- After donning my trustworthy rucksack on countless occasions to reside in hostels of all shapes and sizes all over the world, I have come to notice one similar trait in the majority of travellers I encounter – backpackers are a breed of traveller who do their utmost to soak up as much culture as they can during the day and then make sure to sample as much of a city’s nightlife at night. They practice none of the ‘lying in bed until 12 noon’ carry on that boisterous males on stag parties engage in, nor do they lock themselves up from the outside world after dark like many families do. Backpackers get to see the best of both worlds. That is why Madrid is a city that should be pencilled in on most itineraries as this is a city, it seems, suits this lifestyle more than any.
Madrileños (natives of Madrid) seem to have a certain zip about them that city slickers in other Spanish cities don’t. As you wander around its busy streets you find yourself dedicating more time to dodging the Madrileños who pace ferociously up and down its streets than to graciously admiring the grand buildings that decorate its plazas and boulevards.
The heart and soul of Madrid
One such boulevard is Gran Via, Madrid’s main artery which constantly pumps life and soul into the centre. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, everything from internet cafés to fast-food joints to boutique hotels line this famous thoroughfare. This boulevard is also just minutes from the ever-bustling Sol, the city centre’s main district. Primarily peppered with shops and restaurants just like Gran Via, it is here you will find Plaza Mayor, one of Madrid’s most illustrious squares built back in 1619. Used in the past for everything from bullfights to food fairs, today it is head and shoulders above the rest in the people-watching stakes.
Along with being the commercial and economic centre of Spain, Madrid holds the title of art capital of the country. Museo del Prado, Centro de Arte de Reina Sofia and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza are testament to this. Known collectively as the ‘big three’, together they present art lovers with a real feast for the eyes as each museum houses different works of art to cater for different tastes.
The most prized collection can be found in the Prado (Paseo del Prado; open Tues-Sun 9am-8pm; admission €6). International masters from the Netherlands and Italy have their works rest here along with sculptures from Ancient Rome and Greece. In all, this enormous museum houses over 7,000 works. Only half of these are on display to the public so there is no way possible to see all of them in one sitting.
Instead it is the remaining two museums of the ‘big three’ that that can realistically be covered in one visit. Both house works of modern art, while Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (Paseo del Prado, 8; open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm; admission €6) is home to paintings dating from the 14th century up to the 20th century. The bottom floor of this museum, where paintings by Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Picasso are kept, also has a pop art collection that is second to none. A number of Picasso’s most memorable works can be found hanging from the ceilings in the final museum of the ‘big three’ the Reina Sofia (c/Santa Isabel 52; open Mon-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm, closed Tues; admission €3.01). All three museums are within a stone’s throw of each other. Just make sure to decide which one(s) appeal to you most before making your way down to them.
The greatest football team in the world
If you, like me, are passionate about football than no trip to Madrid is complete without going to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu (Paseo de la Castellana 144, open daily from 10.30am-7.30pm; admission €9), home to Real Madrid, the most successful football team in history. In the past it has been the playing ground of superstar’s such as Croatia’s Davor Suker and Portuguese striker Luis Figo, while nowadays such ‘galacticos’ (a title given to ridiculously famous and wealthy footballers) as David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane. Guided tours take you through the visiting team’s dressing rooms (which are apparently mirror images of the home side’s), the physio rooms and the most decorative trophy room on the planet.
But if you, unlike me, don’t get kicks out of seeing what it would be like to be on a football team facing Real Madrid, or you don’t particularly feel like traipsing up and down the aisles of a museum, then you may want to visit Palacio Real (Plaza de Oriente, c/Bailén 2-6; open Mon-Sat 9.30am-6pm, Sun 9am-3pm; admission €9). Taking 26 years to complete, Madrid’s grand palace has approximately 2,800 rooms. While only 50 are open to the public, they will take your breath away.
Restaurants specialising in delicacies from all over the globe can be found in every district in Madrid, but just like in most Spanish cities, you will find tapas bars are the most popular type of eatery. For those of you not familiar with this Spanish speciality, let me divulge…tapas are a selection of small savoury snacks that are eaten either on their own as a snack or collectively as a meal. So now you know.
Tapas bars really are a dime a dozen in Madrid. There are even chains of tapas bars, sort of like a combination of a McDonald’s and a tapas bar. One such place is Canas Y Tapas (c/Atocha, 42; open daily from 9am-11pm). There’s nothing particularly authentic about them, but they remarkably manage to maintain a small hint of character. Plus, the food isn’t all that bad. Somewhere that is a wholly more authentic affair, although still succumbing to tourists in more recent times, is Casa Alberto (c/Huertas, 18; open Tues-Sun 12pm-5pm, 8pm-1.30am). Upon setting foot in this well-known tapas bar you won’t know where to look – at the glistening bottles racked up behind the counter, at the pictures hanging proudly on the wall or at the small, but full menus.
If tapas isn’t your thing and you’re looking for something a tad more conventional, you can do worse than an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet from Fresco. Once you give the cashier €7.80 (buffet costs €9.20 after 8pm and at weekends) you can shovel as much pizza, pasta and salad into your mouth as you possibly can.
Madrid after dark
Unlike some of its European counterparts, there is a real buzz around Madrid after dark and two areas more than others seem to draw Madrileños from their humble abodes until the small hours of the morning. One of these is Plaza de Santa Ana and the colourful streets that branch off it. This vibrant square is inclined to be somewhat touristy but chilling with a beer at one of its numerous bars is a nice way to begin a night nonetheless.
Just off the square, La Comedia (c/Principe 16; open nightly from 5pm-4am) is quite plush but is still surprisingly forthcoming to easy going backpackers who make the trek to the Spanish capital every weekend. Its dark décor creates a subdued ambiance, but this changes as the night gets older when livelier tunes persuade many members of the clientele to get down on the dancefloor. Two other streets that keep going until the early morning are Calle de Pelayo and Calle de Campoamor. Here hundreds of bar-hopping Madrileños swarm the streets every weekend.
The Spanish practice a tradition known as a ‘siesta’ where they retire to their bedrooms for an hour or two in the afternoon or evening for a nap. After spending four days in its capital I can see why. If you are planning on visiting this city any time soon, get up early as there is so much to see. But just think of the phrase ‘When in Rome…’ and go for a siesta before going out that night. You will need the rest.
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