Madrid is the perfect destination for a city break, packed with cultural attractions, shopping, cafés, tapas bars and high-end eateries. With quick and easy transfers from Barajas international airport and fast train links straight to the Costas, it is one of the most accessible of Europe’s capital cities.
Things to see and do in Madrid
Head to the Prado Museum for the city’s best collection of art and artefacts including works by Murillo, Rubens and Goya, or the Museo Reina Sofia for more modern works including those by the Catalan artist, Dalí. Explore on foot and you will be free to stop and sample the occasional restorative ‘caña’ (small beer) and a wide selection of tapas to keep you fuelled for your day of sightseeing.
Football lovers will enjoy a tour of the spectacular Bernabéu Stadium, home to record-breaking 32-time La Liga champions, Real Madrid. Check out local listings or run a web search before you visit and you could find yourself with the opportunity to watch a home match while you are here.
Taking in a bullfight is not for the fainthearted, but should you feel the urge there is no better place than at the Las Ventas bullring. These days the ring is also a popular venue for rock concerts and other entertainment, providing an alternative way in which to sample its unique atmosphere.
Few will think of Spain without conjuring up a vision of flamenco and Madrid is one of the best places in the country to enjoy a performance. Many bars around the city stage regular nightly flamenco entertainment, but for the very best head to the Corral de la Moreira, where both the performance and the food are of the very highest standard.
Parks and leisure spaces in Madrid
Take a walk around the Retiro Park, the original gardens of the city’s Royal Palace. This is Madrid’s primary recreational area and boasts plenty of greenery along with a boating lake, play areas, cafés and exhibition centres.
It may not be a park in the traditional sense, but the huge, pedestrianised Plaza Mayor is certainly one of Madrid’s leading leisure spaces. Day and night, it is teeming with couples, families, locals, sightseers and groups all keen to sample a slice of Madrid’s laid-back Latin flair.
Shopping in Madrid
Shopping is a major pastime in Madrid. Head for the Chueca, Malasaña or Calle Fuencarral for quirky boutiques, or to the streets of the Salamanca district for high-end fashion and designer names. Flagship high-street stores can be found lining Calle Preciados – the perfect spot to stock up on new-season favourites from Zara, Mango, Camper and other Spanish brands. For market shopping, try the Mercado de San Miguel for gourmet food and drink or the Rastro at Ribera de Curtidores for the weekly Sunday morning flea market. For essentials, head to El Corte Inglés, Spain’s renowned department store chain.
Eating and drinking in Madrid
Eating and drinking in Madrid is an all-day affair – leave your calorie counter at home and definitely pack some loose clothing. The very best start to the day is a ‘suizo’ – a rich hot chocolate that is so thick it has to be slurped from a spoon. Order a portion of ‘churros’ on the side – long, sugar-coated doughnuts that are perfect for dunking. Alternatively opt for a ‘carajillo’ – the ultimate workman’s coffee which comes complete with a shot of your favourite tipple – and a ‘pan con tomate’, sliced bread rubbed with a delicious garlickly tomato mixture.
Tapas will keep you fuelled from dawn until dusk, but do try to leave room for a leisurely meal at the end of the day. The Spanish tend to eat late so unless you are travelling with very young children, don’t aim to make a reservation before 10pm unless you want to be eating alone.
For a slice of history, eat at the Botin Restaurant, officially declared by the Guinness Book of Records to be the oldest restaurant in the world. It is said to have been frequented by Hemingway and Spanish artist Goya worked here before discovering his true vocation.
Much as the Madrileños wouldn’t think of dining until long after dusk, they wouldn’t consider dancing until long after midnight. Nightclubs tend to get going at around 2am and dancing until dawn is de rigueur. If you do plan to go out and tread the tiles, a long, leisurely siesta is highly recommended. Not only will it ensure you are revived and refreshed, it will also help you to stay out of the pre-club bars for suitably long enough to ensure you are still standing by the time the nightclub doors open.
Head for the Barrio de Salamanca for sophisticated cocktails and plenty of people watching, or to Chueca for colourful, laid-back entertainment and a thriving gay scene. Terraces and roof bars are a major draw in summer, where residents and visitors come to see and be seen as they enjoy a balmy evening sipping a sangria beneath the stars.
When to visit Madrid
The best time to visit Madrid is arguably the spring and autumn, when the extreme temperatures of winter and summer are modified. Late spring is a delightful time to be in the city, especially the month of May when myriad cultural festivals and street parties dominate the calendar. Many residents depart the city during the hottest months of July and August, heading instead for the coast. On the plus side this leaves plenty of space for visitors in streets, trains, buses and restaurant seats.
Set high on a plateau that occupies a huge swathe of central Spain, Madrid can be achingly cold in the winter and blastingly hot in the summer. Spring and autumn are more temperate although prone to higher rainfall. Whenever you choose to visit though, plenty of blue sky and sunshine undoubtedly awaits.
As with any European Capital, Madrid offers a wide range of accommodation options, from budget backpacker rooms to five-star opulence. For character, try the Casa de Madrid, a converted 18th-century townhouse located right in the heart of the city boasting just seven individually designed luxury rooms. For modern head to the Hotel Urban, with its slick glass and steel décor and eclectic in-house art collection of Chinese portraits and Egyptian artefacts. For budget, opt for the Residencia Sud-Americana with its colonial décor, views over the Paseo del Prado and minimal price tag. For luxury, the exclusive Villa Magna beckons, with its oriental restaurant, palatial bedrooms and sweeping views over the leafy Paseo de la Castellana.