Spain's capital is as enjoyable as a destination in which to walk, eat and talk as it is to tick off major sights
24 Hours in Madrid
It may not be Europe’s most beautiful capital, but Madrid still packs a punch with its regal architecture, parks and grand old shopping streets. It’s ideally suited to a long weekend break because of its accessibility and the fact that, perhaps surprisingly, it still offers as quintessentially Spanish an experience as any town in the country. Apart from the main sights and streets it’s untouristy, lively, welcoming and very walkable: go as much for the experience of connecting to the tapas and social culture as for seeing the sights.
08.00: Go for a walk in the park
Start in the Botanical Gardens next to the Prado Museum and then move on to the enormous Retiro park next door. This used to be the gardens of a royal palace but is now the city’s biggest and most impressive park. Entry is free and it’s open from 6am until midnight in summer and 6am until 10pm in winter.
10.00: Visit the Prado
Get to Spain’s most famous art museum at opening time to get in ahead of the crowds (you can also book tickets online). You won’t want to look at all of it, especially as there’s a heavily religious tone to room after room, but it’s worth acquainting yourself with great examples of the work of Spanish masters Velazquez, Goya and El Greco (the top floor is best for scenes of local life) and the beautiful interior (the building is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary).
Noon: Stop for a snack
A classic Madrileno snack is the calamari sandwich, which is a large piece of fresh baguette stuffed with fried calamari. It’s surprisingly delicious, and costs about €3 (Dh12.50). It’s sold in virtually every restaurant, but one that specialises in it is La Campana on Calle Botoneras, a small side street off the Plaza Mayor.
13.00: Plaza Mayor, Mercado San Miguel and the Royal Palace
The Plaza Mayor, or main square, dates from 1580 and is at the centre of the city’s old town. Next to it is the San Miguel Market, a crowded but worthwhile example of the city’s emphasis on food. Snack on sardine tapas and gazpacho and chat to your neighbours. Work some of it off with a quick loop around the outside of the Royal Palace, one of Europe's largest.
15.00: Coffee and chocolate con churros, then chocolate shopping
Off the pretty Calle Mayor is the even more attractive Pasadizo de San Gines, the location of the San Gines cafe, which has been in business since 1894 and is open 24 hours. There is usually a queue outside the historic chocolateria, but it moves quickly and is worth it for the atmosphere. Six long strips of fried dough and a cup of hot chocolate to dip it in cost just €3.7 euros (Dh15.30); add a macchiato to keep you awake.
Back on Calle Mayor, visit Vicens for a huge range of turrones (nougat) and thick bars of decadent and beautifully packed chocolate to take home. This business has been going since 1775 and prices start from just a few euros.
17.00: Reina Sofia museum
From Sol metro station on the Puerto del Sol – a spot on this square marks the exact centre of Spain – take metro line 1 three stops south to Atocha and Madrid’s main modern art museum, the world famous Reina Sofia. The main attraction is the original of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937 during the Spanish civil war but now synonymous with the suffering of war generally.
The work is presented in context with pre-drawings of the work and other surrealist and cubist artwork, including great examples by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and others, many thought-provokingly displayed and with uncanny current relevance.
Get back on metro line 1 and get off after five stops at Tribunal station in Malasana. This historic but hip area is great for a relaxed evening. Dinner at a local restaurant such as Cabreira on Calle Ruiz, just off Plaza del Dos de Mayo offers great service, quality and value, with menus in English and welcoming staff. A dinner of fresh crusty bread, marinated pimiento pepper salad with onion and tuna, steamed clams, sizzling prawns and fresh chips will cost about €50 (Dh207) for two.
22.00: Walk around at night
Walk around the area just as locals start to head out for the evening. Squares will be full of young people energetically chattering, and bars and restaurants will start to fill up.
Midnight: Rest your head
A good base close to Malasana is the Barcelo Torre de Madrid, on Plaza de Espana. Rooms cost from €120 (Dh503) per night, including taxes.