I’d never been to Spain before, and when Zach and I decided that we needed to head to this glorious country to Run with The Bulls (yes you read that right…read more about that insane adventure here!)we decided there were a few places we had to go to: Barcelona being one, and Madrid being the other. Now, I was incredibly excited about going to Barcelona, but I have to be honest, I wasn’t quite as excited about Madrid. But man, I couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time we left Madrid, it became my favorite place that we visited in all of Spain (though, San Sebastian was absolutely a close second!)
While Madrid is Spain’s capital city, it doesn’t have as many typical “tourist” attractions, that actually ended up being one of the reasons why I loved the city so much. It allowed us to really just enjoy the city, feel the culture, and the heartbeat of the city, without feeling like we had to run a million miles a minute to see everything the city had to offer in the few days that we were there. With that being said, there are a few things that you must do while you’re in this incredible city. Whether they’re experiences, sights, or places you simply need to feast your eyes on–if you find yourself headed to this city, you can’t miss them. What are you waiting for? Let’s head to Madrid!
Explore Plaza Mayor…& All the Plaza’s You Can Find
This. This is the best thing you can possibly do. Plaza Mayor is Madrid’s largest and most famous square. It’s brimming with live music, sidewalk cafe’s with all the sangria and tapas your heart desires, and more energy than you could possibly imagine. While Plaza Mayor was absolutely lovely, our favorite thing about Madrid was getting “lost” and just seeing where each cobblestone alleyway led us. It was some of the more off the beaten path plaza’s that still have a hold on our hearts.
It’s in these squares that we sat for hours, talked about life, and how incredibly lucky we were in that moment. We witnessed families, from little ones who could barely walk, to old friends sitting on benches together and having sweet chats long into the evening. One of my favorite memories, and something that absolutely encompasses the soul of Madrid, was the people’s love for the night. And not just young adults, everyone from little ones to grandparents were out late, chatting, singing, and enjoying spending time together.
Enjoy Palacio Real
This was one of our first stops in the city and I was surprised at how empty it was! We went around to the backside, which is actually just as beautiful, and missed the crowds. This palace rivals Versailles in decadence, and is still the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. Though, at this point it’s mainly used for ceremonial purposes. When it was in it’s heyday, this palace played host to many a royal ball.
Zach and I spent a good amount of time sitting on the steps outside, imagining the pomp and circumstance that took place as horse drawn carriages arrived dropping guests off for a night to remember. Okay, so maybe it was more me sitting there living out a Disney fantasy and chatting Zach’s ear off about it but I’m positive he loved it too. Don’t miss out on swinging by the palace, but we did skip heading inside, but definitely don’t skip the gardens in the back–it was our favorite part!
Sip Rooftop Sangria at El Corté Ingles
Before we left, I read tons of guides about what to do in Madrid, and very few even touched on how incredible the rooftops were! Word of mouth is still the best way to learn about things to do (I consider blogging my own word of mouth) and earlier this summer I had the pleasure of meeting my best friends sweet sister in law who had lived in Madrid during college and gave us amazing recommendations! One of her suggestions was to head to the rooftop of El Corté Ingles for the best views of the city.
Now El Corté Ingles is one of those things you don’t necessarily read about in all of the guidebooks. What is it? Well, it’s interesting, thats for sure. In a nutshell? It’s everything you could ever possibly need all in one place. It’s a department store, restaurants, markets, and my favorite: the rooftop bar. This rooftop bar gave us an incredible view of the entire city and it was the best place to sip on sangria.
During this trip we also flew by the seat of our pants a bit, as we only booked two days in our Airbnb, even though we were staying in Madrid for four nights. So we used my second favorite lodging option to find a place to stay: Hotel Tonight. It’s an app that gives you killer deals on last minute hotel rooms. So we treated ourselves a bit, and stayed on a hotel right on Grand Via (more on this soon!). The hotel was phenomenal and the best part? Rooftop pool. It was the best escape we could have possibly imagined in the scorching heat that was Madrid during the summertime. We stayed at the Hotel Santo Domingo I would highly recommend staying here, in the evening the rooftop pool transformed into a dance club. Win win in my book!
Day Trip to Toledo
We almost didn’t do this, and HOLY TOLEDO I’m so glad we ended up going. Okay, so that couldn’t have possibly been more cheesy, but the expression “Holy Toledo” actually does come from the origins of this ancient walled city. Toledo is a relatively small city about an hour outside of Madrid on the train. This little town truly made you feel like you were stepping back in time. It’s been an epicenter of religious upheaval for centuries, and is known for it’s Arab, Jewish, and Christian populations.
