Madrid is a city of contrasts with grand, serene cathedrals and a vibrant, music-filled nightlife. The crowded streets of Spain's capital pulse with energy – you will always hear music and passionate conversation breezing through the main thoroughfares. Amidst the hustle and bustle there are small pockets of tranquillity, revealing Madrid's historical side. The beautifully worn arches and balconies of the Plaza Mayor allow you to catch a glimpse of the city's past, once playing host to bullfights, symphonies and public executions. With a culture embedded with royalty from the Spanish Empire, ornate buildings stand strong, hugged by new, modern architecture.
In the heart of the city centre you will find a piece of medieval Madrid – Plaza de la Paja or 'Straw Square'. The Plaza was named for the act of 'tithing' where peasants would bring one tenth of their humble crops to the church. Today the Plaza is an ideal place to enjoy a quieter Madrid with al fresco dining and aristocratic gardens that have spanned centuries. If you are stuck wondering what to do in Madrid, there are a number of Madrid tours including tapas treks, journeys out to wine-country and private museum excursions. A visit to the museum district is a must, with three major galleries including Museo del Prado, one of the finest art museums in the world.
You will often find high quality seafood dishes in Madrid restaurants, but they also come with a higher price tag as you venture away from coastal Spain. Dining is a little later than you might be used to, with lunch starting at 2pm and dinner at 9pm, but tapas bars are open in between for smaller meals. Most bars lining the streets have draft lager or 'canas' on tap. If you're not a beer drinker but are still willing to give it a go, try a 'clara' – beer and lemonade, what Australians and British will know as a shandy. A beer alternative is tinto de verano (summer red wine) which is also diluted with lemonade.
Where to Stay
Madrid hotels are easily located in the densely populated city and are widely spread across a larger urban area. With a lot of competition, you can hunt around for a good price. It's important to note Madrid hostels shouldn't be confused with the more commonly known youth hostels – 'hostales' are usually smaller, family-run accommodation. If you want to stay where the action is, look at the Sol, Gran Via and Huertas areas – especially if you are after a group lodging. Malasana and Chueca are good options if you are looking for a more intimate Madrid stay.
Start your shopping in Madrid on Calle Almirante (Almirante Street). Here you will find uniquely Spanish curiosities in boutiques filled with jewelled espadrilles, embroidered mantones (traditional Spanish shawls) and colourful abanicos (Spanish fans). Bargain hunters should make the pilgrimage to El Rastro – one of the largest and oldest flea markets in Europe. If you are hoping to score a good deal on an antique or handmade souvenir, head to the market at 9am – by midday the crowds have subdued if you just want to take in the atmosphere or try the local street food.
Madrid like a Local
If Madrid weather is in your favour, take advantage of the open-air cafes and explore the intimate laneways that give the city its character. If you journey away from the town centre you will uncover medieval alleys with tucked away taverns and ornately presented gardens. The Spanish have an infectious zest for life which should be heartily embraced. Whether you are dancing like nobody is watching or enjoying a tapas in a quiet plaza, your Madrid holiday will always be filled with the finer things in life.