Text and images Krizette Chu
How can you cram into three days the inimitable splendor and glory of Madrid, Spain’s bustling capital city, also known as our national hero Jose Rizal’s old stomping ground? Can a whirlwind weekend tour do justice to its centuries-old palaces, its museums that house Goyas and El Grecos and Picassos, its busy shopping districts that stretch from Salamanca to Salesas, its rowdy tabernas and tapas bars?
It’s not easy, but as our 90plus-strong group made up of Pru Life UK’s best Filipino insurance agents proved, it’s doable. (It must be said that I was traveling with real pros: As an incentive for making top sales, Pru Life UK sends their agents on trips around the world, and some go on a bi-monthly basis). The 2017 Life Club Convention in Madrid comes on the heels of another convention in Iceland only a month before, which many delegates in the group also went to. In July, two months after our trip, the group headed to London. (If you’re now thinking of shifting your career, take a number and go to the end of the line.)
The convention in Madrid, however, had the most number of slots. I was with one batch—but there were 786 other travelers racing across Madrid with us, with over 600 delegates in eight batches flying in just one month.
So how do hardcore tourists who’ve traveled the world experience Madrid for a weekend? Here’s an itinerary to give you a taste of this incredible city, one that lets you soak in its rich culture even as it leaves you wanting for more.
Hit world-famous museums.
Time spent: Half day
Madrid has three major players in its roster of museums, which include superstars like the Prado to secret treasure troves, like Museo Cerralbo, a “house museum” with private collections. But since you won’t have the luxury of time to stare grimly at just one painting and think about the meaning of life, we suggest a sort of visual degustacion, if you will, of the more popular pieces that have made Madrid an art lover’s paradise.
At Prado—which should be number one on your list—go look at the Goyas, Velasquezes, and El Grecos. Here, you can have a sampling of the most iconic collection of European art from the 12th to 19th centuries, while at Thyssen-Bornemisza, you can catch masters like Hals, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Kirchner at the Villahermosa Palace. At Reina Sofia Museum, Picasso’s “Guernica” takes the spotlight, but a mad dash to the works of Dali and Miro are also in order.
Catch a flamenco show.
Time spent: Dinner
The undercurrent of passion that has always defined and electrified Madrid is nowhere more evident than on a flamenco stage in any of the tablaos (flamenco bars) that dot the city, whether they’re tourist traps or obscure watering holes or artsy hangouts. Madrid is the capital of the flamenco, where velvet-lipped women with smoky eyes and hoop earrings and cascading polka dot skirts dance to the thundering, scratchy voices in duende—that fever pitch of emotion, a literal cry of pain and passion, that all authentic flamenco performers worth their tap shoes know and define this art form. Don’t be afraid to enter any tablao—many flamenco performers big or small perform in Madrid to reach international status—so there’s little chance you’ll watch a “bad” one. A timesaving trick: Go for a show that also serves dinner.
The undercurrent of passion that has always defined and electrified Madrid is nowhere more evident than on a flamenco stage in any of the tablaos that dot the city, whether they’re tourist traps or obscure watering holes or artsy hangouts.
Take an aimless stroll.
Time spent: Early morning
Around a park, at the literary quarter, in a busy shopping area, Madrid is perhaps one of the best places in the world to walk around in.
Do you know that the city has the highest number of trees and green area per inhabitant in all of Europe? And second to Tokyo, it has the highest number of aligned trees in the world. That’s about 248,000 trees planted side by side. Madrilenos are so enveloped in green that there’s a park or an expanse of green every 15 minutes. Nearly 10 percent of the city is greenery. So pack your running shoes, go for an extra early morning run, and hit Madrid’s biggest and most popular park—El Retiro, once part of the royal grounds, and where the oldest tree in Madrid still reigns over her green city. We’d recommend boating at the south end of this 300-acre park, but that’s for another time.
Take a day trip outside Madrid.
