Madrid is one of my all-time favorite European cities. The madrelleños are a sophisticated bunch, and there is a beautiful formality to the culture that feels reminiscent of the Mad Men days of the United States. Culture is everywhere in the city, with many young, hip places surrounded by others steeped in tradition.
I would recommend combining Madrid with any variety of options in Spain. Into Madrid and out of San Sebastian is one of my top itineraries, as it gives you the opportunity to experience beautiful wine country and end at the beach (and one of the best food destinations anywhere). Or, you can head south and visit cities like Seville and Cordoba. You can also fly up to the Northwest of Spain (Rías Baixas) for fantastic seafood and crisp Albariño wine. Madrid is often the least expensive city for flights, making it a great place to start a trip. You will find great value in traveling Spain, especially compared with other European cities.
Even if you are not an art lover, you must find time to explore the art in Madrid, as three of the most notable art collections in the world are located here. The Prado, home to Velázquez's Las Meninas (as well as masterpieces by Goya and El Greco) can be overwhelming, so having a plan is helpful. Also, lines in peak season can be long, so it is best to pre-purchase your entry. Reina Sofia is home to Pablo Picasso's Guernica, which is not only a remarkable work of art, but is also a critical piece of Spanish history. Finally, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of the most notable private collections, now owned by Spain. It is often the most manageable museum, and is filled with familiar artists from the 20th century.
Trying to do all three museums in one day is too much, and for those not typically drawn to museums, having a plan over two days with specific pieces to seek out can be a great way to tackle these remarkable places. I also have locals who can do incredible tours focused on children (think scavenger hunt) or a guide that can assist with context, which can really help people understand the significance of a particular piece or artist.
This park in Madrid has 125 hectares and includes some remarkable gardens, including the rose garden and the Parterre Francés, which holds the oldest tree in Madrid: a bald cypress that is believed to be 400 years old. Retiro Park is a great place to get a sense of the locals, as it is a clear favorite green space for those living in the city. Kids will enjoy renting a small row boat and rowing around the lake, and the Velázquez and Glass palaces, both used today as exhibition halls, are beautiful. The Glass Palace, a romantic pavilion created to house a collection of exotic plants for the Philippine Exhibition of 1887, is one of the main examples of cast-iron architecture in Spain. The park also houses several outstanding sculptures and fountains.
Notable as home to one of the most decorated teams in the world - Real Madrid - and for years as home to Cristiano Ronaldo (he has since moved on to Juventus), Bernabéu is one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world. The Bernabéu Tour takes visitors around the club’s most iconic spots and gives them different perspectives. You get to see the view from the Presidential Balcony, as well as the players' perspective from the pitch itself, and from the coach’s viewpoint in the heated ergonomic seats in the bench area. The tour route includes the players’ dressing rooms, where few can resist having their photo taken next to their favorite player’s locker. My son LOVED the tour. Of course depending on time of year, it is also possible to arrange to see a match.
Madrid has some incredible shopping, with many independent boutiques and good bargains for shoes and handbags.
The area around Gran Vía is one of the liveliest areas of the city center and is great for shopping. The area features major Spanish brands, including Zara, Stradivarius, Massimo Dutti and the wonderful department store El Corte Ingles, situated near the Callao square. El Corte Ingles sell a wide range of products, from hats and shoes to gourmet food, and the gourmet food court is worth checking out.
For funky, more independent boutiques, head to Calle Fuencarral just north of the Gran Vía, and veer off into the neighbouring areas of Chueca and Malasaña. One of my favorite shoe stores is Vialis, which has a number of stores located across the city, one of which is on Calle Fuencarral.
The Salamanca area has the high-end shops like Prada, Gucci, etc. One fantastic shoe store in this area is Pedro Garcia, located on Calle de Jorge Juan 12.
You must plan to spend a day visiting the town of Toledo when you come to Madrid. A guide is an absolute necessity in order to fully appreciate the incredible history of this ancient city. For centuries, Christians, Muslims, and Jews thrived together in harmony. Because of this, there is a delightful mix of architecture and art in the city, from Arabic to Baroque. As you wander through the streets of the Jewish and Muslim Quarters, you see thousands of years of legends and tales that encompass the Toledo.
The Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo, a Gothic Cathedral dating to the 13th century, holds some of the most significant paintings of the period, including the remarkable collection from El Greco designed for the Sacristy, as well as an extensive collection of the gold and silver brought from the Americas. You can also explore the Monastery of San Juan Los Reyes, built by the Catholic Monarchs and one of the most picturesque sites in Toledo. Your guide will also take you to the synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe, as well as the synagogue of Tránsito where the Sephardic Museum is located. Also important is a stop in The Iglesia de Santo Tomé, which is home to El Greco's Burial of Count of Orgaz.
Where to eat in Madrid
This historic wrought-iron-and-glass building, just off Plaza Mayor, has become one of the liveliest culinary spots in the city. More than 33 stalls selling tapas offer a wide variety of treats, such as gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and banderillas (small skewers of olives, cucumbers, peppers and pickled onions). Try an aperitif of the house vermouth (on draft, €1.50), grab a caña (small beer, €2) from the Beer House, a glass of rioja (from €3) from any of several wine kiosks, or taste sherries paired with tapas at the Sherry Corner. Don’t miss the mouth-watering displays of oysters, cava, chocolate, caviar, gulas (imitation baby eels made from surimi), and stuffed sea urchins. Prices are higher than Madrid’s more traditional markets, but the atmosphere is really unique and a perfect spot for a fun lunch or snack.
DiverXO is one of the most famous restaurants in Madrid thanks to its chef, David Muñoz, and his three-Michelin-stars. This is avant-garde cuisine (think foam) and offers "two tasting menus that aim to surprise diners with dishes that imitate works of art both in their aesthetics and their taste," according to Eater 38's Guide to Madrid.
There are many great, trendy spots with delicious food. Fismuler is a great spot that has a remarkable cocktail list with originally crafted spirits. There really is no shortage of great dining - both old world Spain with serious tradition and hip new spots filled with the young and fashionable.
Where to stay
There are plenty of great options in Madrid, so where you stay depends on the kind of experience you are looking for.
The Orfilia is a small Relais and Chateaux property located on a quiet street with a lovely patio to enjoy in summer. The hotel was a small palace built in 1886 and has the feel of an art gallery, with its period furniture, feature marble and beautiful green garden courtyard. The owner is a collector of antiques. In the 1920s, the hotel was made famous by the plays staged within its walls.
The Westin Palace Madrid was built in 1912 on request of the Spanish King Alfonso XIII, with the vision to have a hotel that represents the greatness and importance of Madrid as the Spanish capital. Now restored, The hotel has a tremendous location for those wanting to be in the center of everything. It sits across from the Prado, next to the Thyssen and blocks from the Reina Sofia museums and historic monuments. Inside, you'll find an enormous stained-glass dome where you sit for breakfast each morning.
I also love the Urso Hotel and Spa. It is a bit off the main tourist path but adjacent to great neighborhoods. The sun-filled breakfast room will be a perfect start to each day and everyone on staff is anxious to help you in any way possible. The space itself is full of character, with traditional aspects restored through careful renovation, but still modern with subtle grey hues and a sense of calm and respite. It is located very close to great shopping.
We have spectacular guides - particularly insiders who really know the city or art historians who can edit a fantastic museum experience for families. We know the general managers at each of these properties (and more) and can offer you added amenities as well. The Curatour can craft a custom itinerary perfect for what you want from a trip to Madrid.