I envy the Spanish lifestyle. Energetic mornings, siestas from the hot sun, lazy evenings in the park and sociable cervezas into the night. The Spanish have perfected working and eating in tune with the heat, delaying everything they can to the late afternoon and night to avoid the sun. All their meals seem to be savoured and shared over lively conversations, arguments and laughter with copious alcohol and few worries about getting up for work the following day. Tourists and locals alike choose to sit outside on the terraza, often in one of the many squares or ‘Plazas’ watching the hustle and bustle.
Onto the food though! I love many aspects of Spain and its culture but their love of food is one of the best bits. While many restaurants celebrate traditional recipes; tapas, paella, bocadillos and pinxos, Madrid offers many modern versions to liven up the old-style faire. But ether way it is the fresh, local and often seasonal ingredients that take president.
Madrid has the perfect combination of modern vibrance and chilled out traditions. From the lively student party scene to the beautiful parks, gardens and museums, a weekend in Madrid can be anything you make it. Here are my top tips for ‘What to Do’, ‘When to Do It’ both seasonal events and daily routines, and General Tips for making it the best time away in the Spanish sunshine.
Top 10 Things to Do (mostly FREE!!)
- Chill out at Parque del Retiro. It’s a real treat to be able to lie back on the grass of a 350 acre park just on the edge of the city centre. The now public park belonged to the Spanish Monarchy up until the late 19th century echoed by the magnificent sculptures and monuments, galleries, a peaceful lake and Palacio de Cristal. Hire a boat on the main lake or just admire the leafy walkways.
- Visit foodie-heaven in Mercado de San Miguel. I really was in heaven. To be fair we restrained from buying anything as it was so expensive but the market was so tempting, showcasing Spanish meats, cheeses, tapas such as croquettes and tostas, pastries, drinks and fruit, all laid out artisitically to entice you in. My favourites had to be the meringue cupcakes, mozzerella tapas and miniature hamburgers.
- Experience the hustle and bustle along Gran Via. Like any major metropolitan city, Madrid has a main street along which you find all the international shops and fast food eateries, as well as Spanish favourites. Perfect to get your bearings, buy some souvenirs and close to many good nightclubs and bars.
- Stand in the middle of Plaza Major. Well known for it’s grand architecture, street entertainment and the only place to experiene a clamari sandwich!
- Indulge in a ‘Tapas Crawl’ around La Latina. This was easily my favourite evening. I go into more detail below but La Latina is THE tapas district. We were spoilt for choice of tapas bars with beautiful terraces, eclectic interiors and of course, fantastic tapas.
- Stroll the halls of the Museo del Prado. I’m not usually an art person but the Prado is universally impressive. Boasting the title ‘The biggest art gallery in the World’, the Prado houses more than 8,600 paintings, of which they exhibit less than 2,000 because of lack of space available despite it’s grand halls. Many museums throughout the world have less artistic riches in their halls than the Prado Museum has in storage. Most of the art is of mainly Spanish, Italian, Flemish and German origin, including Goya, Botticelli, Rafael, Greco and Rembrandt. But watch out for the timing on your ticket, you might pay for the separate exhibition but find your not scheduled to go in for may hours!
- Pre-drink with the locals in Plaza del Dos de Mayo. As far as we could tell, Thursday was student night and you could barely cross the Plaza del Dos de Mayo without falling over the hundreds of students drinking cervecas, sat on the ground, walls, statues and steps. Socialise and enjoy, and don’t fear the language barrier, it’s fun to muddle through!
- Party in one of the many famous nightclubs! I’ve gone into more detail in the ‘night’ section below but Madrid is a club and bar paradise, no matter your taste! We visited Joy Esclava and Siroco, very different clubs but so fun! Most are built into old buildings, making it quite a theatrical experience with good drinks, varied music and 6am closing times.
- Chat with the turtles by the Palacio de Cristal. I kid you not, I sat on the steps and just watched the many turtles swim around the lake, I had so much fun!
- Take in the view outside the Royal Palace. Considered one of the finest in Europe, the Palacio Real (or Oriente) is the house of all state functions of the Spanish royalty, built after the fire of 1734. The Palace occupies 13 hectares, has 870 windows, 240 balconies and 44 staircases, a royal armoury and pharmacy and surrounded by beautiful gardens.
When is best?
During our long weekend we quickly realised (mainly by watching a following the routine of the locals) that while everything on the list above was fun and amazing at almost any time of day, we would make the most of the experience at certain times of day.
Morning – We barely experienced Madrid’s mornings. The nights were so fun and went on so late that we used the morning for sleep time. I don’t regret it!
Afternoon – We visited in early June and it was HOT (like there was a heatwave kinda hot!), so walking around in the early afternoon was a real struggle. Large lunches were quickly abandoned as it impossible to digest and walk in 40C heat. The locals seemed to spend the afternoons having a cheeky siesta, having a super long lunch in the shade with a Tinto de Verano or chilling out in the nearest leafy park. My favourite hot afternoon was spent visiting the grand Museo del Prado, enjoying the fantastic artwork of Velazquez, Goya and El Greco masterpieces in vast collections spanning the 12th- to 19th-century. Afterwards we lay under the trees in Parque del Retiro, which seemed to get busier around 7pm, at the end of the working day.
Evening into Night – In Madrid we could easily have joined the swathes of people heading for the parks in the evening but we loved the restaurant scene too much. Peak dinner time was definitely started at 9pm throughout Madrid with the tapas bars overflowing before 10pm. Our favourite night-time areas had to be La Latina and Malasaña. La Latina, Madrid’s famed tapas barrio was thriving at this time, with bar-owners enticing us in for tostas, patatas bravas and other tempting treats. After indulging be sure to walk down to the Cathedral when it’s lit up and admire the view south over the surrounding valleys. Malasaña was a super cool, bordering on hipster bar area, found between Bilbao and Novicado metro stations and centred around the Dos de Mayo square.
Most of the nightclubs can be found in the very centre of the city, near Sol metro station, Gran Via and just to the north. There’s a real range depending on your tastes; Joy Esclava and Kapital are famously housed in old theatres with several floors, touristy crowds and more commercial music, Cafe Centrale, Clamores and El Junco are known as fantastic Jazz venues while Siroco many other clubs go for a more intense dance atmosphere with fab resident DJs. Most charge 12-15 euros entry including a drink, and cervecas can be bought outside for no more than a euro.
Even after a long night food can be found everywhere from the famous churros of Chocolateria San Gines and 24 hour patisseries, to pizzerias and kebab shops!
- Madrid perhaps isn’t as touristy as you might predict. We often struggled with the language barrier when it came to reading menus but many of the younger restaurant staff spoke embarrassingly good English so this wasn’t a problem if you asked.
- The easiest way to get around is definitely the metro. We found the cheapest option was to buy a 10 trip pass for around 10 euros and share that for multiple trips. The metro shuts late too, around 1.30am so you can rely on it as a late night option rather than taxis.
- Students! Lots of the main attractions, nightclubs and transport links allow free entry for students, teachers and many other groups (pointing at yourself and saying ‘estudente’ goes a long way) and reduced entry for retired or youths carrying the appropriate ID cards.