Twenty-first century Madrid positively surprised us. Before Tony and I met, we visited Madrid independently in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and we both left the city NOT loving it. While Tony got robbed in the Chamartín train station (and had to deal with the aftermath including a screaming match with an embassy official who refused to help a stranded 19-year old), I passed through the same railway station and found the city to look dull and grey through my dusty train window. Coming back 25 years later, however, completely restored our faith in what must be one of Spain’s most livable cities.
During our 3-week stay in Madrid, we saw the city in a very different light. The rough edges seemed to have softened and the city parks and art museums were everything but dull and grey. To give you an idea how to find some color, excitement and fun, and make the most of your time, we have compiled some of our most enjoyable activities in Madrid.
Eat tapas, tapas, tapas
One of the greatest joys of Spain is eating tapas with friends. It seems like every time you sit down for beer or wine, a waiter drops a complimentary plate of savory dishes on your table. The more you drink, the more they feed you. Who doesn’t love that? Talk to some Madrileños and they tell you exactly where to get the best (and the most) tapas for your money. There are a million places, but we quite enjoyed La Chalana’s cider and tapas in Chamartín with our friends Ana, Marta and Laura. The best thing, you can fill your own glass from a cider dispenser right on the table.
Get your fill of art museums
Madrid is home to one of the world’s greatest museums of art, the Prado National Museum. We highly recommend taking a day (or at least a few hours) to explore it. The museum’s amazing collections of mostly European art include masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Rubens, Bosch and Titian. Two other worthwhile museums for art aficionados are the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Reina Sofia National Museum with Picasso’s famous Guernica. (Tony has been insisting we go to Madrid to see Guernica for years!) All three museums – known as the Golden Triangle of Art – offer limited free entry at certain times of the day or week (check their websites). Entry is also included in the Madrid Card (more info at the end).
Go for a stroll in El Retiro Park
The city that I had perceived of as being dull and grey has a surprising number of green spaces. One of them is Madrid’s popular El Retiro. The public park is home to statues, fountains, playgrounds, galleries and plenty of greenery as well as the Retiro Pond. If you want to go for a little spin in a row boat, that’s the place to go. You’ll also find outdoor exercise equipment as well as running and biking paths to work off those extra tapas pounds (we certainly should have been there every day). Also, don’t miss the gorgeous Crystal Palace, a 19th-century glass and metal structure that houses rotating art collections. El Retiro is a great place to chill and people-watch after a full day at the museums. Conveniently, the Prado Museum is very close by, so plan ahead and visit both.
Shop at Mercado San Miguel
Food is a major highlight in Madrid. One of the best places to sample gourmet tapas, champagne and fancy cupcakes is at San Miguel Market, one of Madrid’s oldest and most beautiful wrought-iron-and-glass market halls. With its fresh oysters, Galician preserves, authentic paella (translated: delicious), crisp cocktails, and scrumptious Iberian ham, it’s the ideal marketplace for architecture junkies and foodies alike. I literally had to drag Tony out, or he would have spent our weekly budget. Yes, locals will probably tell you it’s touristy and overpriced, but you should go there at least once to sample their highly addictive stuffed olives for a euro a piece.
Wander through Madrid’s Plaza Mayor
After having explored San Miguel Market, wander over to nearby Plaza Mayor. The giant rectangular square is surrounded by colonnaded late 18th-century apartment buildings with quaint little shops and cafes under each portico. What is now one of Madrid’s major tourist attractions, was once a place for public executions. Think about that when you sit there sipping your vino tinto. By the way, Plaza Mayor is also the place to get your fake Michael Kors handbag you’ve always wanted.
Discover the eclectic Museo Cerralbo
If you like over-the-top knick-knacks and outrageous frou-frou, this might be just the museum for you. The small Museo Cerralbo houses the private collection of the Marquis of Cerralbo, an archaeologist and collector who turned his mansion over to the public before his death in 1922. Every inch in this mini-palace is bedecked in fantastic art! You can spend hours looking at Murano glass chandeliers, trompe l’oeil frescoes, Meissen porcelain figurines, 16th-century suits of armor, Roman coins, Qing Dynasty urns, Belgian tapestries, gilded French clocks, and everything that sparkles under the sun. We especially liked the colorful Arab Room with – surprise, surprise – two Edo-era Samurai suits of armor from Japan. Ummm, OK. Cultural misnomers aside, this was actually one of the kookiest and most enjoyable museums we have seen in some time. We highly recommend a visit!
