Europe: Madrid, Spain
Some time ago I read a story about Madrid, that spun into words the pure essence of the city. Out of all the European capitals, the story said, Madrid has become the spurned lover. With no magnificent monuments such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Coliseum in Rome, one could note there is nothing worthy to check off a bucket list. However Madrid's spirit encompasses more than a monument; in Madrid, one is demanded to be present, to be fully alive. Put another way (by paraphrasing a JFK quote), if all the other cities in Europe should be considered nouns, Madrid is the most active verb.
Madrid is the Spanish city that sleeps in late, enjoys the important things in life, takes a long lunch combined with a "siesta," only to socialize with friends and family throughout the night. In Madrid, a tourist is not a tourist. Here, every person can feel a part of something special. Puede ser un madrileño, por una noche. You can be a Madrid local, if only for a night.
Live like a madrileño: explore, eat and wander
It's hard to find a Madrid local who adheres to a rigid schedule. Even when plans are made with friends or families, time seems to be a fluid concept for most Spain residents. Dinner with friends may start at 8:30pm but they will tell you it's more of a suggestion than anything else. Madrid runs on a pace unlike any other city, with dinner not starting until 9:00pm and evenings going as late as 6:00am. This fluidity compels a sense of consciousness, reminding the explorer why they travel in first place. Madrid remind us what it's like to feel alive.
Because of this, wandering through the streets of Madrid, slowly and with intention, is the best way to understand the city. Hidden gems are around every corner, old Spain glitters through cracks in a more modern world and passion bubbles throughout every street. Below are some suggestions on where to explore:
- Wander through the shopping center of Sol and Grand Via, making your way to the Royal Palace (Sol or Opera metro stop). Grab a drink and enjoy the views or stroll around the palace gardens
- Get cultured with a visit to the Golden Triangle, where three world-class museums reside (Banco de Espana or Atocha metro):
- Prado Museum, one of the largest European museums focusing on 15th-19th century art. Artist like Goya, El Greco, Velasquez
- Reina Sofia contains more contemporary art such as Dali and Picasso
- Thyssen-Bornemisza is a great complement to the other two museums, hosting artwork from many prominent European artists such as Duccio and Caravaggio
- Stroll through Retiro Park (Retiro metro) and enjoy a sangria or cerveza (beer) while watching teenagers row boats on the pond or performers enticing you with their acts
- Visit the trendy, Malasaña neighborhood (Malasaña metro). Find cute coffee shops, amazing dining, decorative murals and Spanish nighlife
At Explore Beyond, Madrid is synonyms with food. Spain is known for tapas, jamon (Spanish ham), bocadillos (sandwiches) and sangria. And Madrid doesn't disappoint with quality or quantity, as every street is lined with restaurants with hanging jamon or spanish olives. Some Explore Beyond favorites include:
- Explore the street called Cava Baja, just south of Plaza Mayor. This street, favored among the locals, is dedicated solely to tapas, wine and cocktails. Most lively at night, arrive around 9:00pm and make your way through the plethora of shops
- We love grabbing one drink and one tapa at a time, bar crawling our way up and down the street
- Check out Plaza de Santa Ana, just southeast of the city center Sol. As you make your way from Sol to Plaza de Santa Ana, you will discover what Madrileños call the Huertas - streets filled with bars and restaurants, primed for people watching and sipping sangria. Stop along the way or make it to Plaza de Santa Ana, a cute little square with restaurants and the amazing wine bar, La Vinoteca
- Discover the food market, El Mercado de San Miguel, located next to Sol. Originally built in the early 1900s, this market has a variety of Spanish delicacies and local flair. Try some of the candies or check out the olive / cheese section
- Try churros and chocolate from San Gines. The chocolate isn't as sweet as American chocolate, which makes this more of a snack / meal versus a dessert. Great option for breakfast
- Dive into the calamari bocadillo (sandwich) at El Brillante. A very unpretentious bar, locals love this place for a quick calamari sandwich snack. You can't get more local than this
Tip: Contrary to the US, we were told "the more napkins on the floor of a bar, the better the food." It's normal for locals to throw their napkins on the ground in local dive bars. The more napkins, the more people who have eaten there!
While tapas and Spanish food is a definite must, Madrid is a cultural hub and offers plenty of world-class dining options, including amazing French and Italian food. Be sure to get off the beaten path and try all they have to offer - not just the typical jamon and sangria.
Tip: When eating out, tipping isn't as standard in Europe as it is in the US. If the server was phenomenal, tip 10%. Otherwise, a euro or two is considered appropriate.
Utilize the metro and bus stations
From the airport, the two cheapest and easiest options are the metro and the bus, Expres Aeropuerto. The metro is one of the easiest to use in Europe; everything is color coded and it's a safe, extremely effective mode of transportation. Follow signs to "Metro" and find a ticket machine. Enter in the name of our destination / stop (if not sure and your final destination is somewhere near the city center, enter in "Sol"). Follow instructions for paying.
If you are staying near Retiro, Sol, Grand Via, La Latina or Atocha, then Explore Beyond recommends the bus (some walking may be required). Not only is a direct bus, but you'll get to see the suburbs of Madrid on your drive in. Total trip is around 30 minutes and the cost is 5 euros. There are stops to get off at Plaza Cibeles (best for Gran Via, Retiro or Sol) and Atocha (get off here if if transferring to a train station, staying near Atocha, Prado Museum or La Latina). If staying in any other neighborhood, decide where your hotel / destination is in comparison to Plaza Cibeles or Atocha.
Don't worry! Madrid utilizes Uber and taxis, as well.
Tip: Paying via credit card in Spain is getting easier but for whatever reason, metro / train kiosks always require a pin when purchasing tickets. It might be good to have some cash on hand in case there are any issues. There are ATMs outside of customs and all terminals.
Walk / Metro / Bus / Uber
Madrid is an extremely walk-able city with the added luxury of a clean, effective metro. Over the past year or so, biking has become extremely popular as well, with rent-able bikes throughout the city. Signs and street names are easy to read and the majority of people now speak conversational English.
Most restaurants and bars accept credit cards however be aware that it's uncommon to split bills in European countries. If traveling with a group, have one person pay and true up later (if at all possible).
No matter what you do, keep exploring.
Have you visited Madrid or want to go? Tell us your favorite travel recommendations or ask us a question here or our instagram @explore.beyond