Last summer, I was lucky enough to explore Madrid with my girlfriend Chloe after finishing university. We travelled to the Spanish capital without many expectations, and we left having fallen in love with the sights, the people, the atmosphere, and the food.
Madrid has something for everyone. We spent time exploring Spain’s Royal Palace, relaxed in the beautiful Retiro Park, and made our own tapas meal at the Mercado San Miguel. For a unique way to see the city, rent a Segway and watch the sun set over Madrid at Temple De Bod. Then, for football fans like me, a trip to Madrid is not complete without taking in a visit to the incredible Bernabeu Stadium.
If you’re looking for a Spanish city break, forget about Barcelona, and visit Madrid – it will not disappoint.
I’ve previously blogged about my backpacking travels through South-East Asia, but this was more of a mid-budget city-break than a low-budget trip. That gave our time in Madrid a completely different feel to travelling on coaches and staying in hostels, but as students we still looked for the cheapest deals we could!
Flights to Madrid are fairly cheap from the UK, with Ryanair flying to Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas International Airport. We visited Madrid in September, when prices are much cheaper, but flights aren’t too much more expensive during the summer.
To reach the city centre there are a few options. First, a taxi between the airport and centre will cost you €30. This is a flat rate to stop drivers from charging excessive fees, but asking for a receipt will cover you just in case.
Alternatively, the city’s metro system runs to and from the airport. The metro is well signposted in the airport terminals, and staff are helpful to help you get to where you want to go.
Other options include the Renfe train or Airport Express bus which takes you to Atocha Station in the centre. We didn’t use these, so I can’t recommend them, but there’s no shortage of routes into the centre.
Where to Stay:
Part of the reason why we enjoyed Madrid so much was our hotel, which we booked through lastminute.com. We stayed at the ME Reina Victoria Hotel in Plaza Santa Ana, which was perfect for our trip. The location was great, staff were helpful, and the room was always clean.
Lastminute is well worth considering for city breaks, even if you’re booking well in advance like we did. Hotels will offer cheap rates to ensure their rooms are sold, so we managed to book flights and four nights at Reina Victoria for £300 each around two months before our trip.
For anyone on a cheaper budget, we saw plenty of hostels and guesthouses. Dorm beds will be around €15-20 per night, while double rooms in budget hotels could be closer to €50 per night.
Another option for Madrid is AirBnb, with private rooms available for around €30 per night. I know people who’ve stayed in Madrid using Airbnb, and we’ve used that option plenty of times and never had a bad experience.
What to do:
Our first stop in Madrid was Plaza del Sol and Plaza Mayor, two of the biggest squares in the city with loads going on. Both are within walking distance of each-other, and while Plaza del Sol is buzzing all day, Plaza Mayor has a more relaxed atmosphere with impressive architecture and restaurants around the side.
Close to Plaza Mayor is the charming Mercado San Miguel. Here, we got lost in the tapas stalls before sitting on the steps with a glass or two of sangria.
A short walk away from Plaza Mayor and Mercado San Miguel is Spain’s Royal Palace. The outside of the palace is impressive, and entry to explore inside is free for EU citizens between 6pm and 8pm.
Inside the palace, the rooms and decorations are unsurprisingly impressive. Views over the West of the city, and the palace’s armoury are worth checking out as you explore.
However, be aware that many others will take advantage of the evening free entry too, and queues will stretch around the front of the Cathedral opposite the palace for around an hour (see photo above). We decided to avoid sunstroke, and instead sit on the cathedral steps until the queue went down, which was until around 6.45pm.
A great way to explore Madrid is through one of the city’s many segway tours. We went with Segway Trip Tours, based at Plaza San Miguel, and had a brilliant time. Vasiliy, our guide, was helpful and informative, and he took us to the sights we hadn’t seen before.
Our tour cost £35 each – as we booked online before we flew – and finished at the Temple De Bod in Park Del Oeste. This is an ancient temple that was dismantled and rebuilt in Madrid in 1970 as a mark of thanks from the Egyptian government. We were lucky enough to see an incredible sunset over the Royal Palace, and it was definitely worth joining the crowds to see.
The only downside of the segway experience was the sudden downpour as we made our way back from Temple de Bod. The weather went from a glorious evening to torrential rain in five minutes, forcing Chloe and I to hide under an underpass!
