WHAT TO DO
Madrid is magical and without a doubt one of my favorite cities in Europe. It is renowned for its elegant boulevards, expansive parks, phenomenal art museums and world class cuisine. For a taste of everyday Spanish life in this vibrant capital city, wander through the streets and experience a fascinating culture rich in history among people that genuinely have a lust for life.
Madrid can be explored on foot, otherwise its modern metro system is a fast and efficient way to navigate the city. Begin your adventure with a walk along the Gran Via - the city's grand boulevard that runs from the well known Metropolis building to the Plaza de Espana. The French designed Edificio Metropolis was built in 1905 and is located at the southern end of the Gran Via. The winged victory statue atop its dome was added in 1975 and is best viewed (especially at night) from Calle de Alcala. Other notable buildings along the boulevard include the Edificio Grassy and the impressive Edificio Telefonica. The Gran Via is also lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. Only a few of the old cinemas for which the boulevard was famous remain. Next, make your way to the magnificent Plaza Mayor. This majestic central square is one of the prettiest open spaces not only in Madrid, but in all of Spain. It's a lovely combination of imposing architecture, picaresque historical tales and spirited street life coursing across its cobblestones. It was designed in 1619 by Juan Gomez de Mora and built in typical Herrerian style of which the slate spires are the most obvious expression. The square has hosted bullfights, celebrations and executions (of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition). These days, Plaza Mayor is the epicenter of Madrid life with its warm colors, wrought iron balconies and exquisite frescoes. Enjoy a cafe con leche as you do some people watching and be sure to study the equestrian statue of King Felipe III in the center of the square. Note: a helpful tourist office is located on the northern side of Plaza Mayor. From there, head to the lavish Palacio Real. This Royal Palace is used only occasionally for royal ceremonies - the royal family moved to another palace years ago. When the Royal Alcazar burned down on Christmas Day in 1734, Felipe V decided to build a palace that would dwarf all its European counterparts. He died before the palace was finished, which is why the baroque colossus only has 2800 rooms - just one quarter of the original plan. The official tour (self guided tours are also available and follow the same route) leads through 50 of the palace rooms, which hold a good selection of works by Goya, over 200 ornate clocks and 5 Stradivarius violins. The main stairway is a grand statement of imperial power and leads to the Salon del Trono - Throne Room. Shortly after, you reach the Salon de Gasparini, with its exquisite stucco ceiling and walls covered with embroidered silks.
After your royal experience, make your way to the area known as Madrid's Golden Triangle of Art on the Paseo del Prado. It is the home of the 3 finest art museums in town - The Museo del Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. I highly recommend a visit to each of them. Start at the Museo del Prado, one of the world's premier art institutions. It houses over 7000 paintings including works by Spanish masters Goya and Velazquez, in addition to art from all across Europe. The Prado dates back to 1785 when it was originally conceived as a house of science and it later served as a cavalry barracks for Napoleon's troops during French occupation of Madrid between 1808 and 1813. A year later King Fernando VII decided to use the building as a museum (to store the hundreds of royal paintings gathering dust) and in 1819 the Museo del Prado opened with 311 Spanish paintings on display. Note: be sure to pick up a free guide plan from the information desk just inside the entrance - it lists the locations of 50 of the Prado's most famous works and gives room numbers for all major artists. Francisco Goya is found on all three floors of the museum, in room 65 on the ground floor is El dos de Mayo and El tres de Mayo - it ranks among Madrid's most emblematic paintings, bringing to life the 1808 anti French revolt and subsequent execution of insurgents in Madrid. On the middle floor in rooms 34 to 37 are two more of Goya's best known works, La maja vestida and La maja desnuda. There are more Goyas on the top floor. Diego Velazquez is another of the grand masters of Spanish art who brings so much distinction to the Prado. Of all his works, you must see Las Meninas in room 12. Completed in 1656, it is properly known as La familia de Felipe IV and it is spectacular. Another alternative is the Prado's outstanding collection of Flemish art. Some of my personal favorites include: The Triumph of Death by Bruegel, Rembrandt's Artemisia and the totally rad The Garden of Earthly Delights (room 56a) by Hieronymus Bosch. The Prado is open every day from 10a-8p. Located at Calle de Santa Isabel 52 is the Museo Reina Sofia. It is Madrid's premier collection of contemporary art and the home of Pablo Picasso's Guernica - Spain's most famous work of art. Guernica's location never changes, you'll find it in room 206 on the 2nd floor. Completed in 1937, the mural sized painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. It is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti war paintings in history and it helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War. The Reina Sofia is also home to 20 or so works by the great Salvador Dali. Do not miss the surrealist extravaganza that is El gran masturbador from 1929. The museum is open from 10a-9p and is closed on Tuesday. The final museum in the triangle is the Thyssen-Bornemisza, at Paseo del Prado 8. It is one of the most extraordinary private collections of predominantly European art in the world. The Thyssen houses most of the big names including: Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt, Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock and Lichtenstein - just to name a few. Your best bet is to begin on the top floor and work your way down. The museum is open every day from 10a-7p with shorter hours (12-4p) on Monday.
