For many habitual international tourists,is covering a new city is all about monuments, as the hordes sweeping along the Champs Elysses, or Westminister bridge can testify. And of course Madrid has its monuments. The Royal Palace, set opposite the lovely gardens of the Plaza de Oriente with stunning views of the distant Guadrarrama mountains is a popular spot. As is the late sixteenth century Plaza Mayor, as elegant a central square as you can find anywhere in Europe.
Then there’s the famous Plaza de Cibeles where fans of Real Madrid and the Spanish national team celebrate their victories, itself adjacent to the wonderfully eclectic architecture of what looks like another palace but is actually the Post Office building, home now to one of the city’s many enticing rooftop terraces. And I doubt there is a more original train station anywhere in Europe than Atocha which has been transformed into an interior tropical garden replete with ponds and tortoises.
If a city break is all about museums then Madrid can also give a good account of itself. The metro stop next to Atocha has now been renamed “Estación de Arte” because of its proximity to three of the greatest art galleries in the world, the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofia. Just up the road are the Botanical Gardens, and the sprawling oasis of the Retiro Park, as good a place to spend a Sunday afternoon as anywhere in the world.
And if you’re looking to immerse yourself in Spain’s fascinatingly singular culture then Madrid is a perfect starting point. As the capital it's a microcosm of the country which is reflected in the glorious diversity of its gastronomy. There is a specifically Madrid cuisine which consists mainly of hearty stews and the famous three course cocido madrileño, not to mention the quintessentially Madrid fried squid sandwich. However, look around and you will find Galician seafood restaurants, Asturian cider houses, sophisticated Basque eateries, Andalusian bars specialising in fried fish, and Castillian “asadores” serving succulent roast meats and the famous Museo de Jamon a shrine to the world famous cured ham of which Spaniards are so rightly proud. But as Madrid also loves to move with the times you can also find as many innovative vegan restaurants as you are ever likely to need.
This diversity is one of the things which makes Madrid so special. Most of the inhabitants of Madrid originate from other parts of Spain, but the city’s irresistible warmth and openness means that they very quickly become as madrileño as anyone who has been here for generations, without ever renouncing their roots as extremeños, gallegos, or andaluces. It’s a heady blend of cultures that means you can find some of the best flamenco tablaos in Spain, and dine on Galician octopus, fresh from the Atlantic coast that very morning.
The city doesn’t skimp on leisure options either. Madrid is home to two of the most successful football teams in the world, Real and Atletico who maintain a far from friendly rivalry, although if you want a real taste of grass roots football then you should head to working class Vallecas and visit the fabulous Rayo Vallecano as they bob up and down between the first and second divisions. Madrid also loves theatre, and is still the heart of the Spanish film industry. If you like stadium rock then there are plenty of arenas catering for that, although there are also a plethora of smaller live music venues where you can often catch up and coming bands in a much more intimate setting than you would in the UK or the USA. A great evening can also be had in Madrid’s many bars offering live Spanish folk music, or at the micro theatres that are springing up all over the city.
Move to Madrid
So, you are unlikely to ever get bored. But if you really want to get to the heart of what Madrid is all about, it really isn’t to do with photogenic monuments, or world famous museums. Instead what encapsulates Madrid is the city’s relentless energy which makes it one of the most interesting places in the world to simply wander around. There is always something going in what seems like a million bars, and a thousand little squares. Every barrio or neighbourhood has its unique character adding to the city’s intoxicating blend of sights and sounds. The central area around the Puerta de Sol is home to some kind of commotion every day whether it’s yet another political demonstration, or the latest group of Mexican mariachis, or just tourists making friends as they admire the lovely buttery yellow coloured buildings.
So by all means spend a day at the Prado soaking up the art treasures, and enjoy a relaxing cup of cafe con leche in the Plaza Mayor. But if you want to make the most of Madrid then make sure you get lost, wander into the many bars in the many side streets, mingle with the locals and bring your own energy to the non stop party. You will want to come back. You’ll probably even want to move here.