Time spent: Half day
Thanks to the high speed AVE train system in Spain, many other equally beautiful cities are only a few hours away from Madrid. Only a half hour away by train and a couple hours away by bus, Toledo is a good choice if you’re cramped for time. This breathtaking, medieval town, which has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1986, sits on a cliff above the Tagus river. Once the capital of the Spanish empire in the 1500s, Toledo’s faded but still staggering beauty is etched forever in its winding cobblestone streets, small shops, its 13th century cathedral, and the Alcazar. If you only have half a day, devote the time to visit the town’s Gothic cathedral, the centerpiece of Toledo. It is ranked among the most well known cathedrals in Europe, and contains precious art pieces, including two from El Greco.
Visit Madrid’s top landmarks.
Time spent: One day
• Plaza Mayor. This square, enclosed by frescoed buildings that are three floors high, is where you take a breather after your jaunt around Madrid. Find a pleasant outdoor café and people watch. Observe the rhythm of the Madrileno lifestyle: The quiet lull of the afternoons as the crowd thins and shops close when siesta time rolls around to the first few stirrings of life as dusk descends, and to the thrum of energy at dinner time (9 p.m. of course) as bars and restaurants fill up. Do check out the famous Casa de la Panaderia.
• Royal Palace. It’s the biggest royal palace in Europe, which is a big deal because every royal in Europe seems to have a palace of his own. With 2,800 rooms, the official residence of the King of Spain is a majestic structure featuring limestone statues of 44 royals. Built in the 1700s upon the orders of King Philip V, the Palacio Real is double the size of Buckingham. It is said to be twice as grand as Versailles. (At least five famous architects worked on it.) Culture vultures visit it not just to ogle—there are art pieces on display by Tiepolo, Flandes, Giaquinto, Mengs, Goya, Caravaggio, Velázquez, and others. There are also large collections of porcelain, watches, antique furniture, silver, and the world’s only complete collection of a Stradivarius string quintet. It’s a gilded lesson in history.
• Gran Via. Known as the city’s Broadway, Madrid’s main street (which recently turned 100 years old!) offers performances and shows for Lion King, Les Miserables, ballets, and Spanish plays, but it’s also known for being the location of El Cortes Ingles, the quintessential Spanish department store. Primark also just recently opened a giant store in this area, right beside Lefties (Zara’s younger and cheaper cousin). While we’d love to explore the small boutiques and artisan shops Madrid is known for (do get a beautifully crafted espadrille when you can), a brief stop at Gran Via gives you the best of high end with high street. (If you have time, explore the shops surrounding Plaza Mayor, home to many of the capital’s centuries-old shops where craftsmen make hats and shoes and capes.)
• Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, there’s no way you’ll visit Madrid and not see how ubiquitous sports jerseys are, all declaring devotion for their favorite sports stars and teams. Santiago Bernabeu Stadium is the home of Real Madrid Football Club. A tour of the stadium gets you the chance to walk around the pitch and visit the trophy room.
• Mercado de San Miguel. Lucky for you, you don’t have to flit around Madrid to try the best Spanish specialties the city has to offer. Just next to Plaza Mayor, this gastronomic center is a marriage of great architecture (housed in a 1916 cast-iron Spanish building) and great food—there are gourmet hams, cheeses, Galician specialties, Basque specialties, all sorts of chato (wine served in a small chunky glass), tapas, paellas, and empanadas. Our favorite Madrid dishes from Mercado de San Miguel: Bocata de Calamares, fried squid in crusty bread; chocolate con churros; and your trusty Jamon Iberico.
Explore the night life.
If you still have lots of energy left, Madrid at night is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Whether in clubs, tablaos, taverns, tapas bars, cafes—people spill out into the streets in merriment (and drunken stupor). The Literary Quarter is home to traditional beer halls. Barrio de Salamanca is for the chic sophisticate. Malasana is gay, and gay friendly. La Latina has some of the best tavernas and tapas bars.