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Madrid: city guide. The Prado, hip boutique hotels, street markets, tapas and flamenco dancing
December 15, 2015 | By: High50
Madrid The Cibeles Fountain Flickr Arrano

The Cibeles Fountain, created in 1782, lends its name to one of the most emblematic squares of Madrid

Why go

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.

Book a trip to Madrid

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 Garden of Earthly Delights Hieronymous Bosch at The Prado

Go and see Hieronymous Bosch’s famous The Garden of Earthly Delights at The Prado

What to do

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.

Where to stay
The Hotel Ritz entrance Madrid

Have a luxurious stay at the glamorous Hotel Ritz

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.

Where to eat
Madrid Restaurant Botin

Eat at the oldest restaurant in the world, El Botin

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.

Casa Patas flamenco

Flamenco dancing at Casa Patas

Getting around

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.

When to go

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.

Three things we like
Madrid El Rastro

El Rastro, best street market in Madrid

  1. It’s not all about the museums. Unwind in The Parque del Retiro (think NYC’s Central Park), or The Parque Deportivo Puerta del Hierro sports park where you can play golf and tennis, or swim in the enormous outdoor pool (in cooler months, you can kayak in it instead).
  2. El Rastro in the Embajadores area is Madrid’s best street market. On Sunday mornings you’ll find dozens of stalls selling everything from vintage clothes to handmade jewellery, vinyl records and artisan watercolours. Go early – it’s packed by lunchtime – and get ready to haggle: it’s expected.
  3. Unlike some other big cities in Europe, Madrid feels authentic and homely: it’s very much lived in and loved by locals, particularly during the various summer festivals when a party atmosphere pervades.
Something we don’t like

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.

Don’t miss
Madrid's Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family but is only used for state ceremonies

  • Take the audio tour of The Royal Palace. It’s exquisite, packed with ornate thrones, priceless furniture and art by the likes of Goya and Velazquez. See the statue-filled gardens and the fascinating Armoury too. First thing in the morning is the quietest time to visit. The elegant Almudena Cathedral – free to enter – is just next door.
  • Handmade espadrilles – known as alpargatas – make the best souvenirs. Buy them at family-owned boutique Antigua Casa Crespo, a much-loved Madrid tradition. Choose a pair that’s snug because they’ll stretch.
  • The Teleferico cable car in Casa de Campo park is a lot of fun and gives you a bird’s eye view.
The Royal Botanical GardensHigh50 insider tips
  • A lot of the city is pedestrianised so don’t be tempted by the many sightseeing bus tours: they just can’t get close enough to the sights. Try a walking tour instead: the Discover Madrid guided tours are great.
  • Factor in siesta time: many of the smaller shops, bars and businesses close from lunchtime to late afternoon and don’t always re-open at the exact time stated on the door.
  • And be prepared to eat late: a 1.30pm lunch and 9pm or 10pm dinner is the norm and many restaurants are deserted before then. Service can be very laidback so wave to the wait staff when you want the ‘recibo’ (bill).
  • Signature dishes you must try: Cocido Madrileño, a rich meaty stew. And for breakfast, churros con chocolate, doughnut fingers dipped in melted choc.
  • Drink like a Madrileño. Caña is a small glass of draught beer and tinto de verano a light version of sangria, both perfect at lunchtime on hot days. Other popular orders? Vermouth and, of course, sherry.
Travelling with family?

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.

Need to know
  • Heathrow, Gatwick and most UK regional airports fly directly to Madrid and flying time is roughly 2 hours and 20 minutes.
  • Time difference is +1 hour.
  • You won’t hear as much English spoken in Madrid as most other European capitals. It’s understood in the hotels and major sightseeing spots but it helps to have a few words of Spanish when ordering food and drink and using public transport. Make the effort and the locals will love you for it.