I didn’t quite know what to expect when I arrived in Madrid. It was my first trip to Spain, and rather than head directly to the ever-popular Barcelona, I decided to spend a few days (including New Year’s) in Madrid. Despite being the countries’ capital, and home to over three million people, Madrid does not seem to get nearly the amount of attention that its Catalan neighbour does. This is not to say that Barcelona isn’t deserving of its fame – it most certainly is – but Madrid is a star in its own right.
Madrid has a reputation for being more difficult to navigate for non-Spanish speakers than some other cities in Spain. It’s a distinctly and joyously Spanish city, and the language is part of that heartiness, but it gave me a bit of anxiety about visiting with only a few Duolingo lessons worth of Spanish at my disposal. My unease was quickly put to rest. Madrid is a warm and approachable city even for neophyte travellers and has something to offer everyone no matter where you’re interests lie. In terms of the downtown neighbourhoods and the tourist-centric areas like restaurants and museums, most seem to speak some English. Even when they didn’t, I found people to be very friendly and welcoming, regardless of any language barrier.
Where to Stay
I stayed in Malasana, a central neighbourhood that is known for its clusters of hip bars, restaurants, cafes, unique stores and narrow, pedestrian friendly laneways. It also borders Cheuca, another popular neighbourhood that is also home to many of the city’s gay bars and clubs. I was also only a block away from Gran Via, the busiest street in Madrid. It is a busy area, but there are also many quiet side streets, and alcoves to discover. The Airbnb was about $220/night, which is reasonable for such an incredibly central location. I only had to use transit twice – once to get downtown from the airport, and again when leaving to get to the train station – but the subway seemed very clean, safe and easy to navigate. The downtown area is very dense, and if you’re staying somewhere in the core, it’s likely that you can walk wherever you need to go.
What To Do
Like I mentioned, there is a plethora of activities to enjoy in Madrid, and I had only the opportunity to enjoy but a fraction of what this city has to offer, but these were some of my highlights:
The Flamenco Show at La Cueva de Lola
Taking in a flamenco show is a must, and Madrid has many great venues, but I was blown away by the performance at La Cueva de Lola. I went in only with a superficial understanding of Flamenco based on what I’d seen in movies and on TV. Let me just say, that you can’t really grasp the intensity, power and artistry of this dance form until you see live. The show was incredible, and the sangria was delicious. The ticket, with a drink included, was 25€.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Madrid’s museums have some of the most renowned and significant art collections in the world. There are three major museums, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the Museo Nacional del Prado, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. I only had time to visit one, the Reina Sofia, and can vouch for the quality of the museum and its collection, but you’re sure to see some great art no matter which you visit. Buying tickets (12€) in advance is recommended.
El Retiro Park & Real Jardin Botanico
El Retiro Park is a sprawling green oasis at the heart of the city. It’s a great spot for a quiet, peaceful stroll, and there’s many lovely gardens to explore, as well a pond with row boats available for rent. Another highlight was the Palacio de Cristal, an all-glass conservatory that hosts a variety of art installations in conjunction with the Reina Sofia. The city’s botanical garden is right next to the park, and while the gardens weren’t as lush as they would be in summer, there is a nice collection of bonsai trees and a tropical greenhouse.
If you have no qualms about heights, and are chasing breaktaking panoramic views, Madrid’s cable cars offer a spectacular view of the city and of the expansive green skirt along its western edge. The cable car takes you to a lookout peak in Parque Casa de Campo, from which you can access several hiking points leading back down to the city, or you can hop back on the cable car. A round trip ticket is €6.
Spain has quickly become one of the most vegan friendly countries in Europe. According to Happy Cow, Madrid has 52 exclusively vegan restaurants, along with many vegetarian and veg-friendly options. As my stay was somewhat brief, and fell during the holidays, I only had the chance to sample some of Madrid’s many offerings, but based on that small sampling, it’s safe to say that the city’s plant-based food scene is on fire.
Mad Mad Vegan
Vegan junk food is really having a moment right now, but with its proliferation and popularity comes a certain amount of mundanity. It takes a lot of thought, effort and skill to make this genre of food taste original and interesting. Mad Mad Vegan is an excellent example of vegan junk food done right! Decadent, satisfying and full of flavour, my meal at Mad Mad Vegan was a total delight. There are two locations, one in Malasana and the other in Lavapies.
Pizzi & Dixie
Pizzi & Dixie is a vegan restaurant in Malasana that serves classic Italian dishes, including a wide variety of pizzas, pastas and antipasto. It has upscale but informal and friendly vibe which was the perfect atmosphere for my New Year’s Eve dinner. They say food tastes better when you’re on vacation, and maybe that influences my assessment, but I think I would put the pizza here in my top five. The crust had the perfect texture – crisp on the outside, but soft and pillowy on the inside.
Freedom Cakes Cafe
To see so many vegan restaurants operating in such visible and central locations in Madrid is pretty exciting. Freedom Cakes Cafe is located right in the heart of the city, only a block from Puerto Del Sol. It’s a bright, colourful space with a mouth-watering display of baked goods, and a decadent menu of American dinner-style fast food, that includes hot dogs, burgers, waffles, pancakes, and milkshakes.