Nearby are a few more museums worth a visit. The Caixa Forum is located at Paseo del Prado 36 and is one of Madrid's most eye catching landmarks. This brick edifice is topped by an intriguing summit of rusted iron and on an adjacent wall is the impressive hanging garden - a lush vertical wall of greenery almost 80 feet high. Found at Calle de Alcala 13 is the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. This art gallery has played a pivotal role in the artistic life of Madrid for centuries. As the royal fine arts academy, it has nurtured local talent (Picasso and Dali studied here) and given the world masters of art. In any other city, this gallery would be a stand out attraction, but in Madrid it often gets overlooked due to the big 3 in the Golden Triangle of Art. For some of the city's best views, take the lift to the rooftop terrace of the Circulo de Bellas Artes - located at Calle de Alcala 42. You can almost reach out and touch the glorious dome of the Edificio Metropolis and view the mountains in the distance. The Fine Arts Circle also has 2 bars, a bell epoque cafe, book readings, short films and exhibitions. After taking in the views, make your way to Plaza de la Independencia and the Puerta de Alcala. This imposing triumphal gate was once the main entrance to the city and was surrounded by the city's walls. The first gate to bear this name was built in 1599, but Carlos III was unimpressed and had it demolished in 1764 to be replaced by the one you see today. Next, head to the La Latina area and stop off in Plaza de la Cebada for a tasty beer or gin and tonic. After you wet your whistle, visit the magnificent Basilica de San Francisco El Grande in nearby Plaza de San Francisco. This imposing baroque basilica is one of Madrid's grandest old churches. Its extravagantly frescoed dome is the largest in Spain and the fourth largest in the world. Designed by Francesco Sabatini, the church has an unusual floor plan: the nave is circular and surrounded by chapels guarded by imposing marble statues of the 12 apostles; 12 prophets rendered in wood sit above them at the base of the dome. The fresco in the Capilla de San Bernardino was painted by Goya in the early stages of his career. Note: If you happen to visit the basilica on a Sunday morning then be sure to stop by El Rastro flea market. Located just south of La Latina metro station, it's a Madrid institution. El Rastro is a great place to watch locals or perhaps score some old flamenco records. Don't forget to visit the antique shops down the side streets.
When siesta time arrives, you can either take a nap or visit some of the delightful parks and plazas Madrid has to offer. There are mucho green spaces throughout the city and a few of my favorites are Parque del Buen Retiro, Casa de Campo and Madrid Rio. The glorious gardens of El Retiro are as beautiful as any you'll find in a European city. Littered with marble monuments, landscaped lawns and abundant greenery - it's a great spot to relax and escape the clamor of the city. Laid out in the 17th century by Felipe IV as the preserve of kings and queens, the park was opened to the public in 1868. Stroll by the lake which is watched over by the massive ornamental structure of the Monument to Alfonso XII, complete with marble lions. During warmer months, row boats can be rented from the lake's northern shore. Hidden among the trees south of the lake is the Palacio de Cristal, a magnificent metal and glass structure that is the park's most beautiful architectural monument. At the southern end of El Retiro you'll find the statue of the Fallen Angel (El Angel Caido). To the north, just inside the Puerta de Felipe IV stands what is thought to be Madrid's oldest tree, planted in 1633. Next, make your way to Casa de Campo, Madrid's largest park at close to 7 square miles. It is home to the Madrid Zoo and the Andalucian style ranch known as Batan, which is used to house the bulls destined to do bloody battle in the Fiestas de San Isidro - more on this later. A fun way to reach Casa de Campo is to take the 2 mile journey on the Teleferico. This horizontal cable car putters out from the slopes of Parque del Oeste and provides splendid views along the way. You'll find a lot of the city's residents (madrilenos) out for a jog, skating or walking their dogs along Madrid Rio, another wonderful green promenade. Madrid has many plazas and I would like to share the ones worth a visit. As mentioned earlier, Plaza Mayor is the jewel of the city. After that there's Plaza de Santa Ana, a delightful confluence of elegant architecture and irresistible energy. It presides over the area known as Barrio de las Letras, where the acclaimed writer Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote) spent much of his adult life. It quickly became a focal point for intellectual life and the cafes surrounding the square were filled with writers, poets and artists. At the plaza's eastern end is the Teatro Espanol, a beautiful old theater that dates back to the 16th century. Plaza de la Paja is another lovely spot and is located behind the Iglesia de San Andres. