With plenty of beaches, dramatic landscapes and a wealth of cultural sites, it’s easy to see why Spain has long been one of the continent’s leading travel destinations. The largest country on the Iberian Peninsula, its capital city Madrid has also grown to become one of Europe’s biggest cities and a major economic hub. Having never been to Madrid before, I jumped at the chance to take a day trip to Spain when I found cheap flights online – made all the more special in hindsight as it was one of the few trips I got to make in 2020!!
At a glance:
Kingdom of Spain / Reino de España / Regne d’Espanya / Reino de España / Espainiako Erresuma
Currency: Euro (EUR)
Area: 505,990 km2
National Day: October 12th
National Anthem: Marcha Real – Royal March
Highest Point: Mulhacén – 3,479 metres (11,413 ft)
Famous for: sunny climate, oranges, fiestas
- Pablo Picasso (Cubist artist)
- Antonio Banderas (actor)
- Penélope Cruz (actress and model)
- Hernando Cortes (conquistador)
- On March 16th 1940, General Franco moved Spain an hour forward into Central European Time to be in line with Nazi Germany. While many assumed this change would only last the duration of the conflict, it was made permanent in 1942 – some believe that Spain’s odd daily rhythms such as later meal and sleeping times are a result of the country being in the ‘wrong’ time zone!
- Many of the plants that we use and eat today were originally brought into Europe by Spain from their colonies in the New World. Avocadoes, potatoes, cacao, tomatoes and tobacco all came from the Americas and their names all entered the English language through Spanish.
- Covering various styles of music, singing and dancing, flamenco is synonymous with Spanish culture. This being said, its origins in the 15th century were a combination of elements from many different cultures that had settled in Spain: Romani, Moorish, Greek, Jewish and even Indian traditions have all left their mark on the flamenco artform.
- Although bullfighting has been practised in Spain since pre-Roman times, it’s had a contentious history. While some argue it’s an important part of national identity even today, several places in Spain have sought to outlaw the spectacle as a cruel blood sport. Historically, bull fighting was even banned for ties to paganism and heresy!
- Taking part at the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in 1961, Spain was the first country ever to claim back-to-back victories. ‘La, La, La’ by Massiel won in 1968, while Salomé’s ‘Vivo Cantando’ was declared one of the four joint-winners of 1969. Spain’s highest scoring entry to date is still ‘Eres Tú’ by Mocedades from 1973, meaning they’ve never scored more than 125 points in over 45 years!
Several languages are spoken across Spain and although Basque, Catalan and Galician are all recognised as co-official on a regional level, the country’s sole official language is Spanish. Catalan and Galician are both Romance languages closely related to Spanish, while Basque is a language isolate completely unrelated to any of world’s languages! Spoken by some 483 million people across Europe, the Americas, Africa and even Asia, Spanish is the world’s 2nd most widely spoken language behind only Mandarin – making it incredibly useful to know! Though you should be able to get by with English in Madrid, here are some Spanish phrases to get you started:
|Please||Por favor||poor fah-vor|
|How much does this cost?||¿Cuánto cuesta esto?||kwahn-to kwes-tah es-toh|
|Do you speak English?||¿Habla usted inglés?||ab-lah oo-sted in-glehs|
|I don’t understand||No entiendo||no en-tee-yen-do|
|Can’t you see I’m crazy about you?||¿Que no lo ves que estoy loca por ti?||keh no lo ves keh es-toy loh-ka por ti|
Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is 13km from the Spanish capital and is one of the largest airports in Europe. A metro line and express buses connect the airport to different parts of the city and depending on where you’re heading, transfer times can take between 20 minutes to an hour. The metro is easily the fastest option and Gran Vía or Sol are ideal stations to start exploring central Madrid.
