Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
After nearly a month of travel (and a lot of small to mid-size cities), Madrid was the first BIG city on my trip. I was a little apprehensive when I first arrived – I hadn’t been in a big city since leaving New York and was quite enjoying the quieter, slower pace of places like Toulouse. Upon exiting the metro at Sol with my bags, I was faced with construction, loads of slow-moving tourists, and heat. I was hungry, tired, sweaty, and sick of pulling my luggage around.
But then, once settled in my hotel, I got excited about exploring a big city. I had a full week in Madrid which meant I could unpack (!) and feel somewhat at home for a bit.
I planned a full week in Madrid because I wanted enough time to really explore the city, just linger a bit (and not feel rushed), and take some day trips. I am so glad I spent a long time in Madrid – I really loved the city and felt like I had more than enough time to sightsee and just relax. I was able to spread out my sightseeing and have enough time for siesta. And my original intention was to do two day trips: Toledo and Segovia. However, after my day trip to Toledo, I was totally worn out and decided to skip the trip to Segovia and just hang out in Madrid instead.
Getting There: Since it’s a major city, it’s easy to fly in from elsewhere in Europe/US and accessible by train from the rest of Spain. Fortunately, it’s also easy to get to the city from the airport via public transit. Buy a tourist transit pass (offered for 1, 3, 5 or 7 days). While I didn’t use public transit as much as I expected to (because there was a bunch of work going on and some lines/stops were shut down), it was convenient to have a pass for the week while I was there so I could jump on whenever I needed it.
Where to Stay: I researched so many neighborhoods and hotels when I planned my stay in Madrid! Because it’s a big city with many interesting neighborhoods, there are a lot of options for where you can stay. I found some good advice here.
I booked my stay with airline miles, so I had some limitations on what was available and where I could stay. In the end, I stayed at the NH Collection Paseo del Prado right near the Prado Museum and not far from El Retiro Park and the other major museums. I liked this location because it was close to a few sights and easily walkable to other neighborhoods. It was a bit touristy due to the location and the number of hotels in the area, but it felt very safe and well connected. I probably would choose a different, less busy area if I returned to Madrid but it was a good spot for my first visit. The hotel was great and very comfortable for staying for a full week.
What to Do: There is so much to do in Madrid! But it’s also nice to do nothing and just walk around seeing various neighborhoods, dipping into tapas bars and shops as you go. If you go during summer, you will definitely need to build in time for a siesta in the mid-afternoon when the day is at its hottest temperature (in late August it was around 90-95 degrees F).
Explore the neighborhoods. Wander around Malasaña, Chueca, and Las Huertas. Find an empty table in a plaza, get a drink, and just hang out. Lavapies, near Huertas, is a bit more of a dingy neighborhood, reminded me of the East Village a bit (not unsafe, just not as gentrified perhaps?). Lots of people hanging out around here, and feels very local/not touristy at all.
- Museums – The 3 main museums are the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen. These are all along the Paseo del Prado. You can buy a Paseo del Arte pass to visit all 3 for 29 euro (expires 1 year after you buy it, can be purchased online). The museums also offer free hours during the week so you can take advantage of those (but they are definitely more crowded during these times). The Prado and Reina Sofía are enormous. I was exhausted after visiting both. The Prado has tons of Goya and El Greco, as well as other artists. Reina Sofia is more contemporary art with a number of special exhibits. Also where you can see Picasso’s Guernica. The Thyssen is smaller and more manageable – I think this was my favorite. The collection spans 15th century to 20th century and feels like a comprehensive view of art.
- The Sorolla Museum is worth checking out – it’s located in the artist’s former home (which is gorgeous) and quite different from the other museums in Madrid. Spend some time just hanging out in the gardens after your visit.
- The Romantic Museum was also recommended to me, but I never made it there.
- Visit El Retiro Park. It’s Madrid’s main park, it’s beautiful and has everything (a little pond/lake for boating, running paths, rose garden). Another park to check out is the West park north of the Royal Palace. From here you can take a funicular across the former hunting grounds to see views of Madrid.
- Royal Palace and Cathedral – I skipped these and just checked them out from the outside. I did visit the Cathedral’s Crypt which is really stunning and worth the 2 euro donation to see.
- Day trips – There are plenty of options for easy day trips out of Madrid including Toledo, Segovia, El Ascorial Monastery, Avila, Aranjuez. Most of the destinations are accessible by train and within an hour or less of travel time.
- Take a tour! I did a food tour through Devour Madrid tours, so I opted out of doing a walking tour here. The food tour I took was the Tapas, Taverns, & History tour (they offer a few different tour options) – this was like a 4-hour walking tour with food and drinks. I did this on my 1st full day in Madrid. It is not cheap, but I always love doing a tour and it was fun to meet some new people (the whole tour group was American). Learned a lot about the history of Madrid, Spain, and ate some great food. Perfect to kick off my trip!
- Go to a bullfight if that’s your thing. The season runs from mid-May through October. The arena, Las Ventas, is one of two major arenas in Spain (the other is in Seville). I was curious to see a bullfight and, because of the timing (and not being a major fight), cheap tickets were still available (my ticket was 6 euro). Buy a seat cushion for 1 euro when you walk in. It’s worth it if you are going to stay for a few hours as the seats are just concrete. Understand that the bullfight is not for everyone, but it was fun to see. You can buy food/drink in the arena, but I also saw people bringing their own food in so that seems to be an option? The metro runs right to the arena so it’s easy to get to.
