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Bustling, cosmopolitan Madrid. With bone-chilling winters and scorching summers it’s a destination that’s bound to be a bit uncomfortable weather-wise. However, with an incredible collection of art housed in the city’s main 3 museums, (The Reina Sofía, El Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza), there is plenty to distract you.
For modern art fanatics, The Reina Sofía is a must-see. Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica is the museum’s main draw, but you’ll also encounter plenty of works by equally eccentric Salvador Dalí, Miró and Francis Bacon.
The Prado Museum is renowned for being Madrid’s biggest attraction and houses the finest works in Europe and owned by Spanish royalty. Likewise, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum displays the collection of another rich family; German-Hungarian industrial tycoons called the Thyssens. The Thyssen Museum is an extensive collection ranging from Medieval to Surrealism to Pop Art.
After you’ve soaked yourself in art and culture, head to the Royal Palace of Madrid, which is the third largest in Europe. Originally a Muslim fortress, it was burnt down in the 18th century and rebuilt in a very French and Italian style commissioned by King Philip V. The Spanish royal family doesn’t actually live here—they live in a separate mansion nearby, but the palace is still used for formal functions and state affairs.
Head to the heart of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol and its surrounding streets for everything from large department store like El Corte Inglés and FNAC to smaller clothing stores like MANGO. If you prefer to shop for food, go to Tienda Olivarero (C/Mejia Lequerica, 1) for a wide-selection of high-quality olive oil, Reserva y Cata (C/Conde de Xiquena) for specialty wines and Cacao Sampaka (C/Orellana, 4) for a seemingly endless supply of chocolate.
Being the capital city, and smack-dab in the middle of Spain, Madrid is a foodie’s paradise. It offers every regional style of Spanish cuisine, as well as delicious foreign food.
To be really Spanish, you’ll need to sample a few of the local cafes for churros and café con leches. Luckily, there’s no shortage of cafes. Try Café de Espejo (Paseo de Recoletos, 31) for a cup of joe on the outside terrace or Café Gijón (Paseo de Recoletos, 21) for a summer terrace and a pretty interior while you get your caffeine fix.
For tapas, try the battered and fried bacalao (cod) at Casa del Labra on C/Tetuán 12 or the Museo del Jamón (Carrera de San Jerónimo, 8) to sample Iberian Ham. If you prefer a sit-down meal, go to El Botín (C/Cuchilleros, 17), which holds the title in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest restaurant in Europe.
For an affordable, centrally located place to stay, book the top-floor room at Hostal Madrid. This room offers a terrace overlooking the Puerta del Sol neighborhood of Madrid and enough space to fit 4 people, as well as a kitchenette to cook in.
For the fashion-obsessed, a stay at Hotel Urban means access to the rooftop swimming pool+bar and designer rooms.
A more humble, but neat and comfortable is the Hostal Don Diego in the Salamanca neighborhood. Though it’s called a hostel, most hostales in Spain are well-kept hotels instead of crazy backpacker joints.
A beautiful place to come for the evening paseo is the Plaza Mayor. This large square, set away from main streets was designed as a public theater of city events. This is the spot where the awful autos-de-fé (trials of faith) occurred during the Spanish Inquisition, where kings were crowned, executions were well, executed, bull-fights were won and more. Though its history is dark, its present-day mix of touristy cafes and street performers is much more pleasant. Though, be sure to watch out for pickpockets and don’t eat in this square.
A day-trip to the stunning medieval town of Toledo should definitely be on your itinerary. It is a National Monument and UNESCO Patrimony of Mankind, and it’s old, winding streets and beautiful buildings remind one that Toledo is completely deserving of its status.
Toledo actually preceded Madrid as the capital of Spain, and was once the crossroad of Jewish, Moorish, Visigothic and Christian cultures. Make room to see the Alcázar, the Cathedral, the Judería (the old Jewish quarter) and the city itself bathed in floodlights at night.
Though Andalusia is the capital of flamenco, Madrid lays claim to brilliant flamenco artists as well as a flamenco festival in May. Try La Soleá (C/Cava Baja, 34) for an authentic peek into truly improvised flamenco as people pick up guitars or start joining in by singing or clapping their hands.
For pop and rock concerts by local artists, go to El Sol (C/Jardines, 3) and for opera, a show at the prestigious Teatro Real is worth the sometimes steep ticket prices.
Being oblivious to pickpockets. Keep your bags and purses zipped at all time and in front of your body, rather than hanging off the back. The petty thieves in Madrid are very good, and often will be long-gone before you notice your wallet is missing.