Top ten things to do in Madrid

Being in Madrid is all about living in the moment. It’s a city about doing rather than seeing, about trying different ways of mixing the old and the new. Within the space of a weekend, you can experience laid-back tapas culture, boundless nightlife and some of the best fine dining, high art and fashion Europe has to offer. What’s more, this vibrant capital is on our doorstep, with direct flights to Madrid from London City Airport in less than two and a half hours.

In case you need any further persuasion on why to visit, here are our top 10 things to do in Madrid. Be prepared to dance, see, eat, clap and play but don’t expect to get very much sleep in this lively city.

#1 Buy a new pair of shoes (or three)

Spain is one of the biggest footwear producers in Europe, the regions of Valencia and Alicante are dominated by shoe factories and Madrid is a brilliant showcase for the country’s most sought-after brands. There’s plenty of opportunity to develop a shoe fetish in Madrid; if you want authenticity  look for the ‘Zapatos de Espana’ (shoes from Spain) label, for factory goods head to Augusto Figueroa and for gorgeous leather goods from well-known brands such as the elegant Loewe company, Farrutx or Camper, head toSalamanca.

#2 Clapthe Flamenco beat

Flamenco might bring to mind a colourful, vibrant dance but itsfiery passion stems from woe rather than joy and harks back to thesuffering and hardship endured by the Andlucian gypsies.  To absorb the full wonders of the dance, find a good spot in a tablao (a venue that offers live flamenco shows, often with dinner and drinks) and get set to stay up long past midnight.

Few are disappointed with the performances at Casa Patas (10, Calle Cañizares, Centro) or for a younger vibe try Sunday nights at bohemian El Juglar. Those looking for aparty atmosphere should plan a visit during theCaja Madrid Flamenco Festival, which takes place every year in February.

#3 Drink coffee and look clever

Madrid is full of the fascinatingdrinking haunts of great social, literary and artistic figures of past and present. The cramped Café Real (Plaza de Isabel II) was a popular intellectual hang out in the 80s and is a great place for a coffee and cake. Café Restaurant el Espejo (31, Paseo de Recoletos) attracted a similar crowd with its bow-tied service and dominating mirrors and chandeliers, which it still maintains today.

Today’s trendy intelligentsia frequent the former members-only club Café del Circulo de Bellas Artes (42 Calle Alcala). This elegant café also boasts a fair share of chandeliers, along with 1920s-style high ceilings, artistic statues and pillars. It’s a great spot to spend a couple of hours people-watchingonthe ever-movingAlcala street outside.

If it’s cocktails you crave, follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Sophie Loren and step into the 1930s interior of the Museo Chicote, where the founder is said to have invented more than 100 cocktails.

#4 Get geeky about design

Whilst reminders of the past are everywhere in Madrid, modern design and innovation will demand your attention from the moment you arrive in the airport. The award-winning new terminal 4 building at Barajas Airport was designed by Richard Rogers, who is known for his work on many modern architectural masterpieces including the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Millennium Dome in London.  Rogers’ design intended to give passengers a stress- free start to their journey, with careful use of illumination through glass paned walls and numerous domes in the roof which allow natural light to pass through.

The Reina Sofia museum (MNCARS) has become a symbol of modern Madrid. Formerly the Madrid General Hospital, the building became the Museum of Spanish Contemporary Art in 1992. It’s been continually adapted to house its growing collections and activities, with its Jean Nouvel-designed extension inaugurated in 2005.

#5Learn about wine

Spanish red wines are some of the best in the world and in Madrid you’ll find plenty of opportunities to try its famed Riojas and Penedeses, along with the traditional, underrated wines from the vineyards of Madrid province. Look out for the prize-winning red and white Jesús Díaz wines of Colmenar de Oreja winery.

Tour companies arrange wine tasting trips or create your own by visiting the city’s many informative bodegas (wine shops). Frequent tasting and wine sampling courses are held at Reserva y Cata (13, Conde de Xiquena) and the impressive 19th-century bodega, Mariano Madrueño (3, Postigo de San Martin), has an overwhelming selection of wines,spirits and liqueurs.

#6 See amazingart on a budget

Madrid is home to what is known as the ‘golden triangle’ of the art world, consisting of three magnificent museums: the Reina Sofia (MNCARS), Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza. Your art passport is the Tarjeta Paseo del Arte (Paseo del Arte Card), which enables you to see all three museums for  €21.60. However, if you’re reluctant to splash any cash on museum fees, the Prado and the Reinia Sofia both have free visiting times: The Prado is free Monday to Saturday from 6pm to 8pm, and Sunday and holidays from 5pm to 8pm. The Reina Sofia is free Monday to Friday, from 7pm to 9pm and Saturday from 2:30pm to 9pm, and all day Sunday. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (€9), however, does not have any free visit times.

#7 Eat pork

Pork is big business in Spain and its gourmet varieties, including cuts from its mountain living, acorn-eating Ibérico pigs, can be found in top-class restaurants all over the world. In the capital you’ll find a massive array of pork delights, from traditional specialties such as Cochinillo (suckling pig) and duelos y quebrantes, a dish with scrambled eggs, ham, bacon and chorizo, to the dozens of hams dangling from the ceilings of the many Museos delJamón (Ham Museums).

The bars and restaurants of the various branches of the Museo del Jamón offer a great opportunity to try different meats. Markets, such as the ancient El Rastro, are good places for sampling charcuterie along with other gourmet foods like olives, honey and cheese.

#8 Live the (city) park life

Madrid claims to have more parks and green spaces than any European city and boasts a total of 40 parks. In the very centre of Madrid is the Retiro Park which includes the relaxing Rosaleda (Rose Garden) and various interesting buildings such as the Palacio de Cristal (crystal palace) and the Palacio de Velazquez exhibition pavilion, a boating lake, and lots of shows, street performances and concerts during weekends throughout the year.

Another great park is the huge Casa de Campo in the west of the city. Formerly a royal hunting estate, this park includes an amusement park and the city’s zoo. For a few moments peace among some amazing flora and fauna, visit the luscious botanical gardens, Jardin Botanico, which is located by the Prado museum.

#9 Stay up all night

Getting home in daylight is the norm in Madrid, rather than the exception. In the summer you can slide from terraza to terraza and watch the by-day pavement cafes turn into outdoor clubs by night. Most people will be drinking beer, cocktails or spirits with mixers, and in terms of dress anything goes. Nightlife centres on three major districts – Chueca (Madrid’s gay village, which specialises in trendy bars and restaurants), Calle Huertas (traditional Spanish music, jazz clubs and bars) and Malasaña (for the hippest scene in Madrid).

#10Have a lazy Latina-style Sunday

After all that partying, you’ll be glad to know that Madrileño Sundays are for socialising, relaxing and indulging. Wander down to the Rastro in the La Latina area, one of Europe’s largest flea markets that’s been around since the Middle Ages, to people watch and pick up bargain souvenirs. Choose from outdoor terrazas or family run locals for lunch and make sure you sip a vermouth aperitif before you start.

If you’re feeling lazy, take a ride in the El Teleferico cable car. Beginning at Paseo del Pintor, near the Argüelles metro station, the cable car takes you high above the River Manzanares to the Casa de Campo Park. The route passes over the Plaza de España and the Egyptian temple of Debod and ends in a bar and restaurant complex where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city.

For more insider tips, see what Madrid resident Erin Ridley has to say about the city’s hotspots in her 24 hours in Madrid guide. London City Airport has flights from London to Madrid.

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