Nuanced narratives of a chequered past has shaped up the Spanish capital to what it is now – a spontaneous bundle of energy that permeates through the buzzing barrios, traditional mercados and trendy tapas bars.
Kickstart your exploration of Madrid at Kilometre Zero, the geographical centre of Madrid marked by a stone plaque. Befittingly, the heraldic symbol of Madrid – statue of a bear jumping up at an strawberry tree – is right here in Puerta del Sol, the emblematic public square. Buzzing all-day & all-night with a multitude of humanity, the pedestrian plaza has witnessed important events in Spanish history. Look out for the equestrian statue in honour of King Charles III to commemorate the extensive public works and far–reaching reforms he had initiated during his reign in the 18th century. The square also contains the famous clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes and the beginning of a new year.
Take a stroll a few blocks down to the prettier Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s 400-year-old central square dating back to 1619. Ringed in with 237 balconies facing inward to a statue of King Philip III and his horse, this is perhaps the most picturesque communal spot in Spain where you can sip a coffee or wine and watch the world go by amid warm sunshine.
Wander about Palacio Real and feel the regal charm of the official residence of the Spanish royal family, now used for state ceremonies. The largest functioning imperial residence in entire Europe with over 3000 rooms, this has been home of some of Spain’s most illustrious monarchs. The highlights include Gasparini Room with its grandiose floral themed decorations, the Throne Hall featuring a ceiling painted by Tiepolo and the beautiful Royal Chapel. The painting gallery housing an eclectic imperial collection of works by Caravaggio, Goya and Velazquez, among other masters, is simply unmissable.
The history of the diocese of Madrid is conserved and showcased in Cathedral de la Almudena through the carefully preserved objects of religious, artistic and historical value – from ancient documents to modern mosaics. Head over to the dome of the cathedral to soak in the spectacular vistas over Palacio Real, Plaza de Oriente and the majestic ceremony of Changing of Guards on the first Wednesday of the month at the palace concourse.
Once a private luxury garden for Spanish royalty, El Retiro with its sprawling 350 acres of landscaped green filled with beautiful sculptures, monuments and galleries is a popular spot both with Madrilenos and visitors to the city. If it is a typical sun-kissed Madrid afternoon, go on a boat ride on the dainty and picturesque lake perched in the middle of this beautiful park.
The century-old Mercado de San Miguel was immaculately restored to its elegant Beaux–art avatar in 2017. From pastas to pastries, from caviar to cured meats and from chocolates to cider, temptations are unbound at this gourmet Madrid institution. The glass-walled interiors are peppered with food counters where you can park yourself at one of the tables arranged in a charming disarray and delve into the pleasures of a delectable tapas or something more substantial. The market gets more lively and jovial as the evening wears on.
An ancient Egyptian temple in the heart of Madrid? Unbelievable, but true. Built in the 2ndcentury BC, the Temple of Debod in the Lower Nubia was gifted to Spain by the Egyptian government as a gesture of gratitude for the technological help Spain had rendered in relocating the Abu Simbel temple before the construction of the Aswan dam. The temple and its gardens are located in the picturesque waterfront setting in the Parque del Oeste. Visit this amazing site after sunset when this magnificent architecture gets lit up and kaleidoscopic colours of the evening sky provide a magical backdrop.
Founded in 1894, Madrid’s most famous chocolate shop has been serving the quintessential Spanish breakfast – churros (long flour sticks) with thick, steaming hot chocolate. Step inside the shop that feels like a time-warp with mirrored walls, green panels, green chairs and vintage tables and dunk your churros into the cup of gooey, melt-in-the-mouth chocolate. The treat is sinfully calorie-filled, and a pure bliss.
From dime-a-dozen souvenir shops tucked in the cobblestone alleys to international superbrands in ritzy malls and traditional mercados in residential barrios, Madrid remains el paradiso for the shopaholic.
El Corte Ingles is Europe’s largest department store group who have positioned their flagship store in Madrid. The benchmark of Spanish haute couture, the shopping destination is sprawled across several buildings with a comprehensive collection of designer boutiques and iconic labels.
The 1.3-kilometre stretch of Gran Via between Plaza de Espana and Calle de Alcala is flanked with a diverse collection of uber-elite retail destinations ranging from luxury and leisure labels to designer sportswear. Luxe is the buzzword here in this high street shopping mecca, which is now pedestrian-friendly with less cars. Ringed in with sprawling Neo-classical buildings with ornate columns and ostentatious designs and 20th-century Art Deco architecture, this urban esplanade is nicknamed the “Spanish Broadway” for its historic theatre houses, popular movie halls and musical shows.
