The Sweet Spot: Madrid

by  Lane Nieset | Aug 17, 2017
Only YOU Madrid from Only YOU
Only YOU Madrid from Only YOU

Writer Ernest Hemingway once called Madrid the “most Spanish of all cities,” and made the capital a frequent character in everything from classics like “The Sun Also Rises” to short stories like “The Capital of the World.” It’s easy to see why Madrid’s Baroque palaces, bullfighting fiestas, and tavern-like tapas bars enchanted the author and kept him coming back for more.

While the city may not draw the same backpacking crowd as beachside Barcelona, it offers nightlife just as lively and cosmopolitan cuisine that’s not afraid to play with Spanish tradition. Whether you’re on a budget or traveling solo, you’ve come to the right place. You won’t need to shell out a ton of money or sit at a stuffy table in order to eat and drink well. All you have to do is get lost in the crowd guzzling down euro glasses of vino at tapas bars sitting just steps from the historic center. From over 60 world-class museums to beautifully manicured parks and rose gardens, Madrid has something for just about everyone, no matter the price point.

The Perfect Time to Visit

May and June; September and October

With sweltering summers and chilly winters, Madrid is best seen in late-spring and early fall, during the shoulder seasons. April can be cold and rainy, but as May approaches, temperatures jump up to 70 Fahrenheit, and flowers are in full bloom across the city’s parks and green spaces. You’ll definitely notice the city switching into summer mode as June wears on and the streets (and museums) get busier.

In August, the city starts emptying out as locals leave for annual summer holidays and most restaurants shut their doors. Wait another month and you’ll not only experience weather perfect for strolling along the infamous shopping street Gran Vía (aka Spanish Broadway), you’ll also be able to snag better deals once the city quiets down.

The Cheapest Option

November to February

Temperatures drop to the 40s during winter, and while November and December are the wettest months of the year, Madrid isn’t known to get a lot of snow. The weather is coldest in January, but the sun is typically still out and shining, meaning you can take advantage of the city’s parks (sans tourists) without freezing.

Madrid is busiest during summer, so you’ll have better luck finding cheap hotel rates and airfare during winter. Just keep in mind that rates jump up from mid-December through January 6 as landmarks and streets take on holiday form, draped in light displays crafted by top Spanish designers and architects.    

Círculo de Bellas Artes Azotea del Círculo_ rooftop terrace from Hiberus © Madrid Destino

The Smart Place to Stay

The Hat Madrid

In a sprawling capital like Madrid, location is everything (even with an easy-to-navigate metro system). The Hat sits off Plaza Mayor between Gran Vía and La Latina, just a three-minute stroll from Madrid’s most famous square, Puerta del Sol, and 15 minutes from museums like the Prado and Reina Sofia. Located in a 19th century mansion, The Hat may technically be a hostel, but services and amenities here are more of the hotel variety (think free wifi, Smart TVs, Tablets, and free tapas tours around town). The rooftop bar is also a favorite for locals to watch the sun set over the city’s rooftops. Rooms range from shared dorms to private suites and apartments accommodating up to four (with a full breakfast buffet included). We found rates as low as $142 for the Super Apartment mid-week in early October, with a slightly lower rate of $124 in early December. In late November, suites start at $142 per night.

Room Mate Hotels

Started by three friends, Room Mate Hotels has spread from one boutique hotel in the center of Madrid to four across the city. Designed to feel like you’re staying at a friend’s apartment (with perks like rooftop terraces, swimming pools, and solariums), these hotels are not only stylish, they’re also affordable—and sit right in the heart of downtown. At Room Mate Alicia on the Plaza de Santa Ana, we found rates for a single room in September starting at $137. In December, rates drop down to $95.

Only YOU Boutique Hotel Madrid

Only YOU has a bit of a New Orleans vibe to it. Set in the center of the city near the lively Chueca neighborhood, rooms feature narrow wrought-iron balconies looking out over streets that heat up come weekends. The 19th century mansion maintains some of its Old World feel with sloped ceilings and loft-inspired spaces, complete with fireplaces and dressing rooms. While we wouldn’t call this cheap, you can still snag decent deals (especially in winter) at the four-star boutique hotel, which is home to one of the most happening lobby bars in town. We found rooms hovering around $295 per night midweek in September, but in January, the same suites drop as low as $191 per night.  

