I am (and always will be) a Barcelona fan when it comes to Spanish cities. After spending a weekend in Madrid, without completely dismissing a return, I still vouch for Barcelona.
I wasn’t enchanted with Madrid, I didn’t fall head over heels with the Spanish capital and I assume it might have had something to do with a poor choice of dates to travel – scorching hot days from dawn to sunset are not the best to explore a city on foot, hence jeopardizing my plan for a cultural weekend in Madrid.
Under such unwelcoming circumstances, we quickly regrouped, tossed away more than half of our friend’s personal recommendations, and stuck to the highlights while chasing breezy esplanades in the evening and chilled glasses of tinto de verano (a blasphemy for wine lovers – mixing orange Fanta and ice with wine – but a much-welcomed refreshment in the evenings with temperatures that would never fall below 40 degrees Celsius/104 Fahrenheit).
If you ever find yourself facing this conundrum in the future, here are my seven tips for a cultural weekend in Madrid in the Summer. Feel free to drop me yours in the comments.
1. Stay Central (+ Transportation Information)
The more I travel (or the older I get, that could probably be it), the less hassle I want to have with transportation from and to the hotel to wherever – landmarks, restaurants, airport. Throw some hot summer days in the picture and I definitely want to stay as close as possible to my list of must-sees for the day.
Now, I suck at reading maps (however, ask me to interpret any city’s public transportation system and I’m the queen) and at making budget decisions based on price point versus location versus comfort. Usually, I only get one of these three right and it’s usually not location. I think it’s because I ask the wrong questions. Instead of “how close to the metro station is this hotel”, I should really ask “which metro station/line is this hotel close to” – these are two very different questions, the latter giving you a lot more information on the area you will choose to stay.
In Madrid’s case, and keeping the cultural weekend in mind, you want a hotel that is close (as in within walking distance) from a metro station of one of these lines: red (line 2, serves the Opera House, the Museo del Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Barrio de las Letras – the literary quarter), blue (line 1, serves the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) or green (line 5*, serves Gran Vía in the Chueca quarter and Barrio de la Latina).
We stayed at the budget-friendly Room007 Select Sol Hotel, 5 minutes walking distance from the Opera metro station and 10 minutes walking distance from the Sol metro station, close to shops, cafes, restaurants, Madrid’s Opera House (Teatro Real), and the Royal Palace of Madrid.
*Line 5 was close for construction work while we were there (July 2017), so please check the updated information for when it will be available at the metro’s official website here.
One single ticket for one trip (sencillo combinado metro) costs €1.50 (US $1.76). During a weekend in the summer in Madrid, assess your resistance to the heat to decide whether to buy tickets as you go (if you’re not going to use the metro that much) or whether to buy the Metrobús 10 journey ticket (€12.20/US $14.31) or the Tourist Travel Pass – Abono Turístico valid for 1, 2 or 3 consecutive days (€8.40/US $9.85 for 1 day, €14.20/US $16.66 for 2 days, €18.40/US $21.59 for 3 days. There are tickets for 5 and 7 days also available, but that exceeds our weekend in Madrid focus.)
I’m a time-saving person (and time is money), so considering the number of Metro trips I ended up taking in 2 days (9 or 10) and considering the time I had to spend buying one single ticket each time (although the ticket machines are easy to use), I would have been better off just buying the Tourist Travel Pass for the 2 days. Is the Pass a tourist trap? Considering that the Metro ticket from and to the airport has a surcharge of €4.50/US $5.28, I say it’s great value for money.
2. Take Your Time
I try to approach a destination like a blank canvas because I enjoy not having expectations and figuring out what impact a new place will have on me. Rarely I say I will never return to a city and, after this cultural weekend in Madrid, I can assure you I haven’t seen the last of the Spanish capital. Sure, it wasn’t love at first sight, but I haven’t ticked off all must-sees in Madrid on my list.
I had zero knowledge of what Madrid was about, apart from the museums and my travel mate’s insistence on tinto de verano as something very local and very typical to try (she was right, by the way, it was. In Madrid in the summer, tourists order sangria, locals order tinto de verano).
Splitting my attention between the Lonely Planet Pocket Guidebook*, their free travel app, and a friend’s printed out map with his best tips and advice, I had a rough draft of an idea of where I wanted to go.
You can run around and complete your list of 10 top things to see in Madrid, but it’s wiser if you book a good tour, pick a couple of highlights to visit properly and leave enough space to explore the city on foot.
3. Book a local tour
A few years ago, I used to be firmly against group tours, claiming they were the antithesis of authentic independent travel. I may be quick to put my foot in my mouth from time to time but I’m even faster when it comes to admitting that I might have been looking at traveling topics from the wrong perspective.
