Why visit Madrid?
Is there a city on earth that parties like Madrid? Throughout the night the streets hum with voices from the wine bar to the squat. Effortlessly cool and down-right grimy, Madrid is all things to all people whether you love shopping for Gucci or sharing a can with a down and outer. Not happy with merely being a great place to live the good life, is also one of the high culture capitals of the world, packed with some of the world’s most renowned art galleries. Throw in its passionate and friendly people and some of the finest tapas and restaurants in the land, the allure of the marvellous place is both spell-binding and varied.
Madrid: the facts
Madrid has a city population of 3.3 million, an urban population of 6.5 million and is the capital and largest city of Spain. It is the 3rd largest city in the EU, after London and Berlin, and covers an area of 604 km2. With its high standard of living and economic output, Madrid is considered to be the major financial centre of southern Europe. It seats Spain’s national government and houses its royal family in numerous palaces in and around the city.
Madrid has always been a strategically important place due to its position in the heart of the peninsula and frequently changed hands between the Muslims and Christians during the Reconquista. It was not, however, until 1561, when King Philip II moved his court permanently to the city, that Madrid became the focal point of politics, culture and power in Spain. During the reign of Philip IV (1621 – 1649) a cultural golden age blossomed as masters such as Miguel de Cervantes, Diego Velázquez and Lope de Vega lived and worked in the city. King Charles III (1734 – 1759), who was hailed as “the best major of Madrid”, instigated the construction of many of the city’s iconic monuments and museums as well as raising the living quality of the inhabitants.
The Napoleonic annexation of Spain (1808) led to a violent uprising that was swiftly and brutally repressed by Murat, Napoleon’s trusted marshal. In paintings like “The Third of May 1808” Goya captures the mercilessness on those who choose to rebel on 2nd May.
In the 20th century Madrid was at the centre of the Spanish Civil War. The scene of crazed fighting when war broke out as citizens fought back against the military. The armed militias eventually forced the military rebels from the city and a 3 year siege (1936 – 1939) followed. The city was regularly bombed from the air and by artillery and eventually fell as the Republican war effort disintegrated.
The post-war boom saw an influx of rural economic migrants and of construction, with new barrios (neighbourhoods) springing up from the carnage. The south of the city became more industrialised as the new urban elite built new property to the north.
Nowadays Madrid is a major centre for international business and its financial centre is one of Europe’s largest. The service economy generates over 50% of the city’s wealth in which the international Barajas Airport plays a key role. Government-paid construction projects have also helped to rejuvenate the city, but the economic crisis has hit hard with record levels of unemployment.
Madrid has a Continental Mediterranean climate and so summers are glorious with temperatures often over 30oC but rarely above 40oC with very little rain. Strangely, Madrid has a reputation among Spaniards as being unbearably hot in summer, although the statistics don’t bear that out. However, due to its altitude (650m) winters can be chilly with temperatures often dipping below freezing.
Madrileños are sport fanatics. Real Madrid, is one of the most prestigious football teams in the world and its stadium Santiago Bernabéu is a Mecca for supporters. Madrid is also home to three other teams in La Liga (Spain’s top league), two basketball teams, a handball team and a motorsports racing circuit. In 1972, 2012, and 2016 Madrid petitioned to host the Summer Olympics but was unsuccessful on each occasion. Recently Madrid has signalled its intend to bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics, time will tell if it is successful.
The cultural capital of Spain, Madrid is home to the spectacular ‘Golden Triangle of Art’. Centred around Paseo del Prado, it comprises three art galleries containing some of the most important artwork in the world. The Prado Museum, with works from Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya, the Reina Sofia Museum, where Picasso’s Guernica hangs, and the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum combine to form an unbelievable body of work.
The city is also a major stage for alternative performances and expressive art, playing host to numerous festivals including the Festival of Alternative Art and the Festival of the Alternative Scene. The week long party Fiesta de San Isidro takes place in May and is a chance for Madrileños to let their hair down and frequent the numerous bars, pubs, clubs and cafés of the city.
Las Ventas, the largest Plaza de Toros (bullring) in Spain, is seen by aficionados as the spiritual home and world centre of bullfighting and has a capacity of up to 25,000. The bullfighting season starts in March and ends in October and fights are held every day during San Isidro.
