Thomas’ birthday is 3 days apart from mine (we are both Aries hehe) and since 2016, I am trying to make a tradition of celebrating my birthday in a different city. It started with Brussels, then Paris and this year I decided it was about time to finally get to know Spain. I’ve been living in Portugal for almost two years now, but in a long-distance relationship you use all your available time and money for meeting your loved one, which for me wasn’t really an effort when he was living in Paris.
However, now that he is based in Frankfurt, finding more interesting destinations to meet became more of an option and, with all the fuss brought by the series La Casa de Papel, we were keen on spending a weekend in Madrid and enjoy everything the cosmopolitan Spanish capital has to offer.
MADRID - THE BEST THINGS TO VISIT
Although the region presents some records of occupation and activities since the Roman Empire, Madrid's history had its beginning marked by the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. In the mid of the IX century, the emir Muhammad I ordered the construction of a small fortress on the banks of the river Manzanare and the moors started building a citadel around it bringing more importance to the city since the major city of the region back then was Toledo. It is from this time that came the name of the city once the Arabs called it al-Majrit or Magerit which means land rich in waters.
With the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Christians, a process that lasted for almost 800 years, Madrid changed from Muslim to Christian occupation several times, originating the mixture of cultures that is possible to see in its architecture even nowadays. However, in 1083 the Alfonso VI, king of León and Castille took over the city for the Christian kingdoms in his intent to conquer the more powerful Toledo. And with the evolution of the Reconquest, eventually all the Arabs were decimated from the peninsula and by marriage, war and agreements all of these kingdoms were progressively being reunited under only one ruler to form what we currently know as the diverse country of Spain.
After being conquered by the Christians, Madrid got its official city status grant in 1202 and little by little started to host important markets and fairs, becoming crescent known to be a commercial hub. In 1561, the King Felipe II decided to transfer the Royal Court from Toledo to Madrid, turning the city into the capital of his vast empire. From this time on, with the Spanish discoveries in America and the consequent Spain's Golden Century (Siglo de Oro), the city grew rapidly and many architectural works took place, transforming the city with some of the landmarks that we can still witness.
More recently, in the second half of the XIX century, with the advent of the first Industrial Revolution, people from the countryside started the migration movement to the capital in search of a better life and Madrid went through an important urban planning to modernize its streets and show the power of the Spanish Royal Family. Erecting some beautiful building with a peculiar architecture of the time, the Gran Vía is the epitome of this period. Though suffering some bombing during the Spanish Civil War and becoming the first European capital to be bombed, Madrid was able to rebuild most of the affected historical buildings and integrate them with the later modernization of the city, becoming today a buzzing capital with a witnessable past.
A TWO-DAY ITINERARY
Walking tour - Day 1
1. Start the day in Puerta del Sol
Start your day in this vibrant square which is the heart of Madrid. Being very central (it is considered as the kilometer 0 from every road in Spain), it has a subway station called "Sol" which serves lines 1, 2 and 3. The Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) was part of the city walls that protected Madrid in the XIV century and has this name because the gate faced east. Nowadays, it presents famous landmarks such as the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry tree, the heraldic symbol of the city, and the Tío Pepe lighted advertising sign located just atop the former Paris Hotel.
2. Taste some delicious churros and hot chocolate in Chocolatería San Ginés
If your accommodation does not include breakfast, don't be sad! You can have a delicious one in the Chocolatería San Ginés. Located in a nice alley just a few minutes by walk from Puerta del Sol, this traditional coffee shop has been serving its mouth-watering chocolate con churros for 122 years and we can guarantee you it is worth every calorie. It is open 24/7, 365 days a year but it can have a big waiting line in rush hours.
The cup of the thick hot chocolate with 6 churros or 2 porras (a thicker kind of churro) is enough for one person and costs around 4 EUR.
