Mad Fun in Madrid

Madrid Plaza

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A weekend in Madrid: Food, shopping and plenty of partying

If you’re looking for a busy, cosmopolitan city with plenty of sunshine to spend a fun girls’ weekend, give Barcelona a miss (so last year) and head instead to the Spanish capital of Madrid. This city is packed with great shops, bars, restaurants and sights, and is varied enough to allow you to tailor your trip no matter what your budget.

Getting around Madrid

The Madrid metro is easy to navigate, with a direct connection to Barajas airport. Buy a ten-trip ticket for nine Euros, which can be shared amongst your whole group, or use it on the buses to get a more panoramic tour of Madrid. There’s a tourist bus service available, which can be useful for first timers wanting to take in the whole city. However, at 21 Euros for a day’s ticket you might prefer to save your money: Madrid is an extremely walkable city and it’s more than possible to take in the top sights on foot.

The Must-See Sights of Madrid

First, the basics: your stay in Madrid will inevitably start from the Puerta del Sol, the huge square at the center of the city and the point from which all journeys begin. It’s also easy to find hotels right in the city center, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about transport. From Sol, it’s a short walk to the historic Plaza Mayor, or the shops of Gran Via. Heading east on the metro or bus, the Retiro Park is a must-see, for lazy lounging, rowing on the lake or busy people watching on weekends.

If you’re up for some culture, the Prado museum is one of the most famous museums in Europe, and contains masterpieces by Spanish masters. Entry is free from 6 every evening, (5 on Sundays), and free at all times for various other groups (see website for details). Also not to be missed is the Reina Sofia, home to more modern artwork including iconic works by Picasso and Dali.

Shop Til You Drop in Madrid

Gran Vía is the shopping mecca of Madrid, and should be the first stop for anyone looking for the latest fashions. You can find Spanish classics such as Mango and Zara, along with other popular European chains such as Bershka and Stradivarius. Then try Fuencarral, an enormous shopping street heading north of Gran Vía offering some quirkier stores and more unusual finds: not just clothes and accessories but also art books, travel accessories and artisan objects. A real Spanish institution can be found in El Corte Inglés, Spain’s most famous department store. One of its largest locations is situated next to Callao metro station, in the middle of Gran Vía, and contains Spanish fashions, foods, books, CDs and gifts, meaning you’re bound to find whatever you’re looking for. A little hint: the food on their top-floor cafeteria may not be anything special, but it does have surprisingly spectacular views of the city which are definitely worth the price of a coffee.

Shoppers looking for something a little more special might like to head to Salamanca, an area often frequented by Victoria Beckham during her husband’s Real Madrid days. Along streets such as Calle de Serrano you’ll find luxury brands such as Adolfo Dominguez or Victorio & Lucchino.

Best Madrid Spas

Fancy finding a spot of inner tranquility amidst the noise of the capital? The Medina Mayrit baths right in the center of the city (C/ Atocha 14) are loved for their ultimate pampering experience, involving hot baths and massages. The Aqua Spa Center (C/ Alcántara 54) is also a popular choice, even offering chocolate and coffee-based full body wraps. It’s certainly an innovative way of taking your café con leche…

Eating out in Madrid

Follow the Madrid way of life and indulge in a big lunch around 2, followed by a lighter meal in the evening. Not only will this help you fit in, but you’ll also be able to get a lot more for your money. The menu del dia is a Spanish institution, to be found at almost any café or restaurant. For around 9-11 Euros you can get a filling two-course meal, plus drinks and a small dessert, and a truly authentic taste of Spanish cuisine. This is often the best way to experience home-cooked madrileño classics such as gazpacho or a warming cocido stew in winter.

Be a smart traveler and avoid the tourist restaurants around the Plaza Mayor: a good tip when traveling in Europe is to avoid any restaurant that translates its menu into six languages: it won’t be good in any of them. Instead, you should walk south and indulge in some tapas around La Latina, which is stuffed full of excellent tapas bars and a fantastic atmosphere, particularly on sunny days when locals spill out into the streets. If you want some fine dining in the evening while sticking to a budget, try one of the Andilana chain of restaurants (all, confusingly known by different names, including Ginger, Public and Bazaar). These restaurants offer delicious, authentic Mediterranean cooking at shockingly low prices, and a perfect for when you’re feeling a bit pijo (Spanish for fancy) but don’t have the budget to match.

Bars and clubs for Some Mad Madrid Fun

If you want to party like a true Madrid local, a standard night out will begin at around 10 or 11 in the evening. Malasaña, to the north of Gran Via is the place to head to for old-school fun, a taste of Madrid history, fun dancy hotspots. Particular recommendations include La Vía Lactea (C/ Velarde 18), an old hang-out of Almodóvar’s that’s great for chilled out fun and a few games of pool, or the kitsch Tupperware (C/ Corredera Alta de San Pablo 26) with its eccentric décor and danceable tunes.

Bars in Malasaña are generally all very unpretentious and popular with a younger crowd. However, if you want something a bit more grown up, head south of Gran Vía instead and try the Calle de las Huertas, a long street filled with different styles of clubs, bars and live music venues. There are also a number of clubs along Gran Vía itself, which manage to tempt in a number of tourists, but be warned as these are usually pricier (including one which is known to charge five Euros for water) and generally not as popular.

Safety in Madrid

In general, Madrid is an extremely safe city: there are always a number of police strolling round, and few women report feeling unsafe at night. Certain areas are to be avoided late at night, such as the small streets between Sol and Gran Via, but generally few women report problems, and there are always a number of security guards patrolling the night buses, just in case. Standard warnings about pickpockets should always be observed: keep your hand on your bag at all times and try not to carry around any more than the essentials. But in general, enjoy! Madrid is a great place to spend a few days, and I guarantee you’ll want to come back for more.

Lindsey Ford is a London-based writer and translator, currently blogging for about Madrid hotels, attractions and other handy tips for first-time travelers.