There’s a certain time of the night when Puerta del Sol, located at the heart of Madrid, truly earns its name. On summer days in Sol you can see the last glimmer of the sun flicker through the red-roofed buildings, tracing people’s shadows as they make their way up Calle Montera to Gran Vía, Chueca, and Malasaña, or down Calle Correo to La Latina and Lavapíes. In the early winter, the plaza brims with mechanical light as people meet up under the golden metallic Christmas tree, exchanging the typical double kiss. Like the sun it’s named for, everything orbits around “Sol,” the soul and centerpiece of Madrid.
Madrid was my home for over three months, and if I learned anything about the city, it’s how much more there is to see past Sol; that, and how quickly time passes. But no matter how much time you have in Spain’s capital, here are a few stops that should not be missed:
1. Explore the neighborhoods.
If you want to get to know Madrid, take any street “exit” out of Sol and wander. There’s always something to find. If you find yourself on Gran Vía, keep wandering towards the neighborhoods of Malasaña and Chueca. These neighborhoods are known for being the artsier, student-oriented destinations. There’s a ton of cafés (including a few that even allow dogs), so relax and start your morning. Heading down to Calle Atocha? Turn down Calle Lavapíes to discover one of the most diverse neighborhoods of Madrid. When strolling down the colorful streets in the middle of the day, pop in a gallery for a few minutes, or stop for some unexpectedly delicious traditional Indian food.
2. Bargain at El Rastro.
If you’re lucky enough to spend a Sunday in Madrid, head out early to the historic Plaza Mayor and walk down: you can’t miss “El Rastro.” The Sunday morning market is the perfect spot to pick up souvenirs. And if you wander down the side streets, you just might find that perfect artistic centerpiece for your room back home.
3. Madrid’s Museum Mile.
Speaking of art, you can’t come to Madrid without visiting at least one museum. My personal favorites are Museo del Prado and Reina Sofía. You could probably spend days in the Prado—I had to go back four times to see all of it (luckily it’s free for students)—so allow yourself some time. One thing you have to see is Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” on the second floor. My personal favorites, though, are Goya’s dark period “Black Paintings” downstairs. For more modern art, Reina Sofía is the spot. The museum focuses on 20th century art, housing Picasso’s Guernica, along with paintings by Dalí and many other Spanish artists. If you’re feeling adventurous take the sleek elevators to the top level and explore—that’s where some of the most complex exhibitions are housed.
4. Rest in Parque Retiro.
Madrid has its fair share of parks, but Parque Retiro is quite special. Don’t be surprised if you stumble across a rose garden in the middle of December—that’s Retiro. I’ve also decided that autumn in Madrid is just better. The season is longer, with the fall colors remaining for months rather than weeks, and Retiro is the best place to see them. And there’s more to do in Retiro than just wander—hire a paddle boat in the central lake or visit the beautiful Palacio de Cristal.
5. Splurge in Mercado San Miguel.
There are much cheaper tapas to be had in Madrid, but if you only have a few days, dig in at Mercado San Miguel. The glassed-in market sells all varieties of food and drink. There’s a lot of seafood, so be daring and try the squid, or try all of the delicious varieties of gourmet croquettes (cheese-filled dough balls). Be prepared for large quantities of bread; almost all of the tapas are served on sliced baguette. The market tends to be most crowded on weekends and during the day, but it’s one of the best-kept secrets on weekday nights, so relax with a glass of white sangria and dessert. Speaking of dessert: the man at the dessert counter has a tendency to give out free macaroons if you buy more multiple items. Who needs Paris?
6. Entertainment, from Flamenco to Fútbol.
Depending on your interests, there’s plenty of forms of entertainment in Madrid that can appeal to you. With my program I got to go to a flamenco show at Casa Patas, a dual restaurant and flamenco school. The setting is super surreal; the stage is small, and the two dancers are practically an arm’s length away. During the breaks, the performers sit right beside the audience. No matter where you go though, flamenco is unexpectedly mesmerizing.
If you prefer something a little louder and larger in scale, then I highly recommend attending a fútbol game. Spain is generally known for their fútbol—particularly their FC Barcelona and Real Madrid teams—and rivalries. I went to see one of Madrid’s other teams, Atlético, and the stadium was still packed. Atlético had actually recently beat Real Madrid and it was a bit of big deal for the “‘Léti” fans. I know next to nothing about soccer (or fútbol for that matter) but it was entertaining to watch the crowd go wild. I now understand why everyone brings scarves to 90-degree games: there was one section of the stadium where the crowd never stopped jumping up and down, waving their scarves. If you don’t feel like going to an actual game, you can also head to a bar and watch from there. It’s kind of incredible how much the people care about the games; don’t expect anyone to talk to you when his or her team is playing.
7. When all else fails, head to Cien.