A swanky shopping haven, Barrio de Salamanca lies in the southern part of 3-kilometre-long Calle de Serrano, choc-full of global luxury franchises, ultraluxe leisure brands and upscale shopping arcades. This is Madrid’s most stylish district where many of Spain’s haute couture designers have based themselves.
Restaurants & Bars
The gastronomic horizon is infinitely elastic in the Spanish capital that effortlessly amalgamates a whole gamut of cultures and cuisines in its epicurean ecosystem.
A simple, unassuming menu of house specialities define Restaurante Sacha, an old-school Madrid bistro favourite with the Madrilenos. The elegant and intimate décor is in lockstep with the culinary delicacies on offer, where classic favourites such as prawn cocktail and steak tartare rule the roost. If you are here in summer, plant yourself on the breezy outdoor terrace hemmed in with a leafy cluster of trees and slow-sip your Rioja.
Draped in a casual, laid-back vibe, La Tasqueria creates magic of their offal offerings designed for the intrepid foodie with novel and delicate twists. The Michelin-starred enclave perched inside the upmarket Goya ward stylises its interiors with a carefully-constructed pedestrian ambience, where Masterchef Javi Estevez reinvents a vanishing culinary tradition with quirky organ meat creations in their open-view kitchen. If you are an offal fan, head over for an authentic Espanola evening.
Located in Humanes de Madrid, Coque is a huge 1100-square-metre space owned by third-generation restaurateurs Mario, Rafael and Diego Sandoval. The interiors are designed to impress the most discerning diners, who will savour the intense sensory experience while passing through the four distinct spaces – cocktail bar, wine cellar, kitchen and finally the dining room. Sophisticated and evolved delicacies crafted with seasonal produce sourced mostly from their own farm in the mountains, where the Sandoval family has reintroduced crops that have become obsolete.
Chef Aurelio Morales focuses on fish and vegetables in his multicultural concept cuisine woven around a fusion of Spain’s regional culinary zeitgeist in his Michelin-starred outpost CEBO Madrid, nestled inside Hotel Urban. Dedicated to local produce, Morales maintains a fine balance between technique and products, and retains orthodox pantry flavours in his dynamic and contemporary cuisine that surprises even his most well-travelled patrons. The special seasonal menu Somos CEBO is a connoisseur’s delight.
From ritzy cocktail hotspots to classy vinotecas, dusk-to-dawn life in Madrid is stuff of legends and you will be thrown a dozen choices every time you head out on your way for a late-night rendezvous.
If you are in the mood for some quiet cocktails-and-conversation, head over to the super chilled-out Del Diego Cocktail Bar in Chueca, very near to the Gran Via, where the expert bartenders clad in impeccable tuxedos rustle up daiquiris, martinis and mojitos for the suit-and-tie Madrilenos and the culturally curious, well-heeled visitors. Go elegant on a warm Madrid night and do not miss the tapas in this quintessential gloss-and-wood Madrid institution.
Diego Cabrera, Madrid’s celebrated mixologist, is the man behind Salmon Guru, a Literary Quarter joint designed for a sensory extravaganza – comic-inspired signs protruding from the walls, gleaming neon beams lining the ceiling, funky furnishings and artworks. The flashy flamboyance is perfectly matched with the wildly eccentric drinks concocted by one of Europe’s most buzzed-about bartender in association with renowned botanist Pepe Orts.
Museums & the Arts
Prado has been dubbed as the museum of painters, and not of paintings. The preeminent Spanish art museum, located in Central Madrid, showcases its artists in a superlative manner. Founded in 1819, Prado is one of the greatest museums in the world with its stupendous collection of medieval Italian masters, stalwarts of Flemish school of painting and numerous works of legendary Spanish artists such as Velazquez, Goya and El Greco. The collection which started off as a store of Spanish imperial collection and expanded with private donations and acquisitions now comprises of a staggering 8,600 paintings and over 700 sculptures. Do not miss Francisco Goya’s haunting, untitled group of Black Paintings.
The piece de resistance of Reina Sofia Museum, a few minutes’ walk away from Prado, is Guernica. Pablo Picasso’s magnum opus hangs on the wall of a softly-lit room, two museum guards standing on the sides of the huge canvas. The magnitude and brilliance of one of the most iconic paintings in art history will blow away your mind, and do remember to check out the extensive collection of works of another Spanish genius, Salvador Dali.
Along with Prado and Reina Sofia, Thyssen Bornemisza Museum forms the Golden Triangle of Art in Madrid. Nestled inside Villahermosa Palace, the museum fill up the voids of Prado and Reina Sofia with an impressive collection that traces the myriad art movements in art history right through to the late 20th century, where the emphasis is on French Impressionism, German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism and 19th-century American art.
Explore the Iberian Peninsula’s most beautiful river and the wine region it slices through. Guided by a sommelier, visit some of the best wineries of Ribera del Duero, the riverine district that produces finest reds with a firm tannin structure. Savour the deeply-coloured offerings in the atmospheric bodegas and sample the unique history of the region with a tour of Castillo de Gormaz, one of Spain’s most remarkable castles or take a slow cruise ride along the beautiful waters of River Duero.
While a day trip to Toledo and Segovia is the much-touted option, a full-day tour of the Enchanted City can be a delightfully immersive experience. Sculpted over millions of years by ice, wind and water, the UNESCO World Heritage site is characterized by bizarre-shaped rock formations resembling humans, animals and various objects. Located 28 kms away from Cuenca, which is an hour train ride away from Madrid, the Enchanted City is nestled within the Serrania de Cuenca Nature Reserve. Explore the well-marked trails that meander through the pock-marked rock caverns and overhangs, leading on to the fanciful nature’s creations on the magnesium limestone rocks.
A European destination as popular as it can be, Madrid still retains few hidden aces up its sleeve such as The Royal Chapel of Saint Anthony of La Florida. The neoclassical chapel is worth a visit for the stunning dome and ceiling created by the eccentric genius Francisco Goya who took six years to complete the commissioned work in 1798. Befittingly, Goya’s remains were transferred to be buried here in 1919 from Bordeaux, where he had died in 1828.
A penchant for pulsating hedonism is endearingly juxtaposed with a drive for healthy lifestyle habits in Madrid and a love for sports is embedded in this ecosystem.
Football is the king of sports here and if your visit concurs with a match, make a beeline to the Vicente Calderon stadium to experience a slice of one of the most elite environments in the sporting world. And Santiago Barnabeu stadium, home to one of the best clubs in the world, is your ultimate mecca if you are a Real Madrid fan.
Designed in the 1930s, the Hipodromo de la Zarzuela is a historic race course and an ideal sporty day trip to witness the elegant charm of horse racing amid expansive green spaces. You can enjoy the recreational, family-friendly facilities of this modernist space, where you will rub shoulders with the crème-de-la-crème Madrilenos. Avail of the guided tour of the race course facilities led by renowned jockeys.
Ever since Rafael Nadal took the tennis world by storm, the game skyrocketed up the popularity charts in Spain, and of course in Madrid. There are a number of facilities where you can swipe right with a racquet like Club de Tenis Chamartin that boasts of 23 indoor and outdoor courts; or Club Internacional de Tenis, where you can book a session at any of their 16 clay courts. If you are here in Madrid in late spring, catch a game at the Mutua Madrid Open, regarded as a run-up to the French Open.
Must Buy Souvenir
Flowers, lace, decorously painted images are some of the beautifully recurrent motifs ofabanicos or traditional Spanish hand fans that have been around since 18th century. Casa de Diego, a family-owned establishment operating in Puerta del Sol since 1858 specialises in artisan abanicos – handpainted, made of pure silk. You can also take back this dainty piece of Spanish culture from Rastro, the bustling Sunday outdoor market in the very atmospheric La Latina neighbourhood.
Ringed in with a tableau of glitz and grandeur, the Spanish capital’s hotel scene oozes a glamorously opulent vibe. Stately private residences converted into swanky hotels integrated into the upmarket neighbourhoods, boutique properties with chic-modern interiors spruced up with avant-garde objet d’art, palatial properties shimmering with period grandeur, the hotel canvas runs the gamut.
The 18-kilometre distance from Barajas Airport to the city centre can be comfortably covered in about 25 minutes in a taxi. Catching a RENFE train takes about the same time. The extensive public transport network of Madrid runs from very early morning till late in the night and buying a Metro Travel Card is a convenient option to reach anywhere in the metropolis.
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