I HATE TIMES SQUARE. Don't get me wrong. I am glad to have it. It brings tourist dollars and that's fantastic. But you will never see me in Times Square unless I absolutely have to go there.
You can imagine my dismay when I ended up staying in Madrid's version of Times Square. It was completely our fault. We had planned to leave Lisbon for Madrid, but made the decision three days before arriving. This normally works well for us, but this time we had a difficult time finding one apartment for the duration. We ended up with three different apartments in three different neighborhoods of the city. This turned out to be great because we hated the first apartment.
Where did we go wrong? We violated a cardinal rule of our (usually foolproof) method for selecting an Airbnb rental...never stay in a smoking apartment. On top of that, it was situated in medias res...right in "Times Square" - the Gran Via. It was packed full of tourists, local smokers, and on the first floor. This may have affected my opinion of the city. In theory it has everything that makes me love a city, but still Madrid left me in limbo. I hated the pollution, but I loved how easy it was to walk the city. I loved the museums, but was disturbed by the amount of prostitutes on the streets. I loved the food, but after Lisbon's prices I underwent sticker shock. The verdict is still out on whether I'll return, but if you're planning a trip there, maybe these Madrid Travel Tips can help you on your Madrid stay.
Madrid Travel Tips
One is greeted by huge marble lions at the stair case of the Palacio Real
Malasaña/Gran Via/Puerta del Sol (East Village/Times Square)
I'm grouping these together because they are incredibly close to each other, so if you're in the Malasaña and you need to get to Puerta del Sol, it will take just a few minutes walking. The Royal Palace (Palacio Real - not worth it in my opinion) and the Prado are also a quick walk away. My advice - skip the Palacio...or go quickly. Go, snap your picture with the bear...then do the obligatory trip to the Prado (yes the collection is fantastic), but save your time for the hidden jewels that Madrid has. I'll outline my favorites later and I swear to you, they are worth it.
The Palacio Real as seen from the Sabatini gardens
Parts of the Malasaña/Gran Via neighborhood feel really fun and cool, and others are a complete nightmare. We stayed in the complete nightmare that is equivalent to Times Square (a block from the Gran Via). The Gran Via is just like Broadway in Manhattan. It is full of tourists, people selling crap, and people trying to rob tourists (we did not get robbed, but you can definitely see them stalking clueless tourists).
A lovely fountain at Sabatini Gardens in Madrid
Once you get away from the Gran Via and head towards the heart of the Malasaña, you will encounter plenty of ladies of the night. Not one or two, more like twenty to thirty in one block. They usually stand right outside the police department (I found this quite interesting). These ladies of the night are also ladies of the day. They seem to work 24-7-365. Turns out prostitution is neither legal or illegal in Madrid. It is in a kind of limbo. The ladies of the night run a whole gambit of types. There is the young and beautiful immigrant who may or may not be 18 years old. Then there are the more experienced ladies, who tend to be overweight and look tired and abused. It was quite a depressing sight). I had not seen this many prostitutes since I was in Genoa.
On a positive note, Once you move away from the square and head towards the heart of the Malasaña, things get better. This is where the neighborhood becomes more like the East Village. There are tons of restaurants, shops, young people out on the streets. This is where you will find galleries, pop-up shops and really cute quirky museums. It is also home to El Corte Ingles - an awesome department store-supermarket-food hall.
I'd recommend you don't stay in this area, but that you visit instead. Some highlights of the area:
The Prado Museum: Pº del Prado s/n: The amount of treasures here is mind-numbing. You can really see how much power Spain had at one point, you don't collect this type of art without having serious influence in the world. Don't be a fool and pay for this museum, the permanent collection is free from 6-8pm every day...get there before 6, because the line is understandably long. Thankfully, the Prado is not in the middle of "Times Square", but steps away from the Parque del Retiro. Have lunch there after the museum...better yet, schedule a whole day for this attraction. It's lovely.
Hours of Operation: Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sunday 10am-7pm
Parque del Retiro: As parks go, this is one of the best I have been to. There's a gorgeous lake where you can rent a boat...or you can do like me and grab a glass of wine at the restaurant next to the lake and enjoy the scenery. As you make your way there, keep a look out for Lucifer...yup, the fallen angel is the most famous resident of the park. He sits ay 666 meters above sea level and he is gorgeous. This is a large park, so you should set a good amount of time to see it. Besides Lucifer (who is gorgeous and also resides at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes), it boasts of a rose garden, feisty peacocks, a retired zoo, and so much more.
