My first few visits to Madrid were always brief stints; an overnight stay at a friend’s piso before an early run to the airport, a quick tour before heading to a different vacation destination. It’s not that I didn’t want to stay longer, anyone who knows me knows how much I adore big cities, but I never met the right set of circumstances to extend my stays.
However, a couple of friends from Seattle who were taking a break from volunteering in Romania wanted to meet up—and who I am to resist a weekend of sight-seeing?
I took the 5-hour scenic train ride up from the south (WAY better than flying might I add) and met them in Madrid’s heart: Puerta del Sol. We were staying at a cute, affordable hostel up one of Sol’s many branching streets, complete with a balcony perfect for home-cooked dinners and splitting bottles of wine.
Our weekend was spent exploring Madrid by foot: hitting the essential sights and scouting out the best tapas bars to introduce them to Spanish cuisine.
Toma La Calle (Take the streets) the slogan used by Madrid’s youth to spur the 15-M movement.
Looking back, I don’t know what I was expecting of Madrid, except for it to fulfill its reputation of being boiling-hot in the summer. I wasn’t expecting the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) to be so grandiose, nor the architecture in the center to be full of little beautiful details. Madrid is a sprawling, modern metropolis still blossoming from its post-Franco renaissance.
And though its sights are fewer than that of Spain’s other big cities, Madrid is a world-class center of art. If you’re a culture vulture or not, a stop at one of the cities main 3 (The Reina Sofia, the Thyssen, or El Prado) are essential in Madrid’s art-circuit. Together they feature impressive collections heavy on Spanish artists like Picasso, Velazquez, El Greco, Dalí and Goya as well as everything from neoclassicalism to avant garde.
Here’s what I recommend for a first-time weekend in Madrid:
The Reina Sofía: Like most, I went here specifically to see Picasso’s Guernica. It’s an awe-inducing, chilling piece of art capturing war in Picasso’s signature modern style. The painting depicts the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Germany’s then-new air force—approved by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. This happened in 1937, when the Spanish Civil War was ravaging on and killed a town of mostly women and children. It’s huge, haunting, and absolutely worth seeing.
(Keep in mind this is a modern art museum, so if you’re more inclined to enjoy classical paintings, head over to El Prado. I’ve been to both and enjoyed The Reina Sofía more.)
Tip: It’s free Mon, Wed-Fri after 7PM and Saturdays after 2:30PM and all day on Sunday.
Palacio Real: After Versailles and Vienna’s Schonbrunn, the Royal Palace of Madrid is the third largest in Europe. It’s HUGE. It was originally a Muslim fortress, which was burnt down in the 18th century and was rebuilt in a very French and Italian style commissioned by King Philip V.
The Spanish royal family doesn’t actually live here—they live in a separate mansion nearby, but the palace is still used for formal functions and state affairs.
Tip: Head for some shade in the gardens (Jardines del Campo del Moro) behind the palace.
Experiencing the madrileño nightlife: A visit to Madrid wouldn’t be complete without experiencing its world-famous nightlife. Madrileños (and all Spaniards) are known for partying late, so don’t expect to eat dinner until at least 9PM and for clubs to open until after midnight—or really be exciting until around 4AM when most bars are closed and a surge of people come in!
Tip: Try the battered and fried bacalao (cod) at Casa del Labra on C/Tetuán 12, Buenísimo!
Puerta del Sol: This is Madrid’s pulse. It is the absolute center of action and has been the stage for the 15-M movement, a packed annual New Year’s Eve celebration and is kilometer 0 from which all distances in Spain are measured from.
Plaza Mayor: Don’t eat here and watch your pockets carefully (pick-pocket alert!), but do come here at sunset and take in the atmosphere and the lit up buildings.
This large square, set away from main streets and found by going through any number of its medieval passageways features buildings with hundreds of balconies, designed as a public theater of city events. This is the spot where the awful autos-de-fé (trials of faith) occurred during the Inquisition, where kings were crowned, executions, bull-fights, theatrical performances and more.
Today, it serves largely as a tourist mecca, with many overpriced outdoor cafés and restaurants but also as the site of many fiestas, outdoors bazaars and concerts.
Like any big city, it’s impossible to see and do everything in one weekend, next time I go on my to-do list is: the Thyssen Museum, El Park de Buen Retiro (weather-permitting of course!) C/Cava Baja and C/Cava Alta in La Latina for nightlife and El Rastro Flea Market.
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