When visiting a city for the first time it is very easy to get sucked into a reliance on your guidebook, which will suggest that you visit all the same ‘sights’ as the hordes of tourists around you. Yet whilst a desire to see the monuments of a place is natural, it is great to get a few insider’s tips on how to see another, perhaps more authentic, side of a new place. So here is a guide for the traveller who wants the best of both worlds in Madrid…
Full of cafes, caricature artists and human statues, it is unarguably picturesque but you won’t hear many people speaking Spanish. Just round the corner from Plaza Mayor is the Chocolatería San Ginés, one of the best places in Madrid to sample the typical chocolate con churros (long, thin doughnuts), and the place is thronged by Spaniards and tourists alike. A short walk away is the Palacio Real, which is not actually the residence of the Royal family today, but is occasionally used for ceremonies.
The tourist trail has to start with Plaza Mayor.
Next you arrive at Plaza España, with its famous statue of Don Quixote. From Plaza España take a stroll along Gran Vía, one of the main arteries of Madrid. The road is packed with theatres, shops and restaurants and you will get caught up in the crowds hurrying towards Callao and Sol, which is the very heart of Madrid. The streets around the Puerta del Sol are full of bars and clubs and the atmosphere here at night is incredible. In Madrid clubs don’t open until midnight and only start getting full around three though, so if you fancy a night out just make sure that you know what you are letting yourself in for! If you are still keen then Kapital, in the Atocha district, is a good place to start.
It is almost obligatory to visit the Prado at some point, Madrid’s premier art gallery. It’s free for EU students under the age of 25, so make sure you take your student ID along. After a few hours of tourism you can relax in el Retiro, one of the parks, alongside madrileños young and old, and when it starts to get dark go for tapas! ‘Las fatigas del querer’, in the Huertas area, is a brilliant tapas bar with good Spanish food at reasonable prices, and not many tourists know about it.
On Sundays the La Latina area becomes the Rastro market, which is great if you are looking to pick up a bargain, but is another place that real madrileños tend to avoid. If you want a bit more of a balance then join the Spaniards who go for Sunday lunch in El Pardo, the village just outside Madrid where Franco used to live. Today there is little to remind you of the civil war and the place is known for its pretty plaza and good selection of restaurants.
And if you are feeling adventurous then leave the guide at home and set out to discover the bits of Madrid that no tourist usually finds! ¡Buena suerte!