Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Madrid adventures!
Madrid has as rich and deep a history as any European capital, and there is a lot to see and do. But the usual tourist activities take a back seat to the absolutely electric, right-now vibe of the city. And when dinner starts around 10pm and the streets are packed until the wee hours of the morning, you can forget New York – Madrid is truly the city that never sleeps.
Here’s our insider’s guide to Madrid.
Where to stay
Although the city of Madrid is a sprawling metropolis with 21 districts and a world-class metro system, most if not all of your activities will be in the first district, aptly called Centro, or Central. Like Paris, Madrid’s districts start with Centro and spiral out in a snail-like pattern, more or less. So if you want to be in the thick of it, Centro is where you want to be.
Within Centro, however, are several different neighborhoods. One of the most interesting, diverse and just plain fun is Cheuca, which starts just above Gran Via. You’ll probably find yourself in this neighborhood more often than not by night’s end – and there’s the Cheuca metro stop right in the middle of it all – so it’s a win/win for any traveler.
However, if you prefer a quieter neighborhood away from all the action, the hotels near the Plaza de Santa Ana are a good choice. It’s more low-key, but still has plenty of character and is close to most major sights. Another decent spot for hotel hunting is near the Puerta del Sol, which is literally in the center of the action, right in the middle of the Centro district.
What to do
Museums: Many have lost themselves in the spectacular art of the Museum Triangle – Museo del Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art, and the Reina Sofía National Museum and Art Center. For history buffs, the Museo de la Ciudad tells the story of the history of Madrid – and it’s free.
Outdoors: Madrid may have more famous squares than anywhere in Europe – don’t miss Plaza Mayor, Plaza de la Villa, Plaza de España, Plaza de Oriente, and Plaza de Cibeles. The architecture of each one is stunning, their open feel is refreshing, and the scene is always lively.
For outdoor fun without leaving the city center, Retiro Park is the spot. Rent a rowboat on the lake, check out an exhibition in the Crystal Palace greenhouse, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or stroll the paths and discover sculptures and monuments at every turn. On the other side of town is Casa de Campo, a park that houses a zoo and an amusement park as well as a cable car ride high above the city.
Flamenco: Many will swear by the need to see flamenco while in Madrid, but not all flamencos are alike. Some are tourist traps; some are a package deal with (mandatory) dinner or a drink; some focus on the music, while others are all about the dancing. For an excellent high-end flamenco experience, reserve a spot at Casa Patas (casapatas.com), which is slightly less expensive during the week than on weekends. On the other end of the price spectrum but just as fantastic is Clan (osclan.com), which has free admission.
Bull Fight: Another Spanish tradition, albeit a controversial one, is bull fighting. If you’re not against it, then it is truly worth a visit to Las Ventas, where bull fighting started and still goes on today, during the month of May. For those who would like to watch a sport where there is no bloodshed – at least not intentionally – then see a Real Madrid football match at Santiago Bernabeu. You can also take a tour of the stadium if they’re not playing.
Market: If you’re looking for something to do early on a Sunday morning, then go directly to El Rastro, a flea market of epic proportions. Everything under the sun is sold, well, under the morning sun, and there’s often bands playing in the streets as well. For less chaotic but just as fascinating shopping, the Mercado de Fuencarral is fashion-forward mall of sorts that also features art, live DJs, and is open until midnight so you can literally shop ’til you drop. If window shopping is more your thing, then the Gran Via is where you want to take a stroll.
Eating and drinking
Madrid has a rich history of poor foods – pig’s ears, tripe, various lamb parts that shall go unnamed here. If you have the stomach for it, then it’s an experience you’ll want to have as it’s Madrid’s native cuisine. However, if you’re more into trying the very best versions of what Spanish cuisine has to offer, then Madrid’s your place.
Something to keep in mind: Madrid is a nightlife town. It “wakes up” late and goes until the early morning hours. Lunch is usually served starting at 1pm and ends around 3pm; dinner, to the surprise of many visitors, usually gets into full swing at 10.30pm, with most places staying shuttered until about 9pm.
That being said, it wouldn’t be Spain without tapas, and tapas bars are usually open hours earlier. Tapas used to be simply olives or nuts served with a drink, but has since become the preferred way to eat for a sizable chunk of the population. So if you’re starting to think that there’s no way you can wait until dinner time, then tapas are the way to go. Simply choose a place that’s right for you – a quiet hole in the wall, a high-end culinary experience, or a rowdy joint – point to what you want, and start eating the delicious bite-sized treats until you’re full. For an even better experience that helps you to see more of Madrid, go on a tapas crawl, where you have just one tapa in each bar before moving on. But be warned; if you match this crawl drink for drink, you’re not going to be happy in the morning.
Speaking of drinking, Tempranillo is a full-bodied Spanish red wine; Rioja is usually known as a superior Spanish red wine, but is also made in white and rosé, so make sure to sample those as well. And of course there is sangria, the wine-and-fresh-fruit cocktail that can be found everywhere.
The best free thing to do in Madrid is visit the Atocha train station in the Arganzuela district. Under its vaulted ceilings is a vast interior garden complete with ponds that are home to turtles, frogs and fish.
If you only have one day in Madrid, start at the Centro de Arte Reina Sophia, have lunch in Plaza Santa Anna, head over to Plaza Mayor for a coffee, check out the Palacio Real, stroll down the Gran Via, and finish the night with a bit to eat and a drink in Chueca.