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the city's main market occupied the square. On the northern side is the walled 18th century Jardin del Principe Anglona - it's a peaceful garden. Of all the grand roundabouts that punctuate the Paseo del Prado, Plaza de la Cibeles most evokes the splendor of imperial Madrid. The spectacular fountain of the goddess Cybele at the center of the plaza is one of Madrid's most beautiful. It was erected by Ventura Rodriguez in 1780 and is a Madrid favorite. Plaza de Oriente is home to the Royal Palace and the magnificent Teatro Real, Madrid's opera house and one of Spain's temples to high culture. Plaza de Olavide is one of the city's most agreeable public spaces, a real barrio feel. To see the plaza's history told in pictures, stop in to Bar Mentrida (number 3) for a drink and admire the photos on the wall. Finish at the official center point of Spain - Plaza de la Puerta del Sol. It's a crossroads with crowds of people rushing somewhere and several metro lines converging. The Gate of the Sun owes its present appearance in part to the Bourbon king Carlos III whose equestrian statue stands in the middle of the junction. Be sure to take a picture in front of The Bear and the Strawberry Tree sculpture. El Oso y el Madrono is located at the plaza's eastern end and is the official symbol of the city.
Madrid has a superb market culture and there are a number of places you should visit. Start at my favorite, Mercado de San Miguel. It is one of Madrid's oldest and prettiest markets, set inside glass walls. All the stalls are outstanding, but be sure to hit La Casa de Bacalao, Carrasco Guijuelo and Lhardy which does excellent gourmet tapas. Located at Calle de Fuencarral 57 is Mercado de San Ildefonso. This street food market on three floors has an industrial vibe. Tiny stalls around the seating area serve homemade tapas and other dishes from different regions of Spain. From there, try Mercado de San Anton at Calle de Augo Figueroa 24. The lower level is all about fresh produce and the upper level does dynamite tapas from all corners of the globe. Mercado de la Paz has fresh produce, meat and fish along with cured meats and cheeses to buy and eat as you go. Next, head to Mercado de San Fernando (Calle de Embajadores 41) for fresh food and other products, from clothes to books. The facade of the building is its most original feature and gives it a unique character among the city's markets. Finish up at Mercado de Monedas y Sellos - located under the archways in the Plaza Mayor. It sells old coins, stamps and a few antiques. If you want to get off your feet, I always suggest taking a guided tour of the city. Madrid City Tour is a hop on, hop off open topped bus that runs every 15 minutes along two routes: one that takes in the main highlights in the city center, the other heads north along Paseo de la Castellana and returns via the lovely Salamanca neighborhood. Note: you can buy tickets online or on the bus.
Finally, one cannot come to Madrid without observing bullfighting and soccer (football) being discussed - as they are truly national pastimes. East of central Madrid, the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas (Las Ventas) is the most important and prestigious bullring in the world and a visit here is a good way to gain an insight into this very Spanish tradition. Love it or not, bullfighting is a big part of Spain's heritage. Bullfights are still held at Las Ventas during the season which runs roughly mid May to October. The best time to see bullfights in Madrid is during the months of May and June. The world famous San Isidro bullfight festival takes place during these months and brings together the best fighters, bulls and aficionados. There are fights every day for 20 days, starting at 7 in the evening. Las Ventas was opened in 1931 and it can seat 25000 spectators. It is open for tours during the off season and the Museo Taurino (Bullfighting Museum) is definitely worth a visit. It is open every day from 10a-6p. When I think of soccer and Madrid one team comes to mind. Real Madrid (Los Blancos) is one of the most famous soccer clubs in the world and everyone should make a pilgrimage to their home, the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. If you are able, attending a match (season runs from August to May) alongside 80000 delirious fans will be a life changing experience. If not, a stadium tour is your next best option. Guided tours take you up into the stands for a panoramic view of the stadium then through the press room, dressing rooms, players' tunnel and even onto the pitch (field). The tour ends in the impressive Exposicion de Trofeos (trophy room). Note: for stadium tours, buy your ticket at window 10 next to gate 7.
