don’t win Oscars, but if they did, Madrid would be a shoo-in. With its
show-stopping boulevards, voluptuously planted green spaces, feisty
gastronomic heritage and enormous cultural clout, the sun-soaked
Spanish capital has cinematic quality in spades. In recent years,
having been the break-out star of some 20 films by the Spanish
director Pedro Almodóvar, the city’s historic buildings,
atmospheric squares and neighbourhood bars have created a whole new
generation of Hispanophiles. Ready to call the shots while
exploring the city yourself? Read on for our top 10 ways to
experience Madrid like a local. (Or Penelope Cruz. Your call.)
Madrid like a local: 10 ways to explore the city
Learn the city’s secrets
No one likes to look like a tourist – even when they are one.
Instead of grappling with Google Maps, take advantage of the city’s
extensive network of tourist information centres. The Plaza Mayor outpost, for example, is open 365
days a year and offers clever virtual visitor video assistance.
Having said that, nothing beats working out the lay of the land
with an actual person (a local guide). First visit to Madrid? Start
with a guided walk around the city’s historic centre. Been before?
Branch out into the more bohemian neighbourhoods such as Malasaña (teeming with students),
LGBTQ-friendly Chueca or the architecture- and
Find your crowd
Madrileños are social creatures – whether that be hanging out
with friends over post-work drinks, packing a picnic and heading to
one of the city’s 40 green spaces or indulging in “terraceo”, a
long-held tradition of moving from terraza to terraza (outdoor
tables make perfect sense in a capital blessed with 350 sunny days
a year). Get in on the fun, or, if you’ve got a big day of
sightseeing ahead of you, make like the cool kids and try “tardeo”.
Stemming from the word “tarde” meaning “afternoon” or “evening”,
the term refers to the increasingly popular habit of socialising
without staying out all night. Or, for a quintessential Madrid
experience without the hangover, take a stroll down the elegant,
tree-lined promenade of Paseo del Prado and around the 125-hectare
El Retiro Park. Recently recognised as part of
a Unesco world heritage site, these verdent city pockets have been
popular social spots for Madrileños since the 16th century.
Retail therapy more your thing? Make tracks to Plaza de Cascorro
(in the central La Latina district), home of El Rastro, the city’s legendary flea market.
Pick up some rare vintage kicks then round off your visit the
customary way with an aperitivo in one of the area’s multiple bars.
You can toast your shopping prowess with a glass of wine, beer or
vermouth paired with some delicious tapas such as paella or –
another Madrid speciality – cod fritters.
Check in at a hip hotel
Won’t get out of bed unless there’s a sangria on a rooftop with
your name on it? Looking for an urban crashpad with an infinity
pool? Walls lined with contemporary art? Nothing less than a Belle
Époque palace? You’ll find it all in Madrid, where the
accommodation is as diverse as it is welcoming. Among the city’s
newest arrivals, you’ll find the super-luxe
Madrid Edition designed in partnership with Studio 54-supremo
Ian Schrager, and Ocean Drive Madrid, which is so close to Teatro
Real opera house, you might well hear the odd aria through an open
window. Other stand-outs include the Mandarin Oriental Ritz (not least for its
Michelin-starred restaurant, Deesa), the sumptuous 19th-century
Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques and the
ever-cool Hard Rock Hotel.
Follow your stomach
Madrid’s multi-pronged culinary heritage is such a big part of
life in the city, it deserves a tour of its own. Arrive hungry and
sign up for a group tapas-tasting session in central hotspots such
as Madrid de Los Austrias (Hapsburg Madrid), La Latina or Barrio de las Letras (Literary Quarter).
Alternatively, neighbourhoods such as Chueca, Conde Duque and
Malasaña are packed with casual hole-in-the-wall places serving up
big flavours. Boulevard de Ibiza near El Retiro Park is adored
locally for its terraza-based all-day grazing while off-duty chefs
and other serious foodies pride themselves on keeping up with hot
new openings on Calle de Ponzano in Chamberí.