Visit the Egyptian Temple of Debod
This may come as a surprise, but Madrid is home to an authentic Egyptian temple, the Temple of Debod! It is one of four Egyptian temples currently residing outside of Egypt (the others are in the U.S., Italy and the Netherlands). All four were given as a thank you for helping to relocate the Abu Simbel Temple which was threatened by rising waters after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. So if you have never stood in an Egyptian temple (or want to return to one), don’t miss this opportunity. The Temple of Debod is located in Parque del Oeste (near the Royal Palace) and is especially photogenic at sunset. The entry is free.
Drink Vermouth at El Rastro Market
I didn’t know this was a thing, but sipping Vermouth at the El Rastro Sunday market is apparently what locals do. The happening place for a drink and tapas is Cafe Pavón near the El Rastro market. The local, down-to-earth joint is the ideal spot to watch all kinds of colorful crazies. Make sure to browse the famous open-air flea market first before you sit down for Vermouth; once you get the taste for it, you may never want to leave.
Behold the Royal Palace
A visit to Madrid should always include a trip to the royal family’s official residence – no matter how little time you have. King Felipe VI and his family don’t actually live there, but they use the Royal Palace for official state functions. A few hours are probably enough for the average visitor to get a feeling for the Spanish aristocracy, architecture, history, art and opulence. Certain days and hours are free so check out the palace’s website (conditions apply and info only in Spanish). The visit is also free with the Madrid Card.
Look out for street art
If you are a fan of street art (which we are), Madrid will keep you busy. Look out for colorful graffiti in the Lavapiés and Malasaña neighborhoods, the gay-friendly Chueca, and Madrid’s city center. Don’t miss La Tabacalera de Lavapies, a former tobacco factory on Calle de Embajadores; the historic building is covered in graffiti art. Also, check out the giant frog sculpture in front of the Casino Gran Madrid Colón. You may have to stand in line, though, if you want your photo taken standing under its belly.
Take a cable car ride on the Teleférico
A great place to see Madrid from a bird’s eye view is Casa de Campo, the largest park in the city. The best and most enjoyable way to cross the former royal hunting grounds is by taking the Teleférico cable car from the Paseo del Pintor Rosales street to the city overlook. From there, you can access the park’s many trails or chill in the cafe-restaurant. It’s a great little outing which combines nature and city views from forty meters above the ground. El Teleférico is included in the Madrid Card.
Amuse yourself at the Wax Museum
We have saved the best WORST museum for last. The Madrid Wax Museum is so sad and ridiculously expensive that it’s almost worth visiting. Entry is included in the Madrid Card, so only go if you have paid for the card anyway. WARNING: Some of the wax figures may give you nightmares. Think bad taxidermy job, you just can’t look away. Note the location of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the photo. She’s definitely in good company (is this a commentary on Spanish/German relations?) Also don’t miss the museum’s little theme ride called Train of Terror. It doesn’t get any cheesier than that. Their attempt at a haunted house will leave you laughing for days. (Or raging if you paid full price.) The Wax Museum is definitely not Madame Tussauds, but that makes it the more hilarious.
Info about the Madrid Card
While in Madrid, we were given two 72-hour Madrid Cards by Neoturismo. The card gives you free or discounted access to all sorts of tourist attractions around the city. As of February 2017, cards are valid for one, two, three, and five days, and cost 47, 60, 67, and 77 Euros respectively. Check out this link to see what attractions the Madrid Card gets you in for free.
If you only want to visit a couple of museums, the card wouldn’t be worth it. But if you want to go on a binge sightseeing tour (which we sometimes like to do), this card is just right. One huge advantage of the card – besides saving some money – is that you can skip lines at selected sites. This can be especially handy at the Royal Palace and the Prado Museum, which can have shockingly long lines. One thing that could be improved about the Madrid Card is to include the fare for public transportation; many other city cards do that.