Seen from above, two features are easily noticeable: the grand north-south artery Paseo de la Castellana which dissects the city and connects the old city to the newer barrios in the north and is surrounded by formulaic grid formations. In contrast, the old city, is an untangled mess of streets centred around Puerta del Sol,the heart of old Madrid. Madrid is divided into 21 barrios (neighbourhoods), each with their own individual flavour.
Here is a very rough guide for the uninitiated:
The historical barrios of Madrid are Los Asturias, Sol and Centro, they are buzzing with life and contain many of Madrid’s most important monuments.
To the south, the narrow streets and beautiful architecture of La Latina, is famed for its huge Sunday flee market – El Rastro. La Latina with its rough and ready multicultural neighbour Lavapiés form the basis of alternative Madrid and are packed with great bars and restaurants.
To the east lies Paseo del Prado, home to Madrid’s best galleries and museums and the large city park El Retiro.
Salamanca / Serrano / Goya lie to the north of El Retiro and are home to Madrid’s wealthiest and thus the place to go designer-shopping.
Malasaña / Tribunal / Chueca are eclectic areas lying north of the historic centre. During the day home to some of the city’s best restaurants and shops, at night taken over by people filling the bars and squares, and drinking long into the night. Chueca is also the centre of Madrid’s gay community.
Puerta de Sol is many things. Not happy with being only a transport hub, meeting place for locals and home to regional government. The square is also the centre of political protest,stage for street performers and workplace for pickpockets who feed from the multitude of tourists. A short walk down Calle Mayor leads you to the beautiful Plaza Mayor where you can pick up a map from the tourist information office. The plaza has been put to good use over the years, playing host to bullfights, sporting competitions, markets and even executions.
Back onto Calle Mayor and you are next confronted with Plaza de la Villa, the principal centre of medieval Madrid and home to some of the city’s oldest surviving buildings. The warren of streets that are La Latina and Lavapiés lie to the south of the plaza and are definitely worth taking some time to explore.
Continuing west onto Calle Bailen is the huge Palacio Real the official residence of the King of Spain. Constructed in the 18th century the palace has long been abandoned by the royals, preferring to live further out of the city and is now used only for official occasions. Directly opposite is the Catedral de la Almudena, constructed in the 20th century and noted for its size and as being the location of Spanish royal weddings. Despite being a modern building it is very much in the gothic traditional and contains many interesting works of art and definitely worth the visit.
Continuing north along Calle Bailen is Plaza de España flanked by the city’s two largest buildings. In the centre of the square there is a large fountain and a sculpture of Cervantes, the Spanish author, and his most famous creations Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Starting from Plaza de España and heading east is the city’s grand thoroughfare Gran Via. Walking down the road, the constant noise of traffic competes with the shopping malls and neon lights in a sensory overload. At the eastern end of Gran Via lies the massive roundabout of Plaza de Cibeles, which contains the Fountain of Cibeles, a city icon which portrays the Roman goddess of fertility mounted upon a chariot pulled by lions. The impressive façade of the city hall Palacio de Cibeles also sits menacingly on the south-eastern corner of the square.
From Plaza de Cibeles it is just a short walk south along Paseo del Prado to the golden triangle of Art. Museo del Prado (Mon-Sat: 10am-8pm, Sun: 10am-7pm: Adults (€12), Students (free) Children (€4) Free: Tues-Sat 6pm – 8pm and every Sun 5pm – 7pm) is one of the finest art galleries in the world and is unmissable. A list of the artists displayed include the Spanish (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya), the Flemish and Dutch (Rubens, van Dyck, and Brueghel), Italian (Botticelli, Tintoretto, Titian, Caravaggio, and Veronese) and German (Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and Baldung Grien). Be warned however that the place is absolutely massive, so try and spread your trip across more than one day.
The Reina Sofía National Museum and Art Centre (Mon, Wed-Sat: 10am – 9pm, Sun: 10am -2.30pm: Adults (€6), students (free), Free: Sat 2.30pm – 9pm, Sun 10am – 2.30pm, Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri 7pm – close) is a short walk from Museo de Prado and is Madrid’s best modern art gallery. It also contains some of Picasso’s most important works including Guernica as well as other pieces by masters such as Dalí, Bacon, and more. Completing the triangle is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art (Tues – Sun: 10am – 7pm Adults (€8), Students (€8), Children under 12 (Free)) The collection is made up of masterpieces from Goya, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and others.
