When I first landed in Madrid as a backpacking college student, I wasn’t charmed. The city served as a good gateway to more interesting parts of the country, I thought, but aside from the treasures locked away in the excellent museums, there was nothing much to see. Years later, when the opportunity to move to Spain arose, I argued for Barcelona as a home base. Forget it, said my Spanish husband. “Barcelona is a great European city, but Madrid is much more Spanish.”
And that’s where my love story with the Spanish capital begins. As it turns out, this thriving metropolis has a lot to offer outside the walls of the Prado. From the upscale shopping in the tony Salamanca neighborhood to trendy cafés in Chueca, Madrid has transformed from a provincial city on the Iberian meseta to an exciting destination that deserves a place on every sophisticated traveler’s itinerary.
I suppose you could argue that despite recent developments, Madrid still can’t hold a candle to Barcelona in architecture or to San Sebastián in food. But something intangible raises this landlocked city to the same level as its coastal brethren, a certain Madrileño enthusiasm that pervades all aspects of the culture. You see it in the fervor that explodes around any Real Madrid match; on the plazas in Malasaña, where fashionable youths strut their stuff; outside the old-school tapas bars on warm evenings, when elderly residents gather to debate politics over rounds of drinks. All of this I somehow missed in my postgrad haze. Thank goodness I realized my mistake.
Madrid claims the title of second highest European capital – an interesting bit of trivia that, along with its setting on a plateau in the center of the country and its proximity to the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains to the north and west, explains its cold, sunny winters and intensely summer sun. Most of the city’s residents flee to the coast in August. Visit in late spring or early fall for the best weather.
Iberia, Spain’s national airline, offers nonstop service to Madrid from most major U.S. cities. The capital also has easy connections within Europe. In 2006, Barajas airport opened the Richard Rogers-designed Terminal 4 (the third-largest in the world), which doubled its capacity. To reach the center of the city from Barajas, hop a cab for the 20-minute drive or take the metro, which has stations at two of the terminals.
Thanks to the compactness of Madrid’s center, you can easily wander the maze of streets from one neighborhood to the next. Some parts are less savory than others, though, so come equipped with a good map and be aware of which direction you are headed. Spaniards will tell you that petty crime is an issue; I have never had a problem, but do be aware of the possibility of pickpockets or purse snatchers in crowds.
Major streets radiate outward from the Puerta del Sol, the dead center of the city and the point from which all distances in Spain are officially measured. Many of the city’s sites can be reached from here on foot. Madrid also boasts a clean, easy-to-use subway system that often provides the fastest way to navigate the city. Both the subways and the buses are well marked with English signs and directions. Taxis are also easy to find, but most drivers don’t speak much English, so expect to put your Spanish vocabulary to the test.
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