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In the heart of the city center you will find a piece of medieval Madrid – Plaza de la Paja, or ‘Straw Square.’ The Plaza was named for the act of ‘tithing,’ where peasants would bring one tenth of their humble crops to the church. Today the Plaza is an ideal place to enjoy a quieter Madrid with al fresco dining and aristocratic gardens that have spanned centuries. If you are stuck wondering what to do in Madrid, there are a number of Madrid tours including tapas treks, journeys out to wine-country and private museum excursions. A visit to the museum district is a must, with three major galleries including Museo del Prado, one of the finest art museums in the world.
Food and drink
You will often find high quality seafood dishes in Madrid restaurants, but they also come with a higher price tag as you venture away from coastal Spain. Dining is a little later than you might be used to, with lunch starting at 2:00 p.m. and dinner at 9:00 p.m., but tapas bars are open in between for smaller meals. Most bars lining the streets have draft lager or 'canas' on tap. If you're not a beer drinker but are still willing to give it a go, try a 'clara' – beer and lemonade, what Australians and the British know as a shandy. A beer alternative is tinto de verano (summer red wine), which is also diluted with lemonade. Spain is also home to some excellent varieties of wine, from riojas to albariños to sparkling cava.
Where to stay
Madrid hotels are easily located in the densely populated city and are widely spread across a larger urban area. With a lot of competition, you can hunt around for a good price. It's important to note Madrid hostels shouldn't be confused with the more commonly known youth hostels – 'hostales' are usually smaller, family-run accommodations. If you want to stay where the action is, look at the Sol, Gran Via, and Huertas areas – especially if you are after a group lodging. Malasana and Chueca are good options if you are looking for a more intimate Madrid stay.
Start your shopping in Madrid on Calle Almirante (Almirante Street). Here you will find uniquely Spanish curiosities in boutiques filled with jeweled espadrilles, embroidered mantones (traditional Spanish shawls) and colorful abanicos (Spanish fans). Bargain hunters should make the pilgrimage to El Rastro — one of the largest and oldest flea markets in Europe. If you are hoping to score a good deal on an antique or handmade souvenir, head to the market at 9:00 a.m. — by midday the crowds have subdued if you just want to take in the atmosphere or try the local street food.
Madrid like a local
If Madrid weather is in your favor, take advantage of the open-air cafes and explore the intimate laneways that give the city its character. If you journey away from the town center you will uncover medieval alleys with tucked away taverns and ornately presented gardens. The Spanish have an infectious zest for life which should be heartily embraced. Whether you are dancing like nobody is watching or enjoying tapas in a quiet plaza, your Madrid vacation will always be filled with the finer things in life.
A 'Break' in Madrid
Want to take a quick trip to Madrid? Take a look at Liberty Travel’s EURObreaks – short European getaways tailor-made for you. Best of all, each EURObreak includes a City Insider, an expert who lives in and loves the city you’re exploring. They’ll give you an overview of the city and its history, highlighting what’s trendy, tried and true, or a combination – they’ll even give you a quick lesson in the city’s public transportation! Your City Insider helps ensure that your vacation memories will be unforgettable.
Things to see and do
Temple of Debod
Ancient Egypt can be found in the heart of Madrid in the form of the treasured Temple of Debod. This millennia old temple was originally located in southern Egypt and was relocated to Spain in 1972. The temple was a gift from Egypt in the late 1960s when the construction of a nearby dam threatened the temple and other archaeological sites. Because of Spain’s help in preserving the sacred site, Egypt gifted the structure to Spain in gratitude.
Built in the second century, the temple was a monument to the goddess Isis. Two great stone gateways lead to a one-room stone chapel and it is now set in one of Madrid’s most beautiful parks, the Parque del Oeste. The temple is situated in the same way as originally built – east to west, and today the site features a museum with in-depth exhibits and information on its history. Closed Mondays and public holidays
Madrid’s historic main square, Plaza Mayor is a popular tourist site and important area for civic events, public celebrations, and even royal coronations. The idea for such a square came from King Philip II in the late 1500s but it wasn’t until 1619 that his vision was realized. Since that time the square evolved throughout the centuries and became what we see today after the square’s rebuilding from destructive fires in the late 1780s.
Ornamental decoration inside the large rectangular square includes four ornate lamps or lights as well as the historic statue of King Philip III dating back to the early 1600’s. During the Spanish Inquisition the square was used for executions, but today this peaceful square is a place of recreation and enjoyment where visitors can witness the vibrant urban plaza coming to life throughout the day.
Plaza Mayor is a short walk from the La Latina or Opera train stations and there are nine entry ways into the square. Many cafés and restaurants are located within this grand civic space as well as a tourist information centre.
Museo del Prado
Museo del Prado is Spain’s largest and most famous art museum, and Madrid’s best-known attraction. Featuring some 20,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and historic documents, it’s a fantastic place to embrace Spain’s cultural history.
It’s a phenomenal amount of artwork to take in, and it’s impossible to do every piece justice in a single visit. The best advice is to spend as much or as little time as you have here, and try to spread the experience across multiple visits. Free maps will help guide you to the must-sees, and three routes have been devised that take viewers on journeys through the galleries to visit the most important pieces in the museum – routes of 15, 30 or 50 works can be explored.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is a stunning art collection tracing the evolution of European art from the early 13th century right to the modern era. Examples from every important movement are found here, and with pieces ranging from the subtle portraits of Van Dyck to the bold colors of Van Gogh, there will be something in the collection that captures the eye of everyone that enters the gallery.
The museum also hosts an education program, offering a range of lectures, courses, tours, concerts and much more. Information on upcoming events can be found by contacting the gallery. Temporary exhibitions change often, and tend to be a nice mix of internationally renowned artists, famous Spanish names, and underground Madrid creators. During the summer these temporary exhibitions are often open until 11 p.m. – what better way to spend a night in Madrid than viewing some fine art at the Thyssen before heading up to the rooftop restaurants for tapas and sangria?
Historic grandeur abounds at this magnificent palace that dates back to the first half of the 18th century. While not the residence of the Spanish Royal Family, the palace is used for important state functions, for welcoming foreign heads of state, and for the receiving of credentials by foreign ambassadors to the King. The palace is at the center of many civic and religious related events as well.
The opulence of the palace is practically unmatched even by European standards, and the over 3,000 rooms make this the largest European palace in terms of floor space. The royal house is filled with priceless art works and historically significant artifacts from throughout Spain’s rich history, including armor.