When arriving in a new country there is always that awkward time period of trying to adjust to the time zone after an uncomfortable and stuffy flight, while embracing a new culture and environment. This catch 22 usually results in slightly closed-minded thoughts geared towards the “damn locals” and wondering “how the hell does anyone live like this?” Being a student in Madrid is usually correlated with a lifestyle involving sleepless nights (ending at 5 or 6 am) at one of the world renowned discotecas, making the transition slightly more complicated. One thing to remember is that you don’t need to see the most famous sites and museums in the first two days– let yourself relax and adjust. Hopefully, these tips and sightseeing suggestions will help with your transition:
1. Enjoy a Jarra de Sangría in Plaza Mayor. There are several reasons why this is my first tip when arriving in Madrid. First, Plaza Mayor is the most popular plaza in Madrid and is a sight to see in itself. The motley crew of street performers adds to the relaxed dining experience at one of the many authentic restaurants within the plaza. Second, sitting down in Plaza Mayor and getting acquainted with a group of new friends is a great way to start relationships in a new country. And let’s not forget, Spain has, debatably, the best sangria in the world.
2. Visit the Prado Museum at the right time. Take advantage of the Prado Museum whether you’re an art critic or just have an urge to learn about Spain’s history. I would recommend brushing up on your art history before visiting this museum. Be familiar with the styles and artists that you will encounter and you will learn exponentially more with your visit. Visit on a Sunday when the museum is free or on May 18th, International Museum day, when ALL museums are free. Otherwise, pay the 4 Euro cover and say adios to one more bottle of wine you could have purchased. *Also, plan to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (these three museums make up Madrid’s “Golden Triangle”).
3. Visit the Palacio Real. Part of me didn’t want to include this on the list because it’s one of those landmarks that you may not be sure what you’re getting out of it. At the least, it’s worth walking by and strolling through the palace grounds. I visited this palace twice when I was in Madrid. The first time I took the full tour inside and out, and the second time our tour was cancelled due to an event going on. I would actually suggest researching events that are scheduled for the palace and go stand out front and watch the Royal family enter the palace and catch a glimpse of other important people that you will have to go home and Google to figure out who they are.
4. Have lunch at the San Miguel Market. One of the best ways to understand a new culture is through food. This famous food market offers a variety of traditional and new-age Spanish cuisine. You will be able to test a variety of foods on a college budget at the San Miguel Market (located in the city center).
5. Locate the KM 0 tile in Puerta del Sol. If you’ve been to Madrid, I’m sure you have walked past, stepped on, or drunkenly stumbled across this tile in Puerta del Sol. This tile marks the absolute center of Spain, and even the center of Madrid. Once you learn the basics of Spanish history, this tile will seem more significant and may even have a greater meaning for your experience in Madrid. Puerta del Sol is one of the most popular plazas in Madrid and is located in the center of many famous stores, streets, restaurants, and bars.
6. Order a gluttonous amount of churros con chocolate at the Chocolatería San Ginés. Located near Puerta del Sol, you can enjoy a mountainous plate of freshly fried churros with a mug filled with melted chocolate. San Ginés is home to the best churros in Madrid.
7. Fiesta until 5 a.m. at a famous discoteca. Whether you consider yourself a partier or not, staying out until 5 a.m. with Spanish friends at one of Madrid’s fanciest discotecas is a cultural experience. Spanish partying tops the charts around the world. Take note of the music, the drinks, how people interact, and enjoy yourself because every single person in the club is doing the same exact thing. Listen to and love this song! Make an effort to check out Kapital and Pachá, two of Madrid’s (and the world’s) most famous clubs.
8. Relax in el Parque de Buen Retiro. Take an afternoon off and away from familiar faces in Madrid’s most popular park. Enjoy the architecture of statues and fountains, street performers, and sidewalk painters. If you visit on the weekend you will find yourself amongst many Madrilenian families strolling through the park.
9. Siesta! Yes, it’s a real thing! Take advantage of a siesta from time to time (or every day). Partying until 5 a.m. and getting up early for work usually results in a much needed siesta around 2 or 3 p.m. In other parts of Spain, nearly all businesses shut down from 2 to 5 p.m. for a designated siesta. It is less common in Madrid, but you may still encounter smaller businesses taking a few hours off in the afternoon. Also, make sure to plan ahead for businesses being closed during siesta because relying on an afternoon café con leche to finish your busy work is a day-ruiner when your local cafeteria is closed.
10. Take day trips outside of Madrid. You’re in the capitol of Spain, a transportation hub– take a bus, a train, or even a flight if you have the time. It’s hard to squeeze an international excursion into a weekend trip, but it’s extremely realistic to visit a small town outside of Madrid. You may even learn to appreciate Spanish culture even more after experiencing a day outside of Madrid city life. A few of my suggestions would be to visit: Valle de los Caídos, El Escorial, the region of Extremadura, Toledo, Córdoba, or my personal favorite Sevilla.
This guide doesn’t nearly cover the number of sights and things to do while in Madrid, but it’s a good start. Research the city, ask locals for suggestions, and don’t be afraid to wander off into an unknown neighborhood. Keep track of everything you do whether it is through a blog, handwritten lists, or pictures and que tengas un buen viaje!