This sculpture plays with nature as birds make a part of the composition
Reina Sofia: C / Santa Isabel, 52: It houses Guernica. You need to go. This painting is just so incredibly impressive. Amazingly, museum goers were incredibly civilized, and although the Guernica room was definitely packed, I was easily able to see the piece. Reina Sofia is a great museum going experience. The collection at Reina Sofia is great, but it is worth going just for Guernica. I even got to see one of my favorites, Remedios Varo . That was such a special treat. When you go, don't go in the front entrance. Walk around back and skip the line. Wear comfortable shoes, it's a big museum and if you don't like lines (like I do), you can take the stairs and get a good work out.
Hours of Operation: Mon from 10am-9pm, Wed-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-7pm. Entry costs €8 plus €4 for special exhibits. Free entrance outlined at the bottom.
El Corte Ingles: Plaza de Callao, 2: If you're into shopping, you HAVE to go to this store. It started as a humble tailor shop in 1934 and is now the largest department store chain in Europe (and the 4th in the world). The Madrid location near Callao metro station is separated into various buildings in the area. My favorite thing about this complex was the food hall at the Penthouse of the main building called The Gourmet Experience. It has an amazing view of the city (great for cocktails at night), and tons of restaurants to choose from. My favorite was Central Mexicana. They played Calle 13, made gorgeous tacos (something to be appreciated as Europe usually does not do Mexican right), and very affordable wines. On a down note, don't expect a bargain at El Corte Ingles. Prices here are higher than almost anywhere else in the city.
Hours of Operation: Mon-Friday 10am-10pm, 11am-9pm holidays.
Maty sells all kinds of dance gear from Flamenco to Ballet
Maty: I only wished I had millions of dollars to spend in this store. As soon as I saw the windows, the six-year-old me got giggly and imagined going to this store with my grandma who would do her best to explain that we could not afford everything in the shop. This is the most kick ass Flamenco dancer supply store. I mean, this place is all sorts of amazing. They have all sorts of gorgeous dresses, shoes, castanets, hair accessories, jewelry and even other types of costumes. Holy shit those dresses are expensive. I considered picking one up for Halloween, but these dresses cost around €500. I had to console myself by buying stuff for my niece and god daughter. Fortunately, they have castanets at all price points. They start at €5 and go to €600. If you are going to bring back presents, skip the crappy tourist shops and come here. There are some lovely items...and it is super fun to browse at Maty. This store is so inherently madrileño...I did buy myself a small mother or pearl comb - haven't worn it yet...but I will. It's also super close to El Corte Ingles and Descalzas.
The Church of the Buena Dicha in Madrid was rebuilt in 1917 by architect Francisco García Nava
Iglesia de la Buena Dicha: Calle de Silva: This charming little church was next door to our horrible apartment (the apartments, I suspect, were originally part of the church complex). It was founded in 1594, when it served as a hospital and burial place to the poor of the city. During the May 2nd uprising, the church served the wounded. The current building is not original. It was erected circa 1917 by architect Francisco García Nava under the patronage of the Marquis of Hinojales. The building is architecturally captivating. There are Gothic, Neo Moorish, and Nazaries touches. The facade is made of brick, but inside, its white walls look like carved ivory. I was only able to sneak in once, during mass...try to sneak in if you get a chance too.
El Oso y El Madrono 1967 by sculptor Antonio Navarro Santa Fe
Puerta del Sol: This is the main square of the city. It is known for the super cute bear sculpture that has become the symbol of Madrid. The tree is a Madroño. The tree gives off this sweet fruit from which a liquor is made. The bear is trying to get himself a little sweet treat. Here there is an Orange store where you can pick up a SIM card (there are tons in the city), the apple store...and it is a few minutes away from the Real Academia (DO NOT MISS).
Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales: Plaza de las Descalzas, s/n: This place is the stuff Blanca's dreams are made of. It is a working Monastery with nuns that is open to the public for a very controlled tour a few times a day. It was founded in 1559 by Joan of Austria, whose hid her daughter there so that she would not have to deal with a marriage to Felipe II. Nuns who were to become the brides of God would have to give their dowry to the monastery. Many of these ladies were quite affluent and the collection here is outstanding. There are reliquaries, paintings, sculptures and some gorgeous Rubensian tapestries. I could have spent days there. This place is not to be missed. Seriously. Tickets cost €6 and the price is totally worth it.
