. Your days will be filled touring Madrid’s many art galleries, some of the largest gardens in Europe and travelling to surrounding cities.
You can then spend your nights taking in the culture at one of Madrid’s many festivals and enjoying the city’s wonderful local food.
The best way to explore Madrid is by foot. Get a map from the tourist office, on Plaza Mayor, and you are ready to go. You will find the "kilometro 0", or the centre of the city , within walking distance of most sights. Also called Puerta del Sol, the centre of the city is marked by El Oso y el Madrono, a statue of a bear and a strawberry tree, and is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists. If walking isn’t an option, Madrid’s Metro system will get you anywhere you want to go, including to and from the airport, for only 75c.
The summer through autumn months are a great time to visit the city of Madrid and enjoy the city’s non-stop festivals and events. The temperatures during this time can reach uncomfortably hot during the day but air conditioned galleries and buses make them bearable. Expect your days to be filled with visits to palaces, gardens, and galleries. A great place to begin your tour of Madrid is the Plaza Mayor. Until last century, the Plaza Mayor served as a marketplace on weekdays and was the scene of popular events from bullfights to public executions and dance and theatre festivals. It is now home to an assortment of shops, outdoor cafes and bakeries.
Mornings in Madrid begin slower and slightly later than many visitors are accustomed to. You will find that many of the museums and shops open around ten and close for siesta from two to four or five. Some of the museums reopen for the evening hours but almost all of them are closed on Mondays. Madrid is home to so many museums that it will be hard to visit all of them. Museo del Prado (Prado Museum) is one of the most important of these and is considered one of the world’s greatest art museums. It is home to works by Goya, El Greco, Raphael and more and includes the most comprehensive collection of 11C to 18C Spanish painting in the world. Nearby are two modern collections: the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which houses Picasso’s Guernica and the Thyssen-Bonemisza, an outstanding collection of western art. Both the Prado and the Reina Sofia have an entrance fee of £2 during the week but are free on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. The Thyssen museum costs €4.
When you feel the need to take a break from Madrid’s museums, slow down the pace a bit by heading out to one of the surrounding cities to see what they have to offer. Hop on a bus at Madrid’s "Moncloa" metro station to reach any of the cities. These smaller cities offer anything from palaces and wonderful architecture to monasteries or cathedrals with less congestion than that of Madrid. Located in the city of Aranjuez is the Palacio Real, a palace built for the first Bourbon king, Felipe V. Palacio Real took about 40 years to build and another century to decorate. The 2,000 rooms enclosed in the walls hold 20 kilometres of tapestry. Just outside of Madrid are a few parks and gardens that are some of the largest in Europe. Take a cable car from Paseo de Pintor Rosales to Casa de Campo, a park located on the bank of the Manzanares River that covers 4000 acres of land. Or visit Parque Quinta Fuente del Berro, a small park of fountains and flower beds. Most parks in Spain are free to the public and easily accesible.
You will find the food in Madrid relatively inexpensive. One of the best streets to head for variety is down to the Pl. Santa Ana in Huetasit. Madrilenos, like most of the people in Spain, eat a larger noon meal and then don’t eat again until ten or later. Visitors will have a hard time finding a place that even serves a supper meal before eight at night. If you do not speak Spanish and are not a daring eater, it is recommended that you bring a dictionary with you considering items such as Sesos (brains) and orejas (pig’s ears) are often found on the menus at local restaurants. Traditional to Madrid is the cocido madrileno, or grand stew. When ordering cocido, you will first be served broth and noodles as a soup then vegetables including chick peas, cabbage, leaks, turnips or onions. Finally the meat dish is served, usually consisting beef, pig’s trotters, chicken, and morcilla blood sausage. In the summer months, you will find escabeches on the menu which include marinated meat of fish served cold or fried.
Another local tradition definitely worth trying are tapas bars. Tapas are inexpensive snacks found during the later evening hours at certain bars. Tapas are made of almost anything - calimaris, artichokes, grilled pimientos or lamb, crusty bread and olives. Local tradition is to hop between tapas bars to sample the food at each one.
Madrid’s nightlife is not just for the younger crowd but, if you would like to sample it, don’t expect to keep to your accustomed sleeping hours. Spaniards average one less hour of sleep a night than other Europeans, Madrilenos possibly even less. Madrid nightlife first begins with dinner late in the evening and continues into the early hours of the morning.
You will find all types of bands performing all night, from pop to salsa to the traditional chotis. During festival season, you will find the streets full of free flowing drinks, plenty of dancing and stalls selling nuts, rolls, coconut, sangria and lemonade.
Three summer festivals worth noting are the Verbenas de San Cayetano, San Lorenzo, and La Paloma which blend into one long event lasting from August 6th through August 15th. The action from these festivals takes place around the districts of La Catina and Lauvapies. They are some of the most castizo festivals in Madrid and well worth going to. Castizo refers to any food, architectural style or clothing style that is authentic to Madrid. Many people turn out for the festivities in full castizo style. Castizos, descendants of Majos and Majas, were known for their sharp, sarcastic wit and their ability to always put on some sort of flashy show. They were the working-class street type that is now considered the traditional character of Madrid. If you get the urge to dress traditional, the men, chulos, will be found at the festival wearing dogtooth-check jackets and flat caps. Women, chulapas, wear long skirts, petticoats, flowered shawls and headscarves and frequently wear a carnation in their hair.
Another festival enjoyed by visitors is the Veranos de la Villa which runs from July through mid-September. This involves a city-run arts season featuring opera, flamenco, modern dance, ballet, pop, folk and rock cinema. Performances take place in the beautiful, open air patios of the Centro Cultural Conde Dugue. Fiestas in Madrid begin during the day and last all night.
Upon your return from Madrid, you might feel overwhelmed by all that you saw. Madrid is a city with nonstop cultural events and entertainment that will leave you both exhausted and ready for more. The lifestyle is relaxed, fun and friendly and most definately worth a visit.