Madrid is one of Spain’s most modern cities, but from the Prado to the Parque del Buen Retiro, there’s plenty of culture and history to soak up. Here are four of my favorite spots from our December trip to Madrid.
Madrid feels like your typical European big city; it has skyscrapers, city centers, museums and a large park where city residents and their pups can unwind and play after a long day. But as you start exploring Madrid, you quickly learn that this big European city still has its own traditional Spanish charm.
The city’s main, cobblestone plazas are bustling with tourists and locals alike. Its most popular art museum, the Prado, is filled with city visitors and Spanish schoolchildren, all excited to soak up the immaculate artwork (perhaps the visitors a bit more than the children…). The Mercado San Miguel has the feel of a European market, but offers both traditional and new-age Spanish tapas, sweets and wines.
To me, Madrid is the key that unlocks the rest of Spain. Is it secluded or off the beaten path? No, not really. But it’s a fun city to explore while you overcome that jet lag, and it’s an easy way to get from point A to more unusual adventures that await at point B.
Offering captivating artwork from the 12th through 19th centuries, The Prado is a must-visit cultural sight for any Madrid traveler. It’s known as one of the greatest art museums in the world, and boasts thousands upon thousands of the historical paintings, sculptures, drawings and documents.
Depending on your level of interest, a visit to The Prado could take several hours or a full day. On our trip, we took advantage of the free hours (between 6 – 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday), but take note: The line forms early for the free hours, so if you want to get optimal time in the museum, get to the Prado around 4:30 or 5 p.m. to secure your place in line.
Parque del Buen Retiro and Crystal Palace
While big city parks share many commonalities — gardens, fountains, boats and running paths — each one still offers a unique experience specific to the city’s culture and people. The Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s main park, is no different.
It offers a maze of walking trails, a peaceful lake for lounging and the beautiful Crystal Palace, which is home to innovative artwork and, on a sunny day, a room full of rainbows. (Unfortunately our park day wasn’t sunny, so rainbows were a no-go.)
The Parque del Buen Retiro is adjacent to The Prado, so it’s easy to pair these two activities together.
Churros and Chocolate
Chocolate and anything will have me out of my seat, jumping for joy, but chocolate and churros — my God. Talk about kid in a candy shop.
The chocolate and churros pairing is one of the quintessential, most delicious Madrid desserts. In fact, there are actually restaurants (set up like diners) in Madrid that specialize in chocolate and churros … and sell only chocolate and churros.
We opted for our chocolate and churros fix on our last night in Spain, and went to the famous, lines out-the-door Chocolateria San Gines, which has sold this delicacy since 1894.
Obviously their hundreds of years of experience has paid off, because the chocolate and churros were nothing short of perfection.
Real Madrid Soccer Game
Sports are one of the best ways to experience a culture. Team loyalty is deeply rooted in a town, and whether pre-game, during, or post-game, you can experience revelries and rivalries that are left out of any museum or bus tour.
Case in point? Real Madrid. Fans from all walks of life come in flocks to Santiago Bernabéu Stadium to cheer on their boys. But they’re not the arrive-at-game-time crowd. Oh no. They fill the streets and bars surrounding the stadium way before the players even get on the field.
For travelers not on a budget, I’d highly suggest getting a ticket to experience this cultural phenomenon. Tickets can be low in the 40 to 50 euro range, but can climb quickly up to 100+ euros.
Can’t afford it? You can still soak up the soccer culture by partaking in the pregame festivities outside the stadium. Given mega-big (but bad) beers run for about 1 to 2 euro, this is definitely a more affordable option.
Know before you go
The Madrid Metro will be your best friend. It’s a cheap, easily navigable way to get around the city, and can get you to and from the airport or train stations.
Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) is another cheap solution to your travels. Similar to Airbnb, Madrid residents use VRBO to rent out apartments to travelers. We stayed in a really great VRBO apartment in downtown Madrid with two bedrooms, two bathrooms for only 60 euro a night. VRBO is a great option I swear by, especially in a big city like Madrid!
For more Spanish travel adventures, click through for all of my Spain guides.