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Madrid: Spain’s Hidden Holiday Gem

When planning a vacation to Spain, most holidaymakers look for the sun, sand and surf of Barcelona, Costa del Sol, Majorca or the Canary Islands. However, as a vacation destination, Madrid is criminally overlooked. Sure, the landlocked city suffers from hot summers and cold winters unlike the others mentioned. But Madrid’s history, architecture and fantastic transportation should be enough to attract tourists in droves, right?

The city’s charm is evident right off the plane. For being one of Europe’s leading capital cities, the airport is very navigable. The ease in which one was able to walk through the terminal and grab a taxi stood in stark contrast to places like London or Chicago.

Despite the talk of the Spanish economic meltdown, there were few signs of that on the streets of Madrid. The streets are well maintained, clean and show more signs of prosperity than some of its European neighbors. In spite of England’s better financial status, Madrid and the surrounding area look far more taken care of, but perhaps the Spanish are more worried with keeping up appearances.

During the Warm Days

While there isn’t a beach to lounge upon, Madristas congregate in the many parks during the cooler hours of the day. El Retiro Park is the jewel of Madrid’s green spaces. Walkers stroll among the gorgeous greenery while children are able to play on the playground or kick a soccer ball around the grassy parts.

El Retiro is a great escape for those that live in the apartments that dot the city. It is a cool retreat when the sun bears down on upper-level dwellings. The park’s lake provides visitors with the chance to take a boat ride around and wave to onlookers that take up seats around the shore. The runners in the park seemingly compete against one another as they bust a lung to overtake the figure in front of them.

Madrid may not be a city that attracts travelers looking for a non-stop party, but for culture vultures it is a prime choice. The Royal Palace is a stone’s throw from Plaza de Espana. History oozes from every inch of the palace grounds, and people can wander through the gardens next to it. The entire area is a tourist’s delight as the Royal Theater, Opera and Plaza Espana – not to be confused with Plaza de Espana – are within walking distance of the palace. Shops, restaurants and bars are located throughout the area.

If you want to get away from the tourists and live more like a Madridsta, Plaza Mayor is the place to go. The area has plenty of great tapas bars, authentic restaurants and places to drink when the Spanish sun becomes overpowering. Travelers on a budget looking for great food and beer should make 100 Montaditos a priority. When we say fast, cheap and delicious eats, we mean it.

And the Cool Nights

Once the sun goes down in summer, that is when life really kicks up a notch. In fact, you won’t find many people out and about in the late afternoon. While they’re at home taking a siesta, it is a perfect time to hit the local beer bars and cafes. Cool off with an iced coffee or enjoy a small beer in the shade.

If you’re used to eating early, be prepared to have a late afternoon snack as the best restaurants in Madrid won’t open until after dark. That could be around 9pm or 10pm but dinner goes well into the night.

When in Madrid, do:

  • Rent an apartment, the convenience of having your own living space is wonderful and perfect if you want to feel like a Madridista.
  • Sit and eat breakfast at the local Madrid cafes. The locals are accommodating even if your Spanish isn’t great.
  • Use the subway often, it is fast and will get you to points around the city in no time.
  • Visit the Santiago Bernabeu. Even if you aren’t a soccer fan, the stadium tour is incredible and is the cathedral of sport in Madrid.
  • In summer bring plenty of t-shirts, shorts and walking/running shoes. It gets hot! In winter, don’t forget coats and sweaters. It can get down to freezing.

When in Madrid, don’t:

  • Don’t buy overly priced, expensive wine. Even in the local markets cheap wine is delicious.
  • Don’t go out in the late afternoon in summer. The city’s atmosphere disappears as most residents take a Siesta.
  • Don’t worry about your Spanish. Many business will be able to accommodate you even if you speak broken Spanglish.

For those looking for a bit more depth, give “DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Madrid” a read. Available on Amazon.

And, as always, whatever you do, make sure to put all your foreign expenses on a card with no foreign transaction fees. Great choices would be the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve, The Amex Platinum or the Citi Prestige.