We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Madrid earlier this summer. All we knew was that we couldn’t contain our excitement we were there at last, after months and months of planning. It was past 10:30 pm when we finally left the airport and for some reason, we thought the city would be on its way to bed. Gosh. Were we wrong?
Nightlife in the city was only getting started. Just reminiscing about it as I’m writing this post makes me smile. We hired a private transfer from Barajas Airport to the hotel we were staying at for the next couple of days. The 30 minutes drive into the city wasn’t bad at all. At first, we didn’t think much of it. What’s there to admire about a highway and then tunnels–I mean, other than they’re in better shape than ours here in the U.S. but I digress.
The city lights blinded us the moment we reached the center of Madrid. We didn’t know which way to look. We drove past La Puerta de Alcala, other city monuments (we couldn’t really tell which one was what in between all the traffic, roundabouts, and all), then into the famous Gran Via, and Plaza de España. All this time we thought the driver was being nice and giving us a mini tour of the city. We were wrong a second time that night. It turned out our hotel was right in the middle of all the action, which we’d known, we just didn’t think it really was right there. Imagine that!
Anyway, for the next two days, we set out to explore the city before we had to leave for our next destination. We wanted to make the best of our short stay regardless of our jet lag and the time zone change. Out of everything we did, the following were our favorite top 5 things to do in Madrid.
Top 5 Things to do in Madrid
1. Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
This is super affordable and worth every penny. You can buy the tickets online or you can buy them from a street vendor. I always recommend buying them online though. Some people may frown upon this kind of tour, but in my opinion, if you have limited time and want to make the best of it, this is a good option. There are two routes, and the ticket is good for both on the same day. You get a good lay of the land and see all the main attractions.
If you’re familiar with this kind of tour, then you know you can hop-off at any of their stops. Do your thing, then hop on again when you’re ready to continue. Though they say buses run every 15mins, let me tell you that’s a lie. If you go early in the day, their buses run around every 30-45mins. As it gets later in the day, then they start running at every 15 or less. You’ll sometimes see more than one bus for the same route at once. Then again, if you’re anything like us, we rode the entire route 1 and 2, then hopped off and went exploring the parts we liked best.
2. Parque El Retiro
Think Central Park in NYC. This park is huge! You better make sure you have good walking shoes on you because there’s a lot to see in this park. Entrance is free and the sights are to die for.
The park is so large you will need a map to ensure you take the right turns for the places you want to see. As you walk through the park, you may come across kindergarten school field trips and hear the teachers give the kids a history lesson on the monuments you’ll find in the park, including their famous broccoli trees.
If you do visit this park, do not miss the Palacio de Cristal. It was built in 1887 and trust me when I say it’s beautiful. This picture doesn’t do it justice, then again I’m not a professional photographer. You can take a stroll inside, though there is nothing to see besides admire its glass architecture.
3. Gran Via
Your stay in Madrid will not be complete unless you take a stroll on Gran Via. The only time this was sort of quiet was before 7:30 am, only because cafes don’t begin opening until around that time. Most likely the people you’ll see running in to get coffee are probably tourists like me still getting used to the time zone change.
Gran Via is filled with restaurants, cafes, designer stores, you name it. It’s one of the busiest parts. You’ll find people walking, shopping, eating well past midnight. In fact, many restaurants don’t open until late in the afternoon or early evening as they cater to the night crowd.
4. Mercado San Miguel
When it comes to food, Madrid was a total culture shock for us. Even though we are fluent in Spanish, certain foods are called something altogether different so much so that half the time (unless there was a pic) we weren’t sure what the menu said at restaurants. Also, we noticed that while in Spanish the menu said it was a chicken dish (pollo in Spanish), in their English translation they listed it as pork. To say we were confused it’s an understatement.
Now you can see why we thought this was heaven. I mean, we could finally see what the food was before we actually ordered it! Sounds silly, I know. But while we could live off of wine and cheese for the remainder of our stay, our kids would’ve preferred beans. And guess what? There are no beans offered on any menu!
This was by far our favorite place to visit while in Madrid. It’s crowded and the only tables available are by the bars, but 100% of the time the seats are all taken. But don’t worry, because all throughout the market, you’ll find this narrow counter to place your food on and eat while standing up. It’s like, you’re not cool if you’re not standing up and eating while thinking about the next vendor counter you want to go to next.
When you hear people say Mercado San Miguel is a culinary experience, they’re not exaggerating. It is the truth! If you’re ever in Madrid, this is a MUST place to visit. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
We noticed this was a common occurrence at various restaurants, not only in Madrid but everywhere else we toured.
But when we came across Mercado San Miguel, we thought we’d found the heaven of all that is wonderful food. Here you’ll find all sorts of finger food, sandwiches, jamón iberico, cheese, tapas, wine, sangria, fruit, ice cream. You name it.
You can buy a glass of wine or sangria then walk around, and go from counter to counter buying food to your heart’s delight until you’re full and can’t walk anymore.
5. Puerta del Sol
This is another place you won’t want to miss when you’re in Madrid. You can walk from Plaza de España to Gran Via and check out the stores, stop here and there for a drink if you’d like. Then on your way back you can skip the bustle and hustle of Gran Via and find your way to a just as crowded Puerta del Sol.
This is where you’ll find Kilometro Zero (Km. 0) where they measure the distance to/from each place in Spain. It’s the center of Madrid–at least it’s what we were told. And believe it or not, you have to wait your turn to take a picture on this square.
You can walk through Puerta del Sol and find your way to Jardines de Sabatini, which is located to the north of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). You’re basically walking around the palace once you get there.
There are restaurants and shops. The architecture here is just as magnificent as everywhere else. You’ll come across sculptures of famous men, and other monuments. And guess what? It costs you nothing!