Madrid Spain: my top travel tips for a weekend break in this stylish city

Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid)
Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid

Madrid is a city that over the last 15 or more years I have been in and out of more times than I can remember for work. And I realised that I had seen almost nothing of it and knew very little about it.

This is one of the dangers and risks of business travel, you can get lazy and forget that there are exciting places to explore. And so as I had a meeting in Madrid, booked to stay for the weekend to explore the city. And very pleased I am that did so. Though a weekend was not enough to really see all that the city has to offer!

Madrid is the 3rd largest city in Europe based on population, after London and Berlin. Situated almost slap bang in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, Madrid is the capital of Spain with a long history. There are huge wide streets and boulevards, and across the years there have been major and grand plans as the city expanded which meant the city has a sense and feeling of open spaces and feels less cramped, cluttered and rushed. The whole city has a sense of style and although busy, does not feel as hectic as many of the other major European Capitals.

There are many beautiful areas in the city with grand buildings, stylish shops and around parts of town there are statutes and artworks dotted around in the walkways. Saying that, the city has a very clear business feel about it – which is not a surprise as the city is the centre of commercial activity for Spain. Some parts of the city are more of a mish mash and very conflicting styles of architecture, but overall the city is very stylish.

Madrid and Spain is renowned for amazing food. There are amazing restaurants all round the town. One thing you will need to get used to is that in Spain things only start late, and so it is hard to find great places to eat until after 9pm and later into the night. This is also true of bars, it is part of the culture and so expect to be out late!

One thing I found interesting is that on the tours and generally around, one got a sense that the history of the city ignores the Franco period almost entirely and there is no reference to that period in the 1960s. Though there is a lot about the royal family both before and after this period in time.

If you are flying on, one thing to note is that the Madrid Barajas International Airport is a monster of a place. Huge, sprawling and cavernous. Also a little confusing, so assume it will take time to get through, both on arrival and departure. We saw many harassed people trying to get through it, and trying to get to their gates in time.

Based on my travels and experiences, here are my tips of things to do for a weekend visit to this vibrant city

(1) Open-top bus tour: I often recommend these when first visiting a city, and for Madrid this is no exception. There are 2 routes, one for Modern and one for Historical Madrid, and they cross paths at some points. There are very many stops, and if you buy a ticket you can chop and change between the 2 routes. A ticket costs about 17.50 Euros for a day, and you can get on and off as much as you like. They start at about 10am and run into the early evening. You get earphones and there is commentary in about 5 languages. The commentary is not that good though, and mostly just tells you what you seeing on either side of the road without much about the background and history. This is a pity as you mostly get a list of buildings with little background or insight, or anecdotes and stories. This is a missed opportunity, as the map you are given is the same. I noticed that people used guide books a lot on the tour, and this is where they got more background.

Real Madrid Stadium from the Open Top Bus Tour
(2) Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid): This is definitely a must see stop when in Madrid. Although this is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family, they do not actually live here and it is used for a combination of tourist attraction and major meetings and events. This is a huge complex that consists of the Palace and you can also visit the Royal Armoury and also the Royal Pharmacy. This is a very popular attraction and to avoid standing in long lines, either get here early or consider buying a Madrid Sightseeing Pass that gives you entry to a few attractions, and for the Palace has a special entrance for holders of this pass (link at the end of this blog posting). You cannot take photos inside the palace, but you can take them of the outside and of the great views from the courtyard. There is a large shop at the entrance/ exit and guidebooks and cards if you want pictures. There is an audio tour, or hosted tours and if you cannot be bothered there are small cards inside the rooms explaining what the room is and the history. The rooms are huge, impressive and have the most incredible chandeliers. The armoury is also quite breathtaking, as full of coats of armour for people and the horses they rode. This is very impressive.

Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid)

(3) Palace of Communications/ Palacio de Comunicaciones: This is an absolutely stunning white building in a beautiful big square with fountain. Originally built as the Post Office and Communication Centre in 1909, it has been restored and revamped into a huge open building full of glass, exhibition centres and new viewing platforms on the top of the building. The city council meets in the building as well. The whole place is stunning and striking, and has ornate ceilings, glass walkways and always has some exhibitions going on. As space in the viewing platforms is limited, you need to line up and wait. The views are impressive.

Palace of Communications/ Palacio de Comunicaciones

(4) Old Town and Mercado de San Miguel Market: A great area of town to stroll about in, and although parts are quite tourist trap there are many interesting squares and places to eat in. One of the best and must go to places is called Mercado de San Miguel Market. This renovated cast iron and glass building is open day and into the night, and packed full of food stalls selling all sorts of items from tapas, cakes, sweets, fresh fruit and fish and meat. There are many places to stand or sit and eat, and the whole place has enormous energy and passion. It is well worth a diversion to find and enjoy. The area around it has winding streets, old buildings and a nearby big open square that in summer also has tables and chairs to sit outside and eat and drink.

Mercado de San Miguel Market

(5) Museums: Natural History Museum and Biblioteca Nacional de España: There are a remarkable number of museums and art galleries in Madrid! For details of many visit:  Two that are worth a visit, and easy to get to if using the bus tour tickets to get around are the Biblioteca (which is within very close walking distance also of the Palace of Communications). This holds all the major documents and books from across Spanish history, and is an impressive (and huge) building with statutes and sweeping staircases. The Natural History Museum is also an impressive building closer to the business part of town, in attractive gardens which has some monuments to the new constitution and have used technology to have engaging and interactive exhibits. Both take quite a bit of time to explore, and so if on a weekend trip you probably need to chose one of them to explore.

Biblioteca Nacional de España

(7) Shopping: Madrid has a lot of style and as well as the more quirky shops and restaurants in the Old Town, there also is the up-market shopping area which are a number of streets with all the smartest brands and names. When in Spain and Madrid, the one place that you do need to visit is the famous El Corte Ingles, which is the up-market Spanish Department Store chain. They have a number of them around the city, and you should visit them. They are very smart and are part of the Spanish culture of style and shopping!

Fountains in Madrid

Do you have any suggestions and tips that I can add for a longer trip, as these 7 tips are about all you can do in a busy weekend. Please drop me an email or leave a posting on twitter @garybembridge or on the blog posting

Inside the Palace of Communication Madrid

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Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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