While an extended trip to Spain must include tradition-anchored Seville and revelrous Barcelona, no visit is complete without a stop in the bullseye: capital-city Madrid, a natural halfway point between the two.
Madrid is kinetic. Its infinite plazas are packed with parched pedestrians—their day drinking evolving to parties that run well past sunrise. But the city’s landlockedness procures a more intellectual spirit than oft-superficial Barcelona—the D.C. to Barca’s Miami.
At the same time, Madrid’s baroque backdrop tells centuries-old stories. Its Prado Museum has one of the most renowned collections in the world (and it doesn’t even house the city’s most famous piece of art, Picasso’s Guernica, which is on display at Reina Sofia). Like in Seville, your visit to Madrid showcases Spanish history and tradition, and it feels like a true Spanish city, compared to Barcelona’s European-and-Catalan energy. One thing you’ll get from everyone who visits Madrid is a polarizing reaction. They either love it because they found this perfect-but-indulgent balance, or they’re confused because “It’s not Barcelona or Seville.”
One of those responses is correct. The other is shortsighted. Here’s how to fall in love with Madrid, for all the things that make it so exceptional. That’s no knock to the other two cities, which deserve equal praise—but Madrid, despite being the largest and the nation’s capital, is a true underdog. And everybody roots for the underdog.
How to Get to Madrid: Consider the Train
Madrid isn’t exactly difficult to reach. You can fly directly there from most major U.S. hubs, and from any mid-to-large European one. But because of its central-Spain locale, it’s worth noting that the train will be your most convenient way into or out of Madrid from other parts of the country. It’s just three hours to Barcelona or Seville on Renfe’s high-speed AVE trains, and no less to any shore. To book any route, go to RailEurope, an EU train ticketing site built for U.S. travelers.
Where to Stay in Madrid
While we’d recommend any of the Madrid hotels in Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s collection, it’s Hotel Urso that leads the list. It’s a 5-star boutique hotel (Madrid’s first!) at the center-city crossroads of Tribunal and Chueca, in a former palace and paper factory. Neoclassical detailing has been preserved, along with interior features like stained-glass windows, an old-timey elevator (there are modern ones, too), and marble floors. It’s the kind of hotel you’d actually dream of living in, from the green-lined conservatorium breakfasts to the 24-hour Technogym and onsite spa. There’s a communal buzz in the lobby that invites small business meetings or satellite working, just off the Urso Cocktail bar and Media Ración restaurant and bistro. Best of all, are the rooms themselves: Floor-to-ceiling windows flood light over the plush furnishings and complement each room’s soft hues. Two fun facts for your visit: Urso takes its name from Madrid’s mascot (“Urso” means “bear”), and thus its layout is a ‘U’ shape, with rows of rooms fanning back from the central elevator and stair hub.
VP Plaza España Design
The fifth VP property in Madrid is also the local chain’s biggest spectacle. VP Plaza España Design opened last year above central-west Plaza España, a public square which itself is undergoing a €62 million beautification. Upon the park’s completion (estimated late 2020), motor traffic along Gran Via will be significantly reduced, and the 5-star hotel will overlook 60,000 square meters of luscious green pedestrian space.
As if that isn’t enough of a perk, VP Plaza España Design is a draw for its summertime rooftop pool, and a 360-degree skybar and restaurant called Ginkgo Restaurant & Sky Bar. Enjoy Mediterranean and Asian fare, along with craft cocktails and weekly jazz nights (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.), disco parties (Thursdays at 11 p.m.), and ’80s and ’90s dance parties (Fridays at 11 p.m.). Guests can indulge in the hotel’s Biloba Spa or access a 24-hour gym. The 214 rooms and suites rely on subdued, neutral tones—not to mention, some pretty expansive city views—to pull guests from the city heat and bustle, as if the aforementioned amenities aren’t enough to slow things down and savor your stay. And, since it’s got “Design” in its name, be sure you note the numerous art pieces and installations around the property, namely the massive 80-foot “Great Waterfall” by Pere Gifre that scales the entire height of the interior atrium. (You might miss it if your room doesn’t open into the atrium, so definitely inquire about it.)
What to Do in Madrid
You’ll spend much of your time shuffling down Gran Vía, exploring the side streets of La Latina and Lavapiés, marveling the upscale boutiques of Salamanca, and thrifting through Malasaña. But your long weekend should include these tourist staples, too.
Plaza Hopping and Snacking
Your foremost assignment is to pass a couple hours each day in Madrid’s plazas, enjoying tinto de verano or a cold cerveza, ambling past monuments, and perusing pop-up vendors. Two key plazas are the bustling Puerta del Sol (where they ring in New Year’s Eve), which features Madrid’s emblematic bear and strawberry tree statue, as well as Plaza Mayor (the most regal of the lot, and host of the city’s best Christmas markets). However, it’s the tiny plazas peppered throughout the city center that invite you to sit, relax, and imbibe.