3. Continue towards the beautiful Plaza Mayor
Situated outside the first walls of the city, this square was once known as Plaza de Arrabal since it was located between two arrabales (neighborhoods outside the fortified city) and hosted a big market. After transferring the Royal Court to Madrid, the King Felipe II commissioned the reconstruction of a more organized square and with some rebuilding after a series of fires, we got to the Plaza Mayor we know today. With its 9 gate ways and a series of beautiful arcs, while in Plaza Mayor you can also witness the Casa de la Panaderia (Bakery House), a building framed by twin towers which used to be the main bakery of the city. In the center of the square, there is a statue of the King Felipe III.
4. Try some delicious tapas in Mercado San Miguel
This centennial market located just outside Plaza Mayor is the gastronomic temple of Madrid. With its charming iron architecture from the beginning of the XX century and the vast culinary options, you will certainly be won over by Mercado San Miguel. As we were full with our breakfast in San Ginés, we did not eat the first time we visited, but we returned later and faced the hungry hoard of tourists to have a little taste of the traditional Spanish tapas. And it was worth it! Though the prices are not the cheapest, the food is delicious and the ambiance is quite vibrant. You can check the opening hours and available culinary options here.
5. Head towards Casa de la Villa (Town Hall)
Getting to Plaza de la Villa (Town's Square), you will face this building following the traditional Madrid architecture style of the XVII century: a facade in brick, granite and slate with symmetrical distribution between angular towers topped with spires. Built to host the City Council since the habitual meeting place was a church, the Casa de la Villa later served as prison and town hall. Nowadays, with the town hall transferred to Palacio de Cibeles, it is used only to some official events.
6. Admire the beautiful architecture of Parroquia Santa María la Real de la Almudena
Considered as the oldest in Madrid, this church presents many polemic versions of its origin. Some tried to give it a mythological aura by saying it was once a roman temple devoted to Jupiter, others a more heroic version that the inhabitants of Madrid worshiped Our Lady in a small temple and, fearing it would be desecrated by the Moorish, hid the image in the walls of the city. What is certain is that, when conquering Madrid from the Moorish, the king Alfonso VI purified the Great Mosque of the city, consecrated it to the Christianity, but it is not known if the building was torn down and then rebuilt or if it was only a symbolical act.
7. Continue towards Catedral de la almudena
Originated from the small church of Santa María la Real de la Almudena, this cathedral has a way more recent history. As part of the Hapsburg Madrid, it was meant to be a pantheon for the late Queen María de la Mercedes and the plans for its construction started only in 1879. However, the plans were changed many times and it was only considered as a complete cathedral more than 100 year late, in 1993. Located in front of the Royal Palace, the marriage of the King Felipe VI with the journalist Letizia Rocasolano in 2004 took place at this cathedral. It is possible to visit the cathedral and its less known crypt with more than 1000 buried people donating 1 euro for the maintenance of the church.
8. Admire the greatness of Palacio real
Facing the cathedral, you can behold the magnificent Royal Palace of Madrid. With over 3000 rooms, it is considered the largest royal place in Europe by floor area. With origin in the fortress built by the Moorish near the banks of the river Manzaneda, the Palace received improvements and expansions by the following Christian kings. Although the Spanish royal family does not live in it anymore, it is undeniably an imposing building.
Visits cost 10 EUR and lasts around 1 hour. The palace opens at 10 a.m. and the closing hour depends on the time of the year (check here for more information).
9. Stroll around Plaza de Oriente
Walk to the east of the Royal Palace where, between the palace and the Royal Theater, you can find the Plaza de Oriente (East Square). It was built in the XVIII century after tearing down a set of medieval buildings to clean space and highlight the path between the two important monarch buildings. Its geometrically shaped plants garden with colorful flowers contains the statues of 44 Spanish kings, the most important one being the one of King Felipe IV which is in the center stage of the plaza.
