Saturday, 16 April 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Madrid

So you are thinking of visiting Madrid and want a bit of advice on what to see? One of my favourite things about living abroad is being a personal tour guide for my friends when they come and visit. So as I’m leaving now, I thought I would share a couple ideas, if you are visiting in the near future, although obviously, this is only from my experience:

Food Glorious Food
The Spanish know how to eat well. Oh yes they do. In fact they eat five times a day. Churros (like long, thin fried donuts!?) and hot chocolate, the traditional breakfast, but equally good as an afternoon snack, can be found in most cafes, but for a great experience, seek out San Ginés, right in the centre, and find a seat downstairs.

Paella of course is an important part of any trip to Spain. The restaurants in the centre are a bit expensive and touristy, but if you are happy to do a bit of map reading, you will find a gorgeous little Spanish restaurant down a side street near the centre - Calle Moratín - called Champaneria Gala, where you can share an enormous paella for 15 euros each, and enjoy some very nice sangria as well!

Night life

Madrid comes alive at night! The shops are all open till past 9pm, and if you want to eat out Spanish style, 10pm is the time to do so. The centre near Puerta del Sol is obviously full of all types of bars and clubs. Find a nice salsa bar if you like a bit of Spanish dancing. My favourite is a quirky little bar near Plaza Santa Ana, called El Imperfecto. A jug of sangria for 10 euros, and a very youthful and lively atmosphere. The coffees served there during the afternoon are also to die for (particularly the cafe bonbon, pictured above), and they have an incredible selection of exotic teas.  For a more authentic Madrileno vibe, head down through plaza Mayor (which is also definately worth a visit during the daytime) to the La Latina area, and enjoy a mojito in one of the many bars along Calle Cava Baja.

A bit of sight-seeing

Puerta del Sol is the place to start – basically the centre of Madrid. In fact, it is actually the centre of Spain! If you look carefully you will find the plaque called “Kilometro Cero” or Kilometre Zero, which is the point from which all the roads fan out all over Spain. The statue of the bear and the tree is the symbol of Madrid, and also makes a good meeting point.

To the East, the Royal Palace and its gardens are lovely to look at, although not worth paying to enter. Entry is free on a Wednesday however, if you are there during the week. To the left of the palace you can see the Cathedral. This took over 500 years to complete, so the styles vary greatly as you walk around. Note the patches of darker stone in the walls. After the destruction during the Spanish Civil War, the holes made in the buildings were filled in with a darker coloured stone to remember what had past. The plaza Mayor is a beautiful, medieval square near the centre. If you would like a short but interesting tour of Madrid in English, there is a free walking tour every hour on the hour at the weekend, starting from the bear and tree statue in Sol, and finishing at the Cathedral.
Heading East of Sol, towards Gran Via, you pass the Circulo de bellas Artes, where for 2 euros you can go up to the terrace and have a fantastic view of the whole of Madrid. If you carry on a bit further down Gran Via you will reach Cibeles, where the stunning white palace in front of you is actually the central post office! You can even send your postcards from there! 

Interested in art?

The two main art galleries in Madrid are the Prado and the Reina Sofia. The Prado, a world famous art gallery, holds plenty of beautiful pieces, particularly those by Goya. It’s amazing the incredible amount of expression and personality that Goya manages to reflect in his portraits, compared to the notably more drab portraits by other artists. 

If you want to see some Picasso, the Guernica, one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world, is on exhibition in the Reina Sofia, just down the road from the Prado. This piece is a lot more impressive in stature than the disappointingly small Mona Lisa in Paris, and on the opposite wall you get to see its creation in stages, as it was documented by Picasso’s girlfriend. My favourite piece is the picture of this girlfriend which is in the next room – certainly not the most flattering of pieces – I wonder what she thought of it!

Both the Prado and the Reina Sofia are free in the evenings – the Prado after 6 and the Reina Sofia after 8. Perfect for a quick look around before dinner if you are trying to be Spanish and eat late. Another gallery worth a quick visit is the small gallery sponsored by Caja Madrid, which is found right in the Centre near Sol. This hosts temporary exhibitions that can be well worth a look and entrance is always free.

Want to get some exercise/ sunshine?

Madrid boasts plenty of lovely parks. The Retiro park is situated to the east of central Madrid – just a short walk from the Prado. It is a lovely park to walk around, with lots of different areas, including a memorial of the Atocha train bombing, and the “Glass Palace” that houses free modern art exhibitions, and is a nice place to take photos. Most importantly though, the Retiro has a lovely lake, where you can rent a rowing boat for 45 minutes for just 4.50 euros and enjoy the sunshine on a romantic (or otherwise) boat ride. 

Further out from the centre, but in my opinion even more worth a visit, is the Juan Carlos park (Metro Line 8, Campo de las naciones). This is an enormous masterpiece of modern landscape architecture, and is full of surprises! You can rent a bike – or even a tandem if you are brave enough – for free (don’t forget your passport) and cycle around this enormous and stunning park for an hour. Similarly there is a lake here where you can rent rowing boats over the summer.

Beautiful plazas
Madrid is full of very quaint plazas, or squares, the perfect place to sit out and enjoy the sunshine. My favourite is without a doubt the plaza Santa Ana, just 5 minutes from Sol. There are innummerable restaurants to choose from, but my advice would be “Montaditos”, a cafe which offers 100 varieties of mini baguettes, not to mention shandy (“clara”) or beer for 1 euro. You write down which sandwiches you want on the paper provided and they bring it out to you.

Romantic Sunset?

Don’t miss a beautiful sunset over the Sierra and Casa del Campo forest. The Templo de Debod, and Egyptian temple given as a gift to Spain, is an idealic spot to watch a colourful Spanish sunset, with its trees and foundains. The Temple and its lakes are lit up at night and it is a beautiful place, not far from the centre, to enjoy the last rays of sunshine.

Of course, the list is endless, these are just a few suggestions. Shopping, dancing, drinking, relaxing, eating... Madrid offers it all. Have a great trip!

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