A short walk up the hill from the Prado is Madrid’s largest city park the El Retiro and is a great way to avoid the oppressive mid day sun. In the park can be found a large boating pond, numerous palaces including the Crystal Palace made entirely of glass. Now with all the main tourist attractions covered you can go and sample the wonders of tapas and beer on your favourite terrace in your favourite barrio.
Madrid for Free
The best things in life are free as the old adage goes and us here at HitchHikers Handbook live and die by it. Here are some ideas for enjoying Madrid and still leaving with your cash in your pockets.
1. Reina Sofía, home to some of Dalί and Picasso’s greatest works, is free on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 7pm until 9pm. Saturday afternoons (from 2.30pm) and Sunday mornings (until 2.30pm).
2. Museo del Prado, arguable the greatest art gallery is the world is open to all 6pm to 8pm from Monday to Saturday and 5pm to 8pm on Sundays. The queue is always huge so start queueing up an hour before.
3. Palacio Real (Madrid’s Royal Palace) is free on Wednesday
4. Museo Taurino, the city’s bullfighting museum is located in the arena and never charges a price. Be warned, not one for vegetarians, small children or the squeamish.
5. Ok it’s a park but the El Parque del Buen Retiro is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
6. Once an abandoned metro station Anden 0 has been turned into a museum on the history of the Madrid Metro. Quirky, and free every day except Monday when it is closed.
7. The Espacio Conde Duque was once a former army barracks but is now contains a number of weird and interesting things, including a contemporary art museum, the city archives as well as libraries of newspapers, history and music. There are also frequent live music concerts in its courtyards.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly given its size and position in the middle of the peninsula, Madrid is the best connected city in Spain by air, road and rail.
The Madrid-Barajas Airport serves as the Iberian Peninsula’s gateway to Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world. It is 13km outside the historical centre and is the 4th busiest airport in Europe.
The Cercanías Madrid is a commuter train service that serves Madrid and its metropolitan areas. Cercanías Madrid is part of the larger RENFE system than connects Madrid by rail to the rest of Spain. The AVE high speed train system also uses Madrid as its hub and connects the capital to numerous cities in Spain all in under four hours. The bulk of national trains leave from Puerta de Atocha, at the southern end of the city centre, whilst international trains tend to go from Chamartin train station, which lies to the north of the city.
The Madrid Metro is used by four million people daily and is one the largest networks in the world. 12 lines run all over the city with one ride costing €1.50 a 10 ride ticket €12. Clink the link to see a Madrid Metro map
City buses run all over town, a useful interactive map can be found by following the link here
The city is surrounded by four ring roads the M30, M40, M45 and M50. The M30 is the most inward and circles the central districts, the largest and most outwardly is the M50. From the body shoot the many legged motorways all over Spain:
- A-1 Autovía del Norte to San Sebastián,
- A-2 Autovía del Nordeste to Barcelona,
- A-3 Autovía del Este to Valencia,
- A-4 Autovía del Sur to Cádiz,
- A-5 Autovía del Suroeste to Portugal,
- A-6 Autovía del Noroeste to La Coruña,
- A-42 Autovía de Toledo to, you guessed it, Toledo.
Put simply, it’s a minefield out of roads out there, so if you are driving be patient and expect to get lost.
A big thanks to all the people on HitchWiki for some of this information. We salute you!
South towards Cordoba
Outside San Cristolbal metro stop (line 3) there is a bus stop right outside. This road (Av. De Andulsia leads south to A-4 Autovía del Sur. About 10/15km along the Autovia is a petrol station, get there and you are off.
South towards Toledo
Take the train to from Atocha to Las Margaritas Universidad. Cross the A42 to Av. de la Paz using the pedestrian flyover, turn right and head for the large unmistakable El Corte Ingles, it’s huge. Behind it is a motorway slip road where it is possible to catch a lift. We have tried this ourselves and we got to Toledo relatively quickly.
