Madrid is the largest city in Spain and one of only two cities in Spain that has a population of over 1 million. Actually, it’s about 3.2 million. Just to give you a frame of reference, the population of the entire state of Iowa is about 3.1 million, where the New York City has a population of about 8.4 million.
Madrid is located in the center of Spain in the province of Madrid. On a global scale, it is almost the same latitude as Pittsburgh, PA. After hearing lovely stories about the beautiful, warm beaches of southern Spain for years, I imagined most of Madrid would be much warmer than back home, but I was in for a surprise when visiting Madrid in February. I walked out of the metro station in Plaza del Sol to breathe Madrid air for the first time and was greeted by snowflakes!
Spending the last few months in Andalucía and traveling mostly through the South, I realize I have been somewhat sheltered. I have forgotten that big, modern cities still do exist. Of course, I have been to Sevilla, Granada, Málaga, Cadiz, and many others, but it wasn’t until I got to Madrid that I realized how well-preserved the Southern cities are. Let me preface this by saying that I liked Madrid a lot; but sadly, the city has lost a lot of its unique Spanish history and has grown into a modern, bustling metropolis.
Puerta del Sol
The ancient center of the city. Most roads branch out from the Puerta del Sol and most restaurants and bars are in this area. There is a beautiful fountain and the famous “El Oso y El Madroño” statue, or “The Bear and The Strawberry Tree,” which acts as a symbol for the capital of Spain. For 3 days, there was a constant line of people taking pictures of this statue at all times of the day. Also in the Puerta del Sol you can find many costume characters and gravity-defying human “statues” trying to impress for tips. Many metros converge here.
Branching off from the Puerta del Sol through a maze of cobblestone streets lined with bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops is the famous and majestic Plaza Mayor. There are a few restaurants located around the Plaza, and this is a good place to just come people watch. I saw a fat French Spiderman with an identical replica of himself calling out jokes to everyone passing by.
In the direction opposite the Plaza Mayor from the Puerta del Sol you will run into the Gran Via, the wide, congested road of Madrid that reminded me of Broadway in Times Square, NYC. There will be plenty of shopping stores and malls, restaurants, broadway theaters, concert halls, hotels, and old buildings from the early 1900s with historical importance. The Telefónica building (Telefónica is Spain’s largest private telecommunications company), built in 1926, is an example of American architecture in Spain after the architect studied in New York City. It’s a nice walk to see the sights, but it’s just like any other main city street.
Plaza de España
Follow the Gran Via until the end, when you reach the Plaza de España. You can take lovely pictures in front of the water fountain and the statue dedicated to the author of Don Quixote. The square dates back to the 18th century and is a nice place to relax or sunbathe.
A short walk from the Plaza de España is the Royal Palace, not only the largest palace in Spain, but also in Western Europe. The original palace was a Moorish castle that burned down and this grand palace was rebuilt in 1738. The old city walls can still be seen. Charles III was the first king to live here. Currently, King Felipe uses it for official purposes but doesn’t live here.
Head to the other end of Madrid and you enter the Salamanca district, the wealthiest neighborhood in Madrid. Here you will find the Palace of Marquis of Salamanca, a very luxurious palace. Today it is the seat of the BBVA bank. Also in this neighborhood is the U.S. Embassy, where you can stand on American soil in Spain, and Hotel Wellington, the famous hotel where the bullfighters stay when they come to Madrid for an event.
I had a 5 hour layover in Madrid on my way to London back in November and decided to get out and about and enjoy Madrid. I had no idea about any of the neighborhoods or where to go, so on a whim I chose Nuevos Ministerios. Hint to anyone who wants to leave the airport on a layover: don’t go to Nuevos Ministerios. Go to the Puerta del Sol! Nuevos Ministerios is just as it is translated: the new ministries building. Nuevos Ministerios is now where the old hippodrome was located. (For those of you who don’t know, like myself, a hippodrome is a theater or concert hall.) Mostly, this area is a commercial area with commercial retail shops, bars, and restaurants. On my layover, I had breakfast in El Corte Inglés and walked around the mall.
Real Madrid Fútbol Stadium
Now, on to the most important part of life for all Spaniards: The Real Madrid fútbol stadium! Well, not all Spaniards I guess, for those who are Barcelona fans, or fans of smaller teams. Fútbol is life here in Spain. Everyone plays it, everyone has at least one jersey, everyone has a favorite team, and everyone has been to a game. Life stops for fútbol, and bars fill up to capacity. The Real Madrid stadium used to hold 110,000 fans with seating and standing room only, but for safety reasons they have since dropped capacity to 80,000 seats only for sale. Real Madrid has won 9 World Cups and many other high level achievements. But the best feeling of accomplishment is when you know you have 70,000 season ticket holders cheering you on!
Botanical Gardens, Retiro Park, and the Puerta de Alcalá
The botanical gardens are a relaxing, beautiful garden with trees, shrubs, and medicinal plants and herbs. It is Spain’s fifth most visited “museum.” Retiro Park is Spain’s most well-known park, with sculptures, monuments, concerts, horse-drawn carriages, and a boating lake. The Puerta de Alcalá is the “city gate” at the Plaza de la Independencia.
Plaza de Cibeles
The Plaza de Cibeles is a symbol of Madrid. It used to be named the Plaza de Madrid until the name was changed in 1900. The Cibeles fountain shows Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility and nature being pulled on a chariot by two lions. The Real Madrid team has adopted this statue and players and fans alike use it as a meeting point for celebration when the team wins the Spanish League or Spanish Cup. Four major buildings surround the plaza: the intricately designed and beautiful Bank of Spain, constructed in 1884; the Palacio de Buenavista, now home to the Army’s headquarters; the Palacio de Linares, owned by the Casa de America organization; and the beautiful Palacio de Comunicaciones, constructed in 1917 and headquarters of the Madrid City Hall.