The Cathedral at the top of the hill (p.s. take a cab or a bus from the train station–the hill is massive. Especially if it’s during the summer time!) is incredibly beautiful and makes the entire trip worth it. Don’t miss out on this day trip outside of Madrid, you’ll truly feel like you’re stepping into a completely different era.
Stroll Down Gran Via
Gran Via is like the Champs Élysées of Madrid, it’s the hustling and bustling center of the city. Gran Via sits in the exciting city center of Madrid, and we actually kind of stumbled onto it to begin with. We had been walking a few blocks away, enjoying the colored homes that are quintessentially Europe (can the U.S. get on board with this..??) and felt like we were walking in a different time, when we entered Gran Via and we were instantly brought back to the present. One moment you’re enjoying the calmness of the cobblestone alleyways, and the next you have neon lights everywhere you see and bustling traffic in every direction. It’s quite an interesting contrast to see the way old world meets new. Nowhere is that more prevalent than on Gran Via.
Explore Palacio de Cristal
The Palacio de Cristal is another gem that we just happened to stumble across this gorgeous structure. This insanely beautiful glass building is located in Buen Retiro Park, and is absolutely worth the pit stop. We ended up taking a siesta (really embracing that Spanish lifestyle..!) and gazed upon this dreamy place. It’s not used as a greenhouse anymore, which was the original intention, but is used for art exhibits and weddings! Man oh man how wonderful would it be to get married there? What a dream, but I’m okay with just feasting on it with my eyes. Don’t miss this, it’s too beautiful to skip!
Tapas and Siestas
One simply cannot go to Spain without taking part in two things. The first? Tapas. Tapas aren’t exactly a type of food more so than they are a way of actually eating the food. People in Spain aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. And I love it. They take their time eating, meals are meant to be shared with loved ones, and experienced together. Oh, and they’re late. Throw out the notion that you need to go to dinner at 6 or 7 PM and do as the Spaniards do: SIESTA.
Potentially the best thing (okay clearly not the best but definitely something I can get on board with) about Spanish culture, the tradition of taking a mid-afternoon nap is a real thing. The entire city becomes a ghost town, which is especially helpful in the heat of the summer. So do as the Spaniards do and siesta. Then fiesta. No but really…then go treat yourself to some sangria and tapas. You’ve earned it.
Treat Yo’ Self to Churros…for Breakfast
Speaking of treating yourself, another word of mouth suggestion from a friend was to not skip the churros. Like I needed convincing, we had churros as our wedding desert for cryin’ out loud. Needless to say, Zach and I were already huge fans. After Spain? Well, churros just might be on my wish list for my last meal on this earth. But it’s not just the churros that are phenomenal, it’s the chocolate dipping sauce. This stuff is life. changing. It’s somewhere between liquid and pudding form and all parts decadent and delicious. I’m embarrassed to say how many times we ended up eating these, but it was so worth it. You can find these sinfully delightful treats anywhere in the city, but our favorite spot was Chocolateria San Gines and is definitely the most popular spot on the block. High five for churros! Low five for churros! Just give me all the churros man.
Sunset at The Temple of the Dead
Last but not least, you’ve got to visit the ancient Egyptian ruins. What? Ancient Egyptian ruins? In Madrid? You must be chocolate drunk from all those churros, Stephanie. I know, I know. Normally I’d agree with you, but this is actually a thing! And a very cool thing to see, I might add. The Temple of Debo is an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled and rebuilt in Madrid as a gift from UNESCO in 1968. It now sits in Madrid’s Parque del Oeste, very close to the Palace of Madrid. It’s the best place to catch a sunset in the whole city.
Bonus points about all of this? We ended up being able to meet up with some of our dear friends all the way from my hometown of Prosser who just so happened to also be venturing around Spain at the same time. What was extra special about this? Zach and I were celebrating our anniversary on this trip (a bit early but still…) and these incredible friends just so happen to the owners of the insanely gorgeous Estate at Destiny Ridge where we got married. They also make killer wine. We met them for wine and tapas and ended up exploring Madrid together a bit before we ended up at The Temple of Debo and watched the sunset together. It was incredibly surreal to see people from so far away, in the same place as you. It makes you realize just how small (yet so large!) this world actually is. And it just felt so wonderfully right. Sigh…if I could snap my fingers.
Have you been to Madrid? What were your favorite parts? Feel free to share with me below, or head over to Instagram and follow along with our travel journeys there!