Madrid, the capital of Spain, has a plethora of activities and attractions for the tourist. It is also used as a base of operations for the exploration of the surrounding area, which adds many more travel delights. Below is my list of the best things to do while you are in the vicinity.
1. Hang Out at the Plaza Mayor – This graniose square, one of Europe’s most popular and elegant, is the heart of the city. It is constantly busy with passers-by and folks who are shopping or sitting at a cafe or restaurant.
2. Visit the Palacio Real – Spain’s version of Versailles is this grand, white palace. The many rooms and decorations are what one would expect in a royal residence, and it does not disappoint.
3. Immerse Yourself in Great Art at the Prado – This museum, recognized far and wide as one of the world’s greatest, specializes in Spanish Art, although there are many other European artists represented as well. My favorite here is Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
4. Check Out the Plaza de Cibeles – This is Madrid’s, and perhaps the world’s, most beautiful traffic circle. The Cibeles Fountain, a wonderful blend of sculpture and water, is surrounded by elegant buildings. The most attractive building is none other than the Post Office (go figure!).
5. Spend an hour or so at El Rastro – This giant flea market is usually disappointing for those looking for great bargains, but it is a treasure for people-watching.
6. Dine at Casa Botin — Hemingway’s favorite restaurant does not disappoint, in both its food and its ambience. Be sure to make reservations well in advance, since it is especially popular because of its notariety.
7. Take an Excursion to El Escorial — This monastery and summer palace is less than an hour from the city and displays some incredible interior workmanship as well as priceless objects from around the world.
8. Spit on Franco’s Grave at Valle de los Caidos — Actually, Franco’s grave is well-guarded and difficult to spit on, but the venue, a chapel below ground, with a giant stone cross above, is well worth the side-trip. It is located not far from El Escorial (see #7).
9. Walk Through the Puerta del Sol — This nexus of transportation and avenues is one of Madrid’s busiest places. Although there is not much to see here, it is great for people-watching and is the point from which all distances in Spain are measured.
10. Go Tapas Bar Hopping — Spain is famous for its tapas, small servings of appetizers which are available at many establishments. It is fun to wander from bar to bar in the evening, trying out the various dishes.
11. See a Bullfight at the Plaza de Toros — Madrid’s bullring, Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, is the country’s premier venue for this purely Spanish sport. Although there are many organizations which object to this activity, it is a signature cultural tradition here and should be experienced by the tourist. We left at the midway point, because the girls were upset by the treatment of the bulls, but they were glad we made the effort.
12. Relax in Retiro Park — This huge city park is enjoyed by thousands of Madrilenos each and every day. There are waterways and fountains, beautiful buildings and quiet walkways — something for everyone.
13. Take a Day Trip to Avila — This interesting city, northwest of Madrid, is surrounded by some of the most intact and well-maintained medieval walls in Europe. The city is also famous for its patron saint and resident, St. Teresa, so has become popular for religious groups.
14. Spend a Day in Segovia — Another worthwhile excursion from Madrid involves a trip to this beautiful city, northwest of the capital. Segovia has a remarkable Roman Aqueduct, still in use, a marvelous Cathedral, and one of the most enchanting castles in all of Europe, El Alcazar, whose dramatic position, on a promotory above a vast plain, must be captured in a photo.
15. Walk the Main Streets of the City to Admire the Architecture — Madrid, as the home of Spain’s rulers has remarkable architecture everywhere in the city. It’s fun to just wander the streets, gazing up at the significant and interesting stonework.
16. Take a Side Trip to Toledo — One of the most popular excursions from the capital is only a 50-mile drive southeast to the medieval walled city of Toledo. It’s Cathedral is spectacular; it’s Alcazar is fascinating; and it was the home and workplace, for many years, of the Spanish artist, El Greco. Several of his works can be found in the city.
17. Take a Drive to Aranjuez — This palatial estate was another of the summer palaces for Spain’s royalty. A visit here is like stepping into luxury.
18. Take an Excursion to Salamanca — Although a bit farther than some of the other day trips mentioned above, the delightful university town of Salamanca is a great way to spend a full day. The city is perfect for walking, and Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is just as elegant as Madrid’s.