Círculo de Bellas Artes
If you want a bird’s-eye view of Madrid, climb to the top of the Círculo de Bellas Artes building for 3 euros. There will be plenty of people doing it with you! On nice days, there is a rooftop bar and terrace (azotea) where you can have a drink while admiring the view. Unfortunately, it was frigid and windy the day we went up and the bar was closed. They do have lounge beds where you can lay or tables where you can sit on nicer, warmer days. The ticket price includes admission to the restaurant on the ground floor, which was a little overpriced for my liking, but you can get sandwiches for 7 or 8 euros.
Just like it sounds, 100 Montaditos has 100 Montaditos (small Spanish sandwiches). On Wednesdays and Sundays, everything on the menu is 1 euro. Every other day, there is a selection of 1 euro sandwiches, 1.25 euro sandwiches, 1.50 euro sandwiches, etc. It’s never expensive. Also, every day there are 5 options where they choose 5 montaditos, some in each euro category, for 5 euros. It’s a great deal! 2 of the 5 euro meals and 2 vino tintos (red wines) came out to 13 euros. Where else in Madrid, or any city for that matter, can you leave full for 13 euros!
Museo de Jamón
You heard it, a museum of ham. There are tons of ham legs hanging from the ceilings. They offer lunch, dinner, dessert, snacks, appetizers, platters, and a full bar on 3 levels. The bottom level is a bar, the 2nd and 3rd floors are dining rooms with many tables. The ham and cheese platters are very cheap, less than 5 euros. If you’re ok with seeing the cured ham legs hanging, this is worth a visit!
Mercado San Miguel
At first sight, I thought this was a brewery. A big, warehouse-type building with a lot of bars and people inside. I went in to get out of the cold for a minute and happily discovered it’s a food market! I have only been to one other food market like this, in downtown Philadelphia, PA. I love markets like this! They have so many different food and drink options all in one place, and even servers walking around with rolling bars or food platters for sale. You can try an empanada and glass of wine for 4 euros, then go over to the oyster bar and grab 6 oysters for 10 euros, then make your way to the bocadillo bar and finally to the dessert area. Try it all! I could spend hours in a market like this.
People in Granada take their free tapas for granted. In Madrid, free tapas (and I’m not talking about a bowl of chips that come with your drink) are hard to come by. El Tigre is famous for offering good-sized platters of tapas free with each drink. After ordering a beer, a soda, and a water, I came to the conclusion drinks are all 2.50 euros, but the enormous mountain of food that comes with it compensates for the price. Some plates will be paella, some will be chicken wings, some will be a variety of cheese, meat, and croquettes, you can get a plate of anything! 2 drinks and you will leave full and wishing you had more room for more drinks. Be careful though, this place is very famous and it gets crowded. Lines will form outside, and this is the first time in Spain I saw a bouncer!
I can only comment on this one hostel because I haven’t stayed anywhere else. Hostal Murcia is an excellent location, steps off the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. It’s located on a side street near the pedestrian-only cobblestone areas with a lot of great tapas bars and restaurants. For the price (43 euros a night – in Madrid, yes), you can’t beat it!
However, the place itself isn’t that nice. It’s hard to find because it’s on the third floor (fourth, by American standards) of an old building. There is another hostel on the floor below, Hostal Arcos. Hostal Arcos has a big yellow neon sign so look for this sign if you’re looking for Hostal Murcia. There is a doorbell to ring when you get there, and the owner will come get you and check you in. She speaks no English, but her Spanish is slow and easy to understand, and she was very nice.
The common room smelled like smoke which made me uneasy, but the rooms seemed to be smoke-free (unless I was just used to it by then). Our room had a private bathroom luckily, which was nice and almost as big as the room itself, and seemed recently renovated. The room was very basic with no tv, only a bed, but it did have heating, which is rare to me coming from a wood burner in my house in Andalucia! The wifi was free and had a pretty good connection too. The rooms were loud and since ours was right next to the shared bathroom, we could hear people showering and going to the bathroom, but there was another hall for other rooms that would have been better. The hostel must accept pets too because I heard a dog running around.
I never saw anyone else in the hostel. If you’re looking for a place to sleep, it will do the job and is an excellent location and walkable to almost everything. If you can find anything else in this price range in the center of Madrid, go for it, but for this price, can’t beat it!
Madrid City Tours
22 euros a day, or 25 euros for 2 days. There are 2 lines and they are all hop-on/hop-off. They have a bunch of languages and give you headphones so you can listen as you pass by. I got a Friday/Saturday 2 day tour and Friday was fine, but Saturday was very crowded. One bus couldn’t fit everyone and we had to wait for another bus, although it’s only 8-10 minutes between buses. We used these buses instead of taxis and metros to see farther sights also. Instead of walking the mile to the Círculo de Bellas Artes, we hopped on Line 1 and were there in 1 stop! Then we switched over to Line 2 to head down to the Real Madrid Stadium. It’s worth it for getting around and learning about Madrid.
I know this was one of my longer posts, but Madrid is a huge city with so much to see, do, and drink. There are even things I didn’t get to do in the three days I was there, like the Teleférico Cable Car view of the city, Madrid Zoo, tour of the Royal Palace, and go inside Retiro Park and ride a boat on the lake. I would have loved to go to the Real Madrid vs. Atlético soccer game, but unfortunately tickets were astronomically priced, so a soccer, ummmm fütbol, game will just have to wait. Knowing nothing about a city before traveling there can be daunting and it can be hard to get around, know where to stay, or figure out what to do, so I hope this helps someone else on their first trip to Madrid! Enjoy!