You’ll never be stuck for what to do in Madrid. With a thriving flea market, impressive museums and chilled bars and tasty restaurants, Madrid may just be your new favourite European city.
The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) is one of the best Madrid attractions. It scores high on statistics. It claims more rooms than any other European palace; a library with one of the biggest collections of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores in the world; and an armoury with an unrivalled assortment of weapons dating back to the fifteenth century. If you’re around on the first Wednesday of the month (except July-Sept) between noon and 2pm, look out for the changing of the guard outside the palace, a tradition that has recently been revived. Hire an audio-guide and make your own way through the luxurious royal apartments, the Royal Armoury Museum and the Royal Pharmacy. This will give you more time to appreciate the extraordinary opulence: acres of Flemish and Spanish tapestries, endless Rococo decoration, bejewelled clocks and pompous portraits of the monarchs.
Madrid’s flea market, El Rastro, is as much a part of the city’s weekend ritual as a Mass. This gargantuan, thriving shambles of a street market sprawls south from Metro La Latina to the Ronda de Toledo, especially along Ribera de Curtidores. Through it, crowds flood between 10am and 3pm every Sunday and on public holidays, too. On offer is just about anything you might - or more likely might not - need, from secondhand clothes and military-surplus items to flamenco fans and antiques. On the whole it’s the stuff of markets around the world you’ll find here: pseudo-designer clothes, bags and T-shirts. Don’t expect to find fabulous bargains, or the hidden Old Masters of popular myth: the serious antique trade has mostly moved off the streets and into the surrounding shops. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of El Rastro is always enjoyable, and the bars around these streets are as good as any in the city. One warning, though: keep a close eye on your bags. The Rastro rings up a fair percentage of Madrid’s tourist thefts.
The Prado Museum is Madrid’s premier attraction - well over two million visitors enter its doors each year - and one of the oldest and greatest collections of art in the world. It’s Madrid sightseeing at its very best. Built as a natural science museum in 1775, the Prado opened to the public in 1819, and houses the finest works collected by Spanish royalty. The €152 million Rafael Moneo-designed extension, which includes a stylish glass-fronted building incorporating the eighteenth-century cloisters of the San Jerónimo church, houses the restaurant and café areas, a shop, an auditorium, temporary exhibition spaces, restoration and conservation workshops and a sculpture gallery. The museum’s highlights are its early Flemish collection - including almost all of Bosch’s best work - and, of course, its incomparable display of Spanish art, in particular that of Velázquez (including Las Meninas), Goya (including the Majas and the Black Paintings) and El Greco. The Prado Museum is certainly one of the best Madrid tourist attractions.
Madrid’s range of eating establishments is legion, and includes tapas bars, cafés, marisquerías (seafood bars) and restaurantes. At bars, the done thing is to usually eat just a tapa or share a ración of the house speciality, then move on to repeat the procedure down the road. While cafés do serve food, they are much more places to drink coffee, have a copa or caña, or read the papers. Some also act as a meeting place for the semi-formal tertulia - a kind of discussion/drinking group, popular among Madrid intellectuals of the past and revived in the 1980s.
Madrid nightlife is a pretty serious phenomenon. This is one of the few cities in Europe where you can get caught in traffic jams in the early hours of the morning when the clubbers are either going home or moving on to the dance-past-dawn discos. There is a bewildering variety of nightlife venues. Most common are the discobares whose unifying feature is background (occasionally live) pop, rock, dance or salsa music. These get going from around 11pm and stay open routinely until 2am, as will the few quieter cocktail bars and pubs.