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Madrid is often overlooked when it comes to city breaks in favour of Barcelona, but the Spanish capital is a brilliant option for a couple of days away. The city is full of fascinating history, world-class art, buzzing nightlife and not-to-be-missed food. Here’s what makes Madrid the best European weekend city break.
Whether you enjoy exploring markets, tapas bars or fine-dining restaurants, Madrid has you covered. It is a great place to get to know Spanish cuisine, because food from every single region is well represented here, whether you want to sample spicy mojo potatoes from the Canary Islands or traditional Basque pintxos (tapas).
Unlike cities such as London, Madrid is a very walkable place; all the main sights are within easy reach of one another. When you do want to go a little further afield, Madrid’s public transport system is one of the best in the world.
When you fancy a break from the frenetic pace of city life, do as local Madrileños do and head to the park. Retiro Park, in the centre of the city, has a beautiful boating lake where you can try your hand at rowing, as well as manicured gardens, grassy areas ideal for picnics and a whole host of other attractions. The more wild and rugged Casa de Campo park, the largest park in the city, is home to a cable car, a theme park and Madrid Zoo.
Whether you want to splurge on a fancy hotel or are looking for a quirkier accommodation option, there is a huge range of places to stay in Madrid. Many of the city’s hostels have a boutique feel, so you don’t have to feel like you are roughing it even if you are on a budget. There are some great hotels with rooftop pools if you’re visiting during the summer, which are the ideal place to cool off after a long day pounding the pavements.
From its Moorish beginnings to the macabre executions on Plaza Mayor during the Spanish Inquisition, and from the biggest Royal Palace in Europe to the oldest restaurant in the world (it has the Guinness World Records certificate to prove it) Madrid is a fascinating place for history buffs.
Unlike some famous city break destinations (we’re looking at you, Paris) Madrid is reasonably priced. From bargain accommodation to great cheap eats, it’s easy to do a city break in Madrid on a budget.
The world-famous Prado holds Spanish masters such as Velázquez and Goya, while the nearby Reina Sofia is home to Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, which depicts the bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. As well as world-famous galleries, Madrid is home to some hidden gems, from a converted tobacco factory that shows the latest modern-art exhibits to incredible street art.
“Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night,” Ernest Hemingway famously observed, and he was right, Madrileños are the ultimate night owls. Madrid is full of traditional taverns, cool cocktail bars and a range of other entertainment options from flamenco shows to mega-clubs. What unites them all is their welcoming attitude; you’ll notice people of all ages out in Madrid, mixing together and having a good time.
Madrid is sunny all year round. In winter, it has about three times more sun than northern Europe, which makes it an ideal off-season destination. During spring and autumn it is warm and sunny, and in summer, temperatures get seriously sizzling; make sure you plan some pool time during your trip if you’re visiting in July or August.
Many big cities around Europe have steadily lost their individual old shops, which have closed to make way for shiny new superstores and chains. But Madrid is managing to hold on to many of its oldest little family-run shops, from Casa Hernanz, which has been making espadrilles since 1840, to the haberdashers around Plaza de Pontejos that have been selling needles and thread for well over 100 years. And if you fancy picking up a handcrafted Spanish cape, there’s nowhere better than Capas Seseña.
Madrid is home to several distinct neighbourhoods, from the literary district of Las Letras, where golden age masters like Miguel de Cervantes lived and worked, to cool Malasaña, the centre of the La Movida countercultural movement in the 1980s. La Latina is home to tapas bars, domed churches and lovely cobbled streets, while Chueca is the city’s oh-so-cool LGBT district. Best of all, the neighbourhoods are all close together, so it’s easy to explore several of them over the course of a weekend break.