Spain plays home to more than 75 million tourists a year with most of them making a stop in iconic Madrid for good reason. It’s colourful, cultural and friendly. The perfect weekend getaway for a truly Spanish experience, thus making Madrid is one of my favourite European cities. Although there are hundreds of amazing things to do and see, I’ve made a list of my top five favourite things in Madrid.
1: Enjoy sunset view over the rooftops of Madrid
Nothing beats a sunset view like the one you get from the Azotea del Circulo bar, a place where the young, rich and famous come to rub shoulders with overexcited travel photographers. An entry fee of €2 gets you through the door but be sure to dress appropriately as bouncers at the entrance have the final word. Beers go for around €4 and cocktails start at €10, making it one of the more affordable rooftop bars in Spain. Besides the drinks, Azotea has a great atmosphere and vibe, and partnered with great service and stunning views over the roofs of Madrid, visiting this special bar on your first night in Madrid is a definite must.
2: Take a tour through the Royal Palace
As with all good things, visiting the Palacio Real de Madrid starts with a queue. The Royal Palace is one of the top tourist sights in Madrid and to avoid the masses, be sure to arrive early or pre-book your ticket online. Luckily for those, like me, who prefer to leave things unplanned and are thus forced to join the queue, a man with his accordion is there for some entertainment to make the wait more enjoyable, especially when the crowd starts singing along to La vie en rose. Tickets cost €10 per person and the extra €3 for an audio guide is definitely worth it for the great commentating and valuable information it provides as it leads you from room to room. Just be sure to take your passport, ID or drivers licence along as they require it as a deposit for the audio guide.
Now only used for official events and state ceremonies, the palace as we know it today was completed in 1764 on the site of the former Alcazar palace that burnt to the ground on Christmas Eve 1734. The palace takes your breath away before you are even inside as the lobby and main staircase are magnificently decorated in that truly royal style. Of the 23 rooms you are allowed to visit, my personal favourite is the Chamber of Charles III, a man considered by many historians as the most forward thinking and successful European leader of his generation. Born in 1716, Charles ruled for 54 years and during his reign promoted science, research, university education and was obsessed with modernizing agriculture and reducing the influence the church had on all aspects of life. With its stuccowork ceiling, walls covered with silver-embroided silk and a shiny Spanish marble floor, the Chamber of Charles III was designed and decorated in the perfect baroque style by Mattia Gasparini as a homage to nature and Eastern art. It is worth spending some time in this room to admire all the small and amazing details.
The Crown Room is also pretty special for obvious reasons. Heads must have shrunk since the days of the first king to wear the crown because that thing is huge! The Royal Chapel was built in 1749 and hosts one of Europe’s finest organs. Even though it is today only played during special events and concerts, I had the privilege to hear it play and together with the chapel’s impressive acoustic, it was a goosebump experience.
3: Rest in Catedral de la Almudena
In summer, Madrid can be an absolute oven and finding a cool, relaxing escape from the crowds of holidaymakers is no easy feat. Luckily, the Catedral de la Almudena, just across from the royal palace and the Plaza de la Armenia is a must-see architectural masterpiece that offers a scenic escape from the heat. Entrance is free but a €1 donation is recommended. Besides the cool and calm the absolute highlight is the square cupola of the cathedral. Colourful, intricate and full of glorious detail it will force you to stare up until your neck wants to break off. The cathedral took a whopping 110 years to build, with the first groundbreaking on 4 April 1883 and finally being completed in 1993. You are also able to attend a service, so make sure to check times beforehand.
4: Stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro
Decorated with white marble statues, shady lanes and manicured lawns, many wooden benches and one of the most facinating buildings in Spain, the Buen Retiro Park is one of the most visited parks in Europe. Known as the green heart of the city, Buen Retiro is one of the largest public parks in Spain and is very popular under picnickers on sunny weekends all year round. An artificial lake, the Estanque grande del Retiro with the monument of Alfonso XII overlooking it allows lovers and poets to drift around on small boats, soaking up Madrid’s special vibe. However, the most popular attraction in the park is the famous Palacio de Cristal, or the Crystal Palace. Built in 1887 as a greenhouse to exhibit flora and fauna from the Philippines, the 22 meter high glass building is now used for art exhibits. Take your time to walk around the awe-inspiring building, shaped in the form of a Greek cross, to appreciate this architectural masterpiece from all sides.
5: Walk, watch and drinking a beer
There is no better way to see Madrid than to walk, walk and walk. The gorgeous streets are line with shops, restaurants and bakeries, all with friendly staff who are willing to help in even the most broken form of English. Around every corner you will find a piece of art, a statue or a building so beautiful you cannot but imagine it to be anything other than another royal palace. Places like the Sol square are teaming with street artists and walking down the Calle Montera lined with its prostitutes is something to experience. No visit to Madrid is complete before you drink a beer in a local bar, watching Real Madrid on a tv with screaming Spaniards in the background. It is a fantastic city that is easy and safe to explore and is definitely one of my favourite places on earth. Go with no plans and leave with no money – that is the only way to truly experience Madrid.