10 things you must do when in Madrid
In 2011, when I was just 18 years old, I moved to Madrid, Spain to be an au-pair for a Spanish family of 5. I grew to love the nation's capital and when I returned last September there were many things I knew I had to do during my 4 day visit. While re-connecting with my niños was on the top of my page, the rest of my stay was full of some of my other favourite things about Madrid.
1. Make use of one of the best Metro systems in Europe and North America
While many lists will put London, Paris, or even New York City above Madrid when it comes to public transportation, I will quickly argue that the Metro de Madrid is top notch. I find it to be easier to use and far more comprehensive than other large cities, meaning you can get within blocks of anywhere you need to go without a bunch of transfers and backtracking. Trains come every 3 minutes during peak hours and when the rail closes down for the night, busses replace the routes, so you don't have to memorize two different systems to get yourself home at 4am. And to top it off, it's ridiculously affordable. Single tickets are only a euro fifty and since I still had my youth pass (under 26 is considered youth!) from when I lived there, I was able fill it with an unlimited month pass for just €20. Compare that to London where you can easily spend £20 in one day or New York where a week pass is far more than $20.
2. Visit the Sunday Market
El Rastro is one of my favourite places to get just about anything. From trinkets and souvenirs to hand made moroccan leather goods and antiques of all sorts, the Sunday market one block south of the La Latina metro station is your one stop shop. Just remember to arrive early in the morning to beat the crowd! One of my favourite purchases from 2012 was a large colourful woven hammock, which I purchased a duplicate of this time around to gift to my sister.
3. People watch in Puerta del Sol while snacking on a pastry from La Mallorquina
This is oddly one of my favourite pastimes from living in Madrid. La Mallorquina is the oldest pastry shop in the city and home to some of the most delicious desserts. I was disappointed upon my return to find that my favourite (empanadilla de dulce de leche) was no longer on the menu but I made do with a classic neapolitana de chocolate and found a spot to sit on the curb around one of the large fountains in the centre of the plaza to take in my surroundings. Puerta del Sol is the city centre of Madrid and home to many landmarks like La Real Casa de Correos (home of the mayor), Kilometre Zero, the historic Tio Pepe advertisement, the iconic Madrid Bear statue, and more recently the largest Apple Store in the world. 24 hours a day you'll find tourists and locals alike wandering the square, meeting friends, and watching entertainers. There's never a dull moment in Sol.
4. Take in iconic modern art at the Reina Sofia
There are many world class museums in Madrid, but my love for photography and design always leads me back to La Reina Sofia. It's full of pieces by renown artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali to name a few. You can save 10€ by making use of their free admission hours on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays from 7-9pm, Sundays from 2:30-7 as well as all day on May 18, October 12, and December 6.
5. Have a picnic in Retiro Park.
Retiro is the perfect place to be on a hot afternoon in Madrid. Find a patch of shaded grass to escape the sun and lay down a blanket for a little siesta, fiesta, or both! The park is complete with acres of treed grass, walking and running paths, a lake for rowing, historic statues, museum showcases, restaurants, and more. When I lived in Madrid we would meet here every Sunday afternoon to play (American) football, make new friends, and enjoy a meal together. Don't forget to pick up a bottle of Sangria from the corner store on your way!
6. Explore the streets of Malasaña
Malasaña is a trendy neighbourhood in the North-centre of the city. It's located between the Noviciado and Tribunal metro stations and is full of cool shops, hip bars, and new restaurants. There's always something new to discover along these narrow streets at any time of day or night.
7. Visit the Cathedral de Santa Maria de La Almundena
I had never gone inside the Cathedral before my most recent visit to Madrid, and I have no idea why not. Entering through the museum, visitors can make their way to the roof of the church which provides panorama views of the entire city including the Royal Palace next door. The view is totally worth the small fee, but if you are able to prove you are a student the admission is waived.
8. Eat Some of the best food at a low cost
Mmmm, Spanish food! It's so good and so cheap! Almost so cheap that you question if it really is good. But not quite. Endless bars line the city streets offering local specialties like patatas bravas (roasted potatoes in a spicy sauce), bocadillos de calamares (calamari sandwiches), tortilla española (omelette with potatoes), and jamón ibérico (cured ham) for days. The San Gines Chocolateria is a must-visit for churros con chocolate (best enjoyed at 5am after a night full of dancing). There are many great non-spanish options available as well, like Vesuvio, which is my favourite pizza spot found on Calle de Hortaleza and if you like inexpensive Indian food be sure to check out Calle de Lavapiés.
9. Photograph all of the architecture
As much as I love watching people and popping into shops as I stroll the streets of Madrid, things only get better when you look up. The architecture along Gran Via is spectacular and can be viewed from the top floor of the El Corte Engles department store in Plaza del Callao. Other points of interest include the grand Palacio De Cibeles, which many don't realize is free to enter, Puerta de Atocha (the main train station), and Spain's Royal Palace. Not pictured but equally worth a visit is Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (Madrid's bull fighting ring) and Plaza Mayor (the city's original main square). It's tough to find a building in the city that isn't full of history.
10. Watch the sunset over Templo de Debod
The Temple of Debod was originally built in Egypt in the 2nd Century BC but was gifted to Spain in 1968 after their financial support in saving other historic sites in Egypt when threatened by the construction of a dam in 1960. The temple was dismantled and reconstructed in a park behind Plaza de España and is the perfect place to watch the sun set on a city that comes even more alive in the dark. That being said, don't forget to take advantage of Madrid's phenomenal night life while you're in town. Enjoy a late night dinner with friends, meet other travellers at an Irish Pub, and then dance until the sun comes up at one of the cities popular multi-floor night clubs.