If the only thing to see in Madrid was the Prado Museum art collection, it would still be worth the trip. Happily, there’s much more to see and do in Spain’s capital city beyond that must-see museum, as it is a place steeped in history dating back to 865 AD. Today, this vibrant metropolis is a heady mix of old and new, with ancient edifices juxtaposed against strikingly modern buildings, countless restaurants, bars, and nightclubs with fantastic Spanish tile peppering every block.
EMBRACE THE ART
Madrid’s love of art is legendary, with the Paseo del Arte (Art Walk) serving as the cultural heart of the city. You’ll need at least a full day to discover the three museums along this 1.2-mile stretch housed in buildings constructed in the late 1700s; the Prado, alone, houses 8,600 paintings and 700 sculptures! Be sure to see the incredible Goya collection there, especially Saturn Devouring His Son, as well as the Velazquez and El Greco masterpieces in the collection. 2019 marks the Prado’s 200th anniversary.
Take in Spain’s modern art at the Reina So a Museum, where Picasso, Dali, Miró and other Spanish greats of the 20th Century are featured. Don’t miss Guernica, Picasso’s massive masterwork, recounting the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. At the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, you’ll find classic works ranging from Caravaggio to Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Chagall, and Hopper. If you download The Essential Art Walk app, it can help guide you to the 24 essential artworks found in each museum.
If purchasing fine art is on your vacation agenda, find your way to Barrio de Salamanca, where high-end art galleries define this elegant district of town. Las Salesas, Conde Duque, and Barrio de Las Letras boast even more galleries in this art-loving town. And looking is always free, of course!
To drink up the atmosphere of Madrid, begin at the Plaza Mayor, which is the heart of the old city. Say hello to the statue of Philip III and have a coffee in one of the outdoor cafes dotting the square. Start wandering and you’ll soon discover the Royal Palace, the Teatro Real Opera House, and numerous massive churches along the way. When you come across the 200 BC Egyptian Temple of Debod, a gift to Spain from the Egyptian government, you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re in Spain, not Egypt. Stop to rest and enjoy the beautiful gardens there. When you’re ready for more natural beauty, continue to El Retiro Park, with its extensive greenery, massive fountains, sculptures, and famed Glass Palace.
No matter where you stroll, there’s plenty to see; and if you decide you’d rather ride, Madrid offers a guided hop-on, hop-off bus that takes two routes: one through historical Madrid and another through modern Madrid. Modern stops include the Real Madrid soccer stadium and the must-see Plaza de Castilla, with its Torres KIO towers — huge buildings tilted at a 15-degree angle and a golden obelisk — that marks the 300th anniversary of Madrid’s existence.
Madrid has an extensive Metro subway, taxis, lots of public buses, and even the BiciMAD electric bike rental system with 123 docking stations throughout the city, so alternatives to walking are plenty. Buy a Tourist Travel Pass at any Metro station for use on all public transport and ride all day for as many days as you choose.
ENTERTAIN THE KIDS
If your visit to Madrid includes bringing children along for the fun, there’s entertainment galore for the kiddies. What youngster wouldn’t like The Robot Museum that features a massive collection of all sorts of robots, including a humanoid as well as the “Star Wars” androids? That’s in the Malasana district, while a bit further out of town in San Martin de la Vega is the Parque Warner Madrid (Warner Bros. Theme Park Madrid), which is filled with rollercoasters, superheroes like Batman and Superman, and much more.
The Madrid Zoo Aquarium in the Casa de Campo area of Madrid will enthrall the animal lovers in the family, with everything from koalas and giant pandas to penguins, bull sharks, and sea turtles. Visit Faunia in the Otros district to see even more critters in a biological park that presents ecological systems ranging from jungles to polar regions and beyond.
Also in Casa de Campo is the Parque de Atracciones, a perfect-for-kids amusement park complete with Nickelodeon Land, wild rollercoasters, and bumper cars. You can even experience the terror installation of The Walking Dead — there’s fun for children of all ages here. Families can venture to the Aquopolis de San Fernando, a huge water park right in town, or venture out of the city to the Aquopolis Villanueva de la Canada (the biggest water park in Europe), for some fun in the sun.
Be sure to visit the Planetarium in the Otros district to discover more about the sun, stars, and planets; and if the family is really feeling adventurous, that same district holds the Windobona Indoor Skydiving Madrid, where anyone over the age of four can experience free fall inside a controlled wind tunnel.
SEEK OUT THE STREET MARKETS
Madridians love to shop, and they love street markets, which are found all over the city. Sunday is when El Rastro happens, the massive flea market located in the La Latina district that boasts over 1,000 vendors selling vintage goods, hand-crafted items, oddities, and more. The sophisticated Malamarket is found every Saturday during the spring in the Malasana district and is filled with arts and crafts goods, and design pieces. The Central de Diseno Market in Matadero is strictly about design and happens on the first weekend of every month.
Food markets abound as well, with the San Anton Market in Chueca, which is a gourmet’s delight. You can buy fresh food and head for the third floor, where chefs will cook for you on the spot. The San Miguel Market in the Los Austrias Madrid area opened in 1916 and is the most-visited food market in the city. Filled with everything from jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) to special Spanish cheeses, seafood, wine, and much more, this is a must-see stop for any foodie visiting Madrid.
EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY
There’s incredible food everywhere you turn in Madrid, the place where delicious tapas and swoon-inducing paellas are whipped up with ease. But if you haven’t already heard, Spaniards eat on a completely different timetable than most other cultures, usually eating five meals a day. So don’t be surprised if lunch (comida) is served from 2 to 4 p.m. (and is the largest meal of the day) and a lighter dinner (cena) doesn’t even get started until 9 p.m. — at the earliest!
Tapas — small dishes of delectable, sharable bites — are on o er at most bars (some come for free with a drink), so just pick a place that looks lively and you’re bound to find excellent cocktails, Spanish wine (Albariño for an incredibly crisp and delicious white, Rioja for a tangy, slightly spicy red, to name a few) and you’ll also find tapas that range from bites of octopus to yummy chunks of Iberian ham sausages.
Noshing all day is the Spanish way, so whenever you feel the least bit peckish, make your way to one of the tapas places that have operated in Madrid since time immemorial. Try out Casa Labra (open since 1860), El Anciano Rey de los Vinos (1886), Bodegas Ricia (1867), or Lhardy (1839) for some seriously authentic local tastes.
Nightlife is in a class all its own in Spain, as local patrons think nothing of partying into the wee hours of the morning. Be sure to visit a tablaos (Flamenco club), where food and wine are paired with the national dance of Spain where you can enjoy entertainment while dining. Corral de la Moreria and Torres Bermejas are two of the city’s best-known tablaos, while Villa Rosa (since 1911) is one of the oldest flamenco bars on the planet. Visit there if only to look at the incredible tiled façade that draws customers in.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Madrid has all the usual hotel suspects, so if a Hilton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn, or Intercontinental suits your needs, they are readily available. But if you’re looking for something that evokes a bygone era, consider staying at an actual palace while visiting Madrid. The AC Palacio del Retiro is located in a National Heritage building, a perfectly located, small luxury hotel in the heart of the Paseo del Arte; or choose Hotel Orfila, the former 19th-century mansion that now boasts the presence of Mario Sandoval, the 2-star Michelin chef, as its executive chef. To sleep where royalty once rested their heads, try the fresco-filled Hotel Catalonia Las Cortes, where the Duke of Noblejas once called home.
Fly from O’Hare (ORD) to Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas (MAD) on Iberia Airlines.