Though less visited than its Catalonian counterpart of Barcelona, Madrid, Spain’s magical capital, is still a must-see on every Spanish itinerary. But when I first began planning my trip to Spain this past summer, I was skeptical about how I’d spend my time there.
Madrid is most famous for its trio of world-renowned art museums: the Museo del Prado, the Museo Reina Sofía, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. While I appreciate art, I can’t admit to having a wealth of knowledge about it, and when travelling on a budget, I usually pass over art museums unless they’re free, or there’s a particular exhibit that entices me. And, having been to some of the world’s best art museums already (the Louvre in Paris, the Met in NYC), I can’t justify visiting an art museum just for the sake of it.
All of the guides to Madrid list these art museums at the top of their must-do list, but I wanted to do other things in my time there. So, how can you spend your time in Madrid, if art museums aren’t really your thing?
1. Relax in the Parque del Buen Retiro
Any park in Madrid makes for a great few hours of relaxing and exploring. For a large European city, I was surprised at the amount of green space in Madrid – on our first, jet-lagged day in Madrid, we definitely took part in a few park naps while a nearby street busker played classical songs on the violin (and we weren’t the only ones!).
The Parque del Buen Retiro is the grandest of Madrid’s parks. The park was commissioned by the monarchy in the 1630s and has long been a retreat for locals and tourists. It’s home to a palace, temples, sculptures, lakes, street performers, exercise areas, and several monuments. It’s easy to spend a morning exploring all 350 acres, or to find a spot along the lake to people watch and eat churros from a local vendor.
2. Explore the Palacio Real, the Catedral de la Almudena, and the palace gardens
The Palacio Real shows the same Rococo exuberance as the Palace of Versailles in France, but with a third of the crowds. A highlight of the palace is its courtyard, which looks over the gardens below, as well as its impressive collection of armour, swords, and guns.
Right next to the Palacio Real is the Catedral de la Almudena (separate admission fee). What makes this cathedral differ from other cathedrals is its blue colour. I did not go inside, but it is easy to see its exterior from the Palacio Real.
The palace gardens are expansive and beautiful as well. There were many musical street buskers within the garden, including a violinist and an accordion player. The hedges were highly maintained and you could even find locals strolling through the green corridors.
3. Watch the sun set at the Templo de Debod
The Templo de Debod, located in the Parque del Oeste, was gifted to Spain by Egypt in 1968 as a sign of gratitude for their efforts in saving the temples of Abu Simbel. It is free to go inside the small temple, but the true beauty is watching the sun set lower and lower over the temple’s pool, a gorgeous addition to the already-existing reflecting symmetry of the individual temples.
4. Stroll the El Rastro Market
We were lucky that our AirBnB was on the street where the El Rastro Market occurred, so we bore witness to the set-up, the chaos, and the aftermath of this bustling flea market. It is more of a local market than a tourist attraction, so even the people watching is worth the crowds. Hold on to your purse though – crowded areas can lead to petty theft.
5. Experience the tastes of Mercado de San Miguel
Modern architecture in the heart of old Madrid, the Mercado de San Miguel, which is just a stone’s throw from the Plaza Mayor, is a foodie’s paradise. Some may argue that it’s overpriced (which tends to happen in touristy areas), but the quality of what you get is far superior to the tourist trap restaurants in the area. Try one of the many cafes, or sample a slice of jamon iberico, and your taste buds will truly feel rewarded.
6. Visit the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas (but don’t watch a bull fight!)
Bullfighting rings, architecturally, are a site to be seen. The Plaza de Toros de las Ventas in Madrid is still an operational ring, and is used for concerts and horse shows in addition to bullfights. When we visited, there were men riding beautiful Andalusian horses out in the back near the stables.
You can choose to pay for a tour of the inner ring, but if money is tight, simply circling around the building’s exterior is a sight to behold. Near the arena are monuments to toreros, as well as graffiti protesting the continued existence of this gruesome tradition.
7. Wander the Plaza Mayor (but don’t eat there)
It seems like most Spanish cities have a plaza or two, and they end up becoming home to competing patio restaurants that attract naive tourists and no one else. The detail in the architecture of Plaza Mayor and its adjacent Casa de la Panaderia is impressive, as well as Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Phillip III. But what’s most interesting about standing in the middle of Plaza Mayor amongst tourists and street buskers dressed in mascot costumes a la Times Square, is remembering that it was a site of “autos de fe” during the Spanish Inquisition. “Autos de fe”, or “acts of faith”, were the public ceremonies held during the Inquisition when convicted heretics were sentenced and executed.
Have you been to Madrid? What would you recommend for the budget traveller, especially one who isn’t actively seeking out art museums?