Lose yourself in art
It’s a real luxury to explore Madrid’s cultural side on your own
– going along at your own pace touring the museums along the Paseo
del Arte (Art Walk) and discovering all the other galleries
peppered around the city. Paseo del Prado (now a Unesco World
Heritage site) is a good place to start. Here, you can wander
around three of Madrid’s top galleries: the Prado, the
Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía, as well as the Royal
Botanical Gardens, the Royal Spanish Academy, the National Museum
of Decorative Arts and the Royal Astronomical Observatory. Don’t
just stick to the big-hitters though. The lesser-known Sorolla,
Lázaro Galdiano and Lope de Vega ‘house museums’ and the Museum of Romanticism all make fascinating pit
stops. Furthermore, avant-garde centres such as Matadero Madrid (a
converted slaughterhouse), Casa Encendida and Conde Duque are certain to inspire. If you’re
looking for an uplifting night out, catch a musical at one of the
theatres on the iconic Gran Vía or dress up and take yourself to
Teatro Real – one of the world’s most famous opera houses.
Get closer to nature on a bike
Nothing beats the freedom of riding around the city on a bike.
Madrid Río Park, a vast green stretch along the
banks of the Manzanares River, is a total must-visit. Previously
bisected by the M-30 motorway, an intensive rewilding project has
seen new life breathed into the site, and now kingfishers and
herons are regular sightings. Keep pedalling until you reach
Madrid’s biggest public park, Casa de Campo on the west bank of the
Manzanares. Covering more than 1,500 hectares, you’ll find plenty
of cycle paths to venture along as well as an artificial lake
dating back to the 16th century flanked by lively terrazas ripe for
Soak up the sunset
Ditch the idea that sunsets are for loved-up couples. Travelling
alone not only allows you to connect with a destination in a deeper
way, it also encourages you to get to know yourself better. The
best places to salute the sun going down? Try the lush Las
Vistillas Gardens, the Mirador de la Cornisa look-out ledge at the
Royal Palace or the area around Oeste Park, which is imbued with
the mystery and history associated with the city’s ancient Egyptian
Temple of Debod. Dismantled as part of the
International Campaign to Save the Monuments, the temple was
transported stone by stone to Madrid and rebuilt over a period of
two years close to the Plaza de España.
Hunt for one-of-a-kind souvenirs
No one to tell you to hurry up while you peruse the shelves of
artisanal ateliers and specialist homeware shops? Living the dream…
Madrid makes things easy in this department with myriad items
exclusive to the Spanish capital from capes and Manila shawls to
fans, crockery, violet sweets and traditional guitars.
Neighbourhoods to bookmark include Salesas, Lavapiés, Barrio de las
Letras, Chueca, Malasaña, Conde Duque, La Latina and Los Austrias.
The best addresses to look up are these three traditional stores:
Capas Seseña, Sombrerería Medrao and Guitarras Ramírez. Also worth a visit are the
city’s contemporary studios helmed by next-gen artisans such as
Andrés Gallardo (who works with porcelain to create earthy and
animal-inspired jewellery designs) and Javier Medina whose
“ecological trophies” made from materials such as bamboo make
brilliant gifts to take home.
Eat, drink and dance
Restaurants that marry stellar cuisine with live music have been
taking Madrid by storm of late. For a truly memorable dinner, try
the one of the following: the friendly restaurant-cum-club Aurora,
the innovative 6,000sq m Platea which offers music and circus
performances, Bule Bule, loved for its gastronomy, music and
cabaret acts, or Fanático, whose funky decor is worth a visit in
itself (though you’ll stay for the cocktails). Fan of flamenco?
Check out the programme at Corral de la Morería which not only hosts the
world’s top flamenco artists but offers a slap-up menu in two
different spaces, one of which has been awarded a Michelin star.
Alternatively, hot-foot it to either Tablao de la Villa, where the fiesta of
flamenco is heightened by a traditional restaurant serving
time-honoured Spanish cuisine or Las Carboneras, where the flamenco is more
contemporary and has a menu to match.
End your trip on a high
Where better to reflect on your soul-lifting solo trip than on
one of Madrid’s rooftops? Many serve food and drink as good as the
views… A roll call of the city’s best include: Ginkgo Sky Bar on the 12th floor of the hotel
VP Plaza de España Design; Planta 9 CR7 at hotel Pestana CR7 Gran
Vía; the Azotea del Círculo de Bellas Artes; Casa Suecia and the oh-so rock ‘n’ roll rooftop
at the Hard Rock hotel. And while you’re up there, be sure to raise
a glass to Madrid itself. It’s undeniably one of the most welcoming
capitals in the world. A place that knows exactly how to put solo
travellers at ease. You might well arrive alone but, chances are,
you’ll leave with a host of new friends.
To start planning your solo adventure around the Spanish
capital, visit esmadrid.com