First off, Madrid is a city that you need to devote some time to and plan to revisit. While I was there, I couldn’t help thinking that Madrid is truly a world class city and can go neck and neck with places like New York, Chicago, London, and Rome. It has top notch art institutions, incredible dining, beautiful green spaces, and everything that a top city should. Madrid is one that should be on every traveler’s shortlist.
1.) Prado–I really can’t compare the Prado to any other art museum I’ve been to except for the Uffizi. First off, it’s free for students with an ID, giving undergrads access to some of the best art in the world by Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco to name a few. The museum is gigantic, so you have to go in with a plan, maybe purchasing the audio guide or bringing your guide book (you guessed it, Rick Steves) along with you. Pick a couple of things that you really want to see or a theme you want to follow and read about those pieces more. You could easily spend an entire day, or probably a week, just here, and if you’re only in Madrid for a short amount of time, it’s important to pick and choose.
After learning about famous Spanish painters in high school, I decided to focus my energy on El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, but allowed myself to look at some of Raphael’s painting as well (and that’s not to say I didn’t explore a little of everything, because I did, but I just paid most attention to and sought out works by these artists the most). Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” occupies a large space in a sort of atrium on the second floor of the building, and the different figures all tell their own story (for example, Velázquez painted himself into the picture and also included an enano because he had a fascination with them). I particularly enjoyed Goya’s works. His dark paintings are very provocative and different, like “Saturn Devouring One of His Sons” or “The Dog,” in which he depicts the head of a dog as it sinks into quicksand. To avoid crowds, book your tickets ahead and visit in the middle of the day during lunch.
2.) Reina Sofía–Where the Prado houses classical works, the Reina Sofía is a modern art museum. Its most famous piece is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica:” a gigantic canvas which commands attention not only by its size but by all of the suffering figures depicted. It has a very strong antiwar message, and it’s worth it to be familiar with the history before you see the painting.
In this museum, I focused on the second floor where there were more Cubist and Surrealist paintings, including those of Salvador Dalí. The collections here were also very impressive and made for an incredible art museum visit, albeit shorter than the Prado (though I could have stayed longer and explored the rest of the museum–you have to pace yourself, though).
3.) Palacio Real–Spain’s Royal Palace puts the Newport Mansions to shame, as you should expect a royal palace to. I went in the early evening around 4:30, and it wasn’t too crowded which was great. Inside the palace, I found the frescoes on the ceiling to be one of the most impressive components: several of the rooms have frescoes depicting the royal family through the ages in the sky with angels. The gala/reception/banquet hall (who knows what it’s really called when you get into something of this scale) was beautiful with a gigantic table in the middle which may be expanded to the length of the room. When you visit, expect lots of gold and impeccably ornate rooms.
4.) Gardens–Already on my to do list for a return trip to Madrid is to go for a morning run in the Parque del Buen Retiro. I cut through the park a couple of times after getting off the bus from my hotel and heading to other parts of the city, and each time I went I saw people running here. I don’t blame them for picking this as their running route, though, because it’s probably one of the best places that there is to go for a run. The gardens here are beautiful and well manicured and make for the perfect afternoon stroll. I came here both days I spent in the main part of the city for a break after visiting museums, and it’s quite refreshing: find some shade on a lawn and duck away from Madrid’s brutal heat. Enjoy walking around, people watching, and soaking in the nature. The government has also done a good job of keeping other parts of Madrid very green with lots of trees and other green spaces and even putting some eighteen kilometers of roads underground so that they could build a park on top of it.
5.) Calle San Jesús–A little street near the Fountain of Neptune, Calle San Jesús makes for a great tapas crawl. The bars here are some of the few that I’ve been to that still give tapas in the traditional way: for free at random when you order a drink. At La Dolores you can order a small beer for 1.50 euros and enjoy the tapa they give you. They also have great little sandwiches for something extra if you want more food. I went here twice and both times I was served something with anchovies, so if you don’t like them, be prepared to be served them. The bar was packed with Spaniards at lunch time, so it seems to be popular with locals, too. A couple doors down is El Diario where you can also get a free tapa with your drink (they’ll likely give you more food). In between there are several other bars which you could visit and use to make a dinner of tapas and drinks.
Here are some of my other picks:
- Chocolatería San Ginés–good for churros con chocolate (a really thick, pudding-like hot chocolate). Go with a friend and split them because they give you a lot.
- Cascanueces–a good little coffee shop if you’re staying at the Confortel Alcalá Norte which is really out of the way.
- Taberna el Monasterio–a neighborhood bar in the same area as the coffee shop above. They give you a free tapa with a drink too!
- VIPs–a chain throughout Spain. The location near Neptune’s Fountain serves free coffee from at least 11:30-12:30 (at least they did when I went)
- Toledo–one of Spain’s oldest cities is only an easy half an hour to an hour drive away. This beautiful city was home to El Greco and two of his masterpieces are located here.
- Salamanca–Spain’s big university city that comes to life at night on its Plaza Mayor.
Further reading/viewing: Though not specifically about Madrid, these books, films, and other works are good to read to understand more about Spain. I took a seminar before visiting Spain about how it’s romanticized, so a lot of these books deal with those kinds of themes.
- The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)–A great novel by one of the authors of the Lost Generation.
- Don Juan Tenorio (José Zorrilla)–This is a Spanish play, but you can probably find an English translation somewhere. Tells the iconic story of Don Juan, el burlador de Sevilla.
- Blancanieves (dir. Pablo Berger)–A black and white silent film that tells the story of Snow White as a female bullfighter.
- Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, Volver, Átame!, and Matador (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)–These films are offbeat and may be surprisingly explicit, but they give a good view of the wave of modernity in Spain post Franco (particularly Mujeres, Átame!, and Matador)
- Carmen (Merimée)-–You can easily find an English translation of this French opera about Carmen, another romantic Spanish figure.
- Iberia (James Michener)–Travel essays about select cities in Spain. It can enrich your travels if you read the essay on the city you’re about to visit to help orientate yourself.