Welcome to Madrid, where the days starts late, the nights ends later, and the locals look like Javier Bardem. Sound good? Well, there’s more. Much more. Madrid is home to some of the biggest and baddest sights in the world, from museums filled with iconic art to discotheques packed with Spain’s most beautiful. Madrid insists that you stay on the move—in only the most laid-back style, of course. When it’s time to recuperate, slow down, savor some of the best in Spanish cuisine, and lounge in one of the city’s immaculate parks or gardens under the warm Spanish sun.
Madrid’s plazas, gardens, and monuments tell of the city’s rich history. After Philip II made it the capital of his empire in 1561, Madrid enjoyed centuries of being on top. It served as Spain’s artistic hub during the Golden Age, becoming a seat of wealth, culture, and imperial glory, the legacy of which can still be felt in literary neighborhoods like Huertas, in the sumptuous interiors of royal estates like the Palacio Real, and in the badass collections of the museums along the Avenida del Arte.
El Centro, the heart of Madrid, encompasses the city’s most famous historic sites and modern venues. In the middle is Puerta del Sol, the “soul of Madrid,” where thousands descend to ring in each New Year. By day, the area around Puerta del Sol is a commercial hub with plenty of name-brand stores and fast food chains. Branching off of Puerta del Sol is Calle Mayor, a main thoroughfare which leads west to Plaza Mayor, a vibrant square bordered by restaurants and filled with street performers and vendors.
While El Centro can be a bit chaotic, it is home to the city’s most essential landmarks. El Centro is easily walkable and the Metro provides convenient and reliable access to the rest of the city. The main sights are deceptively close to one another. When in doubt, stick to the main streets Calle de Alcalá, Calle Mayor, Calle de las Huertas, and Calle de Atocha for adequate restaurants, nightlife, hotels, and cafes.
Most of Madrid’s main sights are clustered in the El Centro area. Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of must-see attractions and things to do in Madrid.
Chow down on huevos rotos (fried potatoes and eggs), bocadillo de calamares (fried squid sandwich), or churros con chocolate. Madrid also has several excellent varietes of the tortilla (Spanish omelette); the most popular here is the tortilla de patatas. Visiting Madrid in winter? Don’t miss the cocido madrileno, a pork stew made with vegetables, chickpeas, and chorizo.
You’ve probably been to a tapas bar, but you might not have known that tapas is not a type of food—it simply refers to the way the food is presented. The bite-sized portions served at the bar are not to be mistaken with appetizers. Spaniards eat tapas most commonly after work, well before dinner, or while just out drinking with friends.
If you’re in Spain during the summer, you will most likely end up getting gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup. One thicker variety of gazpacho is salmorejo; think of it as the delicious lovechild of normal tomato soup and traditional gazpacho.
No matter what you eat, your primary goal in Spain should probably to get your hands (and tongue) on some jamón ibérico. In simple terms, it’s Spanish ham. But there is so much more to it than that. The ibérico pigs are treated like royalty, allowed to roam the countryside stuffing their fat faces with acorns for two years. After being butchered, the ham is salted and cured for two years, during which time it loses at least 20% of its weight and gains about 400% of its monetary value. Make it your life goal to find some of that thinly sliced piece of heaven.
Sangria is Spain’s drink much the same way that a vodka Red Bull is America’s—it gets you drunk, and most people would never drink it in the light of day. It’s made by mixing wine with fruit juice and whatever cheap liquor one can easily acquire. Usually it’s rum, bourbon, and whiskey. Yes, we meant to say “and,” not “or.” Think of it as the Spanish version of frat boy punch. Another way to utilize bad wine? Tinto de verano—“red wine of summer.” Just take the old/cheap/bad-tasting wine you have/found/made and mix it with some lemon soda. Mix it with Coke, and you have a kalimotxo. The hotter the day, the more mixer you use, and you’ve got yourself a refreshing summer drink.
If beer is more your thing, Spain isn’t famous for its selection. Most bars will just have one beer on tap, and it will most likely be a Mahou, though Cruzcampo and San Miguel are also popular.
Whether you view it as animal cruelty or national sport, the spectacle of la corrida (bullfighting) is a cherished Spanish tradition. Although it has its origins in Roman gladiator practices, bullfighting is now a distinctly Spanish sport. The sport has been subject to continuing animal rights protest in recent years, in addition to suffering fading popularity with the younger generations. More a form of performance art than a sport (every bullfight has the same outcome of the bull “losing”), bullfighting draws hordes of tourists (in addition to lots of old Spanish men) who flock to see the tradition that Hemingway celebrated as “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.” It’s not for the faint of heart, of course—be prepared to see a bull suffer for 20-30min. before being killed.
