Welcome to Madrid
Madrid is in many ways the beating heart of Spain. At its centre lies Plaza de la Puerta del Sol where you find the so-called ‘kilometro cero’, the geographic centre of the country, and the place where the locals ring in the new year while forcing grapes down their throats- intense! Native Madrileños are often proud of their city and say that the only thing it lacks is a beach. People here like to party, although the bars really don’t start to get going until after midnight. Then the streets come alive with revellers who throng the terraces, a nightmare for claustrophobics or Anglo Saxons with a clearly defined sense of personal space.
The beauty of the city lies in its neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive character. Chueca, the home of La Movida, is the centre of all things stylish and gay. There you will find shops, bars, bears and clubs to suit every taste. Huertas (see below), my personal favorite, is the literary quarter that you cross going from Sol to the world-class museums on Paseo del Prado. Then you have the discreet charms of Madrid de Los Austrias with its quiet terraces. Surrounded by an arid plain, you have to wonder how they built such a great capital in such a godforsaken miserable place.
Madrid is somewhat of a showpiece capital. Public transport is super efficient and should be used as a model in other cities. Even just arriving at one of the newer terminals at Barajas Airport is an experience that puts many other European airports to shame. Once you get into central Madrid, make sure you head for Plaza de la Puerta del Sol. This is kilometro cero, the centre of the entire country. It is also a fitting introduction to a destination where people have a passion for life.
If you like art, Madrid is home to some great art museums. Sorry Barcelona, but what city can compete with the Prado, Reiña Sofia and the Thyssen? Some places are free but atmospheric. I spent many a summer afternoon listening to the street performers on the steps in front of the cathedral (right opposite the palace).
Want fine architecture and plenty of tourists? Then join Ana Botella, the universally loved former Mayor of Madrid, for a ‘relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor’. Want some greenery? Take time out in Parque del Buen Retiro. Templo de Debod, a gift from Egypt that was painstakingly reconstructed in central Madrid, manages romance despite big crowds and you might even take in Casa de Campo while you’re there.
Make sure to visit in Madrid
Explore Madrid de los Austrias. The Bourbon dynasty were related to the Austrian Hapsburgs and the influence is easily detected in the classical architecture of central Madrid.
Spend some time in the Temple of Debod before chilling out in Casa del Campo. The latter is a welcome relief from the heat of a Spanish summer.
Go stylish in Madrid’s gay quarter, Chueca. This area is the centre of festivities during the annual Gay Pride Week.
Immerse yourself in the city’s art scene. If the big museums mentioned above are just too much, there are often cool contemporary exhibitions in the Caixa Forum (website in Spanish and Catalan).
Spend a lazy afternoon in Parque del Buen Retiro. The park is a respite from a busy city and it is a place that you really should check out.
Look for the best patatas bravas and cocido in Madrid. It is the capital of a country that likes to eat. Lhardy, although not particularly cheap, is always a good bet for a good cocido (stew) on a winter’s day.
Check out the football stadium, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid. It’s a classy experience for those who are not even football fans!
Everyone has their favorite barrio in Madrid. Some like the bars of Malasaña while others prefer the alternative feel of Chueca, but this is the place that first hooked me on Madrid. I was spending the summer studying Spanish at Inhispania and I was staying in Calle Núñez de Arce. Plaza Santa Ana was literally around the corner and there was a bar with a photogenic azulejos-style wall just across the street. Whether it was a double coffee with ice in La Fragua del Vulcano or a walk down a tree-lined street covered with literary inscriptions, this area had bucket loads of character. Also, a walk always came free, so that left more money for the late night parties of a Spanish summer. Sometimes a photo conjures up a thousand memories. Staying here, I fell in love with this city.
Madrid might be used as a model for how public transport should be done. Take note, Dublin and London, this is the Changi Airport of public transportation systems. Arriving at Barajas airport, you can take the Cercanías system to Atocha or you can take the metro to Nuevos Ministerios and then connect from there. Both systems run almost everywhere and there are also buses and trolley buses.
The coffee may not quite be Italian, but it’s cheap. Expect to pay less than 2 euro unless you go to the air-conditioned bliss of Starbucks. As for food, you can choose between smaller and cheaper raciónes for as little as 2 euro or full dishes for 5-8 euro. Location counts here- eat and drink in Plaza Santa Ana and the view will be reflected in ‘la cuenta’. There is accommodation for all prices, although some of the cheaper options may barely feel worth the cheap price. One hostel in Calle Hortaleza stands out in my memory for its dodgy wiring. Another had enough plastic flowers to seem like some kind of weird kitsch shrine. Hostal Comercial, located near Plaza Mayor, is central and great value.
Daytrips and culture
Time to see something new, Toledo and Segovia are only a train trip away. Alcalá is another option for those who want to follow in the footsteps of Cervantes. If, on the other hand, you want to learn to read him in the original, there are many Spanish language schools in the city.
Calle Montera does not always have a salubrious feel to it, although it is home to all forms of interesting life such as the street ladies and their hangers-on. Watch out in Plaza de la Puerta del Sol. Some people there are so friendly that they might even help themselves to your wallet…Don’t worry, though, this is a safe city. In case you haven’t heard, Spain is hot and Madrid in the summer may make you dream of that winter trip to northern Iceland.
Madrid is a great city!
The best of Madrid
- Discovering the city and its architecture on foot
- Those art museums
- The individual character of each barrio
- The little nooks and crannies you discover while wandering
- The ease of getting from A to B
- The nightlife in a city where you can be forever 21 or at least live as if you are