We recently spent a couple of days in Madrid. Although it turned into a mini-vacation, the real objective of the trip was to attend our first Spanish wedding. We got there a couple of days early to enjoy the city, and then wrapped the trip up with the wonderful wedding. We also took the opportunity to catch up with some good friends over some great food.
For the sake of keeping things organized, I will focus on the sightseeing portion of the trip in this post, and talk about the wedding in the next.
First let’s look at some quick facts: The capital of Spain, the city of Madrid has a population of 3.2 million and the metropolitan area of 6.5 million. It surprised me to find out that it is Europe’s 3rd largest city after London and Berlin.
I should mention here that the city has a lot more to do and see, including a number of world-famous museums. However, because of the brevity of our trip, we had to leave those out. Like always, let’s now jump into the city’s top sights, ordered by our favorites:
Gran Via: This is probably the most central and active street in Madrid. It is lined with a number of notable and architecturally impressive buildings housing corporate headquarters, up-scale shopping stores, restaurants, theaters and lots more. This street is a must visit for the shopping during the daytime and for the nightlife in the evening, when it is all lit up. Looking at it, you can’t help but be reminded of Broadway or Times Square, except a much cleaner version.
As a special mention, I must recommend visiting Primark’s relatively new 130,000 square feet iconic store here. It takes up almost an entire city block and features 5 stories filled with clothing and accessories- a paradise for the female shopper. We spent a good few solid hours here, and the Honey Bee just couldn’t get enough.
The building houses 11 massive screens and a restored octagonal atrium that allows plenty of much appreciated natural daylight into the store. Primark has done a great job of transforming a historic departmental store building and merging it with modern architecture.
Templo de Debod: This temple was gifted to Spain by Egypt and is one of the very few original Egyptian structures that can be found outside of the country, and in fact it is the only one that can be found in Spain.
In 1960, due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the consequent threat posed by its reservoir to numerous monuments and archeological sites, UNESCO made an international call to save this rich historical legacy, which Spain answered. As a sign of gratitude for the help provided, the Egyptian state donated the temple of Debod to Spain in 1968. It was in fact dismantled and moved piece by piece to be re-assembled in Madrid.
We visited the temple at night and were really taken aback by its beauty. It was gorgeously lit up and reflected brilliantly in the pond on which it is built.
Puerta del Sol: Translated as Gate of the Sun, this is among the most centric and busiest squares of Madrid. It houses the famous bell tower whose chimes bring in the new year. As per tradition, people also eat one grape with every chime. You will also find in this square a plaque marking the center (km 0) of the Spain’s radial network of highways.
Among the statues you will find at the Puerta del Sol, noteworthy is that of the symbol of Madrid: the bear and the strawberry tree (el Oso y el Madroño). The story goes that at a time when the Earth was suffering from a great drought, the bear fell to Earth from the Ursa Major constellation. He tried and tried to climb back to the sky, but could not reach. In despair, he started to cry. His tears full upon a strawberry plant growing in the area. It should be noted that these plants are almost perennial and can endure plenty of drought and heat. The plant told the bear to keep crying and used the water from its tears to grow. Once the tree was all grown, the bear was able to climb it and return to his place in the stars. You will find this symbol plastered all over the city, from its flag and its trash cans to its streetlights and manhole covers.
Parque de Buen Retiro: Formerly a park meant only for the monarchy, it is now open to the public. The closest comparables that come to mind are New York’s Central Park & London’s Hyde Park. Located at the very edge of the city center, it is an oasis of life and activity. A wide open and well maintained green space with beautifully manicured gardens, this park is truly a retreat from the hustle & bustle of everyday life. It has a number of water bodies stocked with fish and turtles, a large lake where you can rent boats, dedicated areas for scheduled cultural and art related performances and a handful of kiosks and restaurants. And that’s not all-as you stroll around you will come across a number of other historical attractions.
I would recommend visiting the park in the evening, when it is a bit cooler. We made the mistake of visiting it in the middle of the afternoon, and while pleasant in the shaded areas the scorching heat really got to us.
Mercado de San Miguel: This semi open-air market was originally built in 1916. However, it was rejuvenated in 2003 when it was purchased and renovated by private investors. It re-opened in 2009 and has been popular ever since as a place to hang out and sample a wide variety of beers, wines, champagnes, tapas, etc.
Plaza Mayor: This is another massive square (it’s actually rectangular) flanked by 3 floor residential buildings on all sides, and whose 237 balconies all face inwards. A very short walk from the Puerta Del Sol, this is a major tourist attraction and lined with overpriced restaurants and bars.
I would recommend this square to grab a beer and people watch, but definitely not for an authentic meal.
Palacio Real de Madrid: Apart from being the seat of the federal government, the city is also the seat of the Monarchy. We took the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace. It costs c. € 11 for a normal entry ticket, but it is worth the money. While the Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the royal family, they choose to live at the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. The Royal Palace is now only used for state ceremonies.
It’s close to 1.5 million square feet house 3,418 rooms and lots of history, including troves of paintings, statues and other valuables. The palace also has a huge gated courtyard, and it was in this courtyard that the royal wedding took place in 2004.
While the insides were as grand as can be expected and we enjoyed the tour, I have to confess that boredom got the best of us after a while. Nonetheless, I would still recommend taking a look inside.
Overall, we really enjoyed our trip to Madrid and I’d recommend it to just about anyone without reservations. Except for the blistering afternoon heat, we really have no other complaints. Combined with the Spanish wedding, the trip really made for a truly memorable experience.
More on that next time!