Unlike some cities, the Spanish capital of Madrid doesn’t smack you over the head with what it has to offer.
This is not to say that Madrid lacks charm – nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that, despite the vexing Spanish stereotypes of flamboyant extravagance, Madrid is a city of subtlety that seeps in slowly, and when it does, the result can be jaw-dropping to say the least.
The best way to start any journey in Madrid is to take the subway to either Sol or Opera stations. Exiting at either of the two stops will thrust a traveller into the very heart of the city, where many of the major attractions, such as Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace of Madrid are just a stone’s throw away.
From there, it’s up to you which direction to take. History-lovers can absorb the past by stepping into the opulent rooms of the palace, or spend days working their way through the abundance of museums spread throughout the city. Indeed, museums are almost synonymous with Madrid and the country’s main national art museum, Museo Nacional Del Prado is one of the city’s top attractions, while those who prefer to be outdoors can take a short walk from the palace to West Park and visit the Temple of Debod.
The ancient Egyptian temple, built in the 2nd century BC was dismantled and donated to Spain in 1968. By night, it becomes illuminated with light and is an ideal location to watch the sunset over the city, while the iconic fourteenth-oldest building in Madrid, The Edificio España is also in view.
Simply walking the streets is an experience in itself and one that should not be ignored. Quiet streets are plentiful, though visiting Madrid without braving the frenetic La Plaza del Callao would be akin to going to New York and not venturing into Times Square. Famous for its architecture – namely The Carrion (or Capitol) Building – and The Callao Cinema Building, which continues to prove popular with film buffs, La Plaza del Callao demands attention.
Just a few minutes here can be dizzying, perhaps even exhausting, but silence and serenity are still possible in Madrid – particularly in Retiro Park, which dates back to 1630 and once belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century. Retiro Pond, partly hemmed in by an overpowering semicircular monument to King Alfonso XII, is a romantic spot for couples who can paddle around the lake by boat, but the myriad paths and secluded pockets of the park can make invisibility almost possible.
It isn’t quite as romantic, though The Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) by Retiro Pond is in many ways more striking. The glass and metal building, modelled on London’s Crystal Palace, houses contemporary art exhibitions. In many ways, it doesn’t really matter whether the space is empty or full because the glass walls are so alluring that just stepping inside is a sublime experience.
All the walking and exploring will ultimately leave any traveller hungry. On face value, Madrid, like much of Spain, is meaty. There is no denying that ham (jamón) and chorizo are permanent fixtures in many shop windows, with Museo del Jamon drawing the crowds of tapas lovers day in, day out. For vegetarians such as this writer, the prospect of finding a decent meal can be daunting, but it is by no means impossible.
To experience typical Spanish food minus the meat, Yerbabuena is a must-visit restaurant with both vegetarian and vegan options including the famous paella, along with modern twists on staple dishes such as Caesar salad. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of dining at Yerbabuena is the exquisite attention to detail that goes into the food’s presentation: each meal comes with a complimentary starter that appears like a work of art. Generous portions mean that no one’s stomach leaves half-full.
Madrid is also a city with two separate faces: day and night. When the sun is out in summer, it can appear almost eerily silent and abandoned save for the naïve tourists who don’t know better and attempt to brave the sweltering heat, while by night, the city buzzes like a beehive and no one eats before nine p.m.
Everyone has their own preference for nightlife, but whatever your taste, Madrid has much to offer. Tapas bars abound in the main square, Plaza Mayor or the jam-packed La Latina, the oldest area of Madrid. The alternative and youthful district of Chueca is suffused with a unique energy all of its own.
Trying to keep up with the Spanish way of life is difficult, and probably not advisable. Those who strain to keep their eyes open past midnight would do well to simply call it a night and retire, knowing that when they wake a city with diverse delights will still be waiting.
Mitchell Jordan is a Sydney-based writer who runs the Scandinavian travel blog