I love Spain – it’s one of those countries that always makes you feel at home, no matter where you end up going. Mainland Spain is a bit more authentic, the islands are a bit more touristic, but truth be told, no matter where you go in this beautiful Iberian state, you wont escape the rivers of tourists. Herds of people from all over the world have discovered the fantastic country, located on the Iberian Peninsula!
There are places that capture magic and make you feel quite unique, though. Madrid is definitely one of them. If you love Barcelona – kudos, it an amazing city! – but you obviously haven’t been to Madrid yet! Whereas Barcelona, mentioned by many as their favorite spot in Spain, is a fast paced, hip town aimed at fast living, Madrid is it’s calmer, more elegant and grown up cousin. This metropolis, home of 3,3 million people in the inner city, and approximately 6,5 million in the city and surrounding areas, feels like a small town. It’s calm. It’s elegant. It’s has everything to offer the right person.
If Barcelona is a fashionable, 20-something party girl, Madrid is the 30-something business woman. Calm, fully aware of her self-worth, beautiful and diverse.
Madrid, being the capital of Spain, is packed with policemen (and the way they look, you wouldn’t mind them playing with their handcuffs around you) and guards, so wherever you go, you feel utterly safe. Being one of the highest capitols in Europe, you always get a mild breeze, even during hot summer days. It feels like you’re right on the ocean bank, even though it’s a little shy of 400km to the nearest ocean beach.
Although being a large metropolitan area, covering 604,3km2 (Madrid is the third largest city in the European Union, coming short only to London and Paris), Madrid is a very walkable city. Or maybe I’m just a walker – but if you don’t mind trekking miles through the urban jungle, I fullheartedly recommend strapping on your walking shoes and explore the city street by street. There are excellent Hop-on-Hop-Off alternatives for those that prefer to roll by the city life. Either way to chose to see the city, one tip is to look up – the architecture is amazing, and rooftops in the city truly take your breath away!
If you are looking for good museums, a must-see here is the Prado. Located along the Paseo del Prado, in the Golden Triangle of Art, it’s easy access to Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza as well. Museo de Prado, being the national gallery in Madrid, offers such amazing gems as “The Cardinal” by Raphael, Table of the Seven Deadly Sins by Bosch or “The Three Graces” by Rubens. Of course, there’s a lot El Greco, Goya, Velázquez or Titian that should not be missed – for those that love art, a couple good hours will easily be spent here.
The Prado is divided onto different wings for different geographical- and time periods. For instance, bottom floor is majorly occupied by Spanish painters anno 1100-1910, while Italian painters 1450-1800 are mostly located one story up. Grab a plan of the museum at the ground floor information desk (available in different languages) and get a full map of the museum, with references to where the most famous paintings are located – so if you don’t have as much time here as you might have wanted, at least you wont miss out on the gems!
The Reina Sofia (actually; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía) displays a more modern take on art – here you get the full spectrum of Dalí, Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst or Man Ray.
Don’t miss the Palacio de Cibeles on your culture-walk. Originally Palace of Communication, later the post office, today Placio de Cibeles is the Madrid City Hall. Placed at the very end of Paseo del Prado, hosting a tourist information and shop at the ground floor and several co-working, open spaces for students and entrepreneurs, this palace also offers an amazing, free-of-charge art exhibition on it’s second, third and fourth floor. Slightly more modern, slightly more experimental, brilliant and hip.
And while you’re at the Palacio de Cibeles, get the €2 ticket to the top-floor elevator, climb the stairs and get out onto the rooftop – the view over Madrid is splendid!
Another high point in Madrid, offering a breathtaking panorama of the city, is located at the Parque del Oeste. This city park offers shade, outdoor shows of Capoeira, tightrope walkers, an amazing view of Madrid – and the Egyptian temple Templo de Debod. Originally built in Aswan, as the dam was constructed, the Templo (dedicated to goddess Isis) was given to Spain by Egypt as a thank-you gift for the Spanish help in saving the temples in Abu Simbel.
If you like parks, or need a short breather, a break from the hectic big city life, and Parque del Oestre doesn’t fulfill your need for greenery, there’s Parque del Bueno Retiro, placed slightly behind Museo del Prado. Covering an area of 350 acres (1,4km2) in Madrid, it’s one of the most popular places for tourists and locals alike.
The park dates back to 1505, where a monastery was located at today’s San Jeronimo el Real Church, right by the edge of the park. The Retiro was later enlarged by King Philip II, and by 1630, it hosted both the Casón del Buen Retiro (today a library) and the military museum Museo del Ejército.
Particularly interesting sights of the park include the Estanque del Retiro – the large, man-made pond with the monument of King Alfonso XII, Fuente del Ángel Caído (fountain of the Fallen Angel) – a fountain by Ricardo Bellver, who was inspired by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, The Crystal Palace – built in 1887 and exhibiting the flora and fauna of Philippines.
Take a walk through the Rosaleda del Retiro, Paseo de la Argentina or Avenida de México and enjoy the clear, crisp air, the birds chirping and the amazing flora and fauna of Spain. Watch out of the peacocks that stroll along the walk pathways!
When in Madrid… you can’t miss the Royal Palace, placed by Placa de Oriente (here’s where you can also find the Opera in Madrid). Palacio Real lies on the site of a 9th century fortress, that hosted a myriad of buildings since. King Philip II moved his court to Madrid in 1561, occupying the Palacio since then, but massive fires in 1734 completely destroyed the palace. The current structure dates back to 1764, with minor adjustments. Admission of €11 is well worth the money – and it’s completely free for Iberian residents!
Right next to the castle lies the architecturally fantastic Catedral de la Almueda. Originally a mosque, the cathedral was erected primarily in 1083, but it wasn’t till long after the move of the Spanish court to Madrid (1561) that this cathedral became the seat of the catholic church in Spain – the church had maintained mostly in Toledo, and as Spain was home to about 40 cathedrals of that time, it wasn’t till 1879 that the Catedral de la Almueda became primary seat of the Spanish catholic church.
The neo-gothic interior is uniquely modern and partly clashes, partly compliments the Baroque exterior.
Shopping and eatery is at it’s best in Madrid – high streets spanning city center and outward offer Kiko, Spanish giant El Corte Inglés (where you can find everything from high-end Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors or Hugo Boss down to local brands), Spanish, internationally famous brands such as; Zara, Oysho, Bershka, Stradivarius or Pull & Bear.
Salamanca Distric offers more upscale shopping, while Gran Vía offers more walet-friendly options os internationally known brands from Spain and other countries. Then there’s flea market at El Rastro – on Sunday’s, this is the place to be! And whether you are into antiques, second hand clothing or baubles, El Rastro offers something for everybody.
Eating in Madrid is a chapter for itself, and deserves a post of it’s own – even though I’m no foodie, I thoroughly enjoyed every single meal this city treated me to!
There’s so much to see and do here, you simply cannot afford to miss Madrid. It’s a city you can see fully in a day, a week, a month or spend years here, still not satisfied you have seen and experienced everything you want to.
I rarely find places that move me to the point that I want to return. It has only happened once – with Krakow – because there’s so much world out there to see, I can’t return to the same place over and over again. But Madrid… I will definitely be back. Often. For a bit longer.
Savage Garden sung “Steel and granite reminders, the city calls your name, and I can’t move on”. Madrid calls my name. I might continue traveling the world, but something tells me this is the place I will always return to…
Hasta la próxima vez, con amor…