10. Head towards Teatro Real
Continuing east after Plaza de Oriente, you will find the charming Teatro Real (Royal Theater). Also know as El Real, its building started at 1818 by the order of Queen Isabel II but was concluded only in 1850. Since then, it hosted different events from the inauguration Italian opera to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969. With the construction of the subway of Madrid, it had to be closed for restoring damages in its structure for 41 years. Nowadays, after more restoration works, it is able to host operas again and offers different kinds of visits (check here).
11. Get lost in the Sabatini gardens
Now go back towards the Royal Palace to check this neoclassical-style gardens which allow amazing views to the palace. Built in the 1930's on the place where the palace's stables were once located, it homages the Italian architect Francesco Sabatini who designed them among other works for the royal family. Offering a gorgeous water mirror with the north facade of the palace on the background framed by geometrically-shaped bushes and trees, the Jardines de Sabatini is a classic spot for great pictures and for watching the sunset.
12. Feel like in Pharaoh time in Templo de Debod
Continuing in the vibe of parks, you can go to the Parque del Oeste (West Park) where there is one of our personal favorites in Madrid: the Temple of Debod. An ancient Egyptian temple founded in the II century BC, it was dismantled and transferred to Madrid due to the possible harm offered by the construction of a dam and as a gift of gratitude for the Spanish help in saving the Abu Simbel temples. The rebuilding in Madrid followed the temple original East-to-West orientation which, allied with the water mirror around it, turns it into a exceptional spot to see the sunset. Visits to the inside of the temple are currently suspended, but for the curious, there is a virtual one here.
13. Check the impressive Plaza de EspaNa
Going back to modern time, you can check Plaza de España, one of the most known postcards of the Spanish capital. The history of this square where once stood military barracks which were originally supposed to be a convent shows its importance in the urban area of Madrid. In the beginning of the XX century, with the urban planning of the city, it was decided to turn it into a large square. With the magnificent monument in homage of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his famous characters Dom Quijote and Sancho Panza, Plaza de España is framed by architecture masterpieces such as the Neo-Baroque styled Edifício de España and Torre de Madrid, one of the tallest buildings in the city.
13. Walk around Plaza del Callao & Gran Via
From Plaza España, you can start exploring the iconic Gran Vía, also known as the Broadway of Madrid. This charming avenue combines the glamour of the architecture from the beginning of the XX century with the modern life culture. Built to substitute the tangling ways of narrow streets in the historical center of Madrid and provide a better flow of the traffic, it was responsible for the demolition of more than 300 buildings. And, as every Broadway needs its Times Square, when you get to Plaza del Callao you will certainly feel as in this postcard of the Big Apple: blinding lights, big magazines, vibrant environment and a lot of people passing by and taking pictures. For the iconic view of the square, you can go up to the last floor of the El Corte Inglés store for its terrace and big windows which provide a breathtaking panorama of Gran Vía.
14. Get a paella for dinner in La Barraca
Finally, a well-deserved pit-stop for eating. I am personally a seafood lover, therefore one of my favorite dishes is the very Spanish paella. As it was my birthday, Thomas looked for a traditional restaurant serving this specialty and booked a table for dinner in La Barraca. Serving paella and arroces as in Valencia tradition since 1935, it is one of the most recommended diners for any paella lover. Personally, it was good but not very wow, the portions are not that big and you are obliged to order the same dish for both as they don't accept order of paella for just one person. In our opinion it is a 3.5 stars out of 5.
WALKING TOUR - DAY 2
1. Kick off the day by having brunch in Carmencita bar
It was Sunday and finally my birthday! Thomas checked for brunch options in Madrid for us to kick-off the day properly. We booked a table at 11 a.m at the Carmencita Bar, near the Noviciados subway station. Serving delicious brunch plates and menus ranging from 9 to 15 EUR, its specialty is the Eggs Benedict and it is absolutely savory. The ambiance of the restaurant is super nice but it started to have more customers and being livelier from noon onwards.
