Madrid, Spain Travel Guide
- The Centro is extremely walkable and well-covered by the metro
- World-class museums, like The Prado and the Reina Sofia
- Beautiful historic architecture around almost every corner
- Diverse dining scene includes traditional holes-in-the-wall and swish international spots
- Great nightlife includes an almost-nightly tapas bar crawl
- Amazing markets for everything from food to antiques
- Beautiful parks, like the Retiro, Parque del Oeste, and Madrid RIO
- Hotel rates are a bargain compared to much of Western Europe
- Great shopping -- both indie, vintage, and designer
- Lots of underground art from galleries to DIY spaces -- plus photo-ready street art
- Cost of living is lower than other European cities, including Barcelona
- High-speed railway system hub (2.5 hours to Barcelona; 2.5 hours to Sevilla)
- Siesta means many businesses are closed mid-day
- Summers are incredibly hot and dry
- Petty theft around the tourist areas, especially in Sol and Gran Via
What It's Like:
The Spanish capital is one of the world's most vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, where socially liberal attitudes run side-by-side with centuries-old traditions. Dating all the way back to the ninth century, Madrid is the seat of the royal family and the Spanish government, and there's beauty around almost every corner to match that prestigious history. As the third-largest metropolitan area in Europe, Madrid is packed with enough to keep any traveler busy for days on end -- and that's even without having a beach (like some other Spanish cities, which will here go unnamed).
The thing about Madrid that's most enticing for travelers is that visiting here offers a chance to feel like a local. That's due, in part, to geography. The city center -- the Centro -- is so compact that it can be walked from one end to the other in just an hour or two, depending on where you're going. Within all of those densely packed barrios (neighborhoods), there's a ton to see and do, from hip galleries and vintage shops to luxury boutiques and world-class museums. And that's to say nothing of the dining and drinking options on nearly every block (keep in mind that the nights start late here, with clubs staying empty until well after midnight).
There are almost too many cool neighborhoods to list, but since the city center is so easily navigable on foot and by metro, getting lost is one of Madrid's biggest treats. Malasaña and Chueca are packed with Old World character that's undeniably Castillian -- expect to see old low-rise buildings with ornate facades, cobblestone streets, and leafy plazas. These two neighborhoods also make up the major nightlife destinations -- Malasaña for hipsters and Chueca for LGBT travelers -- as well as being home to some of the city's trendiest shopping. Los Austrias, with its beautiful 17th-century churches and touristy Plaza Mayor, oozes history, but is also home to vibrant nightlife and wonderful restaurants. Salamanca, the wealthiest area in the city center, has top-notch boutiques, tree-lined streets, and some beautiful mansions, while Huertas is the city's cultural heart. It was once home to Cervantes, and is where the most important museums can be found. There are also up-and-coming barrios like Lavapies (home to trendy galleries and raffish art spaces like La Tabacalera) and La Latina, which hosts the Sunday flea market, El Rastro.
The pace in Madrid is fast and slow. People drift up and down major pedestrian thoroughfares like Calle de Fuencarral and around Puerta del Sol. And yet, traffic zips along Gran Via day and night, with hordes or locals and tourists funneling in and out of major international department stores. This is also true at night, as many people start their evenings making their way from one tapas bar to the next, cans of Mahou often remaining tucked into their hands as they do. While Madrid and Spain may be best known for those very tapas, this city is high on the world's most famous gourmet destinations, and everything from Vietnamese and Ethiopian to open-air markets are on offer for foodie travelers. Even with all of those options, though, a plate of simple tortilla de patata in a humble bar is a hard culinary pleasure to beat.
That mix of hyper-modern and hyper-relaxed translates to almost every facet of life in this city. Madrid is home to two of Europe's most famous museums -- The Prado and the Reina Sofia -- but its place in the art world doesn't end there. Unexpected finds like Matadero -- a repurposed slaughterhouse that now hosts cutting-edge installations, performances, and theater -- add even more depth to Madrid's cultural landscape. If you're in the mood to shop, though, keep in mind that the siesta closes many small boutiques mid-day until early evening. Those breaks might make a visit to parks like El Retiro a pleasant option, where well-manicured gardens are constantly buzzing with Madrileños out enjoying the city's often mild weather (though that changes in the summer). It's hard to be bored in this massive, yet intimate place, and there's a reason that travelers are drawn here by the millions. If you still don't think there's enough to do here, though, there's a solution for that, too. Just pop into Chocolateria San Gines, which is open 24/7, and fuel up on the city's most legendary chocolate and churros -- that will no doubt clear your mind.
Where to Stay:
The Centro is full of hotels, be it small and cheap pensions or larger luxurious hotels. It's compact layout also makes it an ideal location for those who want to be within walking distance of popular tourist attractions, shops, and great nightlife. It's worth noting that when it comes to hotels, your money will go farther in Madrid than Barcelona and many other Western European capitals. Those wanting to hit up smaller, boutique options amid chic shopping and lively bars should look around Chueca and the fringes of Malasaña, though keep in mind late-night noise may be an issue. Los Austrias and Huertas are good options for mid-sized properties in a slightly more refined setting, while the city's most polished hotels can be found along parts of Gran Via closer to Palacio de Cibeles. For more exclusive hotels and easy access to the high-end boutiques, stay in the area around Goya and Serrano. If you’re traveling for business, you might find the hotels around Cuzco and Plaza de Castilla convenient.