As well as Park Del Oeste, Madrid’s Retiro Park is worth a visit. We enjoyed a cool lemonade by the boating lake and monument, which is a great spot to relax and people-watch.
After visiting the park, we took the short walk to the Cybele Palace at Plaza De Cebeles. At the top of this, for €2, is the CentroCentro viewing platform which has great panoramic views of the city.
This part of the city is also home to Madrid’s art galleries and museums – including Museo Nacional De Prado – which have free opening times like the royal palace.
For one of our days in Madrid, we went slightly out of the city to Madrid Zoo. Located a short walk downhill from the Casa De Campo metro stop, the zoo is a nice change from everything in the city centre.
We booked online for €17 entry, and there were no crowds as it was a weekday. It’s worth taking a packed lunch, though, as the food is pretty poor and very expensive.
The zoo has a lot of informative displays and shows, and doesn’t keep its animals in cages – instead there are moats, ditches and fences. My favourite part of the day was watching the pandas roll about, while Chloe enjoyed the playful raccoons and sea lions.
If the zoo was Chloe’s choice of activity (even if I enjoyed it too), the next day I was lucky enough to persuade her to join me on a visit to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. I definitely got the better deal from our ‘Zoo-Bernabeu trade off’ and I’m still grateful Chloe spent half a day of our holiday letting me geek out in a football ground.
The stadium tour is just €20 (€17 online in advance), and gives you unguided access to most of the stadium – from an impressive museum and incredible trophy cabinet, to walking around Real Madrid’s dressing rooms and technical areas. I could easily write a whole blog on the tour, but instead I’ll post some pictures below.
I’d have loved to visit Atletico Madrid’s Vincente Calderon Stadium before it closed, or to take in a game at either ground, but the Bernabeu Stadium tour is a must for any football fan visiting Madrid.
On the way back from the Bernabeu to the centre, we got off the metro at Tribunal. Between there and the Plaza Del Sol is an attractive shopping area with a good mix of shops and cafes.
Eating and Drinking:
Madrid has a number of dishes it specialises in, including tapas, paella, squid baguette, churros, and of course, sangria.
We had a lovely paella close to Plaza Mayor – the main square is just too expensive – and enjoyed the different tapas options at various restaurants.
Easily the best tapas of our trip was from the Mercado San Miguel. The market has a number of stalls selling €1- €2 tapas dishes, so we hopped from stall to stall in a make-your-own meal fashion. For around €35 between the two of us, we had a great meal, and quite a few glasses of sangria!
For a more upmarket tapas option, we went to Perico in Plaza Santa Ana on our last night. The food was great, and the souffle for dessert was amazing!
Maybe Madrid’s best delicacy is chocolate con churros, and the best place to find this is the Chocolateria San Gines (Pasadizo de San Ginés, 5). This cafe is open 24/7, and serves churros with hot, melted chocolate in a stylish setting.
Most squares and sights are within walking distance from each-other, but a 20-minute walk can feel longer in the heat of the afternoon.
We managed to arrive in Madrid for the last day of summer, but even without scorching temperatures we still needed an afternoon siesta.
For anything further afield, the metro system is efficient and relatively cheap. When we visited (September 2016), there was a ‘ten trip’ ticket for €18. This was enough for two of us to get to the city from the airport, and return trips to the zoo and Bernabeu Stadium.
As mentioned, taxi fares to the airport are capped at €30 from the city centre and take about half an hour. This was useful for our early-morning flight before the metro was running. Just to be safe, get a hotel receptionist to confirm you want to go to the airport and that you would like a receipt from the driver before setting off.
For later in the day, the metro, Renfe train and airport bus travel to the airport. Alternatively, Atocha Station has rail links all over Spain and beyond.
Our time in Madrid was perfect for a relatively cheap but busy city break in the sun. As a couple, we felt welcome and safe from the moment we arrived to the moment we left – I can’t think of many other cities where you get that feeling. The people are friendly and helpful, and the city has so much to offer for everyone. I know we’ll be back to Madrid, and I can’t recommend a break to the Spanish capital enough.
I loved exploring a new place with Chloe, and a few months later I was treated to another as we spent a winter weekend in Edinburgh. My blog on Edinburgh will come soon!