Europe

A brief stay in Madrid, Spain's historic and colourful metropolis

Ema Bakalova

Jun 2, 2023

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Plaza Mayor in Madrid
Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Madrid, the vibrant capital of Spain, has a blend of architectural styles that reflects its rich history. Having traveled to Barcelona a few days prior, it was interesting to compare the difference between Madrid to our experience in Barcelona. Barcelona is full of distinctive modernist architecture, contributing to a more avant-garde and artistic cityscape. Madrid on the other hand, has a more modern skyline that is characterized by a combination of sleek skyscrapers that complement the historic palaces, religious buildings and contemporary museums scattered throughout the city.

View from Airbnb in the center of Madrid
View from Airbnb in the center of Madrid
Airbnb in the center of Madrid
Airbnb in the center of Madrid

From Barcelona to Mallorca to Madrid

We stayed in an Aribnb in the center of Madrid (Madrid Centro), overlooking Plaza de Agustin Lara. It was in the heart of the city and historical core, where the central district encompasses many of Madrid's most famous neighborhoods, landmarks, and cultural attractions. Additionally, the central location was very convenient in terms of access to key grocery stores, cafes, and restaurants in the vicinity.

Coffee in Madrid

Coffee in the area

In Madrid, you can enjoy a variety of coffee styles, including the traditional Spanish espresso known as "café solo," to more popular choices like "café con leche" and "cortado."

The streets of Madrid
The streets of Madrid

Madrid vs Barcelona

Walking from our Airbnb, we made our way towards Paseo del Prado, one of the most famous and elegant boulevards in Madrid. It's a tree-lined avenue that winds through the city center, holding historical, cultural, and artistic significance due to its iconic attractions and buildings.

We found ourselves comparing the urban layout of Barcelona and Madrid a lot during this trip, as there are many distinct differences. From the beginning, we could already tell that Madrid's layout is more grid-like and structured, with wide boulevards and grand squares. It has a relatively formal and orderly urban design, in contrast to Barcelona's charming labyrinth of winding streets in historic neighborhoods such as the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) and the distinctive grid plan of the Eixample district. This layout was much more dynamic and was more of a maze-like urban experience.

Some other key differences we noticed along the way were:

Architectural Styles:

  • Madrid: Madrid features a mix of architectural styles, with a greater emphasis on neoclassical and baroque elements in its historic core. The city's buildings tend to be grand and monumental, especially around landmarks like the Royal Palace. In recent years, modern skyscrapers have become a prominent part of the skyline, particularly in the financial district (which was not what I was expectng to see).

  • Barcelona: Barcelona is known for its unique architectural identity, largely influenced by the modernisme (Catalan Art Nouveau) movement. The city is famous for the architectural contributions of Antoni Gaudí, including iconic structures like the Sagrada Família, Park Güell, Casa Batlló and many others. These buildings in particular feature organic forms, colorful mosaics, and imaginative designs that set Barcelona apart from many other cities.

Natural Surroundings:

  • Madrid: Madrid is located inland, surrounded by a dry landscape that significantly influences its climate. While it lacks access to the sea, it compensates with vast urban parks and green spaces like Retiro Park.

  • Barcelona: Barcelona is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where there are beaches and a more seaside atmosphere. The city's connection to the sea is an integral part of its aesthetic appeal.

Colour Palette:

  • Madrid: The colour palette in Madrid's historic core leans towards earthy tones and warm colors, which seems to reflect the city's climate and architectural traditions. These hues are commonly associated with Mediterranean and Spanish architectural styles.

  • Barcelona: Barcelona's architecture often features a more vibrant and colorful palette, especially in the mosaics and tiles used by Gaudí and other modern architects. Barcelona is a hub of Catalan Modernism, an artistic movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement aimed to break away from traditional artistic norms, and architects like Gaudí sought inspiration from natural forms and colors.

San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid
San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid
San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid
San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid

San Jerónimo el Real and the area

One of our first stops was San Jerónimo el Real, which is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Gothic architecture and is right along Paseo del Prado. It is very central, close to where the hop on hop off tourist bus starts and ends in Madrid. We walked by a few times, and even caught some wedding events happening out front.

San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid
San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid
San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid
San Jerónimo el Real in Madrid

Hop on hop off bus

If you only have a few days to explore a new city, a hop on hop off bus is always a great option if you want to cover a lot of ground quickly (this is what we did in Barcelona as well). Unlike Barcelona (that is very walkable), many areas of Madrid aren't as pedestrian-friendly, making it challenging to explore the entire city without a car. The bus made it possible for us to see parts of the city that were further away, like the downtown area where the city's skyscrapers are – a place we might not have otherwise gone on our own. It also gave us a bird's-eye view of certain areas, which we later returned to explore by foot.

You can buy a ticket that lasts for 24 or 48 hours, and the bus stops at all of the iconic spots and neighborhoods. Similarly to Barcelona, the tours are divided between the north half of Madrid and the south. I would recommend buying the 48 hour ticket, and splitting the trip in two by spending one day seeing the north half, and the second day seeing the south half. This gives you more time to explore certain areas by foot if you decide to get off the bus, (which is a better way of seeing things anyways)!