If you choose to go, it is important to know a little bit about the rituals of the sport. The bullfight has three stages. First, the picadores (lancers on horseback), pierce the bull’s neck muscles. Then, assistants thrust decorated darts called banderillas into the bull’s back to injure and fatigue it. Finally, the matador kills his large opponent with a sword thrust between the bull’s shoulder blades, killing it instantly. Animal rights activists call the rituals savage and cruel, but aficionados call it an art that requires quick thinking and skill.
The best place to see bullfighting in Madrid is at the country’s biggest arena, Plaza de las Ventas, where you can buy tickets in sol (sun) or sombra (shade) sections. Get your tickets at the arena the Friday or Saturday leading up to the bullfight. You’ll pay more to sit out of the sun, but either way, you’ll have a good view of the feverish crowds that cheer on the matador and wave white handkerchiefs, called pañuelos, after a particularly good fight. Each ticket includes usually around three bullfights, each of which lasts 20-30min. Rent a seat cushion at the stadium or bring your own for the stone seats. Bullfights are held Sundays and holidays throughout most of the year. During the Fiesta de San Isidro in May, fights are held almost every day, and the top bullfighters come face to face with the fiercest bulls. People across Spain are bitterly divided about the future of the sport, so visitors should approach the topic with sensitivity.
Most likely drawing from Jewish, Muslim, and Roma culture, Flamenco may be Spain’s most stereotypically known art form. Most people only think of flamenco as shapely ladies in tight polka-dotted dresses, but it actually originated as a musical genre, with the dancing added on later to complement the pairing of guitar and vocals. Flamenco is violent and emotional; you sort of need to see it to get it.
Spanish architecture, with just as many influences as the rest of Spanish culture, is varied. You’ll find traces of Roman, Celtic, Islamic, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Modernist, and postmodern architecture all over the country, in many combinations.
Most of the churches you’ll come across in your Spanish travels will fit into one of these categories. Romanesque architecture is characterized by semicircular arches, heavy stone walls with small windows, and simple interiors; many of the most austerely beautiful spaces in Spain are in this style. Gothic architecture is probably a bit more familiar—pointed arches, huge stained-glass windows, and the famous flying buttresses. Though there is some overlap, Romanesque architecture generally precedes Gothic, with the transition occurring in around the 13th or 14th centuries in most places.
Diego Velázquez: court painter, architect, lady-killer. At least, this is what we gather from his famous self-portrait on the left margin of Las Meninas. It calls attention to his long hair, impressive moustache, and piercing gaze. Influenced by Spanish and Flemish realism, Velazquez is best known for his naturalistic paintings, such as Las Meninas and The Water Carrier of Seville. Also operating in the early 1600s was El Greco, real name Doménikos Theotokópoulos. No wonder they gave him a nickname. For those who haven’t guessed yet, his name means the Greek. Less of a lady-killer than Velázquez (he was bald), El Greco made up for it with his vivid and emotional paintings. Said to reflect the Counter-Reformation in Spain, his strong color contrasts and elongated human figures can be pretty creepy, but beautifully vivid.
Moving on to the 18th century, we stumble upon Francisco Goya, affectionately called the Father of Modern Art. Also a court painter, his best work was done outside of his courtly duties. His frank, emotional technique created a whole new style of painting, refreshing to the Spanish people. It was a bit too refreshing for the Spanish Inquisition,however. Goya was detained and questioned for his painting, The Naked Maja, one of the first paintings of a nude woman in Spain. Released relatively unscathed, Goya lived on to do some of his best works exposing the French atrocities during Napoleon’s rule of Spain. The most famous of these, The Third of May 1808, depicts the slaughter of Spanish civilians by the French army. His Black Paintings are also seriously weird.
From there, we move into more modern styles and the inevitable Pablo Picasso. Volatile, emotional, always in need of a muse, Picasso is everything we expect a painter to be. Picasso is credited with starting the Cubism movement, commonly called the “What the heck is happening in this painting?” movement, and made a tremendous political statement with Guernica in 1937, depicting the bombing of civilians by fascists during the Civil War.