Hours of Operation: Tuesday - Saturday 10:00 to 2:00 and 4:00 to 6:30, Sundays and holidays 10:00 to 3:00
A copy of the Fallen Angel Sculpture at Parque el Retiro in Madrid sits at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando: Calle de Alcalá, 13: I only wish every museum going experience was like this. Unlike it's neighborhood, this museum is a place of calm. The collection here is superb. As you walk up the first set of stairs, you are confronted with Lucifer in an obvious state of suffering. His body contorts in angst and begs you to walk around him. You can really get up close and observe him in ways you cannot with the original at Parque el Retiro. This is just one of many pleasant surprises at this kick ass museum. The museum is home to an Arcimboldo, Eduardo Chicharro y Agüera (a new favorite since this visit), lots of pieces by Goya (including the Burial of the Sardine), and a haunting depiction of the delivery of Christ attributed to Flemish painter Gerard Seghers. If you skip this museum, I can never forgive you.
La Latina/Casa de Campo (Queens)
Our second (gorgeous) apartment was in "Queens". It was situated across the Manzanares River a short walk from the Puente de Segovia that takes you to the Center of Madrid. This is a more residential area. While it is quiet, there are neighborhood restaurants, shops, and tons of parks. This was my favorite aspect of the neighborhood. If you're standing at the river, you can easily see the Palacio Real (gorgeous at night). The Manzanares river itself is a site to explore. The park is quite similar to Riverside park in Manhattan. It is quite long, has tons of spots to sit and relax...or if you're more the active type, to exercise. There are lots of little restaurants where you can get anything from a simple tapa to a full meal. On Sundays, you will see the Madrileños riding their bikes, skating, and spending time with family and friends. Casa de Campo" is quite near. It is HUGE and seems to have something for everyone. On game day, you can see the red and white striped shirts heading to the Vincente Calderón Stadium to catch a fútbol match.
Boat rentals at the lake at Casa de Campo Park in Madrid, Spain
Casa de Campo: Casa de campo means country home. Its namesake park in the La Latina was once the country home and hunting grounds to the king. It now serves as a place of enjoyment to madrileños and savvy travelers who leave the city center. The park is five times the size of Central Park. It now houses a zoo, aquarium, amusement park, stadium, and a lake where you can do all kinds of water sports including fishing. There's an area with a bunch of restaurants that may be the best deal in the city. Go for lunch and buy a beer. They give you food free, good food, filling food. These restaurants also serve dishes a la carte and will provide you a personal grill for your meats. It's really cool. Rent a bike and go explore. One of the most charming things about the park is that instead of pigeons, Madrid has Monk parakeets. They are super cute (at least to me) and to the little kids that kept chasing after them. Take a full day and enjoy the park.
Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida: Glorieta de San Antonio De La Florida, 5: A must if you're into Goya. Not only is he buried in this church...he did the frescoes that cover its ceilings.The structure was built by the Italian architect Francisco Fontana in the neoclassical style. The King, Carlos IV commissioned Goya to paint the dome and vaults. The frescoes depict the miracle performed by San Antonio as he resurrected a dead man. Goya even snuck himself into the scene. You won't find many tourists at this tiny little church and entry is free. It's also just a short walk away from Casa de Campo park. There are twin buildings there, so make sure you go to the original which contains Goya's famed frescoes.
Vincente Calderón Stadium: I am ashamed to say that I did not attend a fútbol game while in Madrid. On game day, this normally quiet area was jam packed full of people. Everyone was polite, calm, and happy. If you go, catch a match.
One of many fountains at Parque Rio in Madrid. This one is located at Puente Segovia and has a twin on the other side.
Madrid Rio: What an awesome project, this reminds me of the waterfront at Riverside Park in Manhattan or by Long Island City/Brooklyn in NYC. It is a super long park and it sits along the riverisde. The park connects "Queens" to "Manhatan" via bridges including the Puente Segovia. If you are looking to go to the Palacio Real or to downtown Madrid, just cross the bridge, and delight in its twin fountains as you walk towards the city. You will see tons of people riding bikes here, rock climbing, balancing, you can pretty much do anything you imagine here. If you are more like me, you can find a bar to have a snack, have a glass of Rioja and enjoy the view. I really loved this park and enjoyed the creativity of the architects who put it together.
The cafe and courtyard at the Museo de Romanticismo in Madrid are lovely, peaceful spots in the city.