El Retiro Park
Rent a rowboat; have a picnic; visit the Palacio de Cristal; ogle the peacocks inside the Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez; smell the roses at the rose garden; or trace history along the 18th-century Statue Walk, with sculptures of past Spanish royalty. The Forest of Remembrance is the most special, with 193 olive and cypress trees commemorating the victims of Madrid’s 2004 train bombings.
Museo del Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
The perfect cultural trifecta—called “The Golden Triangle” of museums—makes for a stimulating and relaxing afternoon, especially if it’s hot outside. Prado’s reputation precedes it: It houses one of the world’s most impressive collections of European art (largely from the 12th–19th centuries), much of it by the Spanish masters like Goya and Velázquez. Reina Sofia moves things into the 20th century, including works by Picasso and Dalí (namely Picasso’s Guernica). Thyssen, as it’s known, is third on the list, but my favorite of the lot, since it features a broader array of work. You’ll find pieces from Impressionists like Renoir and Monet, as well as post-Impressionists like Cézanne and van Gogh, and expressionists like Rothko and Nolde. You can see them all at your own pace, too, with a Museum Pass from GetYourGuide. Or, opt for a five-hour walking tour of the trio.
The Royal Palace
Book a two-hour walking tour of the royal family’s residence, which is now just used for state affairs. Daydreaming notwithstanding, don’t get lost in the near 3,500-room 18th-century palace.
Mercado de San Miguel
As if you won’t be snacking your way through the city already, you still ought to visit its famed, glass-walled market for a midday snack or edible souvenir.
El Rastro Flea Market
Visit Madrid’s famous antique and flea market, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday, in the city center.
Temple of Debod
This ancient Egyptian temple (circa 200 BC) was dismantled, then donated and rebuilt in Parque del Oeste in the early 1970s, just west of Plaza España.
Plaza de Toros de las Ventas
There need not be a bullfight for you to see Madrid’s famous stadium. Book a tour to see the venue from every vantage. Actual fights occur between March and October. You can check the calendar to see if any overlap your visit.
Matadero Cultural Center
Spend Saturday afternoon alongside Madrid Río Park at this slaughterhouse-turned-cultural center, which plays host to a weekly food market. (Perfect for a snack and vermouth sipping.) Check the center’s exhibition list to see if any shows or events are happening, too.
Casa de Campo
It’s the city’s largest park, and was actually a former royal hunting ground. It’s accessible sans car by taking the Teleférico Madrid, and you can also walk. Check its fare timetable to cover the near-2,500 meter difference, starting at Parque del Oeste near Temple of Debod and Plaza España. Inside the park, there’s a Spanish War arch monument, a rose garden, zoo, lake, and even an amusement park.
Where to Eat and Drink in Madrid
Here are some of our favorite spots to eat in Madrid, all gleaned from local friends and hotel concierges. Want to go out on your own? Just meander the city center; poke your head into any spot teeming with locals; or cozy up at a plaza table any time of day, and pass the hours with tapas and wine.
Oh, and if you’re curious how the Spaniards time their meals: lunch falls midafternoon, around 2 p.m., then they snack on tapas and drink from 5 p.m.. Dinner falls later as well, at 9 or 10 p.m., and the drinking goes as late or early as you damn well please.
Meats of all kinds, served by waiters with iPads and butchers’ aprons.
A longstanding family-run restaurant, anchored in tradition. Great for a date, or a memorable group dinner.
A pintxos paradise. Pintxos are more or less tapas with toothpicks holding them together. This is a great spot for a lunch meeting or a dinnertime catch-up with friends.
It’s in the name: Come for wine, every way you want it. Terrific prices, and a large international selection. (Though we hope you opt for some Spanish ones….)
A cozy tavern with all the food fixings, ideal for a detour while meandering the Las Delicias neighborhood, near Matadero Cultural Center.
Practically a landmark in Madrid, El Ñeru has been serving Asturian food for decades. (Asturias is a city in the north of Spain.)
A sweet snack break in the city center—churros and hot chocolate, specifically.
Hearty but playful food in the middle of Malasaña. Get the gnocchi or the burger, if you wish, but we’re ordering the truffled egg with fries and ham.
Come for the daily weekday menu, or pick from their traditional Spanish meat-and-seafood menu.
A buzzy tapas spot for late afternoon drinks (and pre-dinner snacks).
Hop in line here late any night (open from 11:30 p.m. though 5:30 or 6 a.m.) to get strong cocktails and sing along with a rowdy local crowd. Try to beat the line; this place fills up and stays rowdy.
Another local favorite for snacks and drinks: This one has old-timey bodega vibes and Madridian flair.
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