WHERE TO EAT
Madrid has many great spots to eat, drink and enjoy flamenco. It has evolved into one of the richest culinary capitals of Europe. The city has embraced all the creativity and innovation of Spain's gastronomic revolution and eating in Madrid (late into the night) is a genuine pleasure. Start your day at one of two excellent bakeries in the city center. La Mallorquina is located at Calle Mayor 2 next to Plaza de la Puerta del Sol. Established in 1894, this classic pastry shop is open every day from 830a and is always crowded with locals and tourists. Find a space at the standing counter and enjoy a marvelous napolitana de chocolate along with a cafe con leche. For gourmet treats, head to Mallorca at Calle de Serrano 6. Everything at this Madrid institution is delicious. My favorite spot for an afternoon bite (or anytime of day) is the previously mentioned Mercado de San Miguel. Adjacent to Plaza Mayor, this is one of Madrid's oldest and most beautiful markets. You could spend an entire day here enjoying outstanding tapas, croquettes, paella, pinchos, jamon, cheeses and fine wines. All the stalls are terrific, but do not miss La Hora Del Vermut for the best olive skewers (my favorite is the Gilda) in town. Mercado de San Miguel is one of the great experiences in Madrid.
There are numerous places for dinner throughout this amazing city and I would like to share the ones I always return to. Right in the heart of Madrid, located on one of its oldest streets is Casa Lucio (Calle de Cava Baja 35). It is a local classic and has been wowing madrilenos with its home style cooking since 1974. It specializes in roasted meats and lots of eggs along with a nice selection of red wines. During the famed San Isidro bullfight festival rabo de toro (bull's tail) is on the menu. Across the street at Calle de Cava Baja 30 is Taberna los Huevos de Lucio and it is muy bien. Be sure to get the house favorite - french fries with chorizo and eggs. Also scrumptious are the croquettes and grilled artichokes that pair nicely with the impressive wines. For the best croquettes in town head to Casa Julio at Calle de Madera 37. The traditional jamon (ham) variety is ridiculous and can be consumed by the dozens according to this author's calculations. For the best bacalao (cod) in Madrid make your way to Calle de Latoneros 3 and Casa Revuelta. This simple spot offers up boneless tajadas de bacalao with toothpicks and a glass of vermouth on tap makes them taste even better. Other specialties include torreznos (bacon bits) and callos (tripe). For the best tortilla espanola (potato omelet) in the city visit Casa Dani at Calle de Ayala 28. This family owned restaurant makes more than 200 a day. Also known as tortilla de patatas, the version here is beloved for its well done exterior and gooey interior.
Located in northern Madrid at Calle de Ponzano 6 is La Contrasena. This tapas bar and restaurant has fast become a neighborhood hang out for its excellent food and strong gin and tonics. Stand out dishes include steak tartare topped with a quail egg, white asparagus in olive oil and deep fried eggplant with honey. For a truly unique and unusual culinary experience visit the creation of chef David Munoz - the three Michelin starred DiverXO. Also in northern Madrid at Calle de Padre Damian 23, this over the top production centers around 2 tasting menus (a 2.5 hour 7 course or 4 hour 11 course extravaganza). Note: plan to book several months in advance. If DiverXO does not suit you then be sure to try his more casual venue StreetXO. Located on the top floor of the El Corte Ingles department store at Calle de Serrano 52, this might be the best food court restaurant anywhere. Lines can be an hour or two long, but it's well worth the wait. The menu is a journey across Asia and Latin America and the chili crab and famed club sandwich, aka steamed pork bun are yummy in my tummy. For simple yet outstanding Spanish homestyle dishes prepared daily by chef Julia Bombin make your way to Los Asturianos at Calle Vallehermoso 94. Chef Julia serves dishes like salmorejo (cold tomato soup) and fabada (pork and veal stew) in a casual dining room. Equally impressive is Casa Salvador, found at Calle de Barbieri 12. This eatery evokes an era in Spain's history when bullfighters were considered rock stars. There are some great photos on the walls and one in particular is of Ernest Hemingway alongside famous bullfighter Manolete. The menu features traditional dishes like the oxtail stew.
Restaurante Sobrino de Botin is located at Calle de Cuchilleros 17 and it has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world - established in 1725. The secret of its staying power is the fine cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) cooked in a wood fired oven. Try to score a table in the vaulted cellar. Note: Botin has appeared in several novels about Madrid, most notably Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. For some late night eats and treats don't miss the following spots. If there is one iconic sandwich in Madrid, it’s the bocadillo de calamares (fried calamari sandwich). Found at Plaza Emperador Carlos V 8, El Brillante makes what some consider the best in town. Another reason to eat here is the waiters, many of them lifers on the verge of retiring, and the vintage decor, which will make you feel like a part of Madrid’s history. If you prefer churros with chocolate then make your way to Chocolateria San Gines at Pasadizo de San Gines 5, around the corner from Puerta del Sol. One of the grand icons of the Madrid night, this churros con chocolate cafe never closes and is a popular spot to end your evening in the morning. Both the churros and porras (a thicker version of the churro) are made with flour, water and salt, and can be sprinkled with some sugar before being dunked in the chocolate. One of my favorite late night places is El Mini Bar, located at Calle Meson de Panos 1, close to Plaza Mayor. They do an excellent gin and tonic and the award winning tapa breton (grilled goat cheese with tomato jam and coriander oil) is delicious. The atmosphere is fun and the owner Nacho and his crew will take good care of you.