What to See and Do

If you only have time to visit a few museums, here are three that should top your list: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Museo del Prado and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Dubbed the “green lungs of the city,” the 350-acre El Retiro Park sits smack dab in the center of Madrid and makes for a great place to relax and picnic during the day. Next to the lake, the 1880s glass Palacio de Cristal is an outpost of the Reina Sofia and features large-scale installations and sculptures.

Block off Sunday morning and reserve a few hours to get lost wandering through the endless series of stalls forming the open-air El Rastro flea market, the oldest and largest in Europe (open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.).

Plan a moveable feast through Madrid’s centuries-old taverns, sampling traditional tapas like Serrano ham and tortilla de patatas, or potato omelets. Some of the most popular include Bodega de la Ardosa and Casa Labra, near Puerta del Sol, which dates back to 1860. Even better, if you order a drink, many bars throw in a free tapa.  

Madrid’s craft cocktail scene is quickly taking off, and some of the most whimsical creations coming out of the capital are at gastro-cocktail bar Angelita and vintage-inspired Dray Martina.

Department store El Corte Inglés Serrano serves up more than just designer ware. Head to the top floor for an Asian street food-inspired experience at StreetXO, helmed by Spanish chef David Muñoz. The casual eatery is a great alternative to Muñoz’s Michelin-starred fare at DiverXO. Go early because the queue tends to build up quickly, and opt for a seat on the wraparound terrace.

Dubbed TriBall, the streets of Grand Vía, Corredera Baja de San Pablo, and Calle Fuencarral now form a triangle around one of Madrid’s hottest neighborhoods. Stroll over for lunch at buzzy bistro Maricastaña or make a reservation for dinner (with seating times typically around 9 or 11 p.m.) at cozy Bar Galleta, which serves shareable farm- and sea-inspired dishes like cod Mexican tacos and beef cheek with fried yucca.

For one of the best views over the city, head up to the seventh floor rooftop at the Circulo de Bellas Artes, where you’ll have 360-degree views of everything from Gran Vía and the Metropolis Building to the mountains in the distance. Entry is 4 euros, or about $4.69.

While you could spend your days sipping vino from Spain’s many wine regions, one of the closest lies just an hour’s train ride away. Take a day trip to Valladolid, setting off from this gateway town to the nearby wine routes of Rueda and Ribera del Duero, sampling some of the best reds and whites the country has to offer right at the wineries themselves.

Tips to Save Even More

If you’re short on time and want to cover a lot of ground (and culture) fast, consider buying a 24-, 48- or 72-hour Madrid Card, which includes free entry to all of the top sites, plus priority access so you can skip the lines.

Entry to the Reina Sofía is free evenings from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday through Saturday. On Sundays, the museum is free from 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. The Prado also offers free access Monday to Saturday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., as well as on Sundays and holidays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

You can find cabs and Uber in the city, but the metro and city buses are convenient and cheap ways to get around, especially when traffic peaks in the evenings and early mornings.  You can purchase a one-day tourist travel pass starting at $10, which offers unlimited rides on buses and the metro (including to and from the airport).

Cool off in the summer at one of the many public and hotel pools in the city, such as Hotel Emperador’s 10th floor rooftop pool. The roof garden shows off skyline views over the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral and is free for guests. If you aren’t staying here, you can purchase a weekday pass for $53. For a slightly cheaper option, Room Mate Óscar’s rooftop pool shows off 360-degree views of the city and features a cocktail list of 30-plus libations. Weekday rates are $41 and include a glass of Champagne, sunbed, towel, and locker.
Skip restaurants and head to one of Madrid’s many markets instead, joining the crowds at the historic covered Mercado De San Miguel or the more industrial Mercado de San Ildefonso. Post up with a cheap glass of Spanish wine and dig in to tapas like warm, cheese-filled croquetas and plates piled high with jamón ibérico, or Iberian ham.

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