Madrid (Better than Barcelona???) – Top 10 Must See Sites
Better than Barcelona! How could I say such a thing? It might just be true. Everyone (including me) falls in love with Barcelona and for good reason. It is easily one of the top cities in Europe, but I have to say Madrid ranks very high on my list and should not be forgotten during your next trip to Spain.
The capital city of Spain is filled with great (and cheap) food, really nice people, tons of history, beautiful parks and a royal palace. How can you not like that? The newer part of the city developed by Carlos III during his reign reminds me of a cross between Paris (with the 18th century architecture) and New York City (with the amazing parks and financial district).
The things people from Madrid love to do more than anything else, is drink (first and foremost), then eat and socialize with friends and family. The city comes alive at night where you can hear the buzz of the city as it gets going after 7 pm. Like many other Spanish cities, don’t plan on eating until 10 pm or later (9 pm might be acceptable if you are a tourist). Don’t plan on going to bed any time before midnight, because I don’t think people from Madrid sleep very much. They stay out late (eating and drinking) and are up early for work. And yes, people do take afternoon naps with even some stores closing during the afternoon to allow for this rest period.
My Top 10 List
If you are planning on traveling to Madrid (which I highly recommend), then here is my top 10 list of things you must see. If Madrid is not on your travel itinerary, enjoy learning a bit more about a great city here.
The Royal Palace (Palacio Real de Madrid) – The largest operating palace in all of Europe, this place is spectacular. The palace sits atop a bluff with a large park below. Built around 1755, Carlos III was the first king to occupy the palace. This place is huge with, over 600 rooms. It has all the elegance as other royal palaces of Europe, complete with a dining room that seats over 150 people and a throne room covered in marble. It is truly a masterpiece!
Prado Museum – No question that the Prado Museum is one of the top 10 museums in the world. It houses 12,000 pieces of art and 50 plus masterpieces by Velazquez, El Greco, Raphael and the most famous Spanish painter Goya. I have been to lots of museums during my travels, but I have to say this one is particularly well done. Much of the art collection was donated by the Spanish Royal Family over hundreds of years. King Carlos the III had the museum built and Felipe IV acquired much of the collection due to his love of art.
Retiro Park – This park sits in the center of Madrid and is one of the best destinations in Madrid. It reminds me a lot of Central Park in NYC. With gardens, walking paths, tall trees all around and a big lake in the middle of the park, make this the perfect place on a hot and sunny day in Madrid. If you are visiting Madrid, I highly recommend spending at least a few hours in the park. This park is also great for an evening stroll before the sun goes down.
Botanical Gardens – Even more relaxing than Retiro Park, are the botanical gardens that are located in the back of the museum and on the side of the park. These gardens are extremely well done and another relaxing place to go for a stroll.
Enjoy Churros dipped in Chocolate at Chocolatieria San Gines – Very famous in Madrid is one of the oldest chocolate stores. Here, you will get the cities specialty of churros and rich dark chocolate sauce. I understand this place is open 24 hours a day. If you don’t like churros for some strange reason, you can always have a cup of hot chocolate which is equally as delicious.
Take a Tapas Cooking Class – Tapas is like a religion in Spain. There are cafe’s (they call bars) serving Tapas all over the city. So, why don’t you go one step further like I did and take a tapas cooking class. Even if you don’t cook (like me) this class is a lot of fun and you get to eat (and drink) everything you make at the end of the class (and somehow everything comes out tasting really good).
Eat at Botin – According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world. Botin opened its doors in 1725 and has played host to just about every famous person that has set foot in Madrid. Also, every member of the Spanish royal family has eaten here since the restaurant opened. Suckling Pig is the specialty dish of Madrid (but not for me).
El Escorial – This monastery was built in the 16th century by Felipe II and was the old residence of the Spanish royalty. It is a massive complex and about a 1 hour drive from Madrid. The centerpiece of El Escorial is this small but impressive church built as the royal church. This is also the burial site for most the Kings and Queens of Spain (and their families). Your visit would not be complete without going to see them. As you may have guessed, this is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Plaza Mayor – While very touristy, it is still an absolute requirement that you go and eat here. This iconic square in the middle of the historical district of Madrid. The plaza was built in 1619 and has been used for all kinds of public gatherings including, public executions back in the day. Today this very large square is filled with lots restaurants to choose from.
Walk along Paseo Prado – This wide boulevard lined with tall trees and many fountains, stretches through much of the city. It is like having a long thin park through the middle of the city. I would suggest starting right in front of the Prado museum and walk from there. You will pass lots of beautiful buildings from the 18th century that will make you think you are walking through Paris. Also, don’t miss the Christopher Columbus Square.
Things Not To Do
You really can’t go wrong in Madrid. It is hard not to enjoy everything however, there were a few things that I would have been just fine skipping.
- Toledo – Only an hour drive from Madrid, Toledo is the old home of the Kings up to the 16th century. It was OK, but outside of the Cathedral it is nothing more than a tourist city with tons of shops with lots of people. I was not impressed.
- Churches – For some reason the city of Madrid does not have a really nice Cathedral. In fact, I did not come across any really spectacular churches in Madrid. That was OK with me since I have visited about 1000 churches in Europe already (well feels like it).
- Valley of the Fallen – This basilica is built inside the side of a mountain. While quite unique, it is probably not worth the one hour drive to visit (now, if you are already visiting El Escorial, then maybe you can swing by for a quick look).
Best Places To Stay
Madrid is not filled with lots of fancy hotels, but even the nice ones are very affordable compared to other European cities. I recommend staying at either the Palace Hotel or the Ritz. Both hotels are perfectly located right across the street from the Prado Museum and walking distance to everything. The Neptune Fountain sits right in front of both hotels and the parks are minutes away. The Palace Hotel (where I stayed) has large rooms and an amazing stained glass ceiling in the main dining room. The Ritz is a Mandarin Oriental hotel and very luxurious.
So as you can see, I really loved Madrid.