I don’t really do travel guides. I write about the psychology and practicalities of location-independent lifestyles. But, having spent two months in Madrid, it would be a shame to not post a few words and a whole lot of pictures of the city.
The number one thing to see in Madrid is the palace. It is one of the best I’ve ever visited, and I’ve seen many. The bright shining façade is surpassed by the kaleidoscope of extravagant rooms within. My favourite is the Gasparini room, where the wallpaper has been hand-embroidered with silk threads into almost centimetre-thick trees, branches and leaves, climbing up the walls to where they join with the ceiling’s plaster-sculpture of a canopy. I could not believe my eyes. This is a must-see.
The palace also hosts a portrait gallery and an armoury that are worth a visit.
Museums and ArtArt art art. Wherever I turned, people insisted that I had to indulge in Madrid’s incredible art scene. Chief among the art museums is Prado, and I dutifully went. The place is huge, and 80% is Christian art. So, if you get off on seeing Jesus crucified, beaten, whipped or his disciples and martyrs burnt, beheaded, shot through with arrows etc ad-nauseum, then you are in luck! Buy a week-pass because this cornucopia of torture just keeps on giving.
The remaining 20% is portraits of previously important people, scenes from medieval Spain, Greek mythology (love!) and some random stuff.
Prado has some big names in art, for sure. And if I had some kind of art appreciation, I would probably have loved it. As it stands, I .. enjoyed it. A bit. Well, four hours, which is as long as it took me to walk through it, stopping only to admire certain pieces that caught my eye.
Other famous art museums that people kept harping on about but to which I never went are Reina Sofia and Thyssen.
There are a few non-art museums too such as the Natural History and Americas museums. However, I didn’t go to any of them. The one museum I did go to was the Archaeology museum. It starts with pre-historic man and finished in modern times, but restricts itself geographically to the Spanish peninsula. As with all archaeology museums, there are endless displays of arrowheads made form flint, clay pots and other uninteresting items. But among the detritus are some absolute gems. And at the start of each new epoch is an animated video describing the cultural changes to the peninsula. These videos were fantastic at giving you a context for the displays within the next epoch, and towards the end, I felt a sense of vertigo at having walked from pre-historic man to the modern day.
If you left Prado still peckish for more religious torture porn then there are plenty of churches and convents for you to enjoy. The Encarnación and Descalzas monasteries look like the film sets of the Saw movies. The attention to violence is remarkable. I have visited Christian churches, convents and cathedrals all over the world, and they have all been a bit morbid, but the Spanish ones stand out as spectacularly focused on the torture. I have no idea why. Anyway, I wouldn’t advice anyone going to these two convents. You must follow snail-paced Spanish-language guided tours and they are boring boring boring.
I would, however, visit the Almudena Cathedral. The main hall is a classic yet impressive cathedral hall, but there are two additional treats. Above, you can visit the grand dome and from there get a great view of Madrid. Below ground is a large crypt with rows upon rows of stone pillars. If there is one place I’d like to play Dungeons and Dragons, it would be there…
Want a break from Christianity? Then escape to the oddly located Temple of Debod, a 2nd century BC Egyptian temple in the centre of Madrid. It was built in southern Egypt but when, in 1960, a dam was build and threatened the temple with flooding, UNESCO asked for help in relocating the ancient temple, and it ended up in Madrid. It is small but worth a visit.
ParksIn good weather, I recommend renting a bike and go cycling around the large Retiro park. Ask for a bike lock as there are a few places you’ll want to stop at and explore. One such place is the Crystal Palace, a large building made entirely of glass and steel with absolutely nothing inside of it, yet entirely fascinating to be inside.
For a smaller and more sculpted garden variety of parks, visit the Sabatini and Moro gardens, located beside and behind the castle. Note that the entrance to Moro is on the opposite side of the castle. There are absolutely no signs telling you this. Yes, I searched the other three sides first.
The Botanical Garden is small and rather unimpressive, but if you happen to pass by and you have an hour to spare, why not?
