I lived in Spain during a study abroad year in college back in early 1990s, and have returned several times since for business and pleasure. I’ve found myself writing up some of my recommendations for “what should i do if I visit Madrid” for many friends, and after completing this recent email (below) i figured i’d throw it on my blog as I’ve noticed that my “Things to do if you visit Chile” blog post has gotten quite a few visitors in the last year and has been nominally useful to others. So in that spirit, here are my recommendations for things not to miss in Madrid and immediate vicinity (eg: within 90 minute train ride). Note that this was written for a friend of mine from China, so i was stressing cultural elements that she would find particularly interesting!
These are the “towns near madrid to get out of the city to see some smaller towns:
- Toledo: small cute town with lots of nice walking things to see, museums, churches, and need small streets on a hill. Town with lots of history. it is 40 minute train ride SOUTH of Madrid. Plan a day trip there and back with a nice lunch. You may want to join a tour with a chinese speaking guide? it is easy to just go on your own, but, you might enjoy a guide as there is a lot of history?
- Salamanca and Segovia. Salamanca is a bigger small city about 90 minutes North-West from Madrid which is really great and has a lot to see, it is also a nice drive to get there. on the way there right on the freeway is Segovia, lovely small town. Both are worth seeing, you can do them together in 1 long day eg: start early, drive in car or train, to Salamanca–walk salamanca and see the Plaza (central square), the Catedral (church), and the university campus (very old university, where Chrisopher Columbus did some planning to go to america). Then, go back to madrid via Segovia, have a lunch in Segovia (lunch inSpain is between 2pm and 4pm, so you could have lunch at 3pm at a nice restaurant) then walk Segovia–Roman ruins from an Aqueduct that is 2000 years old, and great little small town with lovely streets). This is a BIG day, but it can be done. Other option is to break this up into 2 trips. Both are worth seeing. If you only have time to do 1 of these, Segovia is closer and thus easier so do that. Salamanca is really neet, but maybe too far. I did in car and really liked the drive, but you may find that stressful? I don’t know? Trains are very good in spain so that’s always a easier way!
In Madrid be sure to see:
- Go to a Flamenco Show. Usually they start at 12am or even 1am (very late). There is a great place called Cafe Chinitas that i have always liked. you buy tickets/reservation, then go and have drinks and watch dancing and singing. MUST DO, super cool, very very unique/different style of music. All of these are good places: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g187514-c84779/Madrid:Spain:Flamenco.Guide.Madrid.html
- If there are any Bull Fights in season i would go, very interesting and old fashioned–sad to see bulls killed, but i recommend. I don’t think they have them in January, however, here is the bull ring website just in case: http://www.las-ventas.com/
- If you can, go see a professional soccer match for Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid—spanish LOVE soccer, amazing experience. You can find tickets always, might be expensive, but seeing Real Madrid play (one of best teams in the world) is a real experience!
Then there are the traditional tourist sights:
- Plaza Mayor & Puerta del Sol walking area (public squares)
- Jardin del Buen Retiro (big park, go in daytime, at night not so safe, daytime no problem)
- El Prado (huge museum full of amazing OLD art collections, get a guide of some sort or recording in chinese, without a guide it is pointless as there is too much to see!)
- The Palace (king and queens) where there is a lot of stuff to see
- dozens of other museums…
- and dozens of fun neighborhoods to just walk around in and look at people and windows of stores etc. your hotel can help you with that…
Food (lunch is 2-4pm, dinner is 10-12pm–they really really really do eat at that time, you won’t find the best restaurants open before then! make reservations for the popular places!)
- Must try = Botin. A bit touristy, but really good and REALLY old, in continuous service since 1700s. eat the suckling pig and the lamb, both are incredible! http://www.botin.es/?q=en It is near the Plaza Mayor so nice walking area.
- Go to dinner one night on Calle Huertas (that means “Huertas Street”), it is a street filled with neat restaurants and bars that you can walk up and down in about 40 minutes round trip. Lots of people out and about walking in this area at night, fun to people watch. Plaza Santa Ana is a nice square surrounded by restaurants right by this street, so maybe walk the street, then eat at the restaurants on the Plaza.
- “Tapas” is a style of food where you stand at a bar (usually, although you can also have them at a table) and order small plates of different types that they will give you while you have a small beer. you can go to a bar, have a small beer and a “tapas”, then go to another bar and do the same, and in this way walk between many bars/restaurants eating “tapas” along the way. it is a style of “moving restaurant experience”. very fun. You can go to many neighborhoods where there are lots of “tapas” bars near each other. There are also some new “markets” that have nice organic produce and lots of little stands for tapas”–one such market is this one: Mercado de San Miguel Pza. San Miguel, S/N 28013 Madrid, Spain Be sure to try: Tortilla Espanola (eggs and potato pie), Jamon Serrano (spanish cured ham), Queso Manchego (spanish cheese that is amazing), Gambas al Ajilo (shrimp in garlic), and anything else you see that looks tasty!