When I visited Europe on a multi-country itinerary, Madrid was the final stop. I didn’t know what to expect: my husband and I added it to the list because a dear college friend of ours was living there at the time. Barcelona gets most of the attention when speaking about Spanish vacations, and I get it: the beach, the sun, the amazing city planning, and fascinating architecture. But I’m here to tell you, don’t skip Madrid when planning your Europe vacation. I’ll share many of the wonderful things that make this city special.
I was pleasantly surprised to fall head-over-heels in love with Madrid. I found Spain very affordable compared to England, France, Germany, Belgium, etc. Not only that, but flights in and out of Madrid Barajas Airport are plentiful and well-priced as well.
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As I mentioned above, the Madrid airport is quite large. It’s also beautifully well-designed and easy to navigate. Conveniently, the metro goes all the way to the airport making it cheap and easy to get to your lodgings. Obviously, taxis are much more comfortable, but be ready to fork over €30 for the convenience.
If you want to hit Madrid and Barcelona in the same trip, a train is a good option. Cheap buses will take about 7 hours but a train will take under 3 hours. Or rent a car if you want to be adventurous; there are lots of picturesque Spanish countryside towns to visit along the way.
Things to Do
Your first stop after your hotel will probably be Plaza Mayor (pictured above), the center of Madrid and epicenter of the tourist area. There is a tourist office where you can get a free map of the area and recommendations personalized to your interests! There are many cafes circling the Plaza Mayor, which are a little pricier but worth it for the ambiance, if you just want a small coffee or ice cream to taste while you watch street performers.
In the images above and below, you can get a feel for what a fairytale Parque de Retiro is. Especially if your trip has a number of large cities scheduled, take a day (or at the very least an afternoon) to soak in the shade and green space of Retiro. I think you’ll find it very rejuvenating.
Madrid is famous for its art museums. Museo Nacional del Prado is lauded as one of the best collections of classical in the world, and Reina Sofia, the modern art museum is home to Picasso’s famous Guernica among other powerful pieces. This blog post from Naked Madrid provides detailed information about the various museums and how you can get into many of them for free.
The Catedral de la Almudena and the Royal Palace of Madrid sit on a square opposite from each other, west of the city center. The palace is the largets in Western Europe. Check the Royal Palace’s website for opening hours and tour information. The Catedral should not be missed because the interior is breathtaking. Instead of gray stone and stained glass windows, you will be dazzled by its bright white interior and brightly colored contemporary art.
Where to Eat
I didn’t have a single bad meal in Madrid. The only downside I recall was that not many places opened early so getting breakfast was a challenge. I recommend picking up some pastries the day before and eating them in your hotel.
You can always dine at the oldest continuously operating restaurant (according to the Guinness book of records), Sobrino de Botin, located near Plaza Mayor. If you want to keep your budget in mind, stop at 100 Montaditos, a chain which specializes in bites and drinks priced at €1. Speaking of budget, however, remember that tapas are inherently affordable. You can sample several options over a lingering dinner and end up satisfied without spending a lot like you would over a prix fixe meal. Above, a shot of the Mercado de San Miguel, where you must spend at least an hour or two ordering small bites from all of the artisan vendors. It’s located near the Plaza Mayor.
In addition to these options, Madrid has an exciting, world-class food scene you can explore for yourself. For the best and newest restaurants, check sites like Eater.
Churros con Chocolate San Gines
I could have included this in the main where to eat section, but it’s so important I thought it needed its own heading. Churros. These are not the cinnamon-sugar covered churros you might be used to. They are plain fried dough served with very thick chocolate for dipping. A really different experience for me but one of my top 3 churro experiences of all time (yes, I keep track). Make this a priority even if you have to sacrifice something else from your itinerary!
More from The Voyageer: Like Madrid, but in North America: Have you ever heard of Guanajuato, Mexico?
Where to Stay
Airbnbs are plentiful in Madrid, and hotels, too. Given the architecture and layout of the hundreds-of-years-old buildings, small family-run pensiones are everywhere. Last time I was there I stayed in an Airbnb that was nothing fancy but was clean, picturesque (wood beams in the ceilings) and centrally located. It’s not there anymore but Airbnb listings are plentiful.
Next time I go to Madrid, I already have my hotel picked out. If you are a regular reader of The Voyageer you know I have a soft spot to quirky, well-decorated, median-priced lodgings. With that in mind, I’ve added Only YOU Boutique Hotel to my shortlist of Madrid accommodations. For another swanky option, feast your eyes on this NH Collection establishment.
If you’re traveling solo, hostels can be a fantastic way to save some money as well. Just make sure to closely read the reviews so you can tell what the vibe of the hostel will be before you arrive. For example, one chain (Cats Hostel) has two locations in Madrid. One markets itself as the party hostel and the other one promises to be a place to chill out. Make sure you know which is which when you book! For another chic hostel option, there is the Generator brand that doesn’t sacrifice design for low price.
Did I miss anything? Have you ever been to this historic capital of the Spanish Empire? Please leave a comment below!
Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.