View from Hop on Hop off bus in Madrid
View from Hop on Hop off bus in Madrid

Las Ventas

During your city bus tour, you'll have the opportunity to drive by Las Ventas, renowned as one of the world's most famous bullfighting arenas. The bullring itself is beautiful, consisting of a main building with a red brick façade decorated in ceramic tiles.

Bull fighting is a sport that has been around for a very long time. While it remains a highly controversial activity, if you find yourself in Madrid wanting to experience a tradition that is deeply ingrained in Spanish culture, you can buy tickets to witness a bullfight firsthand. Las Ventas stands as a symbol and representation of the bullfighting tradition to this day, but it also reflects the ongoing debate about the cultural significance and ethical considerations of bullfighting in modern society.

Las Ventas bullfighting arena
Las Ventas bullfighting arena

The Streets in Madrid

Wandering through the city's historic center, you'll encounter narrow cobblestone streets full of elegant buildings with ornate facades. These facades often display a mix of colors and intricate details, showcasing elements of Spanish Baroque, Neoclassical, and Modernist influences. As we walked through the city, we wre delighted to uncover that there were an incredibly diverse array of shops and boutiques lining the streets. Madrid's shopping scene is very diverse, ranging from high-end fashion boutiques along Gran Vía to charming, family-owned businesses in neighborhoods like Malasaña and Chueca.

Traditional Spanish markets, such as Mercado de San Miguel, offer an euthentic culinary experience, with stalls selling gourmet food, tapas, and local delicacies. When the weather is nice out, the outdoor dining scene comes alive and people dine street-side and savor the al fresco experience.

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid
Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

Plaza Mayor Square

One of the primary attractions on my Madrid itinerary was Plaza Mayor Square. We dedicated our afternoon to strolling to and through the square, and it left a lasting impression. The striking symmetrical architecture and nature of the plaza was very impressive. The space is enclosed by three-story residential buildings with balconies overlooking the square. All of the facades are detailed, showcasing a high level of craftsmanship.

Whether you're drawn to Plaza Mayor for its historical architecture, highlighted by the iconic Casa de la Panadería and the Casa de la Carnicería, or for the square's reputation as a host of cultural events, markets, and festivals, you'll find a lively atmosphere with street performers, numerous cafes, and shops. It truly stands as a vibrant center that appeasls to both tourists and locals.

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

Fun fact

Just beyond the square, ticket vendors offer admission to Madrid's nightly flamenco dancing. To select a specific seat, purchase tickets there in person, otherwise you can buy them online!

Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid

Fun fact

Just beyond the square, ticket vendors offer admission to Madrid's nightly flamenco dancing. To select a specific seat, purchase tickets there in person, otherwise you can buy them online!

Plaza Mayor Square
Plaza Mayor Square
Plaza Mayor Square
Plaza Mayor Square

Museo Del Prado

The Prado Museum (Museo del Prado) was conveniently located just a 10-minute walk from our Airbnb. I knew we couldn't leave Madrid without seeing some art by Picasso. Among the paintings we saw, some were very notable works by Picasso such as "Guernica," "Buste de femme 43," and "Head of a Horse."

I highly recommend visiting this museum not only for its famous art collection but also to see the building itself. Inside, the building maximizes on natural light, utilizing skylights and large windows to illuminate both some of the exhibited work and circulation corridors. While the natural lighting is carefully controlled to preserve the art, the large hallways connecting the galleries are brightly daylit, enhancing the experience of walking from one gallery to another.

Picasso painting at the Museo Del Prado
Picasso painting at the Museo Del Prado
Museo Del Prado
Museo Del Prado

Parque de El Retiro

We took an afternoon walk to Parque de El Retiro, a huge park in the heart of Madrid. The park is filled with colorful flowers, well-kept paths and big ponds. You can rent boats or simply walk around, enjoy the view, and grab some food from the food stands around.

Among the many very well kept gardens, the Rose Garden stood out as a personal favorite. While the best time of year to witness the blossoms is during May and June, we were fortunate enough to still have a beautiful experience walking through the garden. Additionally, the Parterre Garden is worth stopping by and seeing as well, featuring a collection of uniquely shaped trees and thoughtfully arranged vegetation.

Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro
Parque de El Retiro

The layout of El Retiro Park (Parque de El Retiro) is designed in a way that combines natural beauty, historical features, and recreational spaces togther in one large maze-like park. Something notable about this park is that it is designed with a central axis stretching from the Puerta de Alcalá entrance to the Monument to King Alfonso XII at the eastern end, overlooking the Great Pond.

The beautifully landscaped gardens mostly radiate from the central axis, so by following this axis as your guide, you'll naturally find yourself branching off and exploring the different gardens. Gardens such as the Parterre Garden, the Rose Garden (Rosaleda), and the Cecilio Rodríguez Gardens all have their own unique layout and plant varieties. Pathways through the park are often lined with rows of trees, which also serve as a guide through. Include this park in your itinerary, as the vibrant colours of the flora serve as a picturesque backdrop that results in stunning photos!

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