So, is booking a guided group tour a good idea for independent travelers? Yes, if you pay attention to these telltale signs before you do:
- Pick a locally owned company
- Make sure the groups are kept small (under 10 people)
- Assess how the tour helps you give back to the local community
Ideally, I would have done a food tour and an architecture tour if I had the time to do both. So I chose to take a food tour with Devour Madrid because culinary culture is a more raw and down-to-earth approach to a city’s life, perfect for a first introduction.
This tour took us around Barrio de las Letras, the literary quarter I want to explore when I return to Madrid, and introduced us to a lot of the locals’ favorite eating and drinking spots.
4. Pick two must-see highlights
In our case, we picked museums but feel free to choose the highlights according to your preference.
We had one full day and two half-days to travel in Madrid and we had to be very strict with our planning, considering the hot weather and our need to probably rest between sightseeing (that’s when the central hotel location came in handy).
A visit to the two main museums, Reina Sofía and Prado, was in order and we knew we wouldn’t skip them. So instead of trying to weave in a handful of things to do in Madrid, we decided to make the best of our museum experience and let the rest flow. We saw the first one on the day we arrived, Friday before lunch, and the second one on the day we left, Sunday before lunch and before traveling to the airport. How did we decide the time for each one? Well, in our case we figured it would take us three hours (tops) for each one of the museums. Both were packed, although I assume after lunch it would have been worse, but we had plenty of time to navigate the crowds and see the exhibits calmly.
On a next visit, I definitely want to spend more time with Guernica (at Reina Sofía) and the Bosch paintings (at Prado).
Ticket information for the museums
- Museo Reina Sofía – General €10.00/US $11.73
- Museo Nacional del Prado – General €15.00/US $17.60, General Admission + Offical Guide (Recommended) €24.00/US $28.16
5. Wander off
After our food tour on Saturday (which included breakfast and lunch), I was determined to explore the city on my own while my travel partner preferred the comfort of the hotel room air conditioner. Barrio de las Letras had already been covered (we ended up having lunch there on Sunday after the visit to the Prado Museum and before heading to the airport), so Chueca and La Latina were up for grabs. The problem was that the place I most wanted to visit at La Latina, the open-air flea market El Rastro, only worked on Sundays.
My trip to Chueca was surprising for two reasons. One, I found it endearing but it probably wouldn’t top my list of places to return to in Madrid (probably if it wasn’t too hot for me to venture away from Calle de Fuencarral, I would think differently). Two, it led me to a free-entrance museum I didn’t remember hearing about before, the Museo de Historia de Madrid (Madrid’s History Museum).
This museum played a double role: it was an (appreciated) air-conditioned refuge and it showed me that not all museum employees in Madrid are grumpy and borderline rude (not saying they always are, just saying that was our impression during our weekend trip).
Once again, exploring on foot and detouring led me to a different perspective of the city. When it comes to cultural travel, I think that’s one of the highlights we aim for on our trips, don’t you think?
People-watching is the contrary of staring, gawking, and any form of making others feel uncomfortable with your, let’s say social observing. You don’t want to do it in the same way you would see animals at the zoo. I do a lot of people-watching even when I’m not traveling, without judging, I will add.
On Saturday evening, after my poor experience with Chueca, we decided to ditch all tips, guides, friends’ advice and take a stroll around the neighborhood. By then, we hadn’t yet taken a real look at our surroundings beside finding places to eat.
The night before, while eating tapas and drinking sangria (not like the locals, I know!) at a taberna near the hotel, we had witnessed a peculiar event of police officers confiscating tables and chairs from an establishment three doors down from us. When asking the hotel receptionist, and our tour guide the next morning, what was that about, they brushed it off as a normal procedure for law enforcement. Okay, people, it might be perfectly casual to you, but for us, it was completely out of the ordinary and we’d like you to be as excited about explaining it to us as we were asking it to you.
There’s a chance we’ve watched one too many episodes of Blacklist…
7. If everything else fails, go for free-flowing tinto de verano
If nothing is going according to plan, chill. Find a breezy spot at the terrace of a central café and order yourself a glass of tinto de verano. Chips (and sometimes olives) are complimentary. I don’t know how summers in Madrid usually are, but our weekend was particularly hot and our energy drained pretty fast.
Sometimes cities don’t strike a chord at first sight (my opinion is that you should never be judgmental of a destination or take your experience of it for granted), and the Spanish capital most certainly didn’t with me.
Hasta luego Madrid and may our reencounter be full of (more) surprises!
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