Heavily influenced by Picasso, Joan Miró moved the 20th century into Surrealism. An unsmiling man always dressed in somber suits, he took his work very seriously. Not that one could really tell. His playful colors and simple forms bring to mind children’s artwork. Look closely though, and there is a certain dark feeling to his work that stays with you.
There’s no way to have a conversation on surrealism without the movement’s star: Salvador Dalí. With a moustache to die for, greased back hair, and always in a suit, Dalí was a character whose ultimate goal was to get at the greater reality of man’s subconscious. Most famous for his painting The Persistence of Memory, (a dorm room favorite) Dalí did much more than paint. He did everything from sculptures to book illustrations to jewelry design. Judging by all the photos we found of him, he also enjoyed intensely staring people down and walking his pet anteater and his ocelot, Babou.
Although not always renowned for its literary genius, Spain does have a few key authors to mention. While Miguel de Cervantes’s name might not trigger a memory, his world famous opus, Don Quixote, certainly should. Born in 1547, Cervantes’s life is almost more interesting than anything he could ever have written: it involves getting kidnapped by pirates and enslaved in Algiers for two years.
Another groundbreaking work of Spanish literature, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and His Fortunes and Adversities, came in quite low in the shortest title competition. In the mystery category, however, it ranked quite high. It was published anonymously in 1554 and then outlawed by the Spanish Inquisition for heresy (hence the anonymity of the author). Then again, what wasn’t? One of the first Picaresque novels, Lazarillo de Tormes was highly critical of Spanish society and greatly advanced the genres of the satire and the novel in one blow.
Federico García Lorca wore many hats during his lifetime. As a poet, dramatist, and theater director, Lorca gave the world insight into 20th century Spain. Right smack dab in the middle of corruption and coup, Lorca’s work reflects the decades of violence, but also dabbled in themes of love and passion. Considered too liberal by conservative nationalists, Lorca was shot and buried in an unmarked grave in 1936 at the start of the Civil War.
It’s probably best to fully adapt to “Spanish time,” or you might end up missing out on most of what Spain has to offer. Besides the little things, like being 15-20min. late for meetings or events, the Spanish basically overhaul their entire day’s schedule to better fit their night-owl lifestyle.
A prime example: meals. Lunches don’t happen before 1pm; most occur around 2pm and are usually followed by a siesta, during which most businesses will close. As for the evening, Spain is not constrained by any of the Puritan influences that Americans have to deal with—nothing closes at 2am and you can buy alcohol well after 11pm (looking at you, Boston).
How does this work, you might wonder? Let us walk you through a normal day. Wake up around 9am and eat a light breakfast. Work until lunch around 2pm, take a siesta, then head back to work from around 4 or 5pm until 8 or 9pm. Dinner is usually around 10 or 11pm. For the younger crowd, the bars only get interesting around midnight or 1am, and clubs only around 2 or 3am. Dance until 5 or 6am, stumble home to your bed, and get ready to wake up and do it all over again.
You’ve probably realized by now that Spain is a pretty divided country, meaning that Spaniards have a huge sense of pride in their home neighborhoods and regions. In fact, many of them would probably be pretty insulted that we keep writing “Spaniards.” Consider them Catalans/Basques/Andalusians/Romani/Madrileños first and Spaniards second.
Another tip? Avoid discussing the Spanish Civil War unless you know for sure which side the family of the person to whom you are speaking was on. Same goes for soccer. Unless you know with certainty that your audience is full of Barça supporters, you might want to hold off on describing the last game in excruciating detail.
Spaniards are very clothing-conscious: don’t expect to see anyone out in old sweats doing their errands. For tourists, these guidelines might not matter as long as you don’t mind being pegged as an out-of-towner. Proper church attire is a must. Wearing shorts or miniskirts while visiting churches and cathedrals is often not allowed and is always just plain rude. Women must have their shoulders covered, which may be the only real reason to ever wear a shrug. As a rule, keep it classy.
Meals in Spain are nothing to joke about. The Spanish eat late, and they’re serious about their food. Given the schedule that Spaniards keep, breakfast is rarely eaten at home and is hardly considered a meal. To make up for it, lunches and dinners are practically small holidays. Expect constant conversation and a lively atmosphere. Like everything else Spanish, the cuisine depends largely on what region of Spain you’re in. So sit back, pour yourself some tinto, and prepare to drool at the best that Spain has to offer.