Squares and Places
Everyone kept telling me that I simply had to check out Plaza Mayor. You really don’t. It is a big square surrounded by old façades, one of which has some nice murals. It is nice, but there is nothing there that you won’t find simply walking around Madrid, which is sprinkled with old beautiful façades. Calle (road) Alcalá, Calle Mayor and Gran Via have some spectacular buildings.
My favourite building is the grand Palacio de Cibeles. I could stare at it for hours.
Plaza de España is famous because of the Don Quixote statue, but if you don’t care about that, you can skip it. Plaza de Sol isn’t the most exciting square, but you can’t avoid it because every street twist around and lead back to it somehow. While there, you may as well check out the Km 0 plaque, the point from which all distances in Spain is measured, and the statue of the Bear and ‘Strawberry tree’, the symbol of Madrid.
Tapas. There. Let’s move on.
The San Miguel Market is an indoor market turned into a food court, and it is a perfect place to meet a few friends for a light bite to eat (tapas…) and have a few drinks. Atmospheric and just good fun.
Somehow, sweet and deep fried dough dipped in a cup of hot chocolate is considered breakfast in Madrid. Churros & Chocolate can be found everywhere, but the best place to dig in is Ginos.
Botin is meant to be the oldest restaurant in the world. I never went, so can’t say much about it, but if you have the money to pay for the right to say you ate at the oldest restaurant in the world, go for it.
Excursions: Toledo (And El Escorial)Toledo is a city on a hill half an hour’s train ride from Madrid. It retains a medieval feel with small narrow streets splintering into even smaller alleys in a labyrinthine mess. The city has been influenced by Jewish, Christian and Muslim epochs and this is evident wherever you go.
There are a few noteworthy attractions in Toledo. Prime among them is the Cathedral, which is enormous, gorgeously decorated and has a clock tower which you can climb. The best-known museum in town is also the smallest I’ve ever visited. One room, one painting. That’s it. It is the ‘museum’ of the Burial of Count Orgaz(m) by El Greco, a famous painter native to Toledo. The castle looks impressive from the outside, but sadly it was heavily bombed during the Franco era and the inside has been redone terribly, and it often feels more like walking around a hospital than a medieval castle.
When taking the train to Toledo, stop a moment and enjoy the inside garden of the Atocha station.
El Escorial is another famous excursion from Madrid. I never went there, so won’t go into it further, but it seemed worth mentioning.
As always, a quick way to get an overview of the city is to get on the jump-on jump-off tourist bus. I did and enjoyed the ride. A few days later, a Madrilenian gave me a tour of the city, and I ended up teaching him stuff I’ve learnt on the bus.
Madrid is full of rooftop terraces, so keep an eye out for what is going on overhead. One of the best ones, especially if you like good views, is the Circulo de Bella Artes rooftop. Small entrance fee to get up there, but it has a nice (but pricey) lounge. Go late so you get to enjoy the view both during late sun and evening.
Sundays, the self-declared ‘largest open-air market in Europe’ sets up shop. The ‘El Rastro’ market is meant to be the largest open-air market in Europe. I never went, so can’t vouch for it. Sunday mornings only.
- [photosynth id=”aa08ce27-906e-40c9-9abe-cb097f54d5fc”]Crystal Palace[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”e274d0fe-c2f6-4067-8530-c2d3494a35e2″]Almudena Cathedral, Roof View[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”a60c7090-4a1e-4c82-88aa-a8a9483c84a1″]Almudena Cathedral, Crypt[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”ef1f350b-42ff-43c3-ba28-bc1b4fddafab”]Bella Artes View[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”6becc530-81f8-4220-b0c7-935db055f517″]Royal Palace Courtyard[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”830212e9-6408-4772-afe5-b049952c7c40″]Plaza Mayor[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”1c95ae5d-dbc8-4988-8da5-ef024929d4c0″]Toledo Cathedral[/photosynth]
- [photosynth id=”79c6ecca-78ef-4bc5-95d5-81640c6bb42e”]Royal Palace Staircase[/photosynth]