Madrid has many cool places to have a drink and see a flamenco show - I would like to share a few of my favorites. Start at 1862 Dry Bar, located at Calle del Pez 27. This chic prohibition era watering hole has an exceptional cocktail menu that focuses on the classics. The owner Alberto and his staff are knowledgeable and creative when it comes to mixing, and the drinks are potent and pack a punch. Next, head to Gin Club at Gran Via 12 for you guessed it, gin. It's all about gin at this joint, with more than 40 different types available including gin with coffee (el gin coffee). Nearby at Calle de Reina 12 is the awesome Del Diego cocktail bar. Its decor blends old world cafe with New York style and is one of the best spots in town. The menu has over 70 cocktails to choose from, but I'd recommend the signature El Diego (vodka, advocaat, apricot brandy and lime). Another solid cocktail bar is the recently opened Salmon Guru at Calle de Echegaray 21. This hotspot is brought to you by celebrity bartender Diego Cabrera and the menu focuses on both classic and avant-garde cocktails served by a young and courteous staff in a cool vibes setting. Try the Tonico Sprenger (gin, lemon juice, cardamom tonic, cinnamon, cucumber and ginger beer). Finish up just down the street with La Venencia at Calle de Echegaray 7. Sherry is the pride of Spain, and this historic gem of a bar is where you should enjoy it. One of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, this place only serves sherry (poured straight from the dusty wooden barrels) and the bartenders keep track of what you drink by jotting it down with chalk on the bar counter. There's no music, no flashy decorations - just history and tasty fino (sherry).
The golden age of flamenco is usually considered to be the period between roughly 1780 and 1845. Singing was then the primary aspect of flamenco, dancing and musical accompaniment being secondary. Today, it encompasses all three aspects and one can not visit Madrid without attending a flamenco performance. There are a number of great spots to experience this Spanish tradition. Villa Rosa (Plaza de Santa Ana 15) has been going strong since 1914, with well priced shows and meals that won't break the bank. The extraordinary tiled facade is the work of Alfonso Romero, who was also responsible for the tile work in the Plaza de Toros bullring. Corral de la Moreria (Calle de Moreria 17) is one of the most prestigious flamenco stages in Madrid, with over 50 years of experience as a leading venue and top performers most nights. The stage area has a rustic feel and you are right on top of the action. Teatro Flamenco Madrid (Calle del Pez 10) is an excellent new venue that focuses on quality flamenco - song, dance and guitar - rather than the more formal meal and show package. The show lasts about an hour and prices are also a notch below what you'll pay elsewhere. Finally, there's Casa Patas, (Calle de Canizares 10) one of the top flamenco stages in Madrid. This tablao (choreographed flamenco show) always offers flawless quality that serves as a good introduction to the art.
WHERE TO STAY
Madrid has plenty of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Urban, located in the city center at Carrera de San Jeronimo 34. This towering art deco glass hotel is the epitome of art inspired designer cool. It boasts original artworks from Africa and Asia, dark wood floors and dark walls. The stylish lobby burns a pleasant incense and always keeps the candy jars full for those of us that have a sweet tooth. The location is perfect as you are just a short walk from the Museo del Prado and the Puerta del Sol. Refined rooms with marble bathrooms and avant-garde accents from Papua New Guinea provide complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and smartphone docking stations. They also come with living areas, sofas and whirlpool baths. There's a Mediterranean restaurant and 2 awesome bars - La Terraza on the rooftop and Glass Bar off the lobby. Other amenities include a seasonal outdoor pool and a sauna.
A second option is the Westin Palace, located just down the road from Urban at Plaza de las Cortes 7. An old Madrid classic, this former palace of the Duque de Lerma opened as a hotel in 1911 and was one of the first luxury hotels in Spain. This posh property is close to the Museo Reina Sofia and Parque del Retiro. Rooms with mahogany furnishings feature flat screen TVs, desks and free WiFi. There's a restaurant with a stained glass dome, a sushi bar and a pricey cocktail bar where Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali were regulars.
Madrid is full of beauty, spirit, culture and excellent food. Until next visit, hasta luego.