Approximately half a dozen mini trips to Madrid later, I feel like I’ve gotten a chance to get a true feel for this capital city and finally seen all the museums I’ve wanted to visit. And since my family is coming to visit me for Christmas, I think I ought to distill my impressions and tidbits into something I can share with them while I’m their unofficial tour guide for the week.
|De Madrid al cielo|
But there’s something about this city-that-never-sleeps that keeps calling me back (perhaps it’s the nonrefundable round-trip plane tickets, but I digress). Madrid has only been the country’s capital since 1561, when King Felipe II moved the royal court from northerly Valladolid south to what was then a village of 30,000. But what la Villa de Madrid lacks in awe-inspiring monuments, it makes up with a contagious joie de vivre that the sleepy pueblos and workaday provincial capitals fail to exude. I love the buzzing energy I feel walking around town as the sun is rising or the warm merriment that pours out of a jam-packed restaurant at night. Madrid tiene vida.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to check off your hitlist in town; on the contrary, Madrid has a lot to see and do. In this post, I’d like to highlight some of the biggest tourist draws to the capital of Spain. I’m fully aware that this is nothing original; however, countless folks pass through here every year and completely miss half of what I’m about to talk about—so take note!
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum caps off the Golden Triangle and is across the street from the Prado. Pronounced “TEE-sin,” it opened the same year as the Reina Sofía to exhibit the world’s second-largest private collection of art. I’ve heard it described as “major works from minor artists and minor works from major artists,” spanning centuries of European and American art. If you’re a completionist like me, it’s worth exploring, but don’t go out of your way to check it out.
|The Dama de Elche|
|Paintings by Sorolla|
|Plaza de la Artillería|
|Inside the cathedral|
|Interior of the dome|
Streets & squares
|In Plaza Mayor|
|Puerta del Sol|
To the northwest of Retiro Park swirls a large, busy roundabout called the Plaza de Cibeles. A neoclassical sculpture of the Greek goddess Cybele commands the center of this
|Approaching Gran Vía|
Gran Vía is the grandest avenue in the country, and it traces a northwesterly path from the Plaza de Cibeles up to Plaza de España. It’s only existed for a hundred or so years (countless city blocks were torn down to pave the “Great Way”) but in that time some really special gems of early 20th-century architecture went up and Gran Vía became the Broadway of Spain.
|Dr. Seuss-style trees in Retiro Park|
Snuggled in between Retiro and the Prado Museum are the Royal Botanical Gardens. A tightly-curated selection of thousands of plant and flower species from around the world, the gardens are arranged in neat grids between three terrazas or stair-stepped levels. Although there’s a small entrance fee to get in, in my opinion the Real Jardín Botánico is a much more relaxing and peaceful place than Retiro.
|The Temple of Debod|
|Chocolate con porras|
If you visit during winter, make sure to order either callos a la madrileña—Madrid-style tripe stew—or cocido madrileño, Madrid-style cocido: chickpea-veggie-meat stew. The winter weather can get surprisingly cold despite the sunshine, so a hearty bowl of either of these stews will warm you right up.
|The iconic Tío Pepe sherry ad in Puerta del Sol|
For the best views in the whole city, you can’t beat paying a couple euros to ride the elevator to the top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes. A fancy, need-to-make-reservations restaurant occupies this cultural center’s rooftop azotea or terrace, but you can also just get an overpriced coffee or drink from the bar and relax on a sunny afternoon here in true Spanish fashion.
Neighborhoods beyonds the center
|Central Madrid seen from the cathedral|
If you have the chance, I recommend getting out of the tight tourist corridor between the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum and exploring any of Madrid’s several barrios (neighborhoods): busy Moncloa, with its student atmosphere, hipster Malasaña, trendy, gay-friendly Chueca, posh, gridded Salamanca, immigrant-infused, tapas capital La Latina, or pretty Huertas, the “Literary Quarter.”
What do you think are the essentials or “must-sees” in Madrid? What sort of non-touristy places or experiences give Madrid its soul? Comment below!
For more pictures, check out my albums on Flickr here, here, here, and here.