De Madrid al cielo, or “From Madrid to Heaven” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but to the locals who live here, this Spanish expression accurately reflects how they feel about their city. This was my first visit, and I found that this cosmopolitan city, like the tapas they serve, offers a little of the best of everything.
Madrid buzzes at all hours of the day and night. During daylight hours, city streets are laden with camera-toting tourists visiting the many restaurants, retail shops, and museums. As day gives way to evening, pubs, and discos are alive with local color and flavor.
Madrid at Night
This is also a city of contrasts with one of the most modern airports in Europe, an efficient underground transportation system (Metro) with color-coded lines that reminded me of those in the U.K., upscale neighborhoods, and chic malls and boutiques. The downtown area reflects Madrid’s past with intricate architecture, historic buildings with ornate facades and palaces with expansive grounds perfect for strolling, relaxing, and sightseeing.
Plaza Mayor is one of the highlights, with a huge courtyard and colorful facades. The area is ringed by restaurants serving tapas (small dishes of fish, olives, cheese, and salads) and is actually a good place to start exploring the city. “Going for tapas,” as locals know it, is a popular nighttime tradition of sampling the best at many bars well into the evening.
Tourist in Madrid
The tourism office is located at Plaza Mayor and has literature and tour information. I signed up for the Vision Madrid hop on and hop off bus with routes that visit the historic and modern parts of the city. Headphones are provided with the audio in various languages, including English. I confess that I didn’t get very far as I got off after the first couple of stops to see the magnificent Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which houses works of Goya, Degas and Renoir. There are no less than 40 museums in Madrid, including the famous Prado and Reina Sofia Museums, the latter of which contains some of the most important collections of contemporary art in Spain. My suggestion is to purchase a Madrid Card that gives you access to most of the monuments and museums in the city (See resources).
Even though there aren’t any beaches in Madrid, there are plenty of water-related activities. I found that one of the best places for lounging near the water and people watching was at Retiro Park — the largest and certainly the most beautiful in the city. Fountains, pedestrian walks, small cafés, and a grand stone monument to King Alfonso XII line the rectangular-shaped lake where people in rowboats enjoy the tranquility and sunshine.
Grand Via is one of the main arteries running through the city all the way to the Centro (downtown district). Here, the streets are lined with sidewalk cafés, boutiques, and cinemas that include live performances and, of course, gelaterias. Madrileños love their gelato and this confection is sold everywhere. This seems to be one of life’s simple pleasures here, and with tantalizing flavors from deep, rich chocolate to tart lemon, who can blame them? I ate more than my share and figured I would walk off the extra calories while sightseeing.
One of the reasons I love to travel is to experience the culture reflected in the hearts of a nation’s people, through its art, in its food, and in everyday life. Madrileños are not shy about showing their emotions, and their love of life and of each other, as well as their unwavering belief that Madrid, is truly close to heaven.