East towards Valencia
Take the metro to Rivas Vaciamadrid (line 9). Leave the station, turn right, and go under a bridge to a roundabout. Take the bridge that leads over the motorway, on the left there is a petrol station.
Northeast towards Barcelona
Take the train from Atoche to San Fernando, just outside Madrid. Behind San Fernando is an entrance to the motorway that is hitchhikeable.
North towards Burgos
Take the metro to Pinar de Chamartín, take the calle Arturo Soria exit, cross the M11 and follow Camino de la Fuente de la Mora, until a left hand turn called Avenudo de Manoteras. On the left there is a petrol station after 300 metres.
West towards Portugal
Take the metro to Alto de Extremadura (line 6). Find Avenida de Portugal and walk to the petrol station on the A5. It might be necessary to hitch a ride to the next petrol station 48km along the A5 before continuing on your journey.
Madrid’s accommodation is hugely varied in both price and quality. Put simply there is something for everyone, from penny-pinchers through to flash-packers. Here are a couple of the cheapest selections in town:
No Name City Hostel is located in the heart of the museum district, positioned a few minutes walk from the Golden Triangle. There are a wide selection of rooms available stretching from four (€17) to sixteen (€12) bed dorms. Prices are slightly higher at the weekends.
Hostal Oliver is slapbang in the middle of town, only 50m from Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. There are three or four bed options with prices scaling from €10-13 during the week and €17-20 at the weekends.
La Posada de Huertas has recently been refurbished and is popular, so be prepared to book ahead. Situated in the city centre there are a number of options available from four (€17) to twelve (€10) bed dormitories.
One thing Madrid does better than most cities in the world is party. The streets are packed with people drinking, singing, performing, loving, fighting and crying long into the night. Every corner you turn seems to be covered in bars and the inevitable ring of smokers spilling onto the street outside. The nightlife is as varied as the clientele, as suits rub shoulders with punks and ladies in all their finery pass a gin bottle to the bum on the right. Each barrio has its own culture, below is a rough guide to drinking in the city, simply pick your favourite and go out and paint the town red. For further information check out Madrid listings here
Puerta del Sol, Gran Vía & Huertas
This is tourist town, so expect the usually array of Irish pubs, pop music and Spanish boys and girls looking for foreign talent. Nevertheless there are a few good jazz bars: Café Populart (Huertas, 22) and Café Central (Plaza del Ángel, 10) which are popular with the locals, as well as some decent tapas and flamenco joints. The best flamenco shows are based around Calle de Echegaray.
Both north and south of Gran Via are numerous nightclubs, so expect a thronging mass at the weekends.
Relaxed but growing in trendiness, the bars around Plaza de la Paja, Plaza de San Andrés and Cava Baja are packed everyday of the week and are a great place to eat tapas and drink a beer. Be prepared to fight for a much sought after terrace table, however.
Home of Madrid’s gay scene, modern and stylish Chueca is a very welcoming place, and is one the most interesting and diverse of Madrid’s barrios. Fans of Reggae and Hip-Hop should head to Calle Barquillo’s Kingston’s. More information on Madrid’s gay scene can be found here
Once central to the La Movida counter-culture scene, Malasaña at night is still one of Madrid’s most alternative districts, with hipsters and rockers all contributing to the youthful vibe. The bars, clubs and streets around Plaza Dos de Mayo, Calle de San Vincente Ferrer and Calle de la Palma are heaving with an alternative crowd. A little further north Calle del Pez attracts a slightly more mature crowd with chill out bars and jazz cafés the norm.
Throwing of its reputation as one of Madrid’s most rough and ready neighbourhoods, multicultural Lavapiés is fast becoming gentrified as new bars attempt to attract the alternative bohemian crowd. Once infamous for its street crime and drug problems, now Indian restaurants fight with Brazilian bars and chill out lounges in this diverse and interesting place.
If wine bars and swanky nightclubs are your thing, then Salamanca is for you. Home to some of Madrid’s wealthiest residents you can rub shoulders with TV stars and footballers at posh clubs such as Gabana 1880 and Shabay, assuming they let you in.
Written by: Jon
This article was also published by Spanish Tapas Madrid on 28th November 2012.
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