2. Try amazing desserts in Pastelería Quequén San Bernardo
A birthday is not a birthday without a birthday cake! When going from the Noviciados subway station to El Carmencita, we saw the window of a bakery with tempting looking cakes: Pastelería Quequén San Bernardo. After our brunch, we headed directly there to have our desserts and they were as good as they looked. There, we discovered it was an Argentinian bakery with the world famous empanadas of different tastes. We took away some to have a quick snack later since the day ahead was quite busy and we didn't know if we would have enough time to stop for lunch.
3. Head to Edificio Grassy
After the brunch, you can take line 2 in Noviciados until the Sevilla station (only 5 stops towards Las Rosas). From there you can access the opposite end of Gran Vía and behold two of the most iconic buildings. The Edificio Grassy was built in the beginning of the XX century and it is known for being the first building of the street and for showcasing illuminated advertisements of clock brands (the currently one being Rolex) since the building houses a jewelry and a museum of ancient clocks.
4. Admire the architecture of Edificio Metropolis
The second emblematic building, the Edificio Metropolis, is located at the corner of Calle de Alcalá and Gran Vía. Designed by French architects, its Beaux-Arts style allied with its privileged location allows it to stand out from the surrounding buildings. Originally built and owned by another insurance company, it was bought in 1972 by the company Metrópolis Seguros which carried out many restoring works and added the memorable sign on the facade.
5. Stop by the glamorous Plaza de Cibeles
If you continue on Calle de Alcalá, you will get to the most glamorous square in Madrid: Plaza de Cibelles. With a fountain at its center depicting a marble statue of Cybele, the Roman goddess of the Earth, agriculture and fertility, this square is framed by imposing buildings such as the Palacio de Buenavista, Banco de España and the striking Palacio de Cibeles. Former head office of the Spanish Mail Company, this palace is now the City Hall of Madrid, hosts a cultural center and offers a Madrid Observation Deck in the 6th floor providing a new perspective look on the square below.
Visits to the deck costs 2 EUR but it is currently inoperative due to restoration works (more information here).
6. Check the Museo del Prado
From Plaza de Cibeles, you can go south through the beautiful boulevard of Paseo del Prado until the main Spanish national art museum: the Museo del Prado. Originally designed to be the Natural History Cabinet, the building was later designated to host the Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures and opened its doors in 1819 to showcase the art pieces belonging to the Spanish Crown and to praise Spanish art among other European schools. Nowadays, the Museu del Prado displays more than 8000 paintings and 700 sculptures with highlight for its unique collection on Spanish art from the XI century to the beginning of the XX century.
It is open from 10 AM to 8 PM Monday to Sunday and costs 15 EUR. Golden tip: there is free admission Monday to Saturday from 6 p.m to 8 p.m and Sunday from 5 p.m to 7 p.m.
7. Walk around the Parque del Retiro - Estanque Grande
Continuing east from Museo del Prado, you will reach this natural retreat in the middle of Madrid: the Parque del Retiro. You can enter through the astounding Puerta de Felipe IV which gives access to the Plaza Parterre, a planned garden with impressive molded cypress trees. Continuing straight, you will reach the Fuente de la Alcachofa from where you will be able to see at your left the most iconic symbol of this park: the Estanque Grande del Buen Retiro. Located in the heard of the park, this artificial body of water was built in the XVII century as a part of the garden of the former Palace of Buen Retiro to stage spectacles depicting naval battles and for a retreat where the royal family and the court could enjoy boat trips. Later on, in 1902, the monument with a statue of the King Alfonso XII was added, which nowadays offers a free 360º degree lookout.
You can rent a boat and row through the Estanque del Retiro to feel like a court member for 6 EUR (weekdays) or 8 EUR (weekends and holidays).