What to do:
Stretching for over a kilometre through the centre of the city, Gran Vía is one of Madrid’s major thoroughfares and a great place to get a feel for the frenetic energy of the city – indeed, traffic jams at 4AM are not uncommon here! Often referred to as ‘Spanish Broadway’ thanks to its numerous theatres, the bustling street is also lined with towering architecture, including the Beaux-Arts style dome of Edificio Metrópolis and the Telefónica Building, which at 89 metres tall was considered Europe’s first skyscraper when completed in 1929. Continuing to the end of Gran Vía, the impressive Plaza de España gives you a further sense of the city’s huge scale as the large green square is surrounded by high-rise buildings, all centring on the colossal stone Monument to Cervantes. Just beyond the square, the stone arches of the Temple of Debod are not so massive, but still incredible as they date all the way back to the 2nd century. One of the few examples of Ancient Egyptian architecture found anywhere outside Egypt, the ancient structure was moved to Madrid stone-by-stone in the early 1970s and is widely agreed to be the most atmospheric place to watch the sunset in the city.
A short walk from the temple, Palacio Real is without a doubt the grandest of Madrid’s 12 palaces. Built on the site of a 9th century Moorish fortress, the giant building was completed in 1755 and its 3,418 rooms make it the largest functioning palace in Europe. Tours of some of its elegant and lavishly decorated rooms are available, or you can wander around the vast concrete courtyards outside, admiring the detailed stonework and views over the River Manzanares. Next to the palace, the idea of building a cathedral for Madrid had been discussed as early as the late 1500s, but construction on Almudena Cathedral didn’t start until 1883 and took over a century to complete. The relatively modern pale interior has vividly colourful high ceilings, while the vaulted crypt is thought to be the largest in Spain. The cathedral’s grey dome and bell towers are best admired from Jardín de las Vistillas, a small park just down the street that also offers some great views of the surrounding mountains. You’ll also find the small statue of La Violetera here, based on the character of a violet seller from a popular Spanish opera.
Heading back towards the centre, Puerta del Sol is believed to be the busiest place in Madrid and is regularly the backdrop for public gatherings and celebrations. It’s also considered the symbolic heart of Spain as all distances in the country are calculated from Kilómetro Cero, the stone slab in the pavement outside the white and red Real Casa de Correos. The former 18th century postal service building now houses offices for the regional government, while the chimes of its clock tower are televised across Spain every New Year’s Eve to herald the start of the New Year. Puerta del Sol is also home to the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree, known locally as el Oso y el Madroño. Unveiled in 1967, the small bronze sculpture of Madrid’s heraldic animal is a popular photo stop for visitors. About 5 minutes away on foot, Plaza Mayor covers about a hectare and feels much more refined and laid back than Puerta del Sol. Flanked on all sides by fine period buildings, the impressive square ruled over by a statue of King Philip III has hosted markets, bull fights and even public trials during the Spanish Inquisition. Sample one of the many restaurants here, browse the shops or just enjoy the ambience.
A 20 minute walk away from Plaza Mayor, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía ranks amongst the world’s most visited museums. Originally an 18th century hospital, the vast building was extensively renovated before reopening as a museum in 1992, specialising in works by Spanish artists. Impressive collections by both Picasso and Dalí are housed here, including perhaps Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica. A short stroll from the museum, the 350 acres of parkland that form El Retiro once belonged to the Spanish monarchy before becoming a public park in 1868. One of Madrid’s favourite outdoor spaces, it’s a fantastic place to take a break from the whirl of the city and explore the pleasant lawns, fountains and statue-lined pathways. Don’t forget to take a relaxing wander around the boating lake and over to the towering Monument to Alfonso XII. Unveiled in 1922, the impressive colonnade of statues makes for a grand place to sit back and enjoy the live music of locals who often like to practise here.
A city of immense architecture, monumental palaces and grand squares, Madrid feels like a show piece that was built to impress – and it certainly does! While you might think a city of such grandeur would be stuffy and pretentious, the lively Spanish capital is very much in touch with its sense of fun and has an incredible zest for life. I loved Madrid and a visit to this incredible city won’t disappoint!
A huge thank you to Bogdan Fedeleş for coming with me to Madrid. A big thank you as well to Kristian Cosme, who very kindly allowed me to use his pictures from Madrid after technical problems meant I lost all mine – ¡Muchas gracias amigo!
For a more in-depth guide to planning day trips, as well as sightseeing tips and trivia for 30 European countries, Europe in a Day – Day Trips to the Continent is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle and also smartphones, tablets and computers with the free Kindle Reading App.
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