When you are searching for city breaks, you would be hard-pressed to find somewhere better than magnificent Madrid. This Spanish stunner has not rested on its laurels as one of the world’s most popular destinations, but has brought itself bang-up-to-date with a major revamp in the last few years. Its vibrant city centre has new boutiques, delis, cafés and gastro-bars opening up every week. Here is our top five guide to the best this hot and feisty city has to offer.
Make a night of it:
Traditional tapas or a gastro-pub? Roast suckling pig or tuna tataki? The good news for foodies is that Madrid has gone gourmet with a vengeance. However it still somehow manages to cling on to its classical roots by updating favourite dishes with a few key foreign influences. If you like good quality, no-nonsense food visit the restaurants near the Plaza Mayor. For a lively evening, take a tapas crawl down Cava Baja or around Plaza Santa Ana.
One of the liveliest nightlife cities in Europe, you don’t have to be a supercool hipster to embrace the vibe; everyone goes out late in this city! I love the Dry Cosmopolitan Bar, owned by renowned mixologist Javier de las Muelas of the legendary Dry Martini bar in Barcelona. It boasts outdoor tables too! The Artebar is a laidback bar in lively La Latina. Visit the back room to watch flamenco and other live music and performance events. It’s not tourist-free, but still pretty authentic.
One of the world’s best, the Prado displays superb works by Spanish masters such as Velázquez, El Greco and Goya, and boasts wonderful Italian and Flemish collections too, with paintings by Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Bosch and Rubens. The rehanging of the permanent collections at the Reina Sofía modern art museum was completed in late 2010 and while Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica attracts the biggest crowds, don’t miss the excellent works by Dalí, Miró and Tàpies.
The opulent 18th-century Royal Palace, packed with paintings, sculptures, taperstried and antiques, offers spectacular views. You can also find the Royal Pharmacy, the Royal Armoury and the Sabatini and Puerta del Moro gardens here. Housed in the neo-classical Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum are superlative collections of Western art from the 13th century to the present day, built up by the Thyssen-Bornemisza family. Highlights include paintings by Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Degas and Kandinsky.
Visit Retiro Park, originally the garden of a royal palace. With a boating lake, cafés and exhibition venues, this is where you will find the locals on Sunday mornings. Get the full flavour of Madrid’s history in the 17th century Plaza Mayor, framed by red-brick buildings and slate turrets. Next, wander along to the Plaza de la Villa, the oldest square in Madrid. From there take a walk down to Cava Baja, which traces the line of the old city wall and is packed with tapas bars. Head past the San Andrés church and then go through to the Plaza de la Paja. Here the medieval atmosphere contrasts nicely with the lively vibe at the pavement cafés. Famous for their all-white kit, the Bernabeu is home of one of the greatest football teams in the world, Real Madrid F.C. Book a stadium tour for a peak behind the scenes or why not really embrace the full-on noise and atmostphere of a La Liga game.
Independent shops still thrive in Madrid, so explore the streets around Calle Toledo, behind Plaza Mayor, for a bit more local character. For a huge range of traditional espadrilles and a mind-boggling array of other rope-related items, don’t miss Casa Hernanz (Calle Toledo 18). Capas Seseña (Calle Cruz 23) opened in 1901 and is the only shop in the world to sell capes and only capes. The Mercado de San Miguel (Plaza de San Miguel ) is great for tapas and a glass of wine, but also for picking up Spanish gourmet foods. For funky boutiques, head to Calle Fuencarral just north of the Gran Vía, and veer off into the neighbouring areas of Chueca and Malasaña.
The smartest shops are in the Salamanca district, particularly Serrano, Goya, Lagasca, Claudio Coello and Ortega y Gasset streets. For a special gift, have a look in Espacio Chus Burés (Claudio Coello 88) which sells dramatic contemporary jewellery. On Sunday mornings, have a mooch around the Rastro, the sprawling flea market around Ribera de Curtidores, near La Latina metro. Most shops around Puerta del Sol stay open all day (and on Sundays), but smaller shops usually close between 2pm and 4.30pm. El Corte Inglés department store is open until 10pm.
Take a tour:
Where? - El Escorial - a small mountain town 55km northwest of Madrid
Why? Best for bygone royalty. Its C16th fortress was both a monastery and royal palace at the same time and houses one of the most famous rooms in Spanish royal history, the Pantheon of the Kings.
Getting there: - Trains leave from Atocha, one of Madrid’s two railway stations, and the journey just over an hour.
Where? - Segovia: 90km northwest of the Spanish capital
Why? – Best for Roman architecture. The Roman aqueducts remain some of the best-preserved structures in Spain. The Alcazar, a stone fortification that has served as a castle, state prison and military academy, has a 152-step turret which can be climbed for spectacular panoramic views of the town, cathedral and the surrounding countryside.
Getting there: Trains leave from Atocha almost every hour. The express (avant) train will take 27 minutes. The regional train costs less but is also an extra hour and twenty minute commute both way!
Where? – Toledo: 90km southwest of Madrid
Why? – Best for mountainous landscapes. Toledo is a unique mix of many Spanish traditions, and walk down a stone-step path to the river for one of the best views in the province of Castile-La Mancha. Make sure you visit the Museo El Greco
Getting there: Trains leave from Atocha every hour and take 33 minutes.