Think of Spain and you probably think of Sangria and sand, right? Think of a Spanish city-break and your first thought might be Barcelona, but what about Madrid? Looking for a cheap and chilled girl’s getaway, Iona and I hit ‘explore’ on Skyscanner and booked ourselves a mid-week trip to the Spanish capital. So what is there to do anyway? Well, read on, friend! And I will tell you exactly what to eat, drink and do on a midweek trip to Madrid!
Head to Buen Retiro Park
In the heart of Madrid is 350 acres of gardens, enough to make you forget you’re in a city at all! Once belonging to the Spanish monarchy, they’ve now been open to the public since the 19th century. When we visited, the autumn colours were beautiful and the sun was still shining through the thinning trees. I can only imagine how pretty it must be in the summer months! During April to October, the bandstands are alive with music, opera, and even theatrical performances. As well as free concerts, the park is home to an annual book fair and even fireworks, so check for events before you go!
For €6 you can even hire your own little boat for 45 minutes and soak up the sun. Row alongside the ducks and listen to the music played by the brass bands and buskers at the water’s edge. Once used for mock naval battles, this area is now a peaceful retreat for tourists and locals alike. Don’t worry if you can’t row, you won’t be the only one and it definitely adds to the fun!
Letting Iona do all the hard work!
Once you’ve worked up an appetite on the water, you can picnic on the grass or grab something from the various cafés. They serve everything from wine and cocktails to snacks, ice creams, and traditional meals. Veggies and Vegans look out for the olives! They’re often stuffed with Anchovies! (yep, I found this out the hard way – yuck!) If you’re not sure then Patatas bravas is always a safe bet. Traditional Spanish sharing food of potatoes and spicy tomato sauce. (No, it’s not just ketchup, honest!)
The park is also known for its various buildings and exhibitions. The Crystal Palace, one of the parks most impressive buildings, was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace. At the time of our visit, it was covered with 192-floor panels, showing various names. The artist dedicates her work to “all those who have drowned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic in the past 20 years; emigrating in search of a better life.” Water flowing beneath the floor seeps up to form the names of those who have died, then sinks back down before coming up to form another name. Such a poignant and impressive piece, it took us totally by surprise.
Sadly, the piece is set to be removed in April 2018
With so many fountains, gardens, statues, and architecture, the park is perfect for shooting lots of photos! If you’re feeling a little more active, it’s popular with joggers and also has exercise equipment. Of course, if you don’t want to see the whole place on foot, then you can always see it by Segway!
…And then the other lightbulb says “Watts up?”
Feeding the birds!
Madrid is home to a lot of rooftop bars but the Circulo de Bellas Artes building is perhaps one of the most famous. For an entrance fee of just €3, you can climb to the top and take in a 360º view of the city. One of the great things about this particular rooftop is that, even though there is a fee, you don’t need to spend on food or drink if you don’t want too. But nothing goes better with a sunset than a cocktail, of course!
There is a large lift but expect queues, especially early evening!
Cocktails are around €10 or they have a selection of other beers and spirits. You can also have dinner in the restaurant. Make sure you go before sunset but don’t rush off too quickly! The best views are actually once the sun has disappeared and the sky glows those beautiful shades of orange and pink!
San Miguel Market
Traditionally, food markets are where you go and get your vegetables and spices to use at home, right? Well, this one is a little different and you won’t want to miss it. San Miguel is a Tapas market. Each stand offers collections of different traditional foods. Join the locals as they wander the stalls for tapas and paella and catch up over a refreshing beer or jug of Sangria. A bottle of Desperados here is only €2.90 and scoops of marinated olives will cost just a few euros. Food is wrapped in paper or served on small plates and you can make your way through the covered market snacking on various savoury or sweet treats. Although a lot of traditional meats and cheeses, there are plant-based options as well. I even spotted a Vegan-friendly Paella!
Shop til you drop!
Most cities aren’t short of shops, and Madrid is no exception! Don’t miss out on the many vintage shops that the area of Malasaña has to offer. We spent ages picking through the treasures, I ended up with a cute back to the future pin and Iona got herself some vintage sunglasses. You’ll find every style and accessory imaginable between these quirky shops. If vintage isn’t your thing, Madrid is also home to the biggest Primark I have ever seen!
After all the exploring and shopping, you might be looking for something a little more relaxing. Hammam Al Andalus is a beautiful, calm space with amazing facilities and the nicest staff. Check out the website or apps like Groupon for deals before you go. For €95 we enjoyed warm, hot and cold plunge pools, a steam room, unlimited tea and a 30-minute full body massage each.