- El Rastro – This is the big weekly flea market that takes place every Sunday morning. Arrive early to beat the crowds. BE CAREFUL OF PICKPOCKETS here. The market is enormous and covers many city blocks. It’s really fun to check out, just be aware of your stuff. Before hitting the market, go to Boconó Cafe for some coffee and a nice breakfast.
- If you’re into film (especially Spanish cinema), check out Ocho y Media, a cafe/film bookstore near the Spanish Walk of Fame (which is tiny but cute!). I loved this place because it was full of Pedro Almodovar autographed items.
All I Did Was Eat & Drink in Madrid!
It’s not super expensive in Madrid (especially compared to France) so it’s easy to eat (and drink) well for not much money. Also, it’s Spain so people tend to eat lunch and dinner later (which I love). Expect to eat a late lunch and an even later dinner (like after 9 pm). I was thrilled the first day to eat lunch around 4pm and not be the only one dining at that time! Check out Culture Trip for recommendations by neighborhood and type of restaurant/cuisine. I found a lot of good spots through this site for Madrid as well as in other cities. It’s also common to see people drinking often during the day in Madrid – the Spaniards seem to drink a lot, though not to the kind of excess you may see in the US. The wine and beer are good and generally not expensive!
- Obviously, you will eat tapas in Madrid. Calle Cava Baja is known for tapas as is Calle de Jesus.
- The menu of the day is a great inexpensive option, especially at lunchtime. I found some good meals for about 12 euro which included a starter, main dish, dessert, and drink. The dishes aren’t always the most exciting, but it’s a good way to get in a solid meal for not much money.
- Meat! Try the jamón ibérico, the chorizo, and the lomo (probably my favorite that I tried).
- Eat some cheese.
- Go for churros con chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines. Come mid-morning, it didn’t seem to be that crowded then and I was able to get seated (and served) right away.
- Have some gazpacho and try the salmorejo, a slightly thicker/heavier version of gazpacho (depending on where you have it, it will be more like a dip than a soup)
- Try the tinto de verano in the summer – this is similar to sangria as it’s a cold, red wine drink made with Sprite/water or Fanta. Some of the ones I tried were a bit too sweet, but when you have a good one it will be the most refreshing drink on a hot afternoon.
- Visit one of the many neighborhood markets to sample some good food and have a drink. These are not really traditional food markets, but more like food halls with different stands offering tapas, plates, desserts, drinks. Mercado San Miguel is very touristy but also really good (check out the Casa de Bacalao for some really yummy seafood tapas for just 1.50 euro a piece). I also liked the Mercado de San Anton in Chueca which has a rooftop bar.
- Near the Mercado San Miguel – Calle Cava Baja has many tapas restaurants, also check out the mesones which are built into what used to be part of Madrid’s city walls. Meson del Champiñon is a bit gimmicky but fun for some stuffed mushrooms and tinto de verano (it’s very good here). Sobrino de Botin is considered to be one of the oldest restaurants in Madrid and is also nearby. Typically pretty crowded.
- Get a squid sandwich at Casa Rua. It’s basically fried calamari on bread and a bit dry, though sauce is discouraged 🙂 Order a beer to wash it down
Chueca – I loved this neighborhood. It was a 15-minute walk from my hotel with a very low key vibe during the day/evening and more of a party neighborhood late at night.
- The main plaza in Chueca (near the metro stop) has many bars where you can have a beer and people watch. Taberna Angel Sierra was my go-to here.
- Get lunch at Bazaar or one of the other hip restaurants around here. The menu of the day is a great deal here and at the surrounding places. In general, the menu of the day is a great option for lunch in Madrid because you will get a lot of food for less than 15 euro.
- Have some wine at Vides, a cute wine bar/shop which also offers tapas. I ended up hanging out here for a few hours (and having too much wine). Staff is super friendly, good vibe.
Malasaña – Reminded me a lot of the LES/East Village. Lots of really good tapas restaurants as well as non-Spanish food options here such as juice bars, healthy options, coffee shops.
- Bodega del Ardosa – Known for its tortilla española which was so good, I came back a second time. You will never want to eat tortilla española anywhere else.
- Bicycle Cafe – coffee shop (good for working it appears by the number of laptops I saw in the windows) which turns into a cocktail bar later in the day
- 1862 Dry Bar is known for its cocktails
Huertas – Similar to Malasana (has some of the same boutiques). This neighborhood was near to my hotel and good at night for drinks/tapas.
- Cafe Gonzalez – nice tapas spot, good wine. You can get a delicious tosta here (I recommend the jamón ibérico with manchego) for 5.50 euro. If possible, grab a seat in the front and people watch through the shop windows.
- Plaza Santa Ana – tons of places here, some more touristy than others. Vinoteca is a good spot for some wine and substantial tapas, The Penthouse is a rooftop bar for a more upscale vibe, and Cafe Central (nearby) offers live music most nights
Gran Via – I didn’t spend much time around here because Gran Via was completely under construction while I was in Madrid and it was quite unpleasant walking around. It’s Madrid’s major boulevard and probably will be nicer when it is redone!
- If you are looking for a nice rooftop spot, I’d recommend the bar on the top of the NH Collection Gran Via – Picalagartos Sky Bar. It’s great just before sunset though might be crowded. Call ahead to reserve a table.