As a personal travel consultant, I see it all the time in my work; clients with a proposed itinerary of Spain that completely skips Madrid. It used to be that you pretty much had to at least transit through Madrid to get anywhere else in Spain. Barcelona always got more attention from the travel community in general. But, with the fairly recent arrival of low-cost flights direct to Barcelona from North American cities, it has become easier for travelers to completely bypass Madrid in favor of popular Barcelona.
Look, I get it. Barcelona is a beautiful city with its unique Gaudí architecture, a Mediterranean coastal setting, world-class food, and some really awesome nightlife. With a completely different language (Spanish is the second, and sometimes third, language there) and culture than the rest of Spain, Barcelona makes for a very interesting city to visit. But keep in mind that Barcelona is in Cataluña, a part of Spain that does not always wish to be identified as Castillian or Spanish.
But if it is that Castillian culture that you crave, there is another big city in Spain that has it in abundance. Here you can practice and improve your Spanish language. And this city is so underrated, not (as) crowded with tourists, that it almost a still secret. But since it is Valentine’s Day, let me let you in on the secret, the city that I love: Madrid. Set on the high plains right in the center of Spain, the sky in Madrid is so big, (usually) so blue, and so close. Locals affectionally call the city La Capí, meaning the capital, as it is indeed Spanish capital. And undeniably so! As the true working and beating heart of Spain, it is such a pity that many visitors to the country do not devote enough time to get to know Madrid as well as Barcelona. (Spending multiple days in Madrid? The city is the perfect jumping off point for a plethora of day trips!)
So what is it about Madrid? Maybe you know of a “little” art museum named the Prado? Yup, it’s in Madrid along with two other world-class museums: Museo Reina Sofía and the Thyssen. Want even more art? With several smaller museums scattered all around town, Madrid is on par with the renowned art capitals of the world. But unlike many other art lovers’ paradises, it is easy to see Madrid’s art on a tight budget. Many of the smaller museums have free entry all the time. But even the larger museums have free hours, commonly the last two hours every day that the museum is open. If you stay in Madrid long enough, you can really take advantage of the free museum times. Trust me, wandering around the Prado or Museo Reina Sofía for free is a great way to spend a few hours fighting off the hunger since dinner won’t be served until 9pm at the earliest. You’re in Spain, where meeting your friends for dinner at 1130pm is totally normal.
All art museum-ed out? It happens! Not to worry, there so many other sights to check out in Madrid. For one, there’s a Royal Palace, like Versailles, but in the city center. Always wanted to visit Egypt? Cool, go watch the sunset from one of the only Egyptian temples that are not actually in Egypt. Again, right in the center of Madrid. Fancy a Sunday in the park, Madrileño-style? Head to Retiro Park where you can rent a paddle boat on the man-made lake. And fine, check out Plaza Mayor’s beautiful architecture and Puerta del Sol’s Times Square-Esq atmosphere. Don’t linger at either of these, though. And for the love of god, please do not eat a meal in any of the tourist trap restaurants nearby either square. The food is overpriced and not at all good. There’s so much more to do, eat, and drink in this city!
But if I can for a brief moment, get down and dirty and explain exactly what made me fall uncontrollably in love with Madrid. If you guessed “the neighborhoods,” you’re right! You’ve probably stumbled across my Barrios de Madrid blog series. But just in case you are still not familiar with the treasures that can be found in the Madrid’s unique neighborhoods, here’s the TLTR synopsis: Looking for a diverse, leftist, edgy part of town famous for its tapas and its Indian food? Check out Lavapiés. If you are hoping to find something a little more refined, and very literary, Barrio de Las Letras is where you need to wander. Bonus: Madrid’s best little cafe is hidden away on one of its small streets. For a kaleidoscope of colors, beautiful old architecture, and some of Madrid’s hippest nightlife, Malasaña calls. Photographers and aficionados of street art will love this part of town like no other. Or if you are seeking a downhome gayborhood, complete with hot waiters, take the Metro to Chueca. You will know you are there as soon your train pulls into the station!
Of course, there are so many more neighborhoods that I have not gotten around to featuring yet. Goya, Vallecas, Conde Duque, Chamberí, Prosperidad just to name a few. Those (and many more) will be upcoming installments of the series which will resume in the Spring. You can really spend weeks, months, or even years exploring Madrid’s diverse neighborhoods and never get bored.
Then there are the secrets that make you thankful to have many Madrileño friends. Like any big city, Madrid has them, and I am still discovering them for myself. My favorite so far is watching the sunset on top of one of the seven tetas (yes, that is what they call them) from Parque Cerro del Tío Pío. Being Europe’s highest capital, Madrid’s has some of the most firey urban sunsets ever. La Capí has thousands of little secrets like this. Every day in Madrid is an adventure!
Getting around Madrid is so easy with its amazing network of public transportation. From the airport, there are several options including buses and trains (one bus even costing as low as €1.50). A taxi is always a flat rate of €30, to or from the airport. One in town, the extensive, fast, and convenient Metro goes everywhere. Even if you are staying outside the city center, it usually takes less than 20 minutes to get to downtown. There are also buses, many equipped with free WiFi. If cycling around Madrid sounds fun (and trust me, it is!), Madrid has an extensive bike-share scheme, similar to other big cities. And finally, Madrid is super walkable. Exploring on foot, discovering new places, and getting lost (because it is so easy to get found in Madrid) is my favorite Madrid-activity.
Looking for more Madrid tips and tricks? Whether you are only visiting Madrid for a few days or traveling all over Spain, I can help! You can connect with me through this site, Instagram, or Facebook. Together we can make all of your Spanish travel dreams come true.