OK, that was a very corny opening for a trip report, but that was what I knew about Madrid before I set foot on its soil: old streets, old buildings and stuff.
I was quite right.
The moment I stepped foot onto the aerobridge, I felt like I was being transported back to the 1980s. Initially, I thought it was just the architecture of Madrid-Bajaras Airport. Interestingly, it extended way into the city. Yes, there were skyscrapers, and you can find most of them in their “central business district” around Plaza de Castilla. On the other hand, they retained the old world charm in the area around Plaza Mayor. Anywhere in between these 2 places seemed to have been developed in the 70s to 80s. Either way, I am not complaining, as I enjoyed walking around the stone-paved streets admiring the antique architecture!
First, my visit to Madrid was for work, so I spent most of my preparation work on accommodation and work; I didn’t really expect myself to have time after working hours every day to do sightseeing. However, I landed in the afternoon of a Sunday. With the whole afternoon to myself, I did a quick research and planned an itinerary that allowed me to “sample” the best of Madrid in the short few hours.
My trip took place in early spring, so daylight was precious. My first order of the day was to visit Royal Palace of Madrid and Plaza Mayor, both of which would be good for some been-there-done-that daytime photo-taking.
Royal Palace of Madrid
The Royal Palace of Madrid and the surrounding ground was a massive architecture of concrete. The expanse of the plaza in front of the palace reminded me of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Since the buildings in the city centre were all low-rise, the palace dominated the skyline of the neighbourhood, and it was plain joy taking pictures of the ornately sculpted roof against the sky with my all-weather Olympus TG870.
I’d recommend starting the “visit Madrid tour” from Príncipe Pío metro station (located along the blue and green lines), kicking off the walk with the sight of the triumphant arch at Puerta de San Vicente, before taking a stroll up Cuesta San Vicente and entering the gardens of the Palace through one of the entrances along the road.
The garden itself was intricately landscaped. And since it was elevated, it overlooked many parts of the surrounding town too. The exit of the garden off Calle de Bailén (the road in front of the Palace) was in itself an elevated terrace. Therefore, remember to turn around and take in a bird’s eye view of the gardens before stepping out of the garden!
The plaza in front of the palace was of course filled with excited tourists. There were also street artists and peddlers who roamed the area to earn some money. Many people online advised against buying stuff for them, though it would not hurt to take a few pictures of the artists like I did!
After crossing the front courtyard of the Palace (or is it plaza?), you would reach the theatre area of the city, where metro station Opera was. Unless you have the time for a show or two, it was just a place to soak in the hustle and bustle within a historic background and catch a breather with a cup of coffee at one of the coffee shops.
Plaza Plaza – It’s All You See When Visiting Madrid
The next place to visit in Madrid would be Plaza de la Villa (a 10-min stroll from the theatres). Being the old city centre during medieval times, the small plaza offered a 360 view of beautiful buildings from the bygone era!
Plaza Mayor was just a few turns from Plaza de la Villa, and where one should spend a good amount of time there! It was an expansive plaza bounded by medieval buildings. Travel blogs recommended one to dine at one of the restaurants at the perimeter. I thought that I could people-watch while in the plaza, without going through the expense (literally) of dining at one of them pricey restaurants. Instead, my aim was actually to try out some other snacks I could find (after all, I only had a few hours around dinner time, so I must keep my stomach for more value-for-money food!).
Calamari, Butter Cake & Hot Chocolate – Best Comfort Food when You Visit Madrid!
Situated along the streets that branched off from the plaza was Bar La Ideal, a small outfit serving calamari that many travel sites talked about. Despite being deep-fried, one could taste the freshness of the squid, which was wrapped in soft, crispy batter! The calamari, like all other Spanish food, bordered on being too salty. I am a lover of all food salty, and even then, I had to wash my palette with plain water after every meal! One thing I didn’t like about their calamari was that it was served with a very tough bun; I ended up cleaning off the calamari and leaving the bun alone XP
Just around the corner from Bar La Ideal was the famous San Miguel Market (you could actually drop by enroute from Plaza de la Villa to Plaza Mayor). If you have the luxury of time, you could spend an entire afternoon browsing through the different food stores in the market; otherwise you can do a been-there-done-that selfie like me!
A few blocks from Plaza Mayor, along Calle Mayor, was a famed dessert café called El Riojano – a must-go when you visit Madrid. Even before entering the café, you would be greeted with walls of colourful cakes, which would be followed by more walls of enticing-looking cakes beckoning at you as you entered the shopfront. The whole café was split into 2 parts, with the front being the display for cakes and for people to buy takeaways, while the back housed the seated area of the café.
The signature of this café (or rather, the reason why people visit the café) was its buttery cake that you dip into the accompanying cup of hot chocolate, before stuffing that awesome sinful goodness into your mouth. Need I say more? I particularly liked its retro décor and intimate seating. Everybody was engaged in excited conversation, adding to the warmth of the place, thus making El Riojano the perfect place to escape the scathing cold outside!
By now, the sun would have set, but that does not mean you can’t proceed down Calle Mayor towards Puerta del Sol. In fact, just the walk down the street would be sufficient for basking in the hustle and bustle of downtown Madrid! When at Puerta del Sol, remember to take a picture with the sculpture of the bear against a strawberry tree.
If you aren’t tired by the time you reached Puerta del Sol, you can cut across the buildings to Gran Via via Calle de la Montera. Gran Via is like the Champs Elysee of Madrid, and would be a great place to drop by if you need to buy something back for your folks back home. From there, you could walk down the historic road towards Banco de España, where you could take in the majestic view of Plaza de Cibeles, situated in the centre of the roundabout, to conclude your short tour of Madrid’s historic district.
My experience of Madrid was that it was a city stuck in the 1980s; the hotel rooms were big, but needed soundproofing. The roads were wide, but that made reaching places inconvenient. The pluses would have been great back in the 80s, but when viewed in current context, against the backdrop of modern metropolises like Shanghai, Madrid felt weary and in need of rejuvenation.
Although Spain is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, Madrid is surprisingly low on service culture. Servers were not enthusiastic to take your orders and they definitely were not interested in earning money of English-speaking tourists. Therefore, one really needs to either be conversant in Spanish, or have plenty of courage to travel alone in Madrid!
Last but not least, I was very fortunate to have visited Madrid in March, which was also when the cherry blossoms, you know, blossomed. The cherry blossoms could be found lining the sides of Paseo de la Castellena, the streets branching off the boulevard, and in spots here and there. The wide boulevards dampened the visual intensity of the blossom (imagine seeing the blossoms lining the sides of a narrow path in Japan, and then widening the path to the width of a boulevard the scale of Madrid’s), but when viewed in solidarity, they were just as breath-taking as their Japanese counterparts.
And I was only describing what you see when you are going about your daily routine. The article linked here suggests several superb spots right in the heart of Madrid for viewing cherry blossom at its finest!
Read this article for more inspiration to your gastronomic discovery in Madrid: https://madridfoodtour.com/typical-foods-in-madrid/
Last, but not least, read my other articles that goes into more details of staying and eating in Madrid!
To make up for my cheesy opening, I made a video with just me and XK zooming through Madrid 😛