The atmosphere was wonderful and you feel like you’ve stepped back into ancient times. Unlike some places, you aren’t rushed out when your times up, instead you can return to the pools and then take your time in the changing rooms. They supply towels, shampoo, lotion, hairdryer, and straighteners. Perfect before a night out! Located in the archaeological remains of unique buildings, Hammam Al Andulus is in several cities, so keep an eye out for others too!
?: pinched from Groupon website
See what’s on at the theatre!
“Won’t it all be in Spanish!?” Probably, yes, but there’s a high chance you’ll love it anyway! We went to see the Lion King and it was amazing. Knowing the story so well already probably helped, but even then, it’s all about the music and costume. Madrid is actually famed for its theatres and there are plenty of options, dependant on what you like. We booked about a month before and the tickets were around €50pp, the price is dependant on seats of course. I absolutely loved the experience – even with the language barrier!
Where to eat
La Rollerie is a chain, so you’re likely to be near one wherever you stay. For us, it was right next door! We had several meals here as it was easy for our Vegan/Omnivore needs. They have some Vegan options but are also happy to adapt the Veggie dishes. The avocado toast was great but a little pricey and their Vegan burger was good but nothing special.
Sansissimo was a great little place and I would have liked to have tried more! I had the, incredibly colourful, Lasagne. A lot of the dishes are raw Vegan and there are Veggie options too.
I’ve gotten used to being the ‘awkward one’ when eating out with friends now. But actually travelling with a Vegan was a first for Iona! So it was challenging at times when we just wanted to eat without having to negotiate first, but generally, it was absolutely fine.
As always, a little planning goes a long way. Had we had some idea of where to go first, I may not have ended up with fries and onion rings for dinner the first night. Luckily, I’m a fan of finger food anyway! But it was nice to have some variety the rest of the trip. Madrid has plenty of Veggie and Vegan restaurants and prices are generally good.
When travelling with someone who eats differently, I think it’s important to be flexible. Iona skipped the meat so I could have more options and in turn, I opted for another Vegan burger (WHY is it always burgers!?) for Iona to have choices that better suited her. There was one place in particular though, that we both loved… Malvy’s!
Best ice-cream in Madrid
You can’t go to Madrid without visiting Malvy’s! With monster shakes and deserts you won’t be disappointed. (Unless you don’t like ice cream… but who doesn’t like ice-cream, right?) They have something to suit most dietary requirements, which was perfect for us travelling as a Vegan and an Omnivore duo. The €8.95 Vegan Oreo shake was the best!
Ok, so our experience with the underground system was short. But I will say this:
You need to purchase a travel card for €2.20 and then top up €2/3 per journey. You can do this all through the machines in the stations.
Clicking the English option doesn’t necessarily make it super easy to understand.
Know where you’re going: Figure out the names of places, zones and how to get there first. I’ve found most underground systems can be figured out quickly but we didn’t have the same experience with this one. Oh, and make sure to double check you’re on the right train, trust me on this one.
Chances are, it’s actually really simple, but we opted to walk the rest of the time. Although the city is big, there is no problem seeing it on foot. Grab yourself a map so you don’t end up missing out on something and doubling back on yourself!
The train station has a whole tropical garden inside it! We had a slightly stressful experience here trying to get to the airport so if you’re in the same position, go upstairs! Head outside and cross over the lanes of taxis, this is where the bus stops. There is a small sign and you’re looking for a bright yellow bus. Don’t worry about getting off at the wrong stop as it’s purely an airport shuttle! It will cost you €5, payable to the driver, and they run about every 15-30 minutes dependant on the time of day.
Find the balance.
Madrid is such a vibrant city and there was always something going on. We saw several protests and artistic displays, heard lots of music and admired the beautiful architecture. Wherever you turn there is something to marvel at. We did see the obvious sites, like the palace, but to be honest, it was these moments in between that made the trip.
It’s tempting to create yourself a list of what you ‘must do’ and tick off the sites, but I don’t think that really gives a true experience of a place. So make some plans, use a map, but don’t spend too much time searching for that one tourist spot, or following google maps. You may not ‘tick everything off’ but you might just experience something better.
So, while our original reason for choosing Madrid was a combination of money and sun, we actually found lots of other reasons to love it. It was nice to go to a city that didn’t feel over run with tourists, partly due to us being there ‘out of season’. The sun was shining and the price of accommodation, travel, and food allowed for some pricier treats. I also loved the ‘arty’ feel to it. The city is vibrant and filled with surprises, so next time you’re looking at a city-break.. give Madrid a go!
Have you been to Madrid? Let me know what you did on your travels!
If you like avoiding the obvious tourist’s spots then you might like 10 places you didn’t know were in the French Riviera