Updated May 2013.
Madrid was long overlooked by the ‘weekend away’ market, but judging from the numbers of foreigners in town on the latest trip this has been corrected. It’s a great place to spend a few days and whilst there is lots to do, it’s also a great place to relax and just enjoy the ambiance.
Key sights, areas and venues
The Prado: Not that big when compared to other major European galleries, but a fantastic and manageable collection. Key sights are the Velazquez and the Goya collections – especially the ”black” collection (which I think are the best). Be sure to see the El Bosco on the ground floor; this looks like a Roger Dean album cover, but is actually 500 years old.
The Reina Sofia: Superb collection of Spanish modern art, centre piece of the collection is Picasso”s Guernica, the preparatory sketches are interesting too.
Thyssen Bornemisza: Third gallery in the triangle, go if you have time.
El Retiro: Largest park in Madrid and one of my favourites anywhere, I love the mix of formality and wildness – also contains the world”s only statue to the devil, El Angel Caido.
Ornamental lake in the middle and lots of Cafes dotted around. Very good place to escape the summer heat.
The Royal Palace: Open to the public and worth a look if you have time. The square to the side (Plaza del Oriente) has a good cafe for lunch: Cafe del Oriente, where you can while away a good few hours.
Plaza Mayor: go and have a look, very spectacular setting but a complete tourist trap – do not eat here.
If you exit from one of the western arches you can find El Botin on Calle Cuchilleros (the oldest restaurant in the world, founded in 1725). A good time to visit is late lunch on Sunday – as the crowds arrive in the area from the Rastro market. Cava Baja (a street just around the corner) is another good spot for Sunday afternoons and weekend night times.
Also to the west of Plaza Major is the newly restored Mercado de San Miguel, the building dates from 1916 and now operates as a gourmet market.
The area between Puerto del Sol and Gran Via is a main shopping area – but there are shops on all the streets coming off Sol. The area north of Gran Via is now a popular shopping area too (this used to be quite run down/ alternative). Fuencarral is a pedestrianised route through the area and has some independent retailers remain as well as more mainstream offers.
Whilst the Sol area is busy there are lots of other areas to choose; upmarket designer shops are to be found in the Salamanca area (north of Retiro).
East and west of Sol (Calle Mayor and Carrer de San Jeronimo) are branches of Museo de Jamon – not a museum but a ham shop of spectacular proportions, there are other branches all over town but these two have dining rooms upstairs where you can get a 3 course lunch with wine for about €10. Both restaurants are open until about midnight, after which a sandwich at the downstairs bar is available until about 2.00 am
Santa Ana and surrounds: this square and the surrounding streets are great for nightlife. Calle Echegaray in particular and be sure to try Cardomomo which operates as a bar later on, but now features Flamenco as its main offer – booking required. Bars in the square itself tend to close up around midnight (quite early for Madrid), but plenty of alternatives can be found in the surrounding streets.
From Santa Ana heading towards Sol you will find more bars with food offers. Some of these have feature dishes such as Gambas al Ajillo (prawns in garlic) or Patatas Bravas – the bar that claims to have invented these states its patent on the outside.
To the south of Santa Ana there is a great deal of Flamenco activity – this is very popular in Madrid and you can see shows of high quality. I recommend Casa Patas, the show is about €35 including a drink and you can dine there before or after depending on showtime – 9.00 pm or midnight.
Another Flamenco venue: Cafe de Chinitas
Cava Baja and Calle Cuchilleros to the west of Plaza Major are very ‘Spanish’ in ambiance, tons of tapas bars, so you can wander the area for hours, snacking in each one instead of having formal dinner.
Chueca (to the north of Gran Via) used to be quite ‘ specialist’ (think Soho), but like Soho is now more mainstream, with several good bars and restaurants. A new development in the area is the Mercado San Anton; this is a food market primarily, but has some good tapas bars on the first and almost the whole of the top floor. Gets very busy – excellent quality.
Other bars: Madrid has a fantastic collection of very old bars – many of which are quite unmodernised. They are scattered all over town and are well worth a visit. El Botin (1725) is the oldest and grandest of them all, and 12 of them are listed as Restaurantes y Tabernas Centenarios – web site here. There are more that are not part of this collection – maybe not quite old enough yet…
Vegetarian listing: El Estragon, Plaza de la Paja 10. Tel: 0034 91 365 89 82. Tucked away on a quiet square, not far from the western end of Cava Baja.
There are lots of very trendy places to stay in Madrid – often with prices to match… these are some of the more reasonable ones:
Palacio del Retiro – AC chain
Artistic B&B – not tried this place, but good location and prices, I’m holding this for a future visit
Gavirental – Apartments in Madrid
Spanish trains are very good value and efficient. I would recommend that you travel Preferente class on long journeys; as its like first class but cheaper; usually includes a meal and drinks in the price as well.You must have a reserved seat for the trains so book in advance – see Travel Resources Transport for links and reservations.
‘The Strawberry Train’ runs from Atcocha to Aranjuez; Saturdays and Sundays from April to June.
This special service is steam train pulled and staff in period costume serve (of course) strawberry dishes… for which Aranjuez is famous.
Adult fares for the return day trip are just over €20 (2008), which is quite good value.