Peel back its layers and you’ll rediscover the true heart of Madrid, says Ashlee Starratt.
From the cacophonous thrum of the Plaza Mayor with its flocks of pigeons and tourists, to the vibrant clamour of the Gran Via and the cathedral calm of the Prado Museum, Madrid is an assault on the senses – and ultimately elevates them. From its cultural history, shopping, and foodie scenes, to its plethora of parks and green spaces, this walking-friendly city should be on your summer radar.
Voted the ‘10th Most Livable City in the World’ in 2017, the Spanish capital is considered the economic epicentre of southern Europe, while a modern infrastructure coupled with the architectural preservation of its historic neighbourhoods makes for a metropolis rooted firmly in the contemporary while holding close the influence of its’ past.
The political hub of Spain’s historic dynasties, Madrid is a city that’s endured under the reign of monarchs and dictatorships; wander through any of its iconic plazas and you’ll see the monuments of history, immortalized tall and statuesque. It’s also a city whose inimitable artists revolutionized their crafts, their masterpieces surviving repression and war throughout the centuries.
For culture vultures, traversing Madrid’s ‘Golden Triangle of Art’ along the Paseo del Prado is a rite of passage – as is shouldering your way to the counter in one of the city’s local tapas eateries and indulging in some of Spain’s iconic ‘pintxos’.
While it’s always more fulfilling to wander off the beaten path when exploring any new city on foot – or rediscovering it again for the second time round- there are a few touristic landmarks of historical and cultural significance that you really shouldn’t miss. The Royal Theatre with its fully-restored opera house that dates back to 1850 is one, while the Neo-Classical Plaza de Cibeles with its iconic fountain is another, followed by the National Library – founded in 1712 it enjoyed its hey-day in the 19th-century, and Buen Retiro Park – founded in 1631 it’s one of the city’s oldest (and largest!) green spaces formerly belonging to the Spanish monarchy.
In Madrid, you’ll find a museum for every artist and artistic movement – from Romanticism to modernism, and for every cultural discipline from anthropology and local history, to museums of industry. Spending a day planning a walking itinerary to take in even just a few – at nominal entrance fees – is time well-spent. The Reina Sofia National Art Museum, dedicated to 20th-century Spanish art, and the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales – housed in the former palace of King Charles I of Spain are two unmissable stops.
After a day of culture, sight-seeing, and eating your way around Madrid, a cup of strong Spanish coffee at one of the cafés along the Plaza del Sol – or the ‘Gate of the Sun’, Madrid’s largest and busiest plaza – is the perfect way to cap off the afternoon with a bit of people-watching in a city where history lives in the moment.
My favourite place- No sojourn to Madrid is complete without a visit to the Royal Palace of Madrid. The official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, it’s 135,000 sq ft of floor space and nearly 3,500 rooms make it one of Europe’s largest palaces. While King Felipe VI and his family don’t make stay in residence, it’s a bastion for tourists eager to glimpse some of Spain’s most vital cultural heritage. The palace is home to artworks painted by likes of Francisco de Goya, Caravaggio, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Its collections of artifacts preserved there also include the Royal Armoury of Madrid, royal furniture and table settings, and the only complete Stradivarius string quartet in the world. And did we mention the palace grounds are stunning?
Highlights- The mind-bending buskers in the Plaza Mayor, the regal grandeur of the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, the vibrant jazz lounges and live music venues found in the city’s Bilbao and Atocha neighbourhoods, the myriad tapas eateries on every corner, and the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian temple which was painstakingly moved to Madrid as a token of gratitude to Spain for their help in constructing Egypt’s Aswan Dam.
Lowlights- Take precautions when out in the crowded plazas and squares in the city centre as pickpocketing is, sadly, still prevalent in Madrid.
Souvenirs- Colourfully-painted Spanish ceramics, hand-held flamenco fans, a pair of ‘alpargatas’ – the unofficial Spanish summer shoe, Majórica pearl jewelry, and a Real Madrid football jersey.
Getting there- Oman Air offers daily service from Muscat to Madrid, as do most other major Gulf carriers such as Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad.
Where to stay- All the world’s major hotel chains can be found in the Spanish capital, and can be booked through sites such as Expedia, Kayak.com, or Booking.com. But the city is also a boutique hotel and Airbnb haven and a little digging online can find you a gorgeous little loft in the Bohemian quarter, or a Best Western right off the Puerta del Sol.
1. Relive Madrid’s history at the Wax Museum with over 400 wax figures.
2. Contemplate the works of Baroque and Renaissance masters at the Paseo del Prado.
3. Revel with the crowds this August at the Virgen de la Paloma Festival.
4. Tour Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, home of Real Madrid.
5. Get your bearings of the city with a walk along the Gran Via.