Museo del Románticismo: Calle San Mateo, 13: Talk about a little treasure. This itty bitty museum is full of the most darling pieces AND it's not at all crowded. Horrible audio tours, so don't waste your money on that. Enjoy the collection and save your money for the gift shop. I could have easily gone broke there. This museum was an incredibly pleasant experience. The art is all from the Romantic period. There's also a lovely cafe with a darling courtyard. I liked this museum experience so much better than the Prado. Entry costs €3, but it's free on Sundays at 2pm/free over 65 years.
Hours of Operation: Tuesday to Saturday from 9:30 to 6:30, Sundays and holidays from 10:00 to 3:00
WHERE TO EAT
There's great variety at the fish monger at the Mercado de San Anton
Mercado San Antón: Calle de Augusto Figueroa, 24 (Chueca): The fanciest of the markets I visited. It was also quite expensive. There's a supermarket on the ground floor, gourmet food merchants on the first floor, and restaurants all over for you to choose from. The food is good and you can fill just about any craving you have, from Greek to Asian. Pricing will vary according to the places you choose. Some bars offer very good deals, while others are more painful on the wallet. While there, we had lunch on the roof deck at La Cocina de San Anton. They offered a fairly priced prix fixe and my food was quite tasty. Service was a little odd and regular prices on the menu were expensive.
Mercado de San Miguel: Plaza de San Miguel, Centro/Palacio Neighborhoods: You know me and my food halls: Les Halles De Paul Bocuse, Galeria Alameda in Cali, Eataly (all over the world), Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon...I've added a new one to the list. Great food hall with plenty of places to eat. This is a pretty touristy area, so prices are a bit higher than I anticipated, but the food was delish. You can get all sorts of tapas, seafood, paellas, wine, sangria, cerveza...the world is your oyster (and there are plenty of oysters here). Just make sure to divide and conquer when it comes to seating. It gets incredibly crowded and I had to physically wrestle Antonio's chair away from some chair greedy people who tried to steal it.
The newly renovated Mercado Barcelo is a great place for a food bargain
Mercado Barcelo: This is my kind of market. It's not fancy. This is the market where restaurants come to pick up their supplies and families come to get a good deal. The food hall here is awesome. The food is "bueno, bonito y barato"...that means it's super tasty and a bargain. For example. we ordered 2 dishes and 2 beers. Before our food arrived, we got a paella appetizer (with a full crab in it). I don't remember how much we paid in total, but it was one of the cheapest meals of the trip.
Delicious authentic Tacos in Europe - Never thought this was posible
Central Mexicana: El Corte Ingles (Gran Via): On the top floor of the massive superstore "El Corte Ingles" is a really good food court with a nice variety of restaurants. Having just come from Portugal (where most restaurants are Portuguese), we were craving anything not Portuguese. We chose Central Mexicana and we were thrilled that we did. These tacos are not cheap. Then again, Madrid is quite far from Mexico. They were totally worth the money. It is the best Mexican we've had since the Cantine California truck in Paris. These are true Mexican tacos (and we were thrilled to see Mexicans working the kitchen). The restaurant also plays really good music, stuff like Calle 13 which I love. Definitely make a trip there for drinks, tacos, and tunes.
Ni Hao restaurant off the Gran Via serves authentic Chinese - and it's cheap
Ni Hao: Calle da Silva, 20 in the Malasana/Gran Via neighborhood: Went to this place because it was right across the street from my first rental and I really (really) wanted Chinese food. Goddamn it was good. We ordered a wonton soup and fried dumplings. The soup was all umami, not MSG, but pure unadulterated yum. The soup came with tiny little succulent ribs and tasted of joints and cartilage. It was so damn good I didn't even take a picture. The dumplings were perfection, light, not greasy and totally tasty. Our meal came to a mere 10.45€. I ended up going there three times and loving it just as much every single time.
Basic Madrid Tips
Don't get the Madrid Card: It just is not a good deal. The cheapest option is €47 for 24 hours. Unless you are planning on seeing a minimum of 3 museums at a time, this just does not make financial sense. The Madrid card (unlike the Lisbon Card) does not include public transportation either. I'll give you the skinny on when to get into museums for free so you don't waste your money on this "value" card.
Free Museums & Sites
- Reina Sofía permanent collection: Mon & Wed-Sat 7-9pm, Sun 1:30-7pm, 18 April, 17 and 18 May, 12 October and 6 December all day.
- Prado Museum permanent collection: 6-8pm daily.
- Thyssen Museum: Mon from 12-4
- Palacio Real: 4-6 Mondays to Thursdays (This was like 25€ per person and imho not a good experience - so if you're going to go - go on a free day)
- Templo de Debod: Free daily