8. Visit Palacio de Cristal and Palacio Velazquez
Located nearby the Estanque del Retiro, both these gems were designed by the architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and raised in the end of the XIX century. Built between 1881 and 83 as an exposition pavilion for the National Exhibition of Mining, the Palacio Velázquez beautifully combines an iron structure with traditional brick and tiles decoration. Its steel and glass dome allows a magnificent flow of natural light making it perfect for hosting free-entrance temporary exhibitions as an extension of the Reina Sofia Museum. Also built as an exposition pavilion but this time for the Philippines Exhibition in 1887, the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) was supposed to be a big iron-glass greenhouse to receive the Philippines plant species. Though not used as a greenhouse anymore since it hosts different exhibitions, this masterpiece, together with the lake and fountain located just in front, provides a beautiful background for pictures and picnics.
9. Check the Fountain of the fallen angel
Going south from Palacio de Cristal, you'll reach this square with a fountain representing the devil. Yes, Madrid has a public sculpture of the devil though not a scary one. The statue depicts the scene when the angel Lucifer was banned from heaven and was cast first in plaster in 1877 and then in bronze by the Spanish sculptor Ricardo Bellver.
10. Check the book market in Cuesta de Moyano
If you turn west, you can exit the Park Buen Retiro through the Fallen Angel gate and will find a famous pedestrian street called Cuesta de Moyano. This is a heaven for book worms! With more than 30 vintage-looking bookseller's stalls which are open everyday, it offers a great amount of used books (though the majority in Spanish), maps and paintings.
11. Feel like in jurassic park in Atocha Train Station
Getting back to Paseo del Prado, you will see this monumental train station which was the first one in Madrid. Built in 1851 as part of the second Spanish railway with only a wooden platform, Estación de Atocha was subsequently expanded and renovated, with the addition of the great roof structure rising up to almost 30 meters. Nowadays it is one of the main hubs in Madrid, not only connecting commute trains, high-speed trains, buses and subway but also offering a mall, cafes and even a night club. However, what really got our attention was the luxurious tropical garden inside the station with more than 400 species which reminded us of the main building in Jurassic Park.
12. Enjoy contemporary Spanish Art in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Located just 5 minutes walking from Estación de Atocha, Reina Sofía Museum is housed in the old Madrid General Hospital. Specialized in Spanish contemporary art, this museum offers pieces of artists such as Picasso, Dalí and Miró. Special highlight for one of Picasso's most famous painting Guernica which depicts the horror of a Spanish Civil War's bombing.
Visits cost 10 EUR or 8 EUR when booked online. Free entrance from 7 p.m to 9 p.m from Monday to Saturday or from 1:30 p.m to 7 p.m on Sundays (check here for more information).
DETAILS OF THE TRIP
- By plane: plenty of flights to Madrid's well-connected International Airport of Barajas. From there you can reach the city center:
- By subway: you can take the subway line 8 until Nuevos Ministerios subway station where you can change to line 10 (5 EUR).
- By bus: there is also options of bus (5 EUR).
- By train: Renfe train connect the airport to the Atocha train station (cheapest option: around 2 EUR).
- Many options: Madrid has plenty of choices of accommodation for every taste and budget.
- Airbnb Alex and Juli: we stayed in a very central Airbnb room nearby Sol subway station (around 40 EUR per night).
- As our room faced inwards, it was isolated from the noise. We advise you to look for central options as well so you don't have to commute to explore the city. But if you have a light sleep, pay attention if the room faces the street or not.
- You CAN'T MISS the triad of Spanish cuisine: tapas, paella and churros con chocolate!
- Mercado San Miguel: this is the place to go for tapas: many options and nice environment. Pay attention to the rush hours! It can get really crowded.
- Chocolatería San Gines: for churros, don't try them anywhere else than San Gines. Sometimes it is too greasy or the chocolate not thick enough. Make sure to try it in this authentic place.
*All prices are referred to April 2018
And now it's your turn to let us know what can't be missed in Madrid. If we didn't cover it, tell us so we can check it the next time we stop by.