Spain’s vibrant capital is the perfect city break, famous for its museums and galleries, green parks and café culture. You don’t have to love art to visit Madrid, but it helps: the legendary Prado has one of Europe’s most important collections.
The city is compact and the architecture breathtaking so wear comfortable shoes and explore the many bustling squares and ancient streets. Dining out is a highlight and meals last for hours. Accept that there’s so much to see and do you can only scratch the surface: prioritise and plan but let the rest be a wonderful surprise, because you can’t go wrong wandering around this welcoming, gorgeous city.
The Museo Nacional del Prado is a must-visit, as it houses a world-class collection including Picasso, El Greco, Titian, Rubens and Hieronymous Bosch. Pick up a free map in the lobby and don’t skip the gallery shop: you can buy posters of a wide range of classic art to take home and frame. Find modern art at the Reina Sofia museum and a wide range at Thyssen-Bornemisza. Pay a couple of Euros to access the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden (it’s nearly always quiet and dog-walking is banned). Plaza Mayor is the main square where you can eat, drink, shop and people-watch, though it can be a little touristy. Head to the Salamanca ‘barrio’ (neighbourhood) for designer boutiques and small independents: invest in locally-made olive oil, ‘violetas’ boiled sweets and ‘turrón’ nougat. Visit the rooftop of the Cibeles Palace for panoramic city views, then take a snap at the famous chariot-topped fountain beneath.
Madrid offers everything from jaw-dropping luxury to rustic B&Bs, with plenty of achingly hip boutique hotels. The Ritz is the ultimate luxe retreat and right next door to the Prado. The Hospes townhouse hotel near The Parque del Retiro is more affordable and has a lovely spa. Stay centrally around Gran Vía and Puerta del Sol and most attractions are within walking distance.
Madrileños like to eat well and usually al fresco. Authentic tapas bars are clustered around La Latina, Plaza Santa Ana and Dos de Mayo in the boho Malasaña neighbourhood (ask to see the ‘menus del dia’ for a daily special of three courses plus wine and bread). Try El Botin, officially the oldest restaurant in the world and a favourite of Ernest Hemingway. Seek out the ‘tablaos’ where you pay one price for dinner, drinks and a live flamenco show: Casa Patas is the most famous.
No need to rent a car. Taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced, and the Metro system is super-easy to navigate: a Tourist Travel Pass will last up to a week. But watch out for pickpockets and avoid speaking English so you don’t stand out as a tourist.
Madrid’s Mediterranean climate delivers a balmy spring and autumn but summer can be roasting hot, with temperatures hitting the mid-30s. Visit in May for the Fiesta de San Isidro celebrations, including parades (look out for stilt walkers wearing giant papier mache heads), street parties, dancing and free concerts.
Madrid is a major centre for bullfighting, and the season runs from March to October. Avoid the two city bullrings – Vista Alegre and Las Ventas – on Sunday evenings if you don’t want to hear thousands of fans baying for blood.
The Parque de Atracciones boasts rollercoasters, boat rides, play areas and even a funfair. Handily, the impressive city zoo is just a few minutes’ walk away. Most of the animals are in enclosures surrounded